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Poetry Competitions UK
15 Jun 2011

John Paul O'Neill

John Paul O'Neill, is the founder and director of Farrago Poetry and was the first person to run a poetry slam in the UK in 1994. He hosts Farrago's regular shows in London and has performed his poetry around the UK and internationally, was the first poet from Britain to compete in the US National Slam Championships and to host the Nuyorican Poets Café slam in New York.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I don't remember exactly but I've been writing since I was very young, the first time I got serious about poetry was in my early teens.

When and where was your first poem published?

It took me a long time to get around to trying to get anything published, only when I discovered the small press and little magazine scene in my mid-twenties, and at first I was concentrating more on short stories. My first poem was published in Pennine Ink in the early 1990s. I can't find the magazine to check the exact date. The poem was called Leaving London and was written for my first writing mentor Derek Parkinson who had had to move back to Burnley.

Which of your poems is your favourite and why?

My favourite poem I suppose is the one that I finished last and am satisfied enough with to consider it really finished and ready to be shared in public, that's a decision that takes a lot of editing and a lot of waiting. I have performance poems that in US slam parlance would be called signature pieces that I really, really like, they'd be God Of, Mr Van Gogh Goes to Chicago and For I, all of which, at a push, I can perform from memory.

What has been your greatest (poetry) success to date?

There are many things I am very proud of being involved with, for different reasons, bringing poetry slam to the UK and shaking up performance poetry here in the process, guest hosting the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe in New York, working with poets and writers from very different backgrounds for Brent Adult and Community Education as a tutor and just writing at all for all this time, coming from the background I come from, is a real achievement in itself.

Do you have a special place you write?

I don't have a special place; I have enough excuses to avoid getting my writing done without that extra one! :) Special pens, special paper, special whatever, all distractions! Enjoyable distractions but distractions none the less.

Who is your favourite poet and why?

I am indebted to and inspired by so many different poets and writers, it really astonishes me that many of the poets I meet at my shows do hardly any reading at all. Dylan Thomas, Sharon Olds and Pablo Neruda, (especially if you speak Spanish) are amazing poets but there are so many. On the performance scene Jean Binta Breeze was the first person to inspire me to get involved in performance poetry, if you get the chance go and see her and there have been many, many since.

Farrago Poetry is a pioneer of the poetry world - how did Britain's first poetry slam evolve?

It's an excellent question, when I ran the first slam in the UK back in 1994 there was no Google and no Youtube so I relied on some tatty photocopies of the US Slam newsletter sent to me by Thom the World Poet to figure out what a slam was and how to get started. It wasn't until Bob Holman turned up in the UK with a Nuyorican tour over six months after we started, claiming of course to be the first, that I got to see the differences and similarities.

Early on we decided to be far more laid back about the competitive element of slam, except for the two major slams Farrago runs, the UK SLAM! Championships and The London SLAM! Championships. Initially we offered cash prizes to the slam winners and it just made the atmosphere at the shows poisonous and killed the spirit of what we were trying to achieve.

At our events every poet's a winner by just taking part in our opinion, which is why every poet wins a prize. We also decided to be a POETRY slam, early on we got swamped by actors doing audition pieces and second rate comedians trying to get to the stage, so we I had to make it clear that the writing was as important, if not more important than the performance. Practically this means that someone who comes and reads a brilliant poem for the first time has just as good a chance of winning one of our slams as the most professional and polished performers.

For those who don't know what poetry slamming is, can you explain?

A poetry slam is an open mic competition. There are judges drawn at random from the audience who use Olympic style score cards, numbered 1-10 to score each poet at the end of their slot, with the slam winner picking up the highest number of points. The work is NOT improvised, you can read or perform one or many poems in your three-minute slot. The show is audience-friendly, lots of good poets doing short sets and the theatre of the judging in-between. Our shows also have really good feature guests, representing different poetry styles and traditions from the UK and around the world.

You are the first Briton to ever slam at the US Nationals and you've toured and performed in America extensively - do American slams differ much to the British slams?
American slams are very different to British ones, because obviously they reflect a very different culture from ours. They tend to be much more competitive, the people around them are probably more interested in sports and sports-style stats. Over recent years the kind of poetry being performed has become much more homogenised, probably due to the influence of the US Nationals, to the likes of Def Jam Poetry and the youth slam scene there. I literally toured coast to coast in the mid to late nineties and there was massive regional variation in terms of performance and material, it'd be a shame if that was lost.

That said slam poetry, because of its origins, has always been delivered with a high tempo and a lot of energy. To see some of the best and for more information about US slam go to either e-poets.net or the PSI site. In terms of the poetry slammed over in the States rhyme or obvious rhyme, a feature particularly of out of London slams, is not well regarded and there is far less reliance on comedy. The best UK slam poets easily match up to the best US ones now in terms of their talent, though American poets get more opportunities to perform in front of larger audiences more often and have more experience as a result.

Finally, and most importantly, the scale of activity in the US is quite awesome. The US National slam Championships are easily the largest English performance poetry/spoken word event in the world and local shows are well organised and supported in a way that UK ones have only been in recent years. We still have some way to go but we are catching up.

Are you running any workshops in the near future?

Nothing has been confirmed as yet other than slam workshops in Jersey secondary schools with Farrago Poetry. But I'll hopefully be working with primary school students in a general writing workshop. Young people are, quite literally, the future!

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of taking part in a poetry slam for the first time?

Definitely do it! Get to the venue in plenty of time so you get signed up and prepared to read or perform and when you get on stage just read or perform your poem the best you can. It's probably better to stick to one piece and better to go under time rather than try and rush through and risk going over time. Don't worry too much about the scoring, the judging is totally subjective; just enjoy the experience and the other poets.

Does a particular style of poetry lend itself to poetry slamming - or does anything go?

Absolutely anything goes at Farrago shows! The audience and judges are going to be more interested in hearing your words, especially if you're slamming for the first time than how showy you can manage to be.

Tell us more about the Farrago Festival of Spoken Word …

The Farrago Festival of Spoken Word has been run since 1995 during November and December each year. We've always organised non slam events and because London, where we're based is so cosmopolitan we've always staged International events too, the most regular of which are our Spanish and English Showcases. The festival is a chance for us to bring together all the different events we do and to run our two biggest slams - the London and UK SLAM! Championships.

Do you have any writing ambitions left to fulfil?

I haven't even got started yet! I dropped out of the publishing scene to concentrate on performance for a long time. I now want to get poetry, short stories and most importantly at least one novel finished and published. I've got a lot of good material that I really like to get working on over the summer.

What is the greatest accolade you have received for your writing?

While I was at university I won second place in a short story competition judged by Michelle Roberts, that pocketed me an invaluable £30 and saw my Creative Writing module grades go up on the course I was doing as result! For performing there have been a few, including a Best Performance Award at the Austin International Performance Festival. Ultimately though the greatest accolade to receive as a writer is when a stranger, not a friend or someone that you have a nepotistic connection to, decides your writing is good and interesting enough to be published by them with all the effort and financial commitment that involves. I especially appreciate the support of the first people who published my work, including the likes of Josephine Austin, Kevin Cadwallender and Judi Benson.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline you'd like to share with us?

I am trying to get my Internet radio show back on at the moment, working hard on Farrago Poetry projects, we've been invited back out to Jersey in the autumn to run the Jersey Arts Trust Inter Schools Slam for the second year running and of course we'll be holding the Farrago Festival of Spoken Word later in the year. If anyone's interested in being involved please drop me a line.

I'm putting together a collection of poetry for publication and looking at some other publishing projects, the first of which will be an anthology of work written by the students on my BACES Creative Writing Courses, which will be running again in the autumn. The most important work I've got to do is to get my long overdue novel finished! This is definitely my most important project.

For further information on Farrago Poetry please visit www.london.e-poets.net. To contact John Paul about Farrago Poetry or any of his ventures please email him at farragopoetry@yahoo.co.uk.


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