Young Poets Take Soho: review of the Tower Hamlets SLAMbassadors Showcase, 6 July 2017

Hussain Manawer. Photo: Kevin Lake

Ruby Mason, one of our Foyle interns for 2017, offers an insightful review of the Tower Hamlets SLAMbassadors Showcase on 6 July. SLAMbassadors is the national youth slam championship, run by The Poetry Society – and it’s open for entries from poets aged 12-18 till 30 September 2017.

Sitting in the darkened Soho Theatre the week before last, it was easy to forget that it was 11am on a bright, sunny Thursday, and that the dozen poets taking turns on stage were in fact young teenagers in school uniforms. We were gathered for the SLAMbassadors showcase – a spoken word performance by pupils from three schools in Tower Hamlets: The Central Foundation School for Girls, Swanlea School and the Sir John Cass’s Foundation. Over the past few months, the young poets have been working intensively with various poet-coaches, including Sabrina Mahfouz and Chris Preddie OBE, to produce original work and to learn essential performance skills. The final result was an hour of insightful, moving and well-crafted work performed by London’s newest generation of poets.

Joelle Taylor, founder and artistic director of SLAMbassadors, kicked off the showcase with one of her own poems, ‘The Correct Spelling Of My Name’, which she dedicated to the many young poets she has mentored over the years. Her performance articulated her motivation behind the SLAMbassadors projects: the importance of poetry as a creative outlet for young people, particularly those often marginalised by mainstream society and education.

Afterwards, the young poets took to the stage. Though a few trembling hands betrayed some nerves, each poet’s voice was clear and full of conviction. Their poems ranged thematically from racism to class to gender, tackling complex social and political issues with remarkable astuteness. A central theme emerged during the readings, which was the need for compassion in a world that can appear increasingly indifferent to suffering. One poet began her performance with the powerful line: “I’ve got a so-called organ in my body called a heart”. Several poets focused on the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy in their works, highlighting the prevalence of social injustice in the 21st century with a bold call for change. One young man offered a particularly poignant phrase: “They say bullets protect lives / but don’t they commit the crimes?”

The showcase concluded with an emotional performance by Hussain Manawer, Taylor’s mentee-turned-collaborator, who began by speaking about how poetry had transformed his life. Manawer began his life as an ordinary boy from Ilford; now he is one of the most highly esteemed spoken word artists of today and, to top it off, will soon be the first poet – and the first British Muslim – to travel into space. The first poem read by Manawer was entitled ‘I’m Ashamed’, a powerful piece which touched on many of the same themes articulated by the young SLAMbassadors – global world tragedies, social injustice, and the desire for a better, fairer, future. Manawer’s performance captivated the audience, who watched in silence, save for some approving clicks from the young SLAMbassadors, well-trained in poetry slam etiquette by Taylor. Manawer left the stage to wild applause and, following a few quick goodbyes, the young poets headed back to school.

Thursday’s showcase was, however, by no means the end of the road for these young poets. Their work has already been entered into the annual SLAMbassadors competition, judged this year by Sabrina Mahfouz. The competition aims to discover the UK’s most talented young MCs and spoken word artists, giving those who win the chance to refine their poetry in intensive workshops, and to perform at iconic London venues. In this digital era, poetry is often regarded as irrelevant, something confined to a dusty GCSE anthology, and thus of no real interest to young people. Equally, today’s youth are variously dubbed iPhone-addicted, apathetic and less hardworking than their parents’ generation. However, the young SLAMbassadors’ heartfelt performances last Thursday certainly served as evidence on the contrary – poetry is still very much alive and kicking in 2017, and its transformative power should certainly not be underestimated. And the kids? They’re more than alright.

Aged between 12-18? Why not enter SLAMbassadors? Record a film of yourself performing a spoken word piece on the theme of ‘identity’ and submit it to The Poetry Society for your chance to win exhilarating professional development and performance opportunities! Find out how on the SLAMbassadors website.

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