Performance Poetry and Spoken Word in Scotland Part 1
Performance poetry, or spoken word, is an increasingly visible and important part of Scotland’s cultural life. Few of Scotland’s poets have reached quite such dizzy heights as Mercury Prize winner Kate Tempest or the increasingly ubiquitous George the Poet. Nevertheless, the art form’s profile continues to rise. The 2014 referendum sparked a new wave of political poetry and poetic activism, while crossovers with our best and brightest folk and indie artists, ongoing innovation mixing spoken word with more traditional theatre, and the rising popularity of Scottish hip-hop have all provided new and wider platforms for Scotland’s ever-increasing number of spoken word performers.
Those who have travelled farthest have often won the most acclaim. Poet, theatre-maker, podcaster and native Scot Ross Sutherland, named a Times ‘Literary Star’ in 2008, is much-admired. So is Sophia Walker, a British-American poet who got her start in the Edinburgh slam scene, and went on to be published by Burning Eye Books – she recently performed at the COP21 Climate Change talks in Paris. Northern Irish poet and promoter Rachel McCrum’s measured, lyrical work has seen her travel as far afield as South Africa, Haiti and Greece, working with poets in translation – this year she was appointed BBC Radio Scotland’s first ever poet-in-residence.
Portobello hedonist Michael Pedersen’s critically adored Neu Reekie, co-run with Rebel Inc. founder Kevin Williamson, has travelled to Tokyo, New York, and farther afield, with Pedersen now published by Polygon, and a well kent face at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. American-born Ryan Van Winkle, awarded honours by the Saltire Society this year for his work, has done much to bridge the perceived gap between page and stage. Orcadian Harry Giles has done some amazing, politically-charged work, often in Scots and other regional dialects, publishing a collection this year via Freight Books. Some of Scotland younger poets, like Swedish-born Agnes Török, are already bonafide YouTube sensations – her poem ‘Worthless’ went viral this year, racking up 200,000 views. Give it some more:
This is the tip of the iceberg. We have plenty of nascent ‘stars’ or stars in the making, and a busy, arguably thriving live scene, especially in the Central Belt cities. As this year’s Scottish Slam Champion, I wanted to explore some of my own preconceptions about this ‘scene’ – starting with the notion of a ‘scene’ itself. Is the concept limiting and exclusionary? Or is it inclusive, essential to the growth of the artform? I spoke to some of Scotland’s key promoters and poets, along with some newer voices, and conducted an anonymous survey of more than 50 performers.
The results were surprising, from demands for better representation of women, the working class, and people of colour, to eloquent and moving declarations of creative passion. In Part 2 of this feature, out later this week, we’ll explore how the poetry community tackles representation, accessibility, diversity and safety. In today’s article, we’ll look at development opportunities and funding, and try to take the pulse of the ‘scene.’
“Describing performance poetry events as a ‘scene ‘ is fairly risible,” wrote one anonymous respondent to my survey, pointing out that to a poet in the Western Isles or up in Orkney, a ‘scene’ is much harder to access, or even create. This is definitely a problem – the focus, both in terms of funding, event provision and infrastructure for spoken word, seems to be heavily based around Edinburgh and Glasgow. This is likely no different to other artforms, but the need for the centre to look outwards and embrace more regional diversity is keenly felt. Many of those surveyed lamented seeing “the same ten faces” at each event, reading “the same poems over and over again.”
Yet within the big cities, a picture emerges of a vibrant, busy, and welcoming space. 65% of those surveyed say they go to between one and four spoken word events a month, with 28% attending 5-10 events, and 8% attending 10 or more. “The scene is probably at a peak right now,” says Jim Monaghan, a Cumnock-born poet and key player in the revitalisation of Glasgow’s Govanhill Baths as a community-led performance space. However, he adds: “There is a danger to the current growth,” specifically a tendency towards a more generic style of delivery and writing, influenced by US and London-based slam poets. His comments are echoed by a great many of the anonymous survey respondents, some of whom feel that traditional poetry is being eclipsed by this new, and arguably imported form.
Calum Rodger, an academic at Glasgow University and promoter of the (currently resting) Verse Hearse nights, disagrees. “The best thing about the Scottish scene is its stylistic diversity,” he says. “There isn’t a kind of paradigmatic slam-style, although there are poets whose work is definitely of that category… Diversity has always been there, and now there’s just more of it – more poets, more punters, more styles.”
Kevin P. Gilday, host of the Rhyming Optional show on Subcity Radio, has taken shows to the Edinburgh and Canadian Fringe Festivals, and performed at Glastonbury last year. He thinks we are “moving in the right direction. It’s getting better every year,” he says, adding: “I already feel like an elder statesman.” Catherine Wilson, who helps co-promote events for Loud Poets, also sees the positives of a healthy scene. “I see more and more poets I know [having] more and more incredible experiences,” she says. “More of them tour, travel, do workshops or are published. We’ve come a long way in a short time.”
The Loud Poets, who have become incredibly popular for their high-energy performances, have certainly made a big impression in the last couple of years. Wilson, who also runs Edinburgh University’s popular open mic event SoapBox, identifies a potential issue with the Loud Poets’ focus on polish, memorisation and big performances: “People may not be getting involved […] because they’re somehow worried about not being ‘good enough,’” she worries. “This is never, ever the case. If you’ve written some words down or created something, you’re automatically in. The scene has to always offer a non-intimidating stage for newbies.”
