“If you do not understand, just feel it”, slam poetry in Vienna

When you think of Vienna what comes to your mind? Classical music, beauty and stylish buildings, but what about slam poetry? In the German-speaking parts of Europe, such as Austria and Germany, slam poetry events are very common and, internationally speaking, the most professional. Vienna is a vibrant and unique city full of life, trend and culture with a surprisingly popular slam poetry scene. One of the main contributors to this is Fomp, a performance literature organisation who host over 50 events per year for poetry lovers. Fomp was founded by Henrik Szanto and Jonas Scheiner in 2013 and is becoming more and more successful each year.

Vienna from Gloriette, Shonbrunn Palace

Hörsaal Slam (lecture hall), was just one of many events hosted by Fomp this year. A lecture hall is not your typical location for a poetry slam, but all you need is fantastic performers and an overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience for a successful slam. This event had just that. The lecture hall of BOKU Vienna was full to the brim with energetic students eager to enjoy poetry. Scheiner and Szanto warmed up the crowd with jokes and a lot of interaction with the audience, who were an important factor to this poetry slam. Eight poets performed on the night and the audience decided the winner through loud, enthusiastic cheers and screams. The event lasted approximately three hours, a long time for a poetry event, but at no time was there a dull moment. The audience were cheering, clapping, laughing and simply having a good time. The poets were powerful, confident and full of emotion which was truly enthralling and kept the audience listening.

Henrik performing at Hörsaal Slam, Vienna

Ahead of the event, I met with Szanto, who alongside Scheiner was the host for the evening, and Fabian Navarro, a professional poetry slammer, to discuss Fomp and the work they do. As this was my first poetry slam experience, Szanto gave one piece of advice, he said “There is this common saying between slam poets, if you don’t understand, just feel it.”

Henrik continues “The slam scenes in general are a pretty tight unit, we know each other quite well and are friendly with one another. We grew into this Viennese scene that was very lovely, and when we started Vienna had quite a few shows but most of them were free of charge, you just performed, received two beers then went home. That wasn’t enough for us because we started with this view of making it possible for artists to get paid for what they do and to actually teach the audience that they ought to be charged money as well.”

As mentioned, Fomp organise over 50 performance literature events throughout the year. Events include a jazz slam which is a poetry slam with a twist. A jazz band play behind the performer and improvises according to what the poet is saying. Every year there is also a German-speaking poetry slam championship which welcomes over 200 performers and a couple of thousand in attendance.

However, this particular event was a poetry slam competition. The performers are booked by Fomp and on many occasions they allow two open spots on the night for up-and-coming poets. Szanto says “For us this is the optimal way of doing things, connecting experienced people who do it for a living and pursue it more rigorously than you would pursue a hobby and getting them in touch with people who are just starting out.” Although this slam was a competition, receiving the title of the winner is not of huge importance. Szanto explains “The competition is mainly to keep the audience participating because the audience is always the deciding factor who wins, there are no literary critics or judges. All people who are going to vote (for their favourite slammer) are part of the audience and in most cases the competition is mainly a trick to keep the audience interested.”

Fabian Navarro has been performing slam poetry for the past ten years and it is now his full-time job. His performance at the Hörsaal Slam was truly mesmerising. Navarro has the ability to keep the audience focused on him throughout and this expertise led him to be crowned winner. His poetry made the audience smile and laugh out loud. Navarro is passionate about slam poetry and it is clear this is his full-time job due to his unmistakable talent, but how did he discover the world of slam poetry? Navarro says “There was a slam organised by WDR, a German television broadcaster, and a guy in school showed me this and I said ‘wow I can do this and I can go on stage.’ I looked it up and close to my hometown there was a poetry slam and the MC said everyone can attend so I did and I haven’t stopped.”

As well as working and performing alongside Fomp, Navarro has travelled far and wide to spread his love and knowledge of slam poetry. He says “I have a monthly show in Hamburg, I travel to Hamburg a lot because I live there and all my connections are still there. However, you don’t just attend poetry slams, when you are a poetry slammer in a German-speaking country you give workshops and do shows without competition.” Navarro mentions he will be hosting a poetry slam workshop in Japan this summer at a German speaking school. Previous workshops he has hosted have been in Croatia and South Africa.

Whilst speaking with Szanto and Navarro about the ins and outs of slam poetry, the pair make it clear that Fomp aim to make their events as equal as possible with regards to the ratio between male and female performers. Speaking about this subject, which is a hot topic in many areas of the entertainment industry, Navarro says “In the German-speaking scene, I would say there is more male than female performers. There is a lot of work to do. This year in the Viennese championships we organised, it was the first German-speaking championship with more women attending the competition than men, or at least half and half. This is pretty seldom for these events. I like the German-speaking poetry slam scene because things like this are discussed.”

The German-speaking poetry slam championships aforementioned have all been won by men, with the exception of just one woman, Tracy Splinter, who won back in the late 1990’s. With this in mind, Navarro is right, there is a lot of work to do.

Karin Tscheppen was just one of the compelling female slam poets who performed at the Hörsaal Slam and has a wide knowledge of the slam scene. Tscheppen, who is from Linz in Austria, has been living in Vienna since 2011 and began slam poetry seven years ago. But what is like to be a female slam poet in Vienna today? Tscheppen says “When I started in 2011, I was pretty much the only woman there. Now over the years there are much more women than before and I am very glad about that. Every time I go to a poetry slam, I see new women going on stage. I always tell them ‘please stay, you are so awesome, please keep up the good work and stay in this community, we really need people like you.’ There are a lot of women who start poetry slam and try it, but there are also a lot of women who just stop, I don’t know why. I want to know why they are not coming back.”

Karin performing at Hörsaal Slam, Vienna

Tscheppen admits it is very rare to attend a poetry slam with a higher ratio of women, but sometimes miracles do happen. Speaking passionately about a previous event, Tscheppen says “Last week for example, for the first time at a Fomp poetry slam, we were five women and one man and there were only women in the finale. Last week was amazing, but more women need to do poetry slam, it is so awesome.”  

In some parts of the world, poetry slams are unheard of however, with hope these events and performers will travel to many other countries and spread the joy and uniqueness of slam poetry. With a final note from Navarro, he says “We (Fomp) are trying to improve international companionship with other slam scenes in other countries. We had an Argentinean slam poet as a guest in March and we try to invite people from all over the world. We want to connect more, not just in Austria or German-speaking countries, we want to have people from other backgrounds and languages.”