Eli Bensusan is more than just your average Istanbul-based poet. A graphic designer and artist of great talent by trade, having spent a while in Chicago, Eli decided to pump some life into Istanbul’s long-standing community of poets by launching the Istanbul Poetry Slam event. These evening affairs, held in Kadıköy every two months, have been greeted raptuously and it is hoped will soon become an established feature of Istanbul’s cultural calendar. We asked Eli to talk more about what makes a poetry slam event and how he got the ball rolling on this wonderful idea.
Liam: Hi Eli, let's get a little background on you. What's your story and what are you up to in Istanbul right now?
Eli: Hi Liam! I am actually a designer currently living and working in Cihangir, creating commercial and artistic objects, and doing other types of design for different clients while also teaching. I graduated from Industrial Design department at ITU, then went to School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a masters degree in Designed Objects. I worked in Chicago. After a total of five years at the Windy City now I am back in Istanbul, at home. How I found myself performing poetry on stage is a different story!
Liam: What was your first experience of a poetry slam, and can you remember your first impressions?
Eli: I definitely can. It was at the Green Mill at Uptown Chicago, an old jazz club, famous for fantastic music and also for being one of Al Capone’s favorite spots. I had heard that they had poetry slams on Sundays so I wanted to check it out. I learnt slam had started there, and one of the hosts, Marc Smith was the man who started it. Poets were invited to the stage one by one by the hosts, and what was really intriguing was the way the audience reacted to each piece. When the poet on stage was doing a good job, the audience kept their mouths shut, and they cheered loudly after the performance. However the interesting part of the show was when a poet started to perform a miserable poem. The audience started to snap their fingers, stomp their feet, and after a while he was asked to leave the stage. It sounds a bit harsh, but the poet realized he needed to cut off the poem a bit more, and didn’t feel offended. This doesn’t mean your poetry is bad, maybe it is not fit for this kind of a setting. What I really liked was the honest participation of the audience, the way the show was kept alive by them and the hosts, and the environment that welcomes any type of honest poetry.
Liam: Could you tell us about the rules of a poetry slam? How is it different from an ordinary poetry-reading or spoken word event?
Eli: Slam Poetry is performance poetry. The audience is there for an experience that is different from a book. So poets are encouraged to use their tools of performance. But, what makes the slam different is the audience. For most of the world, probably everywhere besides the Green Mill, snapping fingers is a method to show appreciation and we have it the same way in Istanbul. At the Green Mill, snapping means “I am bored”. If they really hate it they will stomp their feet, which we do here as well. The poems are rated from 0 to 10. But if there is a really bad poem, sometimes the judges go to minus scores. In serious competitions there are five judges, the highest and lowest scores are dropped and the rest are added up. Depending on where you are at you will get a time limit, usually around three minutes. At some places they will count your overtime seconds and drop points from you for your extra time. Some places ban sexism, racism, homophobia, and other types of discrimination. At Istanbul Poetry Slam, I chose to give that policing job to the audience. If you think something is wrong, as the audience, you can react in kind. Boo them! Hiss at them! Stomp your feet! I believe there is value in the audience deciding what they want to hear. We have 3 judges in Istanbul, they are completely random people who have absolutely no qualification.
Liam: Does the competitive nature of the event not make it a little intimidating for the uninitiated?
Eli: We have an open mic set with no judges. Nobody scores you there. So if you feel intimidated, you can choose to perform there. The second set is a competition but it is just a silly bar game. No need to be scared. After all, what winner gets is a cash price barely enough for a drink and a tip, and a little token of appreciation by me. When it becomes more than that and people start organizing national championships the quality of work increases drastically but performances starts to look similar. Also sensitive issues are brought up, and they should be, but sometimes not that sincerely, and from a perspective it can be seen as abuse of these topics. So it has ups and downs, I like it as an honest bar game. We are also thinking about participating in European Championships, but that will come later. All I care about now is to have an environment where people freely express themselves in a unique way, form good relationships with each other and enjoy each night, and hopefully they will be better writers and performers by being on the stage more often.
Liam: How did you come to the opinion that Istanbul was lacking an event like this?
Eli: I can think about a couple major figures embedded in Turkish or Istanbul’s culture that are relevant to slam. One of them is Aşık Veysel, or in general, people of the “Aşık persuassion”. These Aşıks do a fantastic job of integrating poetry into daily life. They used to go to coffee shops and just start improvising. They even had “Atışma” sessions, which is sort of a competition. There is also Pala Şair (Pala the Poet), whose real name is Mustafa Yağcı. He was a man with many pins on his jacket, a great moustache and a clean suit hanging out in Istiklal Street. He used to recite poems to random passers-by. He was a well known character with an iconic look, who passed away quite recently. His sculpture was made by the artist Halil Altındere and has been exhibited internationally. Rumi and Yunus Emre are well respected Sufi poets whose thoughts are still respected in general public. Poetry is respected and appreciated in this country. Why not making it a part of our lives in a fun way?
Liam: How frequently can we expect the event to be held and would you like to see it grow and develop in the future?
Eli: I really like Kaset Kadıköy, they have the perfect location for this event. We have Spoken Word Istanbul on Tuesdays on the European Side so I thought, why not doing something in Asian side? I would love to see Slam culture grow, hopefully we can have Turkish slams in the future if people are interested. I am also interested in weaving different languages together in a poem. I was in a project called “One Poetic Voice”, in which we were paired up with international poets. We read the poems in original languages and English in an interwoven way. The magic there is that it is such a mess that the words start to get blurry and unclear. But somehow the meaning gets more clear. I would love to try that here in the international community of Istanbul.
Liam: Do you have any messages for those considering attending? What should they prepare and how should they join?
Eli: Choose a poem that you like and have a deep and honest connection. You don’t have to memorize, but it helps for better performances. See this as an opportunity to meet, talk and listen to other peoples stories. Do not exceed three minutes. This is a fun event, and shorter poems actually keep the attention better. Engage with the audience. Enjoy, learn from your performance and other peoples’. Snap if you like. Stomp if you hate. Speak your heart out. But most of all, be there!