The Monthly interviews local poet, Helen Hastings, joint winner of the Belfast Book Festival’s Poetry Slam – Part 2 – Slam Winner

part one of this interview is here

You have just won, as a joint winner with David Braziel, the Belfast Book Festival Poetry Slam. How did you move towards slam competitions?

Whenever I started going to the open mics, I was very much the head down, reading from the page, a fair distance away from the microphone, absolutely terrified and totally unsure of myself, type of poet. I was very uneasy and I really didn’t feel that I could recognise my own voice let alone deliver the poetry with confidence.

I would say that a lot of those early performances simply were lost because they weren’t really performances at all. They were just an example of a very nervous women reading from a page and after one of those readings at Purely Poetry, a woman approached me and said that my work was being lost, that the audience was losing me because they couldn’t really grasp the words. The delivery wasn’t reaching the audience. And that stuck with me.

What happened then?

I was seeing performance poets, people like Alice McCullough and Elizabeth McGeown, and the styles of those performers started to impact me. I thought if I could just change a few things about how I delivered my work, raise my voice a little, change the tone at certain points, make more eye contact with the audience, try to be more vibrant, more immersive, add some nuance, that my work would develop.

During the Pandemic I was working on my performance style and when a break in the Pandemic came about I thought, “it’s now or never”. So when I did get the opportunity to perform again, I was all set. In my mind is the idea that the Pandemic has shown us that you never know what might happen and therefore you can’t keep putting things off. You really do have to go out into the world and offer what you have to the best of your ability.

You decided to enter the Belfast Book Festival Slam Competition?

Someone suggested to me that I should enter the slam, given I was back performing again. Now, I had actually entered that slam a few years ago, 2018, and I got through to the semi-finals, so I knew what was expected to be part of the competition.

How was the Slam facilitated?

You perform your poetry, you have a maximum of three minutes for each piece. There are three judges, they can’t confer, and the scores are added up and they slowly whittle the performers down to 4 for the final round.

I practised quite a bit in the weeks leading up to the competition. I made sure my timing was right. The last thing I wanted was to be was up there rushing through words, getting tongue tied or losing my momentum. I wanted the pace of the poems to be right, so that the audience would not lose the momentum of the piece.

And here we are, I was the joint winner with David Braziel, and I am very happy about that.

After your slam success, where to now?

I had a small collection released last year with Rancid Idols Productions so I would like to work towards a new collection which could be published as hard copy in a book format.

I would also like to write my own show and I think that would be taking my work to the next level where if I could do that. I have seen three female poets, that I know personally, who have done that this year, Cathy Carson, Mel Bradley and Elizabeth McGeown and while I haven’t set anything in concrete, I am working in my head at the moment as to what a show like that would look like.

I am feeling quite inspired and that is allowing me to work away at achieving the goals I am setting myself.

You can find Helen Hastings work here:

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