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Olympic Poetry?

Article from the London Times in the UK.

August 4, 2008

Poetry at the 2012 Olympic Games? There’s no rhyme or reason why not

If they had poetry and rhetoric in ancient Athens they can have medals for slam performances in London, says Fanny Walker

There is something historically incomplete about the modern Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” or “faster, higher, stronger”. But in this lies an opportunity for the London Games. The original games of Ancient Greece included an intellectual component of poetry and rhetoric, something the Ancient Romans understood in their ideal of mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a healthy body.

It is time to bring poetry back to the London Games.

Thus far, much of Britain has been unimpressed at the prospect of the 2012 Olympics, in no small part due to our secret certainty that we are not likely to win much. We are not an athletic nation. We invent sports, but don’t seem to win them any more. But there are compensations: some of the greatest gifts the UK has brought to the world have been intellectual and literary: from Shakespeare to J.S. Mill, Oscar Wilde to Rudyard Kipling. And we should be proud of that.

After all, the Olympic Games were originally about finding the nation’s best warrior, and keeping warriors honed during times of peace. The cultural and intellectual challenges began because brawn without brain is a useful battering ram, but a useless leader.

But what do we mean by poetry these days? A few years ago Seamus Heaney declared Eminem to be the best poet of his generation. Heaney seemed unaware of slam poetry. Invented by Mark Smith in Chicago in 1984, it arose from the boredom of seeing poet after poet mumble off a page in front of a sleepy audience. Slam is best described as actors performing poems, and an awful lot of it could even be seen as poetic stand-up comedy (check out Americans Rives and Taylor Mali on YouTube). If you’ve ever thought poetry was boring or inaccessible, this is the genre for you.

Slams are competitions, typically involving heats over three rounds, with only three finalists. There are set time limits, usually 2min 15sec in the first two rounds, stretching to three minutes in the final. The competitors are judged on performance, content and audience reaction. Slam has existed in the UK since 1994, through Farrago slam in London, run by John Paul O’Neill. Since 2004 there has even been a World Individual Poetry Slam, and in 2006 the world champion was Elvis McGonagall, a Scot.

In America slam poetry has its own television show Def Poetry Jam, hosted by the hiphop artist Mos Def. Saul Williams, who puts poems over music, has a hugely successful charting album. He was also the star of the independent film Slam which won the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or.

In the UK there are now poetry stages at Glastonbury, Latitude, Leeds and Reading Festivals and Bestival. Ross Sutherland, compere of this year’s Latitude poetry stage and member of Aisle 16, often considered the UK’s best poetry collective, is a Times Young Writer of the Year.

Clearly the audience for slam is out there. But the 2012 Olympics need a kick up the backside to get anyone interested.

By reinstating poetry as an Olympic event, not only could it interest more people but Great Britain would stand a good chance of winning medals. There is a plethora of slam talent at the moment. Dizraeli, the current BBC Radio 4 UK Slam Champion, was a semi-finalist at this year’s world championships. His poem Engurland, has lines such as “…they reach their teens and learn to count up to ten Bensons, hiding behind Hedges burning pubescent tension”.

At the famous end of the UK scene there are phenomena such as Luke Wright, Polar Bear and Kat Francois. But head to a basement bar in Edinburgh, Bristol or even Bangor and you’re just as likely to find impressive wordplay by up-and-comers such as Bram Gieben, Ash Dickinson or Martin Daws.

Introducing slam poetry to the Olympics will bring a healthy dose of cynicism to the proceedings. With steroid scandals smearing every sport from cycling to swimming, we may one day reach a point where the Olympics become a reproduction of that famous Energizer advert: one super-sized “juiced-up” pink bunny powering past a poor, pathetic, puny Duracell. We might as well all be watching Robot Wars.

Imagine the marketing potential: the poetry event is the Eddie the Eagle of the 2012 Olympics. Poets spend too much time inside. We write furiously into the night, often get paid in free booze and end up eating fast food for four weeks straight, living on trains and rushing from gig to gig.

Glorious, tall, lithe, muscled athletes standing on the podium accepting medals next to greasy, four-eyed alcoholics with pot bellies. For the mental picture alone, it’s an idea worth getting behind.

Fanny Walker is a prize-winning British slam poet. Her album Stop Signs is released in September

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