Performance Poetry and Spoken Word in Scotland Part 1

c36a4447Performance poetry, or spoken word, is an increasingly visible and important part of Scotland’s cultural life. Few of Scotland’s poets have reached quite such dizzy heights as Mercury Prize winner Kate Tempest or the increasingly ubiquitous George the Poet. Nevertheless, the art form’s profile continues to rise. The 2014 referendum sparked a new wave of political poetry and poetic activism, while crossovers with our best and brightest folk and indie artists, ongoing innovation mixing spoken word with more traditional theatre, and the rising popularity of Scottish hip-hop have all provided new and wider platforms for Scotland’s ever-increasing number of spoken word performers.

Those who have travelled farthest have often won the most acclaim. Poet, theatre-maker, podcaster and native Scot Ross Sutherland, named a Times ‘Literary Star’ in 2008,  is much-admired. So is Sophia Walker, a British-American poet who got her start in the Edinburgh slam scene, and went on to be published by Burning Eye Books – she recently performed at the COP21 Climate Change talks in Paris. Northern Irish poet and promoter Rachel McCrum’s measured, lyrical work has seen her travel as far afield as South Africa, Haiti and Greece, working with poets in translation  – this year she was appointed BBC Radio Scotland’s first ever poet-in-residence.

Portobello hedonist Michael Pedersen’s critically adored Neu Reekie, co-run with Rebel Inc. founder Kevin Williamson, has travelled to Tokyo, New York, and farther afield, with Pedersen now published by Polygon, and a well kent face at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. American-born Ryan Van Winkle, awarded honours by the Saltire Society this year for his work, has done much to bridge the perceived gap between page and stage. Orcadian Harry Giles has done some amazing, politically-charged work, often in Scots and other regional dialects, publishing a collection this year via Freight Books. Some of Scotland younger poets, like Swedish-born Agnes Török, are already bonafide YouTube sensations – her poem ‘Worthless’ went viral this year, racking up 200,000 views.  Give it some more:

This is the tip of the iceberg. We have plenty of nascent ‘stars’ or stars in the making, and a busy, arguably thriving live scene, especially in the Central Belt cities. As this year’s Scottish Slam Champion, I wanted to explore some of my own preconceptions about this ‘scene’ – starting with the notion of a ‘scene’ itself. Is the concept limiting and exclusionary? Or is it inclusive, essential to the growth of the artform? I spoke to some of Scotland’s key promoters and poets, along with some newer voices, and conducted an anonymous survey of more than 50 performers.

c36a3844The results were surprising, from demands for better representation of women, the working class, and people of colour, to eloquent and moving declarations of creative passion. In Part 2 of this feature, out later this week, we’ll explore how the poetry community tackles representation, accessibility, diversity and safety. In today’s article, we’ll look at development opportunities and funding, and try to take the pulse of the ‘scene.’

“Describing performance poetry events as a ‘scene ‘ is fairly risible,” wrote one anonymous respondent to my survey, pointing out that to a poet in the Western Isles or up in Orkney, a ‘scene’ is much harder to access, or even create. This is definitely a problem – the focus, both in terms of funding, event provision and infrastructure for spoken word, seems to be heavily based around Edinburgh and Glasgow. This is likely no different to other artforms, but the need for the centre to look outwards and embrace more regional diversity is keenly felt. Many of those surveyed lamented seeing “the same ten faces” at each event, reading “the same poems over and over again.”

c36a1713Yet within the big cities, a picture emerges of a vibrant, busy, and welcoming space. 65% of those surveyed say they go to between one and four spoken word events a month, with 28% attending 5-10 events, and 8% attending 10 or more. “The scene is probably at a peak right now,” says Jim Monaghan, a Cumnock-born poet and key player in the revitalisation of Glasgow’s Govanhill Baths as a community-led performance space. However, he adds: “There is a danger to the current growth,” specifically a tendency towards a more generic style of delivery and writing, influenced by US and London-based slam poets. His comments are echoed by a great many of the anonymous survey respondents, some of whom feel that traditional poetry is being eclipsed by this new, and arguably imported form.

Calum Rodger, an academic at Glasgow University and promoter of the (currently resting) Verse Hearse nights, disagrees. “The best thing about the Scottish scene is its stylistic diversity,” he says. “There isn’t a kind of paradigmatic slam-style, although there are poets whose work is definitely of that category… Diversity has always been there, and now there’s just more of it – more poets, more punters, more styles.”

Kevin P. Gilday, host of the Rhyming Optional show on Subcity Radio, has taken shows to the Edinburgh and Canadian Fringe Festivals, and performed at Glastonbury last year. He thinks we are “moving in the right direction. It’s getting better every year,” he says, adding: “I already feel like an elder statesman.” Catherine Wilson, who helps co-promote events for Loud Poets, also sees the positives of a healthy scene. “I see more and more poets I know [having] more and more incredible experiences,” she says. “More of them tour, travel, do workshops or are published. We’ve come a long way in a short time.”

ryanvanwinklerallyandbroadThe Loud Poets, who have become incredibly popular for their high-energy performances, have certainly made a big impression in the last couple of years. Wilson, who also runs Edinburgh University’s popular open mic event SoapBox, identifies a potential issue with the Loud Poets’ focus on polish, memorisation and big performances: “People may not be getting involved […] because they’re somehow worried about not being ‘good enough,’” she worries. “This is never, ever the case. If you’ve written some words down or created something, you’re automatically in. The scene has to always offer a non-intimidating stage for newbies.”

