The Roundhouse’s astonishing venue is perfect for its iconic Poetry Slam Final. Once a Victorian railway turntable and now a performing arts and concert venue, the Roundhouse is a cultural centre renowned for supporting young artists. On 9th June, after making it through national heats, ten poets gave their best spoken word performances for a chance to win the Roundhouse Slam Champion title and a cash prize.
This sixteenth Roundhouse Slam was hosted by poet, performer, and playwright Toby Campion. He introduced the judges: Malika Booker, a lecturer, award-winning writer, and co-founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen; Jaspreet Kaur, spoken word artist, writer, and history teacher; and Joelle Taylor, T. S. Eliot prize winner, founder of SLAMbassadors, and co-curator of Southbank Centre’s Out-Spoken. Campion explained how the judges give each poet a score out of ten, turning their heartfelt emotions into ‘numerical value…in the name of capitalism’. In seriousness, the Slam Final’s aim is to showcase all of the young poets’ inspiring work. BSL interpreters Jacqui Beckford and Peter Abraham also took turns onstage to increase the event’s accessibility, not just for the Roundhouse audience but for those watching the YouTube livestream.
Campion stated that the night must begin with a ‘sacrificial poet’ to warm up: last year’s winner, nineteen-year-old Maureen Onwunali. She performed two poems, ‘A Prayer to Black’ and a piece she wrote that morning with the provisional title ‘The Sun Will Never Set on No. 10’. The latter was especially astounding – her critique of the government in our current cost of living crisis was acerbic. ‘What good is a poem when your home is not warm and what use is a house haunted by white envelopes?’, she asked as the whole room rippled with understanding and outrage.
The first round of the poets’ performances then began. Liva Felter McWhir opened with a personal, untitled poem, followed by Michael Sookhan with another untitled poem. Similar to Onwunali, he spoke critically of austerity, with creative lines such as ‘Deliveroo drivers dancing for the Amazon ballet’ and remixing Katy Perry’s ‘Hot N Cold’ to highlight the ramifications of poverty. Yasmine Dankwah also interwove music and poetry in ‘I Love Hip Hop but I Think He Hates Me’, with her rhymes about the personified male genre sounding almost like a song itself. Bonnie Coughlan performed a nostalgic poem called ‘Dear Helen’, and then Leo Drayton impressed with his storytelling ability in ‘My Little Brother’, an ode to creativity and family.
Spencer Mason’s poem ‘And Let Me Choose’ was stunning – they confidently controlled the quick speed and diction of their voice as they spoke of gender fluidity, sex, and fear of inadequacy and the future. Next, Ifẹ Grillo sent shockwaves through the audience with his poem about the relationship between dance and Blackness. It was both humorous (‘caged birds, they don’t just sing, they got funky feet, too’) and haunting (‘when my ancestors were hung on trees they still swayed in the wind because we learnt to dance longer than we live’). Ezra England uplifted us with the most hilarious poem of the night, ‘To the Builder Who Wolf-Whistled at Me During Lockdown One’. From the title, I expected this to be an angry poem, but instead it was addressed to the builder in the raunchiest way possible: ‘throw me in the skip! I like it rough’. This was followed by Jacqueline Nkhonjera’s poem about ‘the men in our families’, tackling themes such as masculinity and its relationship to family dynamics. Finally, Ria Bronte closed the first half by taking the mic off its stand to embody her ‘Ode to Compassionate People’.
We had performances from Malika Booker, Toby Campion, and Joelle Taylor before the second round, and it was thrilling to see such celebrated poets share their work. Notably, Taylor’s poem dedicated to Thomas Kareem Crosbie, who was part of SLAMbassadors before he died, was the most emotional moment of the Slam for me. Taylor’s performance was so passionate that she dropped the book she was reading from halfway through, pounding her hand to her chest, saying, ‘everything you have ever lost is right here’. It was a beautiful acknowledgement of the pain that grief causes and the power of art to console and bring us together.
My favourite poems from the second half were England’s ‘The Greenpeace Piss-Up’, an urgent poem criticising the government’s lack of care for climate change, Grillo’s ‘Ode to Bossman’, a poignant story about his local shopkeeper (‘next to the la-di-da coffee shops and I’m-so-vintage clothing, Bossman’s shop is defiance’, ‘it’s hard to feel like a bossman when your children disappear’), and Drayton's ‘The Welsh Me’. This poem was about his struggle between honouring his Welsh heritage and wanting easy pronunciation when choosing the English first name Leo: ‘I underestimated the time it would take to grieve. That’s why they call it your deadname – I murdered it’. His reasoning for choosing Leo: it is ‘a fire sign that is ruled by the sun, and I didn’t get to be one’, playing on ‘sun’ and ‘son’ for a striking depiction of the trans experience.
After this, audience voting began – we scanned QR codes on our tables to choose our favourite performer; people watching the livestream could also participate via a website link. As the votes were counted, Jaspreet Kaur performed a poem about her Indian culture, which she is ‘happy to share, but not at the cost of belittlement and not in combination with a comment on my mother’s accent’. Then, special guest George the Poet came onstage. He shared a poem about his visit to Brixton prison, where he spoke with the men about rap as a ‘commodity adapted from poverty’ which ‘should be owned by the streets but it’s owned by the labels who make our own kind compete’. This reminded me of Yasmine’s angry accusation of hip-hop earlier on: ‘you shook the white man’s hand’. It was a powerful final performance that outlined the need for action against injustice: ‘I’m a man on a mission going ham on his vision and I ain’t no damn politician…no disrespect’, he said, signalling to the Mayor of Camden in the front row.
Before results were announced, Marcus Davey, the CEO and Artistic Director of Roundhouse, gave a speech of gratitude for everyone who supports the Roundhouse, especially as this was the first live Slam after two years of Covid hardships. Undeniably, being a part of the audience was what made this night so enjoyable: to be amongst the gasps and the laughter, to see the judges snapping their fingers at favourite lines. Davey also stressed the importance of The Last Word Festival ‘in the face of…corruption in our government’ (earning audience cheers) and against economic and social challenges, particularly on the mental health of young people who have been deprived of cultural opportunities and arts in the school curriculum for too long. Thus, it is vital that we use our voices to enact change for a better future, like the poets in this Slam Final are doing – we cannot let corruption take our voices away.
The results were well deserved: Spencer Mason took third place, Ifẹ Grillo second, and Ezra England won both the Slam Champion title and the Audience Favourite award. Leaving the Roundhouse, I was spellbound by the talent I had just witnessed. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor