Slambassadors winner Ollie O'Neill. (c) Poetry Society

Slambassadors winner Ollie O’Neill. (c) Poetry Society

Over a coffee in the basement of the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, Joelle Taylor gives me the low down about slam poetry: “Slam isn’t a word, it’s an event. It’s what happens at good spoken word events.” Joelle Taylor, founder of SLAMbassadors, the Poetry Society’s spoken word competition for young people, has been encouraging youngsters to express themselves and compete through spoken word since 2001.

“It started off as a London wide competition with slams being held in venues across the city,” explains Taylor. By 2008, it became a national competition. “It’s down to help from the BBC, YouTube and the continued support from the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Scroobius Pip, who have helped propel the slam scene” Initially starting as a way “to fight racism in the capital”, Taylor soon realised heritage that shouldn’t be the only focus. “Young people are writing about a range of issues, so we changed the theme to ‘identity’.”

Entrants cover a range of topics from sexuality, culture and religion to life-defining moments and current events. 2013 winner Ollie O’Neil, 18, from North West London won with her poem ‘Dyke’. “It’s about being gay in society and secondary school, how it affected me and how I dealt with it,” she tells me. Nafeesa Mohammed, 15 from Buckinghamshire won slam competitions in her region two years in a row and was automatically entered in the national competition. She won with her poem ‘Tattoos’, which is “about life experiences of being a teenager in society”.

When it comes to the judging process, Taylor describes herself as “The Sifter” and stores all entrants’ videos each year before deciding the shortlist for the communal judging stage. This year, Taylor and fellow judge Holly McNish dwindled 33 applicants down to the winning six: Anna-Rose Thomas, Aakifah Aboobakar, Samiliah Naira, O’Neill and Mohammed. “Of course there were disagreements in the decision making process,” Taylor confides. “But that’s because we base our decisions on instinct and feeling over the traditional rules for judging spoken word.”

Entrants are aged between 12 and 18. “Slambassadors is a way we can get young people fired up about words,” says Taylor of the age limitation. “when I got the call I was a winner, all I could say was thank you,” beams O’Neil. “I’ve been writing ever since I was young so it was something I was made to feel I was good at.”

“Slambassadors has been known to access kids who aren’t doing so well in traditional education but have the ability to stand up and freestyle,” Taylor says. “We go to different schools, talk to young people and do workshops with kids who have had difficult experiences and have stories to tell. We then encourage them to get involved. Putting Slambassadors online means I can select and reach out to a good mix of kids from different backgrounds, level of success in their studies and lifestyles.”

Winners are invited to a workshop where they will meet each other for the first time, get experience of slamming and develop their writing in intense writing sessions. “It’s nice to meet the winners and feed off each other creatively,” says O’Neill. Mohammed agrees: “Within our group there is so much diversity. I’ve found it brilliant. The workshop has helped me a lot learning different writing and performing skills. The mentoring is useful, too.” Mohammed even took the risk of performing a poem she wrote in the workshop at the showcase: “I like performing new stuff and this is a good place to do it.” Poetry promoters and talent agents were invited to the event. “It’s about giving them a chance to network and showcase their talent,” Taylor adds.

Past winners have gone on to write books, go on yours and become mentors to subsequent winners. “They are now the creators of the spoken word scene,” Joelle tells me, revealing that 2012 winner Charlotte Higgins became an apprentice to Seamus Heaney before he passed away . The possibilities are endless!

If you’re aged between 12 and 18 and wish to get involved, next year’s contest opens in early 2014. To enter, check out Slambassadors Sessions YouTube page, take a look at the talent and upload a video of yourself performing your own work to be considered. If selected as a winner, you too will be “thrown into the spoken word scene”. As we finish off our coffees, I really get a sense of Joelle’s passion for the cause. “These young people are the future of British poetry. We need to support them, keep the finding raw, authentic talent that is out there, help them discover their own style and nurture it to make the spoken word community grow.”

Her final word was advice for anyone with an interest: “Just do it”, she states, bluntly. “Risk is at the heart of all creativity. In the poetry circuit, you learn by doing.” All it takes is one poem – so start writing “from your soul” and give it a shot now!

The Poetry Society’s Slambassadors competition is open to 12-18 year olds. Visit the Slambassadors website for more information.