When poetry slam in Hamburg was still young and untamed, author and journalist Kathrin Weßling was right in there. After some years of abstinence, hamburg ahoi has asked her to meet with someone who is passionate about slam culture right now: Hinnerk Köhn, presenter, poetry slammer and apprentice with Kampf der Künste. An interview about a scene that has made niche events into a cultural phenomenon.
Hinnerk Köhn, that's the name of the young man sitting opposite me on a rainy morning. “Opposite me” means in a large conference room at Lattenplatz, on the margins of the smart Karolinenviertel district and within view of the Millerntor Stadium, where FC St. Pauli plays. Between us the coffee, which Hinnerk has made for us by the litre, and a story, his story, that's much bigger than one about Hinnerk, because it's also about poetry slam in Germany, about the transformation of a whole institution and about growing up.
Poetry slam is growing – but is that a problem?
Hinnerk, 23, is many things: he's a presenter and poetry slammer, an apprentice with a giant of the scene, Kampf der Künste – the “War of the Arts” – which was founded in 2005 and has now grown into Hamburg's largest poetry slam event organiser, with 50,000 visitors per season, guest appearances in clubs, theatres and on the Trabrennbahn, Hamburg's horse-racing trotting course. Once, poetry slam was the street urchin of stage shows, the secret rendezvous of nerds whose passion wasn't numbers, but letters and poetic metre. Nowadays, the format fills halls and stadiums, theatres and clubs. TV presenter Jan Böhmermann lampooned slam in his show, and from that moment onwards everyone knew: poetry slam is no longer a niche, poetry slam has become a popular interest. But is that a bad thing?
Hinnerk just laughs when I ask him that question. He's part of the second generation of poetry slam in Hamburg, and he's someone you take to straight away: a lad with tousled hair and big glasses, a friendly smile and a CV that isn't typical for his age, but can stand as a model for the scene. Left school, started a cultural studies degree at Hildesheim, stood it for nine months then was drawn back to his north German home. To Kiel, not to his birthplace Eckernförde, but that's immaterial now.
And it turns out that it wasn't the worst decision he could have made: at age 19, Hinnerk came second in Germany's biggest national poetry slam for the under-20s. For many, the launch of a career as a stage writer. Not for Hinnerk, not as the only thing at least, he had other plans. And that's exactly why we're sitting opposite each other today. Because when something becomes mainstream, there have to be people who make something big out of the little gigs in the anonymous clubs, something that will attract thousands of visitors. And Hinnerk is one of those people.
Poetry slam was never just a format – always a network and family as well
“Poetry slam is really a kind of family. That's why I like the term “slamily”. There's one uncle you hate, but the brothers and sisters and the immense solidarity make up for him,” is how Hinnerk describes the scene, which has never regarded itself as just a format, but always as a network and family. And it has gone through a lot, that family. It started out very small in bars, cellar clubs and small theatres, rapidly became bigger and bigger and more and more famous, produced stars, celebrated authors, comedians, presenters and cabaret artists, withstood the malice of the newspapers' arts columns, and is now much more than just a vehicle for presenting writing.
Today it develops its upcoming talents, there's a mutual exchange, backup and, well – money as well. A subject that caused controversy even many years ago. Of course it was only about playing the game and not purely about winning. But in my day, it was suddenly about prize money as well. The Kampf der Künste pre-empted this development with its one of its own: because the authors themselves became event organisers, slammers like Hinnerk can remain true to the scene by becoming part of it behind the scenes as well. Slammers come and go – event organisers remain.
To be or not to be witty, that is the question
“Why do so many people think poetry slam is such shit?” I ask Hinnerk at the end of our interview. “Is it because everybody thinks you have to be witty and amusing every time? Paralympics of literature, as slammer Hazel Brugger once said?” Hinnerk laughs – naturally, he's aware of the criticism that today’s poetry slam is nothing but entertainment. “I still write the serious material, but I don't publish it. I don't want to share that with people, I want to keep it to myself”. I'm sceptical. It's about enduring the silence as well as the rest, isn't it? Being able to adjust when the room suddenly fails to break out in stormy rapture, constantly laugh out loud and the applause during the act no longer tells you that everything's going just fine? Hinnerk shakes his head. “Of course it's a strange feeling when it's quiet. But it's even worse when you present a piece that's meant to be funny and nobody laughs. That risk is always present”.
We talk for a bit about the huge growth in poetry slam over the past years. And about whether the hype has done good or harm (“Good!” says Hinnerk). And it becomes more and more evident to me that there's a young man sitting here who symbolises something that can calmly ignore malice and artsy arrogance, because it's so much more than an outsider can tear apart in ten minutes of copy. Hinnerk is part of a scene that has grown up. With the hype has come a certain rationality, and with the scale the structure. “It gives people self-confidence,” says Hinnerk when I ask him whether he would advise someone to go up on stage.
Thereby summing up what no one can take away from slam: you'll find people here who have courage. Who will stand up on a stage with their own material, in front of sometimes 100, sometimes 1000 people, and read out their stories. Who endure failures and celebrate successes together. Of course poetry slam is developing, and not everyone is happy about it. But that's what people like Hinnerk and many other young talents are there for. They challenge, they criticise (self-criticism included), they run formats that enthuse many millions of people. And it's not with meaningless drivel and TV trash, but with literature, with words and stories and metres and poems. Thanks to people like Hinnerk, thanks to a scene dedicated to the word, thanks to the self-confidence of the “slamily”.