Festival review: Push the Boat Out, Summerhall, Edinburgh

A fresh, lively event in which poets were invited to respond to a map of Scotland’s mythical creatures epitomised everything that’s right about the Push The Boat Out festival’s approach to poetry, writes Susan Mansfield

Push the Boat Out, Summerhall, Edinburgh ****

Now in its second year, Edinburgh’s International Poetry Festival is establishing its identity as a celebration of “contemporary” poetry in all its guises. Taking its title from a line by Edwin Morgan, Push The Boat Out pays tribute to Scotland’s strong poetry heritage, but draws heavily on the newer traditions of spoken word, rap and hip-hop, defying genres and challenging boundaries.

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All this was apparent at the opening night performance on Friday, which saw a young crowd pack Summerhall’s Dissection Room. The evening began with strong sets by Iona Lee and British-Cypriot poet Anthony Anaxagorou, both of whom began their careers as slam champions and have since moved into writing and publishing. Anaxagorou read from his new, hot-off-the-press collection Heritage Aesthetics which touches on key contemporary themes from post-colonial experience to cancel culture.

Anthony Anaxagorou
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Next up was Stuart Murdoch, founder member of the band Belle & Sebastian, reading from his semi-autobiographical not-yet-published novel, and the event concluded with SIREN_SISTER, a collaboration commissioned by the festival from poet Janette Ayachi and movement artist Emma Snellgrove. It was a rewarding experiment, though absorbing Ayachi’s long, rich poetic text while watching Snellgrove’s response in movement demanded intense concentration from the audience.

The diversity of approaches was matched throughout the festival by a diversity of voices. One of the highlights of Saturday’s programme was a powerful performance by Joelle Taylor, another poet who started in slam culture but won the 2021 TS Eliot Prize for her collection, C+nto & Othered Poems. Her reading, based on the book, was a passionate, angry account of her own experiences as a butch lesbian, part tribute, part loving elegy to the friends and the sub-culture in which she found her tribe and her self. The performance, made despite an encroaching migraine, earned a standing ovation.

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Less than an hour later, young Edinburgh-based Latinx poet Andrès N Ordorica explained how Taylor’s work inspired him to write about queerness in a forthcoming pamphlet. His debut collection, which came out this year, At Least This I Know, writes across the boundaries of his Mexican heritage and experience of growing up in the US and around the world.

A different experience of being othered was explored by black British poet Roger Robinson, another TS Eliot Prize winner, who travelled the coast of Britain with writer and photographer Johny Pitts to make the book Home Is Not A Place. He described his experiences listening to the stories of people of colour in coastal towns and cities, as well as the casual racism he himself encountered one night in Folkestone, looking for a place to stay.

JoelleTaylor PIC: Roman Manfredi

Saturday brought a further encapsulation of the festival’s creativity and energy in A Poetry Feast of Mythical Beasts, a commission developed by Push The Boat Out’s director Jenny Niven. Seven poets were selected after an open call to write in response to creatures on The Mythical Beasts of Scotland map produced by Púca Printhouse.

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The Dissection Room was packed again to hear their work, from Holly McNish’s “A Message from Nessie After Getting Shot At Again On Grand Theft Auto” to Katie Ailes’ moving performance reimagining the story of the bean-nighe as a contemporary woman refused a medical abortion.

Poet and software developer Calum Rodger read his entertaining ballad about the Linton Worm as a cyber threat; trained opera singer Anita Mackenzie told the story of the selkie in words and music, referencing her own experiences of internalised racism, and the event concluded with Dave Hook (frontman of hip-hop group Stanley Odd) on the Kelpie as a renegade nuclear submarine. By turns funny, moving and unsettling, resolutely lively and fresh, it was an event which demonstrated what is strongest in Push The Boat Out’s contemporary approach to poetry.