Diverse world of spoken word hits the spotlight

Thre's plenty of demand from audiences and more performers are coming through '“ now all it needs is a permanent Scots venue, finds David Pollock

Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum of Rally & Broad. Picture: Chris Scott
Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum of Rally & Broad. Picture: Chris Scott

The upsurge in spoken word and performance poetry nights in Scotland has been a slow-burn process since the start of the millennium, but the scene’s current sense of vibrancy, innovation and hard-won popular appeal was thrown into sharp focus in the final three months of 2015, with the appointment of Edinburgh-based poet Rachel McCrum as BBC Scotland’s short-term poet-in-residence.

“I wanted to focus the residency around ideas of community in Scotland, and how language works as a bonding experience or as an exclusion if you’re not part of that community,” says McCrum, who grew up in a Northern Ireland seaside town. “I ended up at football matches, exploring the bothy community, looking at the spoken word community, up in Orkney and taking a group of schoolkids on a virtual psychogeography trip around Tollcross. It was bloody hard work, and it was great fun.”

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It sounds like a very respectable position, but neither “poet” nor ­“spoken word performer” are quite guidance teacher-approved career paths yet; McCrum “wandered” through various jobs in her 20s, including care assistant, park ranger, management consultant and arts researcher, before coming to 
St Andrews University for a PhD and falling in with the crowd at Edinburgh’s Forest Café (who were “determined to be independent, community-minded, creative, left-wing, feminist, queer, political, radical and generally stubborn. I liked them a lot.”).

She says: “The main change of the past two years seems to be a bigger interest from media and more ‘literary’ institutions like the Scottish Poetry Library and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in what has traditionally been a more grassroots, community-orientated scene, but an anti-establishment attitude will always be part of spoken word, and that’s essential to keep it independent. Bolshy as hell, and brilliant and diverse with it.”

Alongside Jenny Lindsay, her partner in the regular Edinburgh and Glasgow-based performance cabaret night Rally & Broad, McCrum is now one of the few performance poets in Scotland who manages to make a living from the medium – although admittedly more from event organising than the work itself. Yet new nights, many run by eager part-­timers outside of their day-job hours, are springing up: in Glasgow there’s Inn Deep, Fail Better and Last Monday at Rio, while Edinburgh hosts the popular Loud Poets, the Blind Poetics open mic, Inky Fingers at Forest Cafe and the more experimental Caesura. There’s even a sci-fi night, the Speculative Bookshop.

For half a decade, poet Michael Pedersen has run Neu! Reekie! alongside sometime Rebel Inc publisher Kevin Williamson, a night grounded in poetry and spoken word alongside music and filmmaking. Edinburgh-raised Pedersen’s work takes inspiration from his “unsung hero of Scottish literature”, Tom Buchan, whose work he discovered on his mother’s bookcase.

“It was profane, lascivious, philosophical, nonsensical and throbbing with purpose,” says Pedersen. “Each piece banged like a drum. Not only that, but he’d been based in Portobello – maybe one of the happy drunks I’ve seen on the promenade throwing chips at the seagulls.”

Neu! Reekie!’s most high-profile performers have included Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh and Liz Lochhead, and Pedersen says their presence is inspiring a new generation. “Some pieces find new life in your audience, especially those chanted out off by heart. There’s an interaction in an instant that’s likely so unique to the way the piece is being delivered and received, the atmosphere in the room, that it can never be replicated. That’s a powerful bell to chime.

“From our perspective, audiences have been growing steadily and the talent pool of performers we’ve access to is expanding just as fast.”

The Edinburgh-founded Loud Poets has swiftly become a great success since it began in 2014. Happy with its description as “the pop music of poetry”, their young and punchy slam style has bred a second regular night in Glasgow and appearances at the Brighton and Edinburgh festivals. Co-founder Kevin Mclean (who is an actor at the Edinburgh Dungeon; the rest of the core collective are students) says their run at the latter showed a large attendance increase on 2014; it made a more accessible counterpoint to the highly ambitious SHIFT at Summerhall, also a success.

“It’s easy to see what’s happening just now as a sort of boom period for Scottish spoken word,” says Mclean, “but today’s scene is built on decades of hard work by nights like Jem Rolls, Jenny Lindsay and Anita Govan’s Big Word [which ran from 2002 to 2008]. Online platforms like YouTube, Upworthy, and social media have also made it easier to promote events and get eyes on your work. Our audiences usually have a lot of students.”

He correctly points out, though, the current geographical limitations of the scene. “It’s a shame that when people say ‘the Scottish spoken word scene’ what they mean is Edinburgh and Glasgow. Population and geography can make it hard to build a scene outside of the Central Belt, but Rally & Broad and Neu! Reekie! have worked hard to take shows north and The Grind have built a solid following in Falkirk.”

Despite her accidental induction into it, no-one has seen the current scene’s evolution quite like Jenny Lindsay. In 2001 she was a singer-songwriter based in Glasgow, but when her electric piano was stolen from her flat and she couldn’t afford to replace it, she resorted to reading her lyrics onstage; someone else called her a slam poet before she even knew what it was.

“Thirteen years ago I was one of very few female performers and one of the only spoken word acts under the age of 30,” she says. “I felt pretty isolated as a young performer, but now the growth of slam poetry has seen a welcome upsurge in young people embracing spoken word, messing around with it and changing the nature of it. In terms of the very recent ‘the independence movement led to an upsurge of spoken word’ line, though? No, it really didn’t. It just shone a light on something that had been happening for years.”

So where does the Scottish scene go from here? In moving beyond the two major cities, she says; in deciding what it actually is, poetry or theatre; and in thinking about sustainability beyond the hard work of those currently involved.

“This is the thing, there’s a bigger audience for spoken word, it’s in demand,” she says, “but Scotland entirely lacks the infrastructure for a sustainable spoken word scene. You have self-starters running every single one of the events on offer, and with the exception of Rally & Broad and Neu! Reekie there’s barely any regular event offering industry standard fees and none with regular funding outwith a nine-month cycle. Unlike in England, there’s no dedicated spoken word venue in Scotland, and very few opportunities for professional mentoring or development.”

Yet the medium’s youthful foot-finding is also what she enjoys. “There is no ‘path’ or ‘canon’ in spoken word, and while that negligible sense of ‘yer ain art-form’s history’ would be pretty unforgiveable in, say, theatre, we can define things as it pleases us. That’s freeing. I was drawn to spoken word because it welcomed me as much as I embraced it.”

McCrum agrees. “I love that it’s democratic, that it’s about people using their own words to communicate with, not at, an audience who will or won’t engage. It takes guts and I love anyone who gets up to do that. Believe it or not I used to be kind of shy, particularly about speaking in public, but something about crafting words, putting them together in mischievous, unexpected and honest ways, and feeling that connect with a group of people is powerful. It’s a way for us to tell the story of what is happening now, in real time, and I think that’s amazing.”

• Loud Poets’ next slams are at Broadcast, Glasgow, 7 January and the City Café, Edinburgh, 15 January. Rally & Broad: The Hangover Special is at the Bongo Club, Edinburgh, 22 January and Stereo, Glasgow, 24 January. The pair run their first masterclass at the Scottish Poetry Library on 5 February. Neu! Reekie!’s Burns Belter is at Pilrig St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh, 23 January.