The Varsity Poetry Slam. Four universities, one fantastic night

April 3, 2018

On Monday, 12 March 2018, four universities came together for one night of amazing poetry. Bath Spa writer and poet Rhi Hutchings-Clarke went along to watch the Varsity Slam and was blown away by the talent she saw.

With so many universities in such close proximity it’s surprising that we’ve never seen an event like Varsity Slam at Bath Spa before. Organiser Charlotte Souter managed to bring together not two, not three, but four universities (Bath Spa University, University of Bath, Bristol University and University of West England) for a night of mind blowing poetry.  Each poet had three minutes to perform before five audience members scored them out of ten. The highest and lowest marks were eliminated to stop any bias. For each ten seconds the poet went over, a point was taken away. This rules were then exercised on the ‘sacrificial poet’ – meaning one of our hosts, Tim Ledwitch, who volunteered to go first.

Ledwitch’s poem was one that I’ve seen him perform a few times and each time it has made me cry. The performance depicts scenes that most dog owners will recognise, like pretending to throw a ball and watching your dog get confused. But the unique aspect of Ledwitch’s poem is that its voice is the dog. Ledwitch combines his humour with genius timing, causing a wave of laughter from the audience. Unfortunately he went over the time limit and was penalised, demonstrating to the audience that there are no exceptions.

Rounds One and Two – love and sex

Nick Compton, the second of our rather refreshingly excitable hosts, introduced the first round of the event featuring Yasmin Warsame (from UWE), Nora Gunn (Bristol University), Alex Calver (Bath Spa University) and Sam Dath (University of Bath). The judges scored harshly at first, serving out 6.5s and 7s, but as the event progressed they started dishing out some high 8s and even some 9s, putting University of Bath candidate Sam Dath in the lead. Dath’s poem was emotional. It told the story of a long distance relationship growing apart over time and it was clear to see that the judges were enamoured with how he performed it, giving him an overall score of 25 out of 30.

Ledwitch then returned to introduce the second round. He was armed with more stories about our favourite tail wagging friends to keep us entertained while the judges took the time to add up all the marks. Deputy Dog – the story of a whippet who inadvertently stopped a bank robbery – became a running joke throughout the event, and it’s safe to say that everyone walked away with a little more love for the breed.

Round two saw Kyasat Nadeem (Bristol University), Gemma Barnett (University of Bath), Jake Wray (UWE) and Connor Macleod (Bath Spa University) take the stage. The judges were becoming a little more generous with their marks now that they were more comfortable in their roles and higher scores were beginning to emerge.

A poem to mention in this round was University of Bath candidate Gemma Barnett who wrote a feminist poem about the way women are depicted in porn. Her words left the audience and judges in fits of laughter, and she even went as far as to mention the strict time limit in her poem, which was very cleverly done and earned her a 26.5 out of 30.

©Andrew Porteous

Rounds Three and Four – Bath Spa Does Us Proud

Compton’s enthusiastic energy returned as he opened up the third round with a few little jokes. The next participants were Amy Stirling (Bath Spa University), Wilfred Steenbergen-Cockerton (UWE), Chrispin Lema (Bristol University) and Monique McPherson (University of Bath).

Stirling’s performance was heartbreaking… the air in the room felt as though it had stilled to listen to her.

Though University of Bath poet Mcpherson earned a (well deserved) high score, I was surprised by the skill of our own Bath Spa participant Amy Stirling, whose performance felt very genuine. Amy’s poem was about a break-up – and you would think the world would have had enough of those by now right? Wrong. Stirling’s performance was heartbreaking. I noticed that the air in the room felt as though it had stilled to listen to her. Her emotions did not look staged and showed unapologetically throughout the poem, earning her a score of 24 out of 30 (though I personally would have given her higher, but maybe I’m a little biased!)

Amy Stirling performing. ©Andrew Porteous

After a short break and another thrilling installation of Deputy Dog, Ledwitch introduced round four featuring Claire Guest (University of Bath), Rose Butler (Bath Spa University), Ewan Crowley (UWE) and Kyasat Nadeem (Bristol University). The judges awarded the highest score of 29.2 to Bath Spa’s own Rose Butler for a truly eye opening poem about body image. She spoke of her unhealthy weight loss and how it affects how she, and others, look at her body. She made her poem relatable and the audience were initially speechless as she left the stage before shaking off the shock and giving her a well deserved round of applause.

Round Five – High Scores

Round five was introduced once again by a jumping Compton whose enthusiasm was infectious and surely worked its way into the poets Izzi Seale (Bath Spa University), Rob Brett (University of Bath), Yasmin Warsame (UWE) and Chrispin Lema (Bristol University). Bath Spa’s Izzi Seale deserves a mention for earning the first 10 of the evening with her mental illness poem ‘madness’ which, despite being an accurate description of depression, had a beautifully written optimistic ending which addressed the audience directly.

Izzi Seal performs her poem, Madness.

Izzi Seal performs her poem, Madness. ©Andrew Porteous


However, swinging in at the end of the round Bristol’s Chrispin Lema earned the second and third 10 of the night with his brilliant poem combating racism. His emotive performance was wonderful, weaving history with the present to prove that we still need change. As the end of the evening drew nearer I wondered what the result might be, not envying the judges for their hard decision. Everyone had done so well!

There was some initial confusion due to the points being added up inaccurately, but once corrected co-hosts Compton and Ledwitch announced that the winners were… (imagine here, if you will, the audience’s deafening drum roll) none other than the University of Bath! They were presented with a handmade trophy, and the winning poets made an interesting speech stating that they were going to go to Al Falafel – ending the night in the most student-like fashion and, let’s be honest, isn’t that the best way?

Did you go to the Varsity Slam? Were the University of Bath deserving winners? If you missed out, keep your eyes on Bath Spa Live for more amazing local events!

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