Can it really be said that one poem, or one poet, is “better” than another? Judging from the comments on the first part of this article, a great many people believe that it can. One way of deciding who is “the best” is to have a poetry slam – for the uninitiated, this is a tournament where the winning poet is decided by a panel of judges (sometimes experts, sometimes chosen from the audience). Points are awarded in various ways, usually in three categories: the quality of the writing, the quality of the performance, and the volume and enthusiasm of the audience response.
The origins of the slam poetry style and tradition go back to Chicago in 1986, and the poet Marc Smith. Now, they’re everywhere – a quick survey of the last few months in Edinburgh and Glasgow alone brings up more than a dozen slams run in universities, pubs, clubs and libraries. For an aspiring performance poet, slams are often the way in. Most would agree that judging criteria for slams are arbitrary – that the competitive element is a way of attracting a bigger audience. Nevertheless, slams remain an important part of the Scottish scene, with a calendar of slam events growing every year, all feeding into the Scottish National finals in March.
While the adrenaline buzz of competition, the undeniable satisfaction that comes with winning and the noisy, energetic atmosphere of slams is both addictive and great fun, they can bring out the worst in people. Speaking as a ten-year veteran of Scottish poetry slams, I participate in them because they feel like a somewhat necessary evil. They are also, undeniably, an entertaining spectacle for audiences.
In part one of this article we began talking to some of the best-known performers and promoters of spoken word in Scotland about their practice, their community, and their ambitions, as well as surveying an anonymous panel of 50 poets. On the topic of slams, one anonymous respondent writes that they can be “a good medium for audiences, but awful for poets.” A significant 25% of those surveyed seemed to agree, defining slams as ‘not very important’ to their poetic endeavours. A similar percentage (24%) defined slams as ‘very important,’ but a further 19% volunteered an outright dislike for competitive poetry.
With complaints about the “same old faces” winning slam after slam, and a tendency for louder, brasher, more performance-driven poets to win over sometimes superior writing, this was one of the most controversial questions in our survey – a further 29% chose to give a written response, most emphasising that the best poet doesn’t always win, and advocating for more representative slams, with better access for disabled performers, and better attempts to represent a wide spectrum of class and cultural backgrounds. Nearly everyone surveyed seemed to agree that diversity should be encouraged and nurtured, and that the scene’s leaders should continue to demand better resources and infrastructure, with the help of public funding.
There is a sense that our sometimes “insular” and “inward-looking” Central Belt scene needs to do better at engaging with other networks of poets in Scotland and the UK, throughout Europe, and beyond. As organisations like The Roundhouse Theatre in London; BBC Radio 1Xtra and BBC Radio Scotland; the various Edinburgh Festivals and others continue to diversify their spoken word programming and engagement, perhaps emerging promoters and champions of the form should look to scene leaders like Rally & Broad and Neu Reekie! for models of how to engage with partner organisations and public funding bodies. As emerging poet Georgia Bartlett-McNeil, a relative newcomer to the scene, quite rightly says: “Poetry is slowly but surely re-establishing itself as part of the centre of performance arts in the UK.”
Professional opportunities for spoken word performers are increasingly available. More and more experienced performers are signing up to the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature Database, and teaching workshops in schools, prisons and communities. In consultation with some of the scene’s key ambassadors, the Book Trust’s criteria have been expanded to include more performance poets. Their New Writers’ Awards are also now more open to performance poets.
While many of those I spoke to rarely used the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh as a resource, they know it is available. Poet, promoter and musician Jennifer-Lynn Williams, currently Programme Manager at the SPL, has made big steps there towards bridging the gap between traditional poetry and its more modern, performance-based forms. .
“I have seen a few events now at festivals where ‘performance poets’ are made to sit next to ‘page poets’ and there is some debate carried out about the forms… it can often expose both sides in an uncomfortable way, without celebrating the dynamism and crossover,” says Williams. Her programming at the SPL continues to evolve, both in an attempt to represent the scene’s diversity, and to bridge the perceived gap between ‘page’ and ‘stage’.
“There are still a lot of weird prejudices on both sides that I would like to see dissipate,” she continues. “I think it’s important to respect the ways in which performance poetry and poets can differ from page poets, but to educate and celebrate what performance poetry and poets can do, and the ways in which performance poetry and page poetry share common ground and origins… the two can learn from one another.”