For the most part, people emphasise the positives being part of the ‘scene’ – “I wanted to express myself, and this is the only way I’ve ever found to do it,” says one respondent. “It sets my spirit free.” Another writes that only poetry helps her “understand the world and my place in it.” Others speak of “the variety of the different poetry communities” which exist – pointing to a regional diversity which my survery perhaps failed to capture. My favourite anonymous response of the bunch comes from a poet who got into spoken word after being “arrested for swearing.” He eloquently sums up why many of us take to the stage, or attend these nights to listen: “Poetry gives a voice to the voiceless of society whose opinions are just as valid, if not more so, than people in the public eye.” For him, the scene is about “people coming together to share their unique perspectives with others, with brutal honesty.”
“Poetry gives a voice to the voiceless of society whose opinions are just as valid, if not more so, than people in the public eye.”
Mark McG, lead singer in The Girobabies and more recently a spoken word performer himself, praises the openness of the scene. He has had success mixing live music and performance poetry at his Overheard In The Westend events. “I have always tried to mix it up and spike people with a genre they didn’t know they liked,” he says. “It seems much more common now.” Jenny Lindsay, promoter of acclaimed live literature and music cabaret Rally & Broad alongside Rachel McCrum, agrees: “It’s become standard to see poetry live at loads of different events,” she says. “There are more nights, regular slams, more paid opportunities… people experimenting with theatre, visuals, collaborations – all of this is remarkably different to when I started.”
Lindsay and McCrum were both part of the SHIFT/ Collective this year, and each brought new one-hour poetry-based shows to the Edinburgh Fringe alongside myself, Harry Giles and other artists. She, and the other SHIFT/ members, are all committed to opening up new spaces for performance poetry in Scotland and beyond. As a promoter and performer, Lindsay’s contribution to the scene cannot be overstated. From her early days running the trailblazing Big Word, she has spent over a decade providing paying gigs for emerging Scottish poets, bands and musicians, and giants of the traditional page poetry scene alike; and she was a key voice in last year’s referendum campaign – still the only artist to have written a direct response to that period, with her terrific one-woman show ‘Ire & Salt.’
Throughout the interviews I conducted, there was a yearning for more dedicated spoken word venues; an even greater presence for spoken word at music festivals, in theatres, and in venues accessible to all; and perhaps most consistently, calls for funding for spoken word to be both increased, decomplexified, and made more public. There are those like Sam Small, who believe “you don’t need funding to make art.” Small, also a SHIFT/ alumni, runs Inn Deep Poetry, one of Glasgow’s most popular open mics, and publishes The High Flight ‘zine. Robin Cairns, a respected Glasgow poet who runs Last Monday at Rio, one of the city’s longest-running open mics, agrees: “Funding is fair enough if you can be arsed grovelling for it. I think it is important to do your events anyway, as being ushered indoors to the quiet rooms where these decisions are made is akin to having your bollocks lopped by smiling PR people.”
“Funding is fair enough if you can be arsed grovelling for it. I think it is important to do your events anyway, as being ushered indoors to the quiet rooms where these decisions are made is akin to having your bollocks lopped by smiling PR people.”
There are a large contingent who feel that funding portioned out by organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland are always awarded to the same names or organisations; and that not speaking “application-ese” makes funding difficult to obtain for those who are not experienced at application-writing, favouring a somewhat priveleged few. There is a counter-narrative – as one respondent puts it: “More people need to pursue funding to build a stronger sector.” Jenny Lindsay, who admits that “the thought of putting in a bid solo would make me want to gnaw off my own thumbs,” has had consistent success applying for funding, and has unarguably used it to pay performers, and widen opportunity for all. Others I spoke to who had applied successfully suggested that many who perceived funding to be unobtainable had simply never applied for it. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is also up for debate.
Jim Monaghan is “cynical about government-sponsored rock ‘n’ roll,”as he puts it, but suggests as an alternative that “all artists should be able to declare [themselves] as an artist, and keep the equaivalent of benefits to exist on, if they want.” Promoter of the Freak Circus events in Edinburgh, and co-editor of the newly-minted ‘zine of the same name, Emily Elver advocates crowdfunding, and is hopeful that her publishing activities can bring in some income. I myself have made a small profit selling books, CDs and merchandise via Bandcamp and BigCartel. There is a spirit of entrepeneurship and independence within the scene, which is perhaps preferable to a community composed almost entirely of state-funded practitioners.
Asked about development opportunities, one respondent suggested the idea of a “permanent Scottish poetry showcase at Edinburgh Fringe,” something to perhaps rival the dominance of talented, but mostly England-based performers who flood Edinburgh each August as part of Peter Buckley-Hill’s Free Fringe. As my experiences with SHIFT/ show, carving out new spaces for paid shows featuring spoken word is possible, and potentially viable – and it certainly seems like no-one is going to do the hard work on our behalf. Indeed, many Scottish performers, including myself, got their break and did their first shows at PBH – so engagement with existing opportunities is also key.
As for whether Scotland will ever produce a star with the reach and appeal of Kate Tempest, that remains to be seen. “I believe that only individuals can go mainstream, the scene as a whole cannot,” says Robin Cairns. “Why? Because there is no room for the quirky and plain awkward side of our movement on radio and TV. And those mediums are not the slightest bit interested in open-access to microphones for all. We are. In five years I hope we still offer five minute spots to the best and worst poets around… A few Scots poets have the capability to go far. I imagine this will happen, despite the fickle wattage of the BBC [only] being turned on us every now and then.” Robin’s words perfectly characterise the spirit of the Scottish scene we call home – independent, defiant, perhaps sometimes a little cheeky with it… and confident of our own abilities.
In Part 2, we’ll dig deeper into the development opportunities available for spoken word artists as students, teachers, and published writers. We’ll look at touring, and engagement with UK-wide and worldwide networks. We’ll take a look beyond poetry, at some of Scotland’s other spoken word traditions, covering ‘live literature’ and storytelling. We’ll tackle diversity in Scottish spoken word, or the perceived lack of it, and find out whether Scottish poets believe their scene is a safe space. Join us in a few days!