Rhyme and Reasons: Poetry picks for Edinburgh Festival

Looking through the 2015 Festival line-up – including a Skinny sponsored Kate Tempest event – 2015 StAnza Poet in Residence Clare Mulley ponders that elusive theoretical point on the arts spectrum between 'poetry' and what is now known as 'spoken word'

Article by Clare Mulley | 30 Jul 2015

Poetry and spoken word. Both involve self-expression. Both involve word artistry. Some claim they are the same thing, and that spoken word is simply one of many slices of the poetry pie – one that you can choose to sample or not, as you fancy. Others are more defensive, and refer to spoken word as a separate, reactionary art form, somewhere between rap and ‘page poetry’. Never, ever call them poets. They are spoken word artists.

In all honesty, I don’t actually know where I stand in terms of labelling. Comparing page poetry to spoken word seems a bit like comparing a gigantic painting to a fireworks display – both have vivid colour and inspire emotion, even though one is about the effects hitting the senses in a moment, and the other is something you stand back from and digest more slowly. Either way, surely this is as much to do with an audience’s preferred method of consumption as what a verse contains or does? You can’t really prove that either way is superior, or that their overall functions as artworks are that far apart. I’m not sure the difference is enough to justify two completely separate entities, and am inclined to go for the pie slice metaphor. Or maybe that’s just because I’m greedy. Anyway, regardless of the stance you might take, one thing is certain – as with painting and pyrotechnics, both are extremely hard to do well. The charm of Edinburgh International Book Festival is that, whatever differences these poetic factions might usually have, the focus on all things staged and experimental allows them to work side by side in a way that wouldn’t always happen at your average poetic shindig.

Naturally, for us, one of the most anticipated acts is the main young name in spoken word at the moment: Kate Tempest. Now there’s an artist who really makes you think hard about boundaries and their relevance – is she a poet? Is she spoken word? Is she rap? Probably not quite any or all three. Moreover, she wouldn’t thank you for trying to pigeonhole her. I had, as yet, only heard of Kate when I first saw her perform a couple of years ago, and by that time she already had the Ted Hughes Award under her belt, and was a favourite to win the Mercury Prize.

The discovery happened at around 2am, during a post-party conversation with a friend. We had drifted into talking very earnestly and slightly soggily about our favourite poetry (as can only happen that late and in that woozled frame of mind). "Are you into Kate Tempest?" she asked. The name rang a bell, I mumbled. YouTube duly opened up, we settled down to watch one of her live performances. I have to say I reeled back at first. I am much more used to hearing poems or reading them as part of a more subdued whole, so the sheer force and speed of the voice I was confronted with was hard to absorb. It was a bit like being peppered with bits of lead shot wrapped in chilli flakes, and my poor, wrung-out brain protested.

But the more I heard from her over that year, the harder it was to look away. Her clarity and style have a raw beauty all of their own, and she has brought the classics to a whole new level with her interpretations – great news for the myriad of students having to trudge through dusty school syllabuses. Besides, there is something about her that is wonderfully hypnotic and unadorned. Even when plumbing the darkest depths, her face remains open, her eyes enquiring, beseeching, not staring down her audience. Rather than someone rapping on tough subjects for the sake of appearing tough – and sadly there are a lot of those around – you get the feeling that Kate is simply a force of nature contained within a very unassuming vessel.

"Like being peppered with bits of lead shot wrapped in chilli flakes" - Clare Mulley on Kate Tempest

When you see her being interviewed, this feeling is confirmed; she smiles widely, laughs often and answers the questions put to her without arrogance, false modesty or waffle. That chaos of passion for wordplay onstage is clearly what makes her, and far from contriving its existence, her task is to control its exit in the best way she can. She certainly seems to be doing a great job so far. Kate’s Edinburgh International Book Festival interview with Don Paterson, her publisher, should be a very worthwhile watch; I’ve heard Don read and lecture many times, and he is also a delight to hear – similarly unassuming, but more like still waters. An interesting mix of elements.

The wider Festival will see many acts returning after previous successes; following her five-star show in 2014, the ballsy Hannah Chutzpah is back with Asking Nicely, a lyrical lecture on politeness and consent. Bouncily conversational in style, and with plenty of laughs, you’ll feel like you’re sitting having a cuppa in a friend’s kitchen. Then there’s Ben Fagan, a rather charming Kiwi whose poem in response to Facebook’s insipid ‘What’s on your mind?’ never fails to get giggles; he has already done a TED talk, and his show Under the Table promises a down-to-earth, relaxed vibe. Another TED alumnus, Harry Baker, brings you The Sunshine Kid – the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion  and with two previous five-star shows to his name, he has made charming geek-wit an art form in itself, and is the only poet I ever have heard riff on maths. The Glummer Twins – who started out thirty years ago with the Circus of Poets performance group – are back too, and as hilarious as ever.

For a slightly grittier feel, try Luke Wright, the Stay-At-Home Dandy, a plain-spoken word artist whose poignant stories of urban life also earned him rave reviews last year, or Jemima Foxtrot, who fuses word and song to explore real-life issues. The irreverent Porky the Poet (alias comedian Phill Jupitus) will also be doing a slot, and children will adore Martin Kiszko, the UK’s Green Poet, whose actions rival even his wacky verses. The mixed shows always pull in a good crowd, too, and there are loads to choose from. The Loud Poets are showcasing Scotland’s best slammers, and Spoken Word Sundays will see the Glasgow Women’s Library and The Writing Mums coming together. For a rouser, be sure to check out the misleadingly-named Poetry Can F*ck Off (i.e. stir people up), a show based on the words of figures like Jim Morrison, William Blake and Martin Luther King.

Alongside newer artists, many works we are used to reading on the page are also being brought to life with commentary, drama and music. Awhile with Seamus Heaney and Dylan’s Daughter provide a fresh look at the works of the two greats through their own eyes and the eyes of those they knew, while Patti Smith’s punk tribute to the works of Ginsberg, complete with visuals and accompaniment by Philip Glass, is certain to be popular with those of an edgier persuasion. Both our Makar and Poet Laureate are also making an appearance, and, interestingly, both are performing with live musical accompaniment to add an extra dimension to the page. Carol Ann Duffy will be adding more spice to famously sensuous works like The World’s Wife and The Bees with 500 years' worth of instrumental interlude by John Sampson (please tell me a sackbut is involved somewhere), while Liz Lochhead will be pairing her naturally warm tones with snatches of soul from saxophonist Steve Kettley, to create the musical and poetic equivalent of a wake-up stretch on a sunny morning lie-in. Gorgeous.

All of these poetry events can be found on The Fringe and Edinburgh International Book Festival websites Kate Tempest with Don Paterson is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 Aug at 8.15pm http://www.edbookfest.co.uk