For the most part, people emphasise the positives being part of the ‘scene’ – “I wanted to express myself, and this is the only way I’ve ever found to do it,” says one respondent. “It sets my spirit free.” Another writes that only poetry helps her “understand the world and my place in it.” Others speak of “the variety of the different poetry communities” which exist – pointing to a regional diversity which my survery perhaps failed to capture. My favourite anonymous response of the bunch comes from a poet who got into spoken word after being “arrested for swearing.” He eloquently sums up why many of us take to the stage, or attend these nights to listen: “Poetry gives a voice to the voiceless of society whose opinions are just as valid, if not more so, than people in the public eye.” For him, the scene is about “people coming together to share their unique perspectives with others, with brutal honesty.”

“Poetry gives a voice to the voiceless of society whose opinions are just as valid, if not more so, than people in the public eye.”

Mark McG, lead singer in The Girobabies and more recently a spoken word performer himself, praises the openness of the scene. He has had success mixing live music and performance poetry at his Overheard In The Westend events. “I have always tried to mix it up and spike people with a genre they didn’t know they liked,” he says. “It seems much more common now.” Jenny Lindsay, promoter of acclaimed live literature and music cabaret Rally & Broad alongside Rachel McCrum, agrees: “It’s become standard to see poetry live at loads of different events,” she says. “There are more nights, regular slams, more paid opportunities… people experimenting with theatre, visuals, collaborations – all of this is remarkably different to when I started.”

c36a2925_Lindsay and McCrum were both part of the SHIFT/ Collective this year, and each brought new one-hour poetry-based shows to the Edinburgh Fringe alongside myself, Harry Giles and other artists. She, and the other SHIFT/ members, are all committed to opening up new spaces for performance poetry in Scotland and beyond. As a promoter and performer, Lindsay’s contribution to the scene cannot be overstated. From her early days running the trailblazing Big Word, she has spent over a decade providing paying gigs for emerging Scottish poets, bands and musicians, and giants of the traditional page poetry scene alike; and she was a key voice in last year’s referendum campaign – still the only artist to have written a direct response to that period, with her terrific one-woman show ‘Ire & Salt.’

Throughout the interviews I conducted, there was a yearning for more dedicated spoken word venues; an even greater presence for spoken word at music festivals, in theatres, and in venues accessible to all; and perhaps most consistently, calls for funding for spoken word to be both increased, decomplexified, and made more public. There are those like Sam Small, who believe “you don’t need funding to make art.” Small, also a SHIFT/ alumni, runs Inn Deep Poetry, one of Glasgow’s most popular open mics, and publishes The High Flight ‘zine. Robin Cairns, a respected Glasgow poet who runs Last Monday at Rio, one of the city’s longest-running open mics, agrees: “Funding is fair enough if you can be arsed grovelling for it. I think it is important to do your events anyway, as being ushered indoors to the quiet rooms where these decisions are made is akin to having your bollocks lopped by smiling PR people.”

“Funding is fair enough if you can be arsed grovelling for it. I think it is important to do your events anyway, as being ushered indoors to the quiet rooms where these decisions are made is akin to having your bollocks lopped by smiling PR people.”

There are a large contingent who feel that funding portioned out by organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland are always awarded to the same names or organisations; and that not speaking “application-ese” makes funding difficult to obtain for those who are not experienced at application-writing, favouring a somewhat priveleged few. There is a counter-narrative – as one respondent puts it: “More people need to pursue funding to build a stronger sector.” Jenny Lindsay, who admits that “the thought of putting in a bid solo would make me want to gnaw off my own thumbs,” has had consistent success applying for funding, and has unarguably used it to pay performers, and widen opportunity for all. Others I spoke to who had applied successfully suggested that many who perceived funding to be unobtainable had simply never applied for it. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is also up for debate.

imagesJim Monaghan is “cynical about government-sponsored rock ‘n’ roll,”as he puts it, but suggests as an alternative that “all artists should be able to declare [themselves] as an artist, and keep the equaivalent of benefits to exist on, if they want.” Promoter of the Freak Circus events in Edinburgh, and co-editor of the newly-minted ‘zine of the same name, Emily Elver  advocates crowdfunding, and is hopeful that her publishing activities can bring in some income. I myself have made a small profit selling books, CDs and merchandise via Bandcamp and BigCartel. There is a spirit of entrepeneurship and independence within the scene, which is perhaps preferable to a community composed almost entirely of state-funded practitioners.

Asked about development opportunities, one respondent suggested the idea of a “permanent Scottish poetry showcase