Slamming: Words Are All You’ve Got

An artform new to Vienna, poetry slams find a young audience keen to see local humour in a new light

On The Town | Andreas Rainer | May 2012

Vienna’s Café Prückel is not easily impressed by great poets and writers. After all, too many are already there slouching in a corner, sipping a single Melange for hours while writing their masterpieces in the old café. In order to get poets out of a coffee house chair and into the spotlight, Prückel has its own small theatre in the basement. And on 5 Apr., it housed a poetry slam, auf Deutsch.

A poetry slam is an art form invented in 1984, in Chicago. Similar to an open mic night, artists get a chance to read or recite self-written texts up to five minutes in length – with the difference, that a poetry slam has a competitive element to it by letting the contestants "slam" against each other. Since props are prohibited, it lies in the artist’s empty hands to draw the audience into their performance.

That night, the crowd lined up in front of the hall’s entrance was as young as the artists themselves: Poetry slamming seems to be a student business.

Broccoli ice cream

After the warm-up and explanation of the rules by moderator Elwood Loud, the first contestant entered the stage and the battle began: A German girl slammed about her "lyrical self," who aged three years during the performance. She went on about "not liking love poems because they are for girls", being "complicated and unreasonable," and how the first thing she is interested in when meeting a guy is his health record. "There has to be more than talking, up until we reach makeup sex, more than broccoli ice cream," she permissively shared her dreams with the Viennese audience.

Are you getting a little bored? A little too much post-teenage romance? I can’t blame you. A poetry slam definitely has to be experienced live. The printed text is not meant to be read cuddled up in front of the fireplace. Rhetoric, intonation, the ability to draw the crowd into the performance and, most importantly, a great stage personality are what it takes to turn an average text into a slamming success.

"If you don’t get a laugh after the first two or three jokes, you start to sweat up there," explained Loud, also the organiser of the Poetry Slam Cup.

Finally, as the third of six, the superstar of that night’s show entered the stage.

Happiness is only a lack of information

Nico Semsrott was the only candidate who makes money from his performances, and while money isn’t everything, that night Semsrott played in a league of his own. While the other candidates still seemed to be in the process of finding their stage personality, Semsrott had already perfected his and wore it with confidence: Shy, depressed and hidden behind his hoody, he is equipped with a never-altering, monotonous voice that directs all jokes against their teller. "No fun – no fun" is his life motto, and he told a story about being dissed by a fourth grader on a train because of the size of his iPod.

There is no better city for this kind of humour. The Viennese audience, conditioned by decades of cabaret, sent him with thundering applause into the next round.

The contest went on for three knockout rounds, in which the audience was won over with texts about sex, parties, quirkiness and of course the unavoidable FPÖ jokes that are always a safe laugh. Serious texts are rare, and the one that was performed that night showed how only masters of the slammed word should attempt this.

The artists performed one text for each round, and toward the end, the quality declined dramatically. The grand finale reminded one of those Oscar speeches where the awardee genuinely didn’t know that he had a chance of winning.

As with all art forms, it doesn’t take a lot to shoot out one or two good lines, chords or brush strokes. However, creating art that stands the test of the audience is not something everybody is made for. A poetry slam is a rap battle without the beats, a song without the music and a piece of literature without the deeper meaning. Still, it is very entertaining and there is talent out there.

At the end of the evening, Semsrott politely applauded his defeated opponents before collecting the prize of that night’s big win: a bottle of scotch and a package of coffee – a true poet’s breakfast. It is apparent that this art form has not yet reached the big arenas, at least in Austria. The scene is much larger in Germany, where Semsrott is from. Are Germans the better poets? Are they actually funnier people? Most certainly not!

But on that night, we grudgingly had to admit that they were the better poetry slammers.


For information on future slams visit:

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