Neu! Reekie! Waiting for the ink to dry

Edinburgh based poetry-music-animation curators Neu! Reekie! are publishing their first physical book. The Skinny catches up with them over a couple of weeks as they work towards its launch

Feature by Angus Sutherland | 06 Apr 2015

Poetry is a 'gateway drug' that’ll spirit you away from twenty-first century digital fluff, from feeds and streams and the rest, back to more substantive cultural forms. Or so say Neu! Reekie!’s co-founders, Kevin Williamson and Michael Pederson. Though when The Skinny first catches up with the pair, they’re focused on drugs of a more familiar, less legal sort, shifting old copies of Williamson’s Drugs and the Party Line, published on hemp paper through his Rebel Inc. imprint back in 1997. The Jehovah’s Witnesses that he offers a freebie to are cagey. The merits or demerits of the so called ‘war on drugs’ aren’t quite what they’d geared up for on a Thursday afternoon outside Edinburgh Waverley Station. The homeward bound commuters are paying neither camp much heed.

But Williamson and Pedersen are typically on less ideological ground in their work with NR. Their poetry-music-animation performance project aims to tap into something deeper, or more transcendent, or something that feels at a careful remove in one way or another. It’s odd how poetry, in particular, manages to do that, to take the same words that are charged with political or commercial purpose, to cleanse them and to cast them totally anew. Williamson’s taken political positions before, of course – ones that have incurred significant backlash – but NR is about getting shot of ideologies and their pedallers. Instead it’s about pedalling a form. It’s elevating poetry above the role of the arts’ “gimpy little brother,” as Pedersen has it.

So, accordingly, NR isn’t working as some cult macheteing out into the wilds to start a colony. “We are gonna fight a battle for poetry,” says Williamson. “Stop. Step out. Your life is not too busy for poetry.” And there’s a new, very tangible weapon being deployed in his and Pedersen’s fight. From May of this year, Neu! Reekie!, with the help of Edinburgh based publishers Birlinn, will look to encourage printed poetry to those who have the need for it, though they may not have fully realised that need just yet. They’re releasing an anthology of (mostly) NR contributors’ work: #UntitledOne. To access the wary, there’s a dual enticement being worked. Alongside big name poets like Liz Lochead, there’s crossover writers like Aidan Moffat and Scott Hutchison and less familiar names, in these parts at least, like Kapka Kassabova. Then there’s a double album of supplementary sounds from some of NR’s most impressive musical collaborators, from Young Fathers to The Sexual Objects. For Pedersen, “the dream is for people to take this physical poetry book on their holidays to Majorca.”

The younger half of the NR pair often talks with such fuck-laden ebullience, it’s difficult to separate his realistic ambitions for the project from jokes and giddy dreams. This obscurity holds until Williamson, the elder half, wonders whether Neu! Reekie! “will be gone in a year, two years. Nothing lasts forever.” Pedersen looks momentarily crestfallen, which is as much a vindication of their efforts as anything. There’s an emotional investment here. And it’s the same for Williamson, in spite of his questions as regards NR’s longevity. “You’re hoping that art’s been promoted in an honest way and with enthusiasm. These are poems that we are enthusiastic about and want our mates to read. It’s the litmus test for everything I did at Rebel Inc. Would I give it to someone that only gives me one shot at a recommendation? Because that’s all you get. That is the litmus test. Would you give it to your mates? I don’t think that’s used by a lot of publishers because there’s all sorts of other considerations. Everyone knows someone who got them into literature. And we want to be ambitious enough to play that role.”

“We are gonna fight a battle for poetry. Stop. Step out. Your life is not too busy for poetry” – Kevin Williamson

Northern Ireland-reared poet Miriam Gamble, one of the newer guard to populate Untitled’s pages, is cautious of hailing a “new dawn” or some “hyper excellent time” for poetry. The form is and always was latent. Pedersen and Williamson would doubtless agree. It’s “always made and always made available” to those willing to seek it out, says Gamble. Nevertheless she’s keen to celebrate the pair’s “bold, brave” approach, their willingness to to bring together different sorts of poetry and people.

Ambition is nary in short supply at NR’s Summerhall HQ, just off Edinburgh’s Meadows. And why parse realism from dreams when things are going so well? We, The Skinny and NR, play with the idea of international franchise opportunities. The pair are off to Japan soon for some poetry-animation workshops, so the notion is not implausible. They’re hesitant, though. It might work, but only if Pedersen and Williamson maintain strict editorial control (albeit remote control). Because though Neu! Reekie! is a sum of parts effort, it’s rigorously curated. Each night is tailored to certain voices within a certain place, envisioned within a certain theme. Those who’ve been to an NR event know that they’re not simple mic and lights affairs. No hope of streaming or uploading for posterity. You’re there and you’re in it or you’re elsewhere and you’re out of it.

#UntitledOne doesn’t deviate from that meticulous NR ethos. Again there’s the sense of being rooted in somewhere or something physical and of its time, an artifact. NR’s latest iteration depends unabashedly on the notion of book as “fetish object” – Williamson’s words – and the end product looks worthy of that vision. Frequent collaborator Gerry Cambridge has designed and typeset the work beautifully. (Don’t expect an e-reader copy, though if you’ve got a Kindle and you smash it at an NR night, your ticket’s on the house.) For the publication’s first 500 copies, the audio will come loaded on a USB necklace. So even where they’re going digital, the pair are invested in something more lasting.

Pedersen and Williamson, and the latter especially, bristle at the idea that Neu! Reekie! is cool. “Cool’s ephemeral. Poetry should be more ambitious than that,” says Williamson. The pair want to access a diversity of poets – a range of styles, ages, points in their career – and an audience to match. “We haven’t just got the young hipster poets. We’ve got in a lot of old guys and women. I think even poetry boffins will think, ‘fuck, you’ve done a lot more than I expected.'”

In #UntitledOne Neu!Reekie! are pushing harder than ever for an art that’s solid and substantial. Something that’ll show a bit of staying power. Still, in a saturated cultural environment, there’s a need to package wisely, or to “box clever,” as Williamson puts it. The more you see of he and Pedersen’s curatorial work, the more it seems like theirs is the toughest, smartest show in town.

More from The Skinny:

neu! reekie!'s michael pedersen explains himself

landscapes lost: words with karin altenberg

#UntitledOne is published by Neu! Reekie! and Polygon / Birlinn It will be launched on 1 May at Edinburgh's La Belle Angele