AT 56, Stuart McHardy can "just about remember" a traditional family New Year’s Eve. "All the families would gather round in their house, stand in a circle and take turns to recite their ‘party piece’, a wee story or a poem," he recalls. While McHardy acknowledges that such traditions are still in existence, especially among the Gaelic community, like many other poets and storytellers he worries about how well the Scots are nurturing their spoken word tradition.
Fortunately, however, the past couple of years have witnessed something of a surge in storytelling and live poetry.
The latest arrival on the scene is Edinburgh’s Ceilidh Culture, an offspring of the late Edinburgh Folk Festival, which promotes music, song, dance and storytelling.
For Luath Press, a publishing company based in Edinburgh which specialises in new poetry, Ceilidh Culture is another opportunity to show off some of its brightest stars. Tomorrow night sees Matthew Fitt, Alistair Findlay and Kokumo Rocks reading from latest works. "It’s one of the eternal paradoxes of publishing that you have best-selling collections of love poetry and war poetry, but it’s still extremely difficult to get new poems printed," says Gavin McDougall, director of Luath Press. "So it’s really important that poets get out into the public to spread the word."
McDougall attributes the recent increase in performance poetry, ironically enough, to the arrival in Edinburgh of a certain Englishman. It’s almost two years since Jem Rolls moved to the capital and founded Big Word, an American-style poetry slam with local poet Anita Govan. By taking poetry out of the dour church halls and into the pubs and comedy circuit, Rolls and Govan kick-started an interest in poetry not seen since the days of Hugh MacDiarmid and Dylan Thomas. Whereas five years ago, storytelling and poetry were languishing under their "celtic-folksy" image, recent events have shown a new cross fertilisation between traditional and modern. Who would have thought, for example, that Patti Smith would one day be appearing at a Robert Burns festival?
"In the past, poetry readings were largely seen as effete affairs, delivered by self-regarding people drivelling on and on," says McHardy, whose books include Scots Poems to be Read Aloud. "But because performance poetry has become driven by the comedy circuit, it’s been led back round to its in-yer-face style. Poetry slams aren’t elitist in the least, they’re about what poetry is really about, the people."
Indeed, Matthew Fitt, author of Kate O’Shanter and other Stories and the more recent But n Ben A Go-Go, refers to slams as "the poetry equivalent of free-fall parachuting". "You never quite know who you’re going to be performing with," he says. "On my first night, the guy after me was a transvestite in stockings and suspenders. I never saw anything like that on the church hall circuit."
Like his fellow poets, he bemoans how recitation has been largely neglected on the ceilidh scene. "To me ceilidhs have been hijacked by the Jimmy Shand brigade," Fitt says. "But in the past the spoken word was an integral part of it."
Some progress is being made towards its restoration, however, such as the recent appointment of a traditional arts development officer at Edinburgh City Council.
But while the rise in performance poetry’s popularity is a cause for celebration, some poets plead for recognition of the wider picture.
"There is an argument that performance poetry is only giving one dimension of poetry," says Alistair Findlay, whose collection Sex Death and Football is to be published next month. "Poetry does vary and is multi-dimensional - it can be public and comic, but it can also be intimate and introverted. Some poems will always be better off read on your own."
Matthew Fitt, Stuart McHardy, Alistair Findlay and Kokumo Rocks will be performing their poetry at Medinas, underneath Negotiants, Edinburgh (0131-225 4326), tomorrow, 7pm