all roads lead to Bielefeld

you know how you show up in a German city because someone told you you could perform there, and its in a concert venue, and you find yourself surrounded by 7 amazing German slam poets, and an audience of several hundred, and then it occurs to you that er, maybe you should have learnt some German before you got there?

Yeah that.

Anyway I am on this tour of Germany until the end of November and it is amazing and insane. The thing I like about about Germany is that I can say “yah” here instead of “yeah” and no one judges me. And the phrase “fly like an eagle” is a joke here because eagles sounds like igles, which are hedgehogs. And you can be wandering around somewhere like Munich and wander into something awesome like a CAT CAFE. I have performed in Ulm, Munich and Mannheim and am now in the little city of Bielefeld where the German National Poetry Slam is happening.  There is apparently rumour in Germany that the city doesn’t actually exist. But it definitely does, at least for the next few days because over 100 slam poets from around the country have descended upon it to compete and party. The finals are said to have an audience of 1200, and that is small compared to two years ago in Hamburg where there were about 4000 people watching.

Yes, the German slam scene is big. Really big. Big on a scale that still cannot be fathomed by someone who has mostly performed in the UK (ie, me). Big on a scale that poets I meet here cannot fathom how ” the UK is such a big country and English such a beautiful language! what do you mean you don’t have hundreds in your national slam? or thousands of people in your audience? or money to send slammers on nationwide tours?!”

Big in the sense that many people here actually do see poetry slams as  worthy weekend entertainment, as the might standup comedy, and in some cities people were queuing up for an hour otuside of clubs and libraries to get into some of the gigs I went to. To the point I had a moment of panic like “argh! I’m not actually that entertaining! I am not worthy of this! I thought slam poets were supposed to be unpopular and unknown and awkward and begging for audiences! What is this?!”  But maybe thats the point. We ARE worthy.

Basically, shit works here. Long story short, spoken word poets have managed to convince the general public that they are awesome and deserved to be seen. And they deliver, work together, network and people love it. The result is that you can make a living as a slam poet here, and be respected, and audiences are massive. And someone like me can go from city to city to perform. The word people in other countries use to describe here is ‘organized’. Its not. It just less rubbish than other places. Poets here can be as chaotic as the those the UK, but they are also more chilled out, and things seem to sort themselves out in the end. At least, that’s how it looks like most of the time. I dont actually know the magic ingredient to why slams are so popular here, but I do know poets in Germany take the competition aspect as lot less seriously than people in the UK. Of course they want to win, and of course it sucks to lose, but ultimately, I think a lot of it is about community, and friendship as much as it is about entertaining an audience. I think I remember someone saying last night something along the lines of how he thought the German Nationals were a lot about a chance to meet old friends once a year and party with them for four days, more so than being The One Champion On Their Own.

I think its for this reason the closest experience I have to compare this massive national slam to (maybe, if forced to find one, the closest the UK has to this kind of feeling) would be the kind of mad kinship I experience at the Edinburgh free Fringe Festival each year when like over half the spoken word and slam poets from London go up toScotland to gig and do shows and commiserate and celebrate and actually get a chance to talk to one another, and meet poets from other parts of the UK and remember that amazingly talented slam poets exists outside of London as well, and of course party until 5AM every night and plot world domination and go back down south with new friends and memories .

So far I am getting by with my English poems and minimal German, and have a lot to thank last years champion Pierre Jarawan for organizing this for me. Its been an exciting, nerve wracking experiment in figuring out what audiences with English as their second language will enjoy and get. I guess I have experience doing this in slams in France and Belgium, but its a different thing performing sets or being a sacrifice each night. Surprisingly the 29 poem is going down quite well, and more German people than you think know of the Daily Mail.


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