Rhymes at the ready. Stanzas on standby. The Scottish Slam Championships take place on Sunday when the nation’s finest versifiers will be going head-to-head at Glasgow’s Tron. They’ll be vying to win a cash prize and a place in the world series in Paris, a prestigious reward that points to the artform’s growing status. Over the past 20 years, spoken word has gone from poor relation to something bordering on the mainstream.
Yes, spoken word performers can still find themselves falling between two stools, too literary for theatre, too theatrical for literature, but they’ve become a more common feature of the arts landscape. “The first stage was convincing book festivals that spoken word poets were worth booking on literary merit as well as for entertainment,” says Jenny Lindsay, a former slam champion and a pioneer, as both performer and promoter, of the spoken word scene in Scotland. “Then in the past few years we’ve been trying to forge better links with theatres, which is a very positive move.”
She does, however, have a caveat: “There is the question of economics, which is that spoken word poets are cheaper than large-scale productions.”
She has a point. It seems significant that this essentially solo form came to prominence at the same time as the emergence of a generation of solo theatre-makers. For every Jenny Lindsay, Luke Wright, Cat Hepburn, Leyla Josephine and Kate Tempest making a name for themselves as poets, there’s been a Gary McNair, Jenna Watt, Kieran Hurley, Rob Drummond, Nic Green or Alan Bissett going it alone in the theatre.
Is the reason economics or talent? Or could there be cultural factors at play? Might the proliferation of one-person shows be a symptom, for example, of an atomised age in which the singular vision of the solo artist better articulates our experience? Could it be a bit of everything?
Lindsay sees a complex pattern of forces at work. As well as riding the tides of arts council funding priorities, spoken word has been cross-fertilised by theatre, stand-up and hip hop, and brought into focus by the political climate. “Different poetic forms become historically or culturally important because of the times,” says the Edinburgh-based poet as she puts the final touches to The Script, her second stage show and print collection. “Spoken word is seeing a resurgence because urgent first-person addresses about social-political issues are things people long to hear. There’s a reason why in times of crisis and celebration we turn to poetry.”
She adds: “Spoken word has also flourished because of social media, making it easier to write a poem and shove it out to the world, and YouTube, which took out a layer of gatekeepers.”
From a theatre point of view, McNair has a similarly nuanced perspective. He is doing some versifying of his own in McGonagall’s Chronicles, a funny evocation of the terrible 19th-century Dundee poet William McGonagall, that returns for a night at Celtic Connections later this month. Just as McGonagall had to earn money to survive, McNair was shaped by the economics he encountered when he graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2007. But it’s not all about money; he is genuinely attracted to the small-scale and the intimate.
“I didn’t have this moment when I wanted to write an epic play and nobody would put it on due to economics,” says the actor and writer who is joined by two musicians in McGonagall’s Chronicles. He can’t deny a one-man company is the “option with the least standing in your way economically,” but says he wasn’t conscious of being influenced by that: “The form I take to naturally is easier economically to put on.”
What seems most likely is that solo artists have found an arts infrastructure relatively hospitable to the work they wanted to do. McNair and his contemporaries, for example, were able to find a home in Glasgow’s Arches, the late lamented underground venue crucial to giving a break to new voices. “It was easy to say, ‘Can you give us two nights in this festival and we’ll come up with something?’” he says. “That’s where economics comes in, because there was no money involved, just access to a stage, so you didn’t have money to pay anyone. My training had been in solo work, so I was not afraid to do that.”
For both Lindsay and McNair, the priority is art. “I like intimate shows,” says McNair. “I like theatre that’s very close and I like theatre that acknowledges that other people are in the room.”
Lindsay agrees: “The reason spoken word is one of my favourite art forms is the immediacy of it; you’re having a conversation with a live audience. Solo address is what’s so powerful about it.”
That’s all to the good, but should we be also mourning a lost generation of large-scale theatre-makers?
The Scottish Slam Championships are at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, on 13 January; McGonagall’s Chronicles is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow on 22 January, as part of Celtic Connections. This Script by Jenny Lindsay is released in May.