One troubling issue which emerged from our anonymous survey was the concept of safety at spoken word events. While there has been a robust debate over the concept of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ within the scene – one which continued at length in the anonymous survey responses – this masked some genuine concerns about the physical and emotional safety of performers; particularly women, trans people, and those with mental health issues. These concerns are perhaps to be expected in a scene which, while openly professing to embrace everyone, is predominantly run and populated by young, white men. Expected or not, they need to be addressed, urgently. It is time for the spoken word scene in Scotland to check its privilege.
“There is occasionally a superficiality to the way in which women and other groups are included among certain areas of the scene,” says Ross McFarlane, a poet and student promoter involved with the Aloud open mic, which runs at Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Union. “[Women and others] are invited along to balance the stage or the meeting, but overruled and not listened to. The space is safe… but it is not necessarily as open as it could be.”
Others have more urgent concerns: “It has the illusion of a safe space,” laments Emily Elver, promoter of the Freak Circus events in Edinburgh, and co-editor of the newly-minted ‘zine of the same name. “Behind closed doors it is different.”
Her account of hidden prejudice within the scene is troubling. “I’ve had experiences where my work and performances have been compared and contrasted to other female poets, because there is this idea some promoters have that only so many women can be booked for a night, otherwise [it] becomes a night for women,” she says. “We keep performing because we have to, we have something to say, and we care about the community enough to keep trying to better it by expressing what is wrong. But no, it is not a safe space for women in my experience.”
Unfortunately, others echo her comments: “It is absolutely not a safe space,” says one respondent, who chose to remain anonymous. “Especially not for young women. There is no system in place to report those that use their informal and formal power to threaten, intimidate, harm or abuse others. This is a serious issue which has forced young women out of the scene before, and continues to do so today… There is a serious problem with safety.”
There is certainly a need for the poetry community to provide basic safety for all, at and around poetry events. The demand for this must be community-driven – ours is a grass roots, DIY culture, and it is up to every single person who participates to look out for one another. While the majority of respondents (58%) believe the scene provides a safe space – although not necessarily always and for everyone – there are some notable, and very worrying exceptions.
An anonymous response from an event promoter clarifies that, at the very least, efforts are being made to excommunicate anyone known or perceived to be a serious threat: “We’ve had some very difficult decisions to make in the last few years about whether to exclude a few individuals that people did not feel safe around,” they say, describing it as “an ongoing (but largely positive) process.”
While accounts can be found of sexism, racism, transphobia and discrimination, they are thankfully rare, with most of those who responded praising the scene’s approach to diversity, and the openness with which they have been welcomed. As one person says, “the scene tries very hard to be a safe space for everyone… most of the time it succeeds.” Rally & Broad’s Rachel McCrum wisely advises “being very aware of your own space – and your right to say when you don’t feel safe or secure or supported.”
Certainly, there is a consensus that spoken word’s ability to provide a platform for people to experience catharsis, community and healing seems to be more prevalent than its occasional tendency to conceal abuse and prejudice. Nevertheless, this is an area where promoters, performers and even audiences must remain on guard. Perhaps, as the scene grows, more formal infrastructure will be needed to protect vulnerable performers, and remove potential predators from circulation.
Georgia Bartlett McNeil, a poet who identifies as “a bisexual woman of colour” believes that most promoters and performers work hard to keep the scene safe, and open to all. Nevertheless, she says: “It always feels very obvious to me when I’m sitting in an audience, or waiting to perform, that I am part of a minority. I’m not [sure] what more could be done… Introducing more events that are centred towards certain groups – for example the All Women Poetry slam – is good, but it’s also a double-edged sword. It’s difficult when you start to make events centred towards a certain group, because that then begins to alienate others.”
Without a doubt, the scene has giant steps to make in terms of accessibility for disabled performers and audiences; gender balance in lineups; cultural diversity, and other vital issues. That everyone who responded was prepared to at least address these problems seems to indicate that diversity is something the scene takes seriously, and will continue to engage with.
“Getting a gender balance is easy enough if you want one, but culture and class is a different story,” says Sam Small (https://www.facebook.com/poetrysamsmall), host of the raucous and incredibly popular Inn Deep poetry sessions in Glasgow, and one of the city’s most electric performers.
Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey, best known as a rapper but increasingly respected as a spoken word artist, activist and journalist, is optimistic about the scene beginning to become less white, and less middle-class. “Making things accessible is actually a two-pronged effort and not just an accommodation made by the dominant class on behalf of the lower,” he says. Nevertheless, he has hope: “Of all the spheres I move in the spoken word scene is actually the least pretentious. I think in some ways the spoken word scene is a congregation of misfits who enjoy kicking back against things – even poetry itself, as well as other poets… In time spoken word in Scotland will be a lot more inclusive. This pioneering phase is important because it is setting the tone.”
