In his apartment and office on Wenceslas Square, I spoke with the most prominent Czech poetry slammer known under his artist name, Anatol Svahilec. The first Czech to make a living from slam poetry, a genre of spoken word where the judges are randomly picked from the audience. Along with another slammer, he also performed in front of an audience on Letná in 2019, the biggest demonstration in the country since 1989.

Audiences get captivated by his intricate texts or energetic performances. Through his slams, he also comments on major events like the war in Ukraine or other issues as well as everyday topics, usually with humor and various links to historical figures. He plays with words, is very eccentric, and his heart beats for slam, maybe even like one.

Throughout the interview with the authentic and amiable face of the Czech slam scene, we discuss the fundamental question of slam poetry. Is it more about the show or the text? And how do poetry and competitiveness go hand in hand? As the first Czech slammer to represent Czechia in the European championships, he talks about the importance of traveling with your art, the crucial aspect of humor in the Czech slam scene compared with the international one, and his ambition to bring poetry slam to all small Czech towns.

I could see the contrast between the intensity of the energy while he performs his slams compared with the relaxed atmosphere during our conversation. He also says he’s an incurable city rat and explains the meaning behind his name.

After performing his slam Metro-nom, which describes the environment of the Prague metro...

You performed this slam in Czech in New York and Hungary. How come you don't have to have English slams when performing abroad? And how does it work if you're performing it in Czech?

When a slammer is as a guest somewhere, the people are pretty much interested in slam poetry, which is said and performed in their native language. So the audience wants it this way. And I have never really been able to write and perform texts in English properly. So, when I performed that precise text in New York at a very tiny open mic event and then in Hungary, I just made those short stops with calm explanations (in English) of what was going on. But the text is very physical, and the rhythm is trying to simulate the sound of moving stairs, so it was basically some kind of a comedy line which I was trying to follow.

But you were the first Czech slammer to represent Czechia in the European championships. How does the audience then understand what you're saying if you're saying it in Czech?

During those events, there are subtitles used behind performers. It’s basically just prepared in PowerPoint, and there is that very important status of the person who is able to understand both Czech and English. That person then has to click at the right moment to move the subtitles in the right way to follow the performing person. It works similarly as in theater that is not played in the native language of the audience.

To be very honest, it's not something that could attract a massive international audience, but still, the audience that is interested is really very cool as well as international meetings of slammers. I think that's the coolest thing about it that you are meeting people who are doing this kind of art in other countries. Those international slam friendships, and also traveling because of slamming are really cool stuff because slam poetry is really spread all around the world, over all the continents except for Antarctica.

And just a fun fact: slam poetry is actually the Czech way to say it. All around the world, it's called poetry slam, but in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, it’s called slam poetry.

From some of the performances I've seen live or on YouTube, sometimes it's very intense, almost like a show, and other times, although with emotion, you read the texts out. Is it more about the show or the text?

I think that's one of the fundamental questions. The founding father of the Czech slam poetry scene, Jaromír Konečný, who lives, performs, and creates in Germany because he left Czechoslovakia in the 80s, always said that it's like 90% of performance and 10% of text. I think that's very cruel and sharp. From my experience on stage, it's like 70 to 30. It is much more about the performance. And if you pull off a really good performance, you could, for example, win the evening because it's a competitive genre and the jury is chosen from the audience. You could more likely win with just the performance rather than with a good text but a weak performance.

And how do poetry and competitiveness go hand in hand? In an interview, you once said that competitiveness is an integral part of poetry slam.

It works for the slam poetry universe. There is competition for the points. And bigger events, considered proper slam poetry nights, are with a jury because it's fundamentally based on the competition to avoid, let's say, that "high level of art" which could be included in some poetry readings or poetry nights. But it's not like Formula One racing. It's the way of competition that I like, and I'm really not a very competitive person. I think I've never been.

But I think that this kind of competition really helps performers create new stuff, not to beat the others but to surprise the other colleagues with their new stuff and to get a laugh or some other kind of emotion out of them. I think that the other poetry slam performers are the best audience for the authors. And there is an absolute minimum of bad emotions floating around. It's just not that kind of universe.

You are a Czech poetry slam champion for the year 2014. The rules though state that you cannot participate anymore once you've won the title twice. Do you still compete in the Czech championships?

No, no.

Why not?

I don't, but not just because of that. It’s because my results are a little sad. As you said, I won in 2014, then I was second in 2015, third in 2016, eighth in 2017, and in 2018 I thought, "OK, I think I’ve had enough," and then I was the host in 2019. And to be super honest, it could be a fake reason, but for that specific competition, for the national champion, the time limit for your text is 3 minutes. Three ten is the maximum time you can take, and if you go over that limit, points are deducted from your numbers. And I realized I just have to be long. I just have to create texts without that limit. Because when I got under the limit, I just felt like something was still missing. So I decided not to do it anymore.

