Slam Dunk - The Big Word

In relief to this entertainment machine of processed meets, The Big Word is back to throw a spanner in the works

Feature by Alec McLeod | 12 Nov 2006
Poetry is yesterday's news. For most of us, our first introduction to it was in its written form at school, freeze-dried in compulsory textbooks. Being then forced to hear it spoken by an equally forced peer, the ultimate experience was like death microwaved. Reading, in public anyway, felt as dull as the town that invented it.

It is perhaps this miseducation that has left the spoken word hardly heard on the live scene, which appears driven by music and stand-up promoters - leaving poetry for dust. However, in relief to this entertainment machine of processed meets, The Big Word is back to throw a spanner in the works. Held beneath the City Café, compere Jenny Lindsay gathers a selection of speakers of varying experience, range and nationality and, opting out of the 'fight night' line-up system of ascending importance used by bands and comics, the acts are less pressured and the atmosphere definitely more laid-back.

This was the first time I had been to such a night and I was eager to note the reaction of the audience during proceedings. My first observation was the sheer number of folk filling the basement, far more than I'd expected for what I'd considered to be a 'recital'. In fact, I had already decided that 'The Big Word' was literally 'recital', an unspoken word banned like 'Macbeth' for fear of cursing the whole event (I've only written it, so don't panic). Whether that is the case or not, I quickly realised the stale images such a word conjured were unfounded and, free from any frame of reference, myself and the rest of the audience were left more receptive to whatever may be thrown at us. The only pre-conceived notions justified were the poems the performers brought with them, and with such a wide remit these ranged from the deeply personal to readings of classics, from (yes) music to comedy, and from solo to group performances, sometimes a few at once.

Jenny Lindsay's intimate works established a freedom of expression for the other acts to feel comfortable in, and worked as encouragement to the nervous first-timers. On the night I went, others included Mark Rafferty, a funny folker in the vein of early Connolly who reworked classic tunes to his lyrics on giros and Haddows; Richard Medrington, who mixed his own writing with expert telling of W.H. Auden and A.A. Milne poems; and Canadians Brendan McLeod and Barbara Adler, currently touring as part of The Fugitives, a collective named after the American poetry group of the '20s. Performing both separately and together, with and without music, McLeod and Adler were the standouts of the night, riffing at high speed to the point where you were hanging on for dear life. McLeod's song about humanity managed to be funny, grim and informative, while the same can be said of Barbara's tale of genital crabs, although that might be best left to her.

In the end the whole night felt like a more direct experience than other gigs, more so perhaps than theatre. Here were people telling their lives as they had experienced them, unlimited by the trends, fads, styles or methods we become trained to expect from the other forms of live entertainment. Rather than a year-rehearsed rehash of a year-old cliché, this was a freshly-heated bowl of poetic enjoyment.