This ‘pioneering phase’ he identifies is of course subject to a lot of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Take, for example, the BBC’s recent worthy but predictable take on the worn old trope of ‘poetry as the new rock and roll’ – a documentary which spent roughly six minutes of its one-hour run-time focusing on the likes of Kate Tempest and the current UK scene, and the rest reiterating the tired and widely-known tales of the influence of 60s and 70s icons like John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg. It was a sadly missed opportunity to explore the UK’s current poetic diversity.
The perceived conflict between the terms ‘performance poetry’ and ‘spoken word’ is at the heart of the debate about diversity. These terms are, as Jim Monaghan says, “interchangeable and ill-defined.” While Kate Tempest may be a star in the making, rubber-stamped by the establishment with a Mercury Music Prize win, there is still a lot of confusion about what, exactly, this artform actually is. “It needs to go hand in hand with the page stuff… we need to get good at both for it to be a proper art form,” offers Sam Small. “At the moment we’re still just two above mime.”
Ross Sutherland, in an excellent interview with Sophia Walker for Eternal Graffiti , says: “Poetry is just the bin marked ‘other’ – it’s where we put all the language stuff that we don’t know what else to do with, from all across the performing arts. Comedians that have stopped being funny; rappers that are sick of their beats; storytellers that can’t finish a sentence; musicians that don’t to play; etc, etc. Inside that manky festering bin, there is amazing opportunity for sharing and collaboration.”
As I argued in the comments section of part 1 of this piece, an artform can only be diminished by attempts to rigidly define it. “It’s a broad church,” says Rally & Broad’s Jenny Lindsay: “What it aint, of course, is lectures and interviews – here’s looking at you, events-listing festival people!” Look in the Edinburgh Fringe brochure, or the programme of any arts festival, and you will see everything from talks by celebrity chefs to confessional Q&As with former pop stars billed as ‘spoken word.’
This looseness of definition is a strength to be embraced, but it can cost emerging performers, in terms of their visibility. Calum Rodger believes the page versus stage debate is a false dichotomy, one which will be overcome. “Performance poetry can – and will have to – draw on the traditions of poetry, overcoming that implied antagonism, to develop further as an artform,” he says. “It’s just a question of developing our thinking about poetry to keep up with it… pragmatically, they’re virtually synonymous.” This is refreshing, coming from an academic poet with a deep knowledge of form, and an appreciation of the canon – and bookers at literary festivals are, with some notable exceptions, starting to think along similar lines.
“The concept of ‘making it’ is questionable,” says Mark McG . “Creating is therapeutic… The most important part of performing is being yourself.” Rachel McCrum wants to see more spoken word “in theatres… On the streets… In people’s lives…Getting involved with bigger and bigger platforms is exciting and awesome, and engaging with wider audiences,” she says, before warning poets to be sure to “hold your own.”
Jenny Lindsay points out that “the Tempests and the [Hollie] McNishes didn’t come from nowhere. Both of them have been working their arses off since their late teens – their success didn’t come overnight.” Kevin P. Gilday, meanwhile, one of the Scottish poets who has travelled furthest, offers this observation: “Why does Scotland’s music scene consistently punch above its weight? Because the idiosyncratic voices have space to flourish. We become part of it by doing our own thing, and letting the world come to us.”
Could there be a better definition of the way spoken word, especially in Scotland, is developing? Idiosyncratic, we certainly are – also fractious, melodramatic at times, and always passionate. Whether the ivory towers of academia deign to admit us, or whether we continue as subversive outsiders will be down to our tenacity; our ability to advocate for ourselves and our artform.
Whether we gain success and recognition for our work will depend on Scottish poets and performers reaching out to expand their networks; breaking new ground and challenging preconceptions; demanding and pursuing more development opportunities – no-one else will do that for us. It is up to us to ensure that our scene, our community, remains open and welcoming, and a safe space for all involved.
I for one am proud to be part of this still nascent and emerging ‘scene’ – there is value in its openness, its self-awareness, and its ferocious productivity. If we are honest with ourselves; if we nurture what we have and stick to our ideals, the future looks bright.
In Part 1, we introduced the Scottish spoken word and performance poetry scene, and talked to some of its key players about their practice; about funding and development; and their thoughts on the community itself. Read it here: (http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2015/12/09/performance-poetry-and-spoken-word-in-scotland-part-1). We had hoped to investigate other forms of spoken word, like storytelling, in part 2 but we ran out of space! There are plenty more articles on spoken word in Scotland to come, so watch this space…