Poetic Justice: Spoken Word takes Centre Stage at Jura Unbound

Find out how and where to get your word fix on these upcoming summer nights

Article by Alan Bett | 02 Jul 2015

Jura Unbound offers a banquet of poetry and spoken word this summer across four seperate events. These wonderful words will be delivered by those poets and programmers we are lucky enough to have on our Edinburgh doorstep, alongside nights featuring the finest wordsmiths from further afield, uniting under the banner of Babble On. We asked some principal practitioners of the form – poet and author Tim Clare, Neu! Reekie! helmsman Michael Pedersen, Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum (aka Rally & Broad), and Eddie Argos, lead singer of the band Art Brut – to enlighten us a little about perceptions of poetry and whether or not it’s connecting with an ever-broadening audience. We receive a vivid and varied set of answers.

The Skinny: Do you feel that there remains a pretentious stereotype of poetry and a misunderstanding of what’s currently happening on the scene?

Michael Pedersen: "Naw, aw cunt's writing poetry – good and bad – and rightly so. Spoken word is ever present in the stems of the country's top records; it's integrated into all the best festivals; and is throbbing and thriving under the banner of many regular salons, outfits and nights. It's an enviable time to be a poetry fan or indeed a poet."

Tim Clare: "Hmm... I think there's a stereotype of the public that they're hostile to poetry because they think it's pretentious. Actually most people are either indifferent – in the same way I don't have particularly strong views on regional motocross races or the best way to sheetrock a garage – or they think it's crap. The accusation isn't that the poet gives themselves airs – the accusation is that they're bad at what they do. And I think that second belief is not without foundation. Of course there are superb poets on page and stage who I admire immensely – but the bar to production is much lower than, say, live music, where you at least need to spend some time learning the guitar. The average quality across the poetry scene is several orders of magnitude lower than in live music. Anyone can join in. That is the scene's strength, and its terrible, terrible curse."

Eddie Argos: "Well, I'm not a poet and know very little about the scene so it’s hard to tell. I just did a spoken word tour (I tell a long story about forming a band) and most of my supports were poets. I think I'm very fortunate that the first spoken word performers I was introduced to were Luke Wright (programming and performing at Babble On) and John Osbourne. It did give me the misapprehension that a lot of poetry was that good though. About 40% of the poets I saw on my tour had seen a birds corpse in their front garden as a child, never got over it and wanted to bore on about it for 20 minutes in verse. So that pretentious stereotype is still out there alive and kicking."

Rachel McCrum: [lights rollup, pushes aside paint spattered mug of red wine, adjusts trilby] "I don’t know what you could possibly mean. All the poets I know are very young and very sexy."

Well, for any pretentions which still remain, how are you conspiring to burst these bubbles? 

MP: "With strong fingers and unclipped safety pins – pointy end first. Encouraging and catalysing cross-cultural collaborations, deliberating diversity, working with and alongside poets and performers of every ilk; being all ears when it comes to left-field or quite frankly bizarre suggestions. Plus being mobile and having an open door policy here at Neu! Reekie! HQ in Summerhall. The kettle's on."

EA: "I always think bubbles get burst when you see someone doing something and you think, 'If that bloke can do it, so can I.' The story I tell in my spoken word is very much about that. Maybe that will help."

Performance poetry seems to be on the ascendancy. Why do you think it's resonating with younger audiences?

Jenny Lindsay: "I started performing in 2002 and was at the time one of the youngest performers on the scene, and one of very few women writing specifically for performance. I’m glad that has changed, and as soon as I fix the time machine, I’m going to go back to 2002 and tell my former self not to worry. But it would be several layers of awful to have performed poetry seen as purely a young 'uns' game. The reason I adore it is that there’s no age limit, and while slams are most popular with younger audiences, there is more to the scene than slam."

TC: "People have been saying this for the last decade. Performance poetry is on the rise, performance poetry is the new rock and roll. The scene hasn't significantly expanded in that time. I mean, I think it resonates with younger audiences because they're people...? And they can appreciate it just like anyone else. Maybe that accessibility thing again. But I don't know. It feels weird and a bit futile to start talking about overall trends. I don't care about those and I don't know any poets who do either. You just turn up and do the best gig you can on the night. It doesn't matter if the scene is hitting some kind of cultural zenith or deep in a nadir of irrelevancy – it's about what happens in that room, in that moment."