And since I slam quite a lot and I'm also the organizer of some events, I have a lot of friends who are participating in the national competition. So, when I was the host in 2019, there was maybe only one performer that I hadn’t known before that event. And I thought maybe I could make it pleasant for those people—my colleagues and also friends of mine. I think that would be my line. I would like to focus on hosting the national championships if I would be invited.

But you’re a big promoter of slam poetry in the Czech Republic, and your ambition is to bring poetry slam to all small Czech towns. How has that been going, and how do people react to it?

It's going pretty well, I guess. With that ambition, it's not like we have some kind of schedule, and we really have to visit every single town. But I think it's pretty important to travel with your art if possible. And to travel with poetry slam is super easy because you don’t really need more than a microphone and some sound boxes. And if the space is cozy enough, it's really possible to do it without it. So, we are trying to use that advantage as much as we can, and it works pretty well.

We have some unofficial numbers where we are trying to count in how many cities each performer has performed, and I think in my list there are something a bit over 200 cities and villages. So yeah, we are doing pretty well, and I think there is still much to explore in that way, with performing and offering poetry slam to new audiences.

Since it's said that it is very Czech getting serious things across into people’s heads through humor. I feel like you're also very socially or politically active through your slams. What are the things that you're advocating for or slamming about currently? Or is it more about getting humor out there and getting emotions out of people, a laugh or a teardrop?

To be super honest, I really don't feel like my main topic in slams is politics or some kind of social or other problems of society. It's absolutely not like that. I think I would go with the other explanation. I'm basically a comedian, and I think I just cannot hide it. That's the thing I'm enjoying the most. But on the other hand, when I'm on stage I think it's a kind of duty of mine to bring some kind of a common problem on stage, and to have a laugh about it or to criticize it a bit somehow. I'm trying but I think it's still not my main line. Because I think my strategy is to let's say inject those topics in that cake of humor, and to offer that to the untouched audience for the first time. I let them bite it and they eat a bit of that topic and that idea of mine with that. But it's still a minority of my work. I’m trying hard to make it the other way but I might not be successful.

As you've also performed in Canada, Ghana, Romania, and other European countries. How would you compare the Czech slam scene with the international one?

Those visits were just really tiny experiences because we really have to consider that the phenomenon of poetry slam or slam poetry is really practiced even in all parts of Africa, South and of course North America, the cradle of the genre - in the 80s, Mark Smith and his gang in New York. Speaking of some common characteristics, a very important line in Czech slam was, is, and I think will be humor, for sure. I think it's a bit similar to some parts of the German scene. Especially if you compare it with poetry slam scenes in North America, Great Britain, France, Italy, or western Europe in general, it's much more about comedy and less about poetry, I would say.

On the other hand, the amount of people coming to see it is pretty great, and I think some of those scenes from western Europe could be proud of us from that point of view. In general, I think slam poetry in the Czech Republic is a bit lighter kind of let's say, entertainment if we are comparing it with those events in western Europe.

Each slammer usually performs under an artistic name. Yours is Anatol Svahilec. Could you tell the story behind it?

I think the story is pretty boring. The first time I used it was when I was in grammar school. We took a school trip to Chateau Lány, the seat of the president, and I was given a task to write some kind of a report to be published on the website of the school. I agreed but wanted to write it under a pseudonym because I wanted to do it in a funny and satiric matter somehow. They allowed it, and I used Anatol Svahilec, which was its first usage.

It’s a combination of a name of an old Russian plane from World War I and then some Czech animated fairy tale. That’s not very important. But then, when I started to do slam in Pilsen in 2014, it was pretty common for performers to use some kind of slam name, so I went with Anatol Svahilec. Because I also contributed under that name to a school magazine, and I liked it. Then in 2014, I won the championship, so that name really stuck to me, especially since 2015. And I got used to it.

It also helps me with my slam stuff. I mean, I'm not ashamed of my real name, which is Václav Šindelář, but something in my head, like really back there, tells me that it's some kind of advantage to be Anatol Svahilec. People remember Anatol but not Václav, so it helps me somehow.

Your flat and workspace is on Wenceslas square, a very famed place in Prague. And you're known for enjoying this part of Prague.

Yeah, it's like that. It's some kind of duality of my living. I travel a lot, and I could be like half of the week out of Prague. And then, when I'm in Prague, I really enjoy being, and want to be here in the center. I'm an incurable city rat. I just like city centers and to have people around and watch them from upstairs. Maybe it's a bit of a cliche, but I'm just enjoying the city vibe, and Wenceslas square is the citiest part in Prague.

Then, I'm also trying to "break" the idea most people in the Czech Republic have of it being a really dirty place, unsuitable for living and for doing things like meeting and spending free time there. I think it's fine; it's just a really busy square in the center. And on the other hand, it's close to a mirror, some kind of memorial of at least the last 200 years of Czech history. So, yeah, that's my main Prague hood and I'm a proud citizen.