The last poetry slam of the season took place in the House of Literature (Litteraturhuset) two nights ago. I was thankful to enter for free, which suited my and many others’ pockets, as the venue filled up to something approaching maximum capacity. And this in spite of Pussy Riot playing the same night not too far away. These events, here in culture-hungry Bergen, are usually well-attended, even on week nights. Free events are especially popular and important, because they are accessible to all sections of society. The usual glum sense of haemorrhaging hundreds of kroner because we need some culture is refreshingly absent, making the audience diverse and vibrant.
In short, the season went out with a bang. The performers were all different, as they usually are: a mixture of professionals, old hands, amateurs and complete novices. The two main performers were Guro Sibeko and Afrikane. Other performers included Camilla, Oda-Sofie and curator Michael W Opara aka Doriansgrave.
The two core performers, Sibeko and Afrikane, were typically experienced and good at their craft. Sibeko, an established author and slam poet with many performances under her belt, blew us away with her powerful pieces. Unafraid, she flawlessly took on topics ranging from burnout to sexuality to politics and racism. Her articulate performances were frankly awesome in charge and scope, but still found space for humour. I can’t help think that she takes after her father, who she calls “Warrior Heart” (Krigerhjerte) in her biography about him.
Then there was Afrikane, a musician and poet originally from Uganda. His themes were perhaps less gunpowder-like in nature compared to Sibeko’s, but still impactful. More personal, his performance and stories were equally as tight as Sibeko’s, incorporating rap, hip hop, song and backing tracks. He gave the audience laughs as well as pause for thought in his reflections and confessions about love, growing up and developing as a person and artist. His focus on execution, i.e. how we perform as an important part of the content, was tangible.
Praise given where praise is due, however, I was most inspired by debutant, Oda-Sofie. I was truly surprised that this was the first time she had ever performed. She reminded me somewhat of a healthy, younger version of Amy Winehouse, not so much in looks as in stage presence: undeniably genuine. The real deal. Authentic with a capital ‘A’ and talented with a capital ‘T’.
She started by telling us how nervous she was, how personal the content was and her intention for the performance: that we would feel something. But her performance wasn’t a belligerent self-exposé, it was tender and well-rehearsed. Her nervousness did not trip her up, it made her performance real. She had backing tracks and was well-timed, even singing a little. Her themes were mostly about love and self-development. It was impossible not to be touched by her pieces. I certainly felt something.
I felt I had something to learn from her about live performance. She demonstrated that having the courage to be honest allows people to relate; that when we open up and dare to be a little vulnerable, we let people in. She also showed how important being present is. This is because live performances are one-time only affairs. Sure, you might take a show and repeat it hundreds of times, but each performance is new and different. They are finite and perishable, so you have to really be there to engage with the audience and make it count.
I felt that the strengths Oda-Sofie demonstrated during her performance are ideals I could aspire to, goals that I might stand a chance of achieving during my own performances: presence and honesty. I’ll likely never be as good as Sibeko or Afrikane, their styles, content and temperaments being so very different to mine. I stand very little chance of achieving the Shakespearian levels of recollection and recital of impossibly long texts and thespian occupation of the stage like Sibeko. I’ll never be as relaxed or cool or musical as Afrikane.
I know I can never be like them and I have, of course, got different truths to tell, but the evening gave me something to chew on all the same. I left wanting to experiment, to find my feet and my style. I left with something to aspire to and with new ideas. A short conversation in the corridor afterwards with curator, Michael Opara aka Doriansgrave, confirmed that this had been his intention all along. He has received criticism for giving airtime to amateurs, but had stood his ground and done it anyway. He wants to inspire and give normal folk a chance, a voice at this table of art. How glad I am that he did and I look forward to the new season next year.
Finally, I must review the 14-year-old Camilla’s contribution and debut performance at the event. Being a teacher, I have a special place in my heart for children’s artistic endeavours. But being a teacher, I also lose hope sometimes because teenagers seem steadily less and less interested in poetry. Camilla gave me hope. She reminded me of what a poet is, of what I am. We are the ones who notice and cherish the little things. We perceive the small, otherwise barely noticeable events that most people never give a moment’s thought. We really feel and take the time to articulate the falling of leaves, cats purring and crisp sheets at bedtime. We help people to really live. And yes, there are young and old poets, even now. I was reminded of this in the midst of my default cynicism about life, and left the event glad to be proved wrong: there is a future for poetry.