Poets Assemble: New Scottish poetry collective SHIFT/

We update you on the exciting new Scottish spoken word collective SHIFT/; a gang of seven performing an individual show for each night of the week during the Edinburgh Fringe this August

Preview by Alan Bett | 10 Jul 2015

“Writing and performing your own solo show is approximately the spoken word equivalent of a writer getting a new book out,” says Rachel McCrum, poetry performer, curator and one half of duo Rally & Broad. “I knew that a number of Scotland based spoken word artists were, or might be, feeling the same – that it was time for a challenge, for the next stage of development for spoken word.” And so, seven like-minded performers gathered to form a collective: “Working as a collective means that we communally share the workload and financial risk, promote it together, and support one another artistically, emotionally, alcoholically in the endeavour.”

This is the background to SHIFT/, a Wu-Tang of Scottish spoken word, if you will. That's not just a weak comparison to their collective ideology – more than one SHIFT/ performer will mix rap in with poetry and spoken word. Artistic borders are precarious here anyway, and cultural plates happily collide. But to take all lyricism out of the language and boil it down to its base: SHIFT/ are a hugely exciting combination of spoken word artists, gathered by founders Rachel McCrum and Bram Gieben, running a selection of shows throughout the Fringe during August at Edinburgh’s Summerhall. Seven performers, one for each night of the week, each with their very own show.

“The spoken word community in Scotland is so strong,” Rachel continues. “What better way to reflect all those relationships than bringing a lot of artists together? So, Bram and I hatched a plan... We knew that we wanted a week's worth of shows, so were limited to seven artists… the point was to give the artists a chance to do a number of shows over the Fringe and the structure of a different artist each night of the week made sense.”

So, to those seven artists; a diverse group and a showcase of Scottish spoken word at this moment in time. There is Rachel of course, and her Rally & Broad comrade Jenny Lindsay. Then there's co-founder, 2015 Scottish Slam champ Bram Gieben, who battled our nation's corner at the Coupe du Monde in Paris, finishing in the top 12. Sam Small, while the youngest of the collective, has in the space of only a couple of years set up his own night in Glasgow, curated a popular zine and performance night The High Flight, and supported current performance poetry scene-queen Kate Tempest. Completing the gang of seven are Edwin Morgan Award shortlister Harry Giles, multidisciplinarian Ali Maloney and accomplished performer Rachel Amey.

This collective format and their subsequent run of events may appear as something new to the scene but is simply one further step forward for Jenny Lindsay: “I had mates telling me to leave Scotland for years. But that was never an option. If it doesn’t exist? Build it. That’s was the aim with (previous projects) Big Word and Is This Poetry?, with Rally & Broad, and now with SHIFT/. The opportunity was there; Rachel and Bram came up with this great idea for realising it; we all came together to build it.”

“It's such a vibrant end of the theatre scene, the one-person, one-hour show,” Gieben suggests of the format. “It feels very fresh and open. You can try anything. That's something I think all of the SHIFT/ collective have in common – a desire to push the boundaries of a poetry performance, to do something ambitious and different with it.”

For Bram, the boundary to be pushed in his Sunday night multimedia show is a political one. “A starting point for debate,” he suggests, especially after so many Scottish poets found their political voice during last year’s referendum. “A poem can challenge you, make you examine your own thinking. In some of my writing, I try and occupy moral or psychological positions outside my own – these poems are thought experiments. Test patterns of extreme states of mind, or points of view.”

Working backwards through the week, Saturdays will see Ali Maloney combine “spoken word and rap with physical theatre, bouffon (a mischievous, Bible-black relation to clowning), flood myth, Lovecraftian monsters, Forteana and Dadaistic political satire. Ostensibly a long-form poem, HYDRONOMICON is the culmination of much experimentation with spoken word and physical theatre, it’s a beautiful and terrifying roller-coaster." Maloney adds: "You will get wet” – we'll take that as both a threat and promise.

On Fridays, Harry Giles – described by the always tolerant Daily Mail as ‘vile’ – performs Drone, a spoken word and sound art performance about remote technology and anxiety. Telling the fragmented story of a military drone’s lives and fears, Drone "sees the unmanned aerial vehicle as the technology of a neurotic century, surveilled and surveilling, a barely agential subject of astonishing violence, asking how anxious subjects can continue live as part of systems of ecological and human destruction."

For Rachel Amey, her 45-minute Thursday shows focus on people, myth, alchemy, muscle, spirit and sound.  She continues: “Spoken word – it means very little really, which then means you can do what you want. Maybe that will end up being a set of poems. But it will have been an interesting journey getting there… It isn’t about choosing particular content or style, it is creating work that is honest.”

As Rally & Broad, Rachel and Jenny need little introduction on the Scottish spoken word scene. Those in the know will need little encouragement to check out their solo SHIFT/ shows on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – Jenny’s part memoir, part fiction Ire & Salt and Rachel’s Do Not Alight Here Again, featuring crossings, sailing, borders, salt, appetite, fathers, women, colonialism, home, grief.

On Mondays Sam Small begins the SHIFT/ week by asking, ‘Is love just another drug? What happens to love poems when you write them on speed, acid, ketamine or a variety of other chemicals?' He provides an answer to these questions so you don’t have to.

Each night is an opportunity to catch one of Scotland’s top spoken word performers alone on a stage but part of something bigger. Pick and choose those which appeal most, or simply go for a seven-day SHIFT/.

Performances will be at Summerhall in the Cairns Lecture Theatre, with tickets available from The Fringe and Summerhall websites. Dates: 5, 7-28 August, at 21.30. Price: £6 (3 for preview) http://summerhall.co.uk