Now in its 5th year, the Inter-Varsity Poetry Slam continues to create a platform for students


Adam Lawler attends the 2019 Inter-Varsity Slam and interviews this year’s champion, Phoebe Brigginshaw.

The fifth iteration of the Inter-Varsity Slam 2019 took place on Wednesday, 13th of March. The slam founded by Dublin spoken word poet Lewis Kenny took place in the concourse of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).

The room was dark except for the back-lit stage and the odd candle placed sparingly around the room, full of young faces, chatting and cracking open cans between poets. With the feel of a poetry slam firmly in place, the night began in earnest.

Twelve poets from seven different colleges and universities from Dublin, Belfast and Wales took part in the competition.

After a poem from MC spoken word poet and co-founder of Boundless & Bare Melissa Ridge, Aoife Kearins from Trinity College Dublin kick-started the night with a powerful piece on female empowerment. Kearins was rocking a denim jacket with the caption “the truth is like poetry and most people fucking hate poetry” as well as boundless energy. Conall Molloy, from Dublin City University, performed a low-key piece on privilege, featuring the iconic hook “I am a skinny white boy who writes poems”, with the piece ending with an admission of shame that he is a skinny white boy, the “last thing” he wants to be. Rachel Farrell from UCD was charming and charismatic, serving swirling imagery and regretful melancholy, while Mags Purcell from Griffith College Dublin delivered a quick-fire piece on an unnamed antagonist who refuses to get his shit together in favour of using everyone around him. 

The judging panel on night featured All Ireland Slam Champion Nuala Leonard, co-founder of Boundless and Bare, Melanie O’ Donovan, and Shauna Byrne the founder and facilitator of the Intercollective Open Mic in Dublin. The two poets from Round 1 who advanced to the Final were  DCU’s Conall Molloy and Mark Ward from Aberytswyth University.

Round 2 commenced with 2017 IV Slam winner Phoebe Brigginshaw from Queen’s University Belfast, electric as the blue of her hair. Jamie Pearson was a surprise highlight, eviscerating his own speech impediments to hilarious effect (the shock was tangible when he said the spit is cheaper than lube), ending on a poignant “there is beauty in imperfections” note, kind of hackneyed but well-received by a crowd fully in the palm of his hand.

Many poems fell under three minutes and so the night swept along swiftly (Oscars? Grammys? Take note) and audience engagement never dipped. How could it when the excitable young attendees were getting lit off Tesco lager?

Phoebe Brigginshaw and Jamie Pearson joined Ward and Molloy in the final. Each was doing the absolute most and attaining a level of performance that made it extremely hard for the gathered revellers to choose a clear front-runner.

In joint 3rd place came Mark Ward and Conall Molloy, 2nd place was Jamie Pearson, and Phoebe Brigginshaw reclaimed her title as the Inter Varsity Slam Champion representing Queen’s University Belfast, taking home the trophy for a second time and was visibly shocked to be doing so.

Brigginshaw in the afterglow of her win said she was feeling a combination of disbelief: “I’m very pleased but also very surprised given the calibre of people I was going up against!”

As we sat down with the shiny trophy (“she’s incredible, she’s fab, she’s all I’ve ever wanted”), she said that her first time winning in 2017 was her “first time coming down to a Dublin… a Dublin anything, really”. She added that she “wasn’t expecting a double whammy like that”.

This is wild for someone who, as she says, was “dragged kicking and screaming” into performance poetry. “I think I started like every angsty teenager does when you’re fifteen and you’re writing in your notebook because you’re so sad,” she said.

“It’s garbage, but it’s a really good way of venting your emotions, and I started in poetry when I had a lot of emotions to vent. A friend of mine brought me along to Purely Poetry at the Crescent Arts Centre, and was like ‘yo, go up and say it because I think it sounds good’, and I got up and I shivered like a scared chihuahua the entire time. But I got up and did it, and I got a real rush from it, like … ‘oh my god, this is amazing’. I would never classify myself as an adrenaline junkie or anything like that, but for me getting up on stage and doing poetry is my version. Like, just get it in me. If I could bottle the feeling and sell it, I’d be a millionaire.”

“There are so many people who would seriously love poetry, and they’re just not in the right circles or meeting the right people, and I think that needs to change”

On the spoken word scene in Northern Ireland she says that it isn’t that competitive. “A lot of it revolves around the queer arts scene as well, so there’s a lot of queer performers organising their own nights. I’m organising one in May which I’m very excited about as well”, she said.

Her goal for the night is to “kind of encourage and help build spaces where a bunch of different people who do very different things can all come together. You’ve got one audience, that everybody has to impress, but there’s so many different ways to do it. I’m a really big advocate for said queer arts scene, because I find it to be the most accepting of what’s different. I’m a poet so I’m not really that different, but there’s really forward thinking drag acts and spoken word artists and musicians, dancers, there’s so many different aspects to art and I think all of those deserve to be celebrated to however much an extent they can possibly be”.

Brigginshaw expressed great excitement when it comes to the possibility of combining different mediums. “It’s very easy to get stuck in poetry as someone stuck in front of a mic and saying the things they think about and leaving the stage. I’m thinking of working with music as well, like having a musical accompaniment to poetry. Which is not in any way revolutionary, there’s plenty of people doing that already, but I think it’s definitely something that should become more mainstream. I really like synth for the way that you can make it sound, and how it can crescendo when you need it to, because it helps the emotions become that much stronger.”

Setting poems to a beat is something Brigginshaw is also interested in exploring, as she says that she’s not as fussed with rhyme as she is with rhythm, but she’s hesitant to compare what she does to rap. “It’s been something that’s been done so well and so much better. People from England like Dave the rapper is one, he’s really really good. I would class what he does as slightly not rap but spoken word with one hell of a musical accompaniment, and it just makes you feel everything that’s being said.”

It’s nice to know that the 2019 Intervarsity Slam champion has her vision set on a positive future full of possibility. As for her own future, she wants to keep competing. “Competitions are a really important part of being able to hone your own skills and put you in contact with other people with different styles”, she said. Brigingshaw also wants to knit the scene together more (“having some cross-pollination between Belfast and Dublin is so important!”) and entertains dreams of doing this full-time.

“Becoming a poet full-time would be…” she sighs, “incredible”.

“‘It’s difficult to find government agencies and stuff that appreciate what the arts scene does for people’”

“I don’t know how achievable of a dream it is. It’s difficult to find government agencies and stuff that appreciate what the arts scene does for people. Even just trying to get the word out to people, like ‘this is happening in your city, in your town, people are writing poetry and it is fantastic’. We should be giving more opportunities to people to get up and say their stuff, and we should be giving more help to people who want to start and don’t know how. There are so many people who would seriously love poetry, and they’re just not in the right circles or meeting the right people, and I think that needs to change. Especially funding as well, it’s so difficult to try and find basically anywhere that is willing to put up with a bunch of poets sitting and clicking away for a couple of hours. Poets bring passion, poets bring fire, poets bring excellent drink sales,” she laughed.

The competitors of the 2019 Inter Varsity Poetry Slam were:

Aoife Kearins (Trinity College Dublin)
Conall Molloy (Dublin City University)
Rachel Farrell (University College Dublin)
Mark Ward (Aberystwyth University)
Emma De Bellegarde (Trinity College Dublin)
Mags Purcell (Griffith College Dublin)

PHOEBE BRIGGINSHAW (Queen’s University Belfast)
Aoife Riach (Dublin City University)
Eimear Healy (University College Dublin)
Bart Breathnach (Queen’s University Belfast)
Jessica Spencer (Technical University Dublin)
Jamie Pearon (Trinity College Dublin)