EA: "Maybe with the internet it’s easier to find. When I was younger I liked things like John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke but had no one to talk to about it, and lots of it was impossible to track down. I spent years looking for John Cooper Clarke albums in second hand shops. Now you can download them in seconds."

MP: "Social media making it more accessible; performance poetry crossing over into hip hop; young pups feeling empowered and being willing to voice their points and open themselves up to ridicule and humiliation – or, less commonly, great praise. 16-year-olds voting in the referendum, finding their political acumen and injecting some creative juice into that."

Humour and rhythm seem so prevalent in performances – do you feel there is a crossover between comedy/performance poetry and music?

RM: "Yeah, definitely. There are also some brilliantly, beautifully irreverent events being run at the moment dedicated wholly to taking the piss out of poetry: Paula Varjack and Dan Simpson’s Never Mind The Fullstops and AntiSlam: Edinburgh’s Poets Against Humanity to name a few. Music wise – I’ve done a couple of collaborations with bands in the last year (The Last September, Biff Smith & Caroline Evens from A New International) and I love where it’s pushed my work, in terms of thinking about refrains, rhythm and also how the voice doesn’t need to compete with the music. Plus you get to stand on a stage with people with guitars and pretend you’re a rock star. Well, indie twat, anyway."

MP: "Yup. But then not always. People like candour and candour is funny. That goes for all the above fields of play."

Performers often love to shock as much as they delight. Do you enjoy provoking these reactions?

MP : "Yeah, of course, first and foremost myself and Kevin [Williamson, also of Neu! Reekie!] curate shows we'd like to attend and when you've a penchant for tempo changes – mixed in with a taste for the absurdist and the avant-garde – the floodgates are open for all sorts – that which coruscates and carousels come hither. With every serving of beauty comes a serving of sadness."

TC: "I don't set out to horrify anyone – it's a pretty easy reaction to get. I think, if we're asking to be paid for what we do as artists, we have to try to offer something of value to the audience – even if we're challenging them, it has to come from a place of mutual humanity and love."

There's seems a real camaraderie between performers across the nation, even in slams and battles. Who do you respect and admire?

MP: "Aye, poets are always shouting out to other poets, lauding and licking each other's lollies; more so in the performative world than the written arenas I think; but then maybe that's just my shrouded experience. Hmmm – Hollie McNish; Kate Tempest; Kei Miller; Dave Hook; Kevin Cadwallender; Colin McGuire; Irvine Welsh; Alan Bissett; Jenni Fagan; heck, there's too many. I'm ardently admiring them all."

TC: "I feel really lucky to be part of the spoken word scene. There are a lot of performers who I really like, and I've found almost everyone to be supportive, friendly, and interesting. I respect and admire most of my fellow poets, but I guess – fellow Homework residents aside – poets I often find myself talking about are people like Anna Freeman, Francesca Beard, David Jay, Rob Auton and Harry Baker. I prefer personality and insight over American slickness. But then, I would, because I couldn't do slick if my life depended on it."

EA: "I'm not really part of the poetry scene so I don't know. However I would like to go to slam poetry nights and pretend I've misunderstood the concept and challenge all the poets to a wrestling match."

JL: "I agree that the scene overall is really supportive. There are a lot of egos, and nowhere near enough money which does lend a certain competitive edge, but people are generally having to make opportunities for themselves as they go. It’s been a full five years since it was last viewed as ‘the new rock and roll’, so it’s not like there is a path of any kind in terms of what you are ‘supposed to do’ when you are a performance poet. We have to make it up as we go, create the path by walking it. So we have to be nice to each other."

Bingo, Beats and Bigmouths (as part of Babble On): 9pm, Fri 21 Aug

Fight for your Right (as part of Babble On): 9pm, Sat 22 Aug

Neu! Reekie!: 9pm, Thu 27 Aug

Rally & Broad: The Interpretation Edition: 9pm, Sun 30 Aug

All events take place in the Spiegeltent as part of Jura Unbound