As part of a college article, I had the unique experience of attending my first ever Dutch Poetry Slam event. The criteria being to look at how creative events impact a city. Keep reading to find out how the night went.
(Edit: I also managed to get the piece published on this website: http://www.cityofliterature.nl/u-slam/, so if you want to have a look at it over there that would be lovely <3)
On the first Wednesday of every month poets and onlookers gather in the Theatercafé de Bastaard, in the buzzing cultural city of Utrecht, to take to the stage of U-Slam.
The event is a Poetry Slam Contest, free for anyone to enter, organised by the art organisation Het Literatuur Huis which is based in the city.4
Slam Poetry, which is a form of spoken word poetry, originated in Chicago in 1984 and since then it has become a popular method for writers to express their words. Props, costumes and music are forbidden, but poets are free to use their vocal cords to create sound effects to go with their poetry. I’ve never been to an event like this before, let alone one in Dutch, so walking through the doors of de Bastaard, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
After seating myself, members of the audience are handed a rose each, which is going to be used later as part of the voting process. The show begins and each poet that takes to the stage blows me away. Though I can’t understand a word they are saying, I understand the pure raw individual emotion that each poet projects to the crowd. Poets range from a teenage girl who has brought her mom and younger sister along as support, to a young man being cheered on by his friends from the crowd.
At the beginning of the night, people trickled in from the wet evening and a modest crowd formed. But as it got later into the night, the seats became full and some even opted to sit on the floor. People crowded in from the bar and stood by the entrance of the theatre, with their drinks in their hand, leaning in to get a better listen at the words being spoken.
One of the poets from the night, Coen Cornelis, happens to be sitting beside me. We begin to talk and he tells me, he has been doing these monthly events for the past six years. The first time he shared his poetry with an audience was at one of the U-Slam events.
“For writers this is a great place to start, because you can express your words and see if people respond well to them or not” he explains.
When I ask does he think events like these are essential for culture and creativity in a city, he takes his time to muse over the question.
“I think events like these are important for creativity. It’s not for everyone, and people at the bar may not care what’s going on in the theatre but for some it’s inspiring” he contemplates.
After round one is completed, we are treated to a performance from a Turkish musician by the name of Yank. The audience are put in my shoes now, as we listen to Yank performs his songs in his mother tongue. But like me, just because the audience can’t understand the words, doesn’t mean they don’t “feel” the music. By the end of the song, Yank receives an overly enthusiastic round of applause.
During the interval, I manage to grab Sophie Kok, the organiser of the slam, for a quick chat to find out how this evidently popular event began.
“Our Poetry Slams have been going on for ten to twelve years. We organise the slams in our sector in Utrecht, while separate organisations run slams all around the Netherlands, such as Rotterdam, Leiden and Limburg. And then the winners from each slam go on to the National Championships” says Sophie.
“Het Literatuur Huis also organises different literary festivals, such as an International Literature Festival with writers from all around the world. As well as a poetry marathon known as “De Nacht Van de Poëzie” (Night of Poetry), a non-stop night of poetry readings from 8pm-4am.”
Sophie tells me that the Literatuur Huis receives funding from the Dutch Foundation for Literature, De Gemeente Utrecht and de Province Utrecht. Though a small event like U-Slam doesn’t get much sponsorship as money is generally kept for bigger events, so the slams rely on a community support for them to be possible.
It seems a win win situation for everyone involved. Sophie informs me that de Basstard is generous and doesn’t charge them for the venue, people are able to socialise in a free creative event and the bar benefits from the all the business it makes on drinks during the night.
And does she think that creativity is important in a city like Utrecht?
“Yes, I do. Utrecht is a creative city and there is a lot happening here. We have a lot of students, there a lot of young people who want to be creative and I think creative events like this, manages to bring people together. This is my eighth season organising these slams and people have been coming here for years, there are poets that participated five years ago and are still coming today. Everyone is very supportive, poets read each other’s poetry and help each other make it better” says Sophie.
After round two, it is time to choose the two winners who will be going on to the next stage. The poets step on the stage for one last time, and as each one stands forward we hold our roses aloft for our favourite participate. I found that the interactivity and audience inclusion of the event added a special kind of connection between us, the crowd, and the poets.
Throughout the night the sense of community was evident in the air. Everyone who attended the Slam gathered with the same purpose in mind, even if they didn’t realise they were doing it, to listen to the words of others and to broaden their own creativity in the process.
There’s something special about a moment like that, if you can find it. So, the next time you have a free evening on your hands, why don’t you see what your city can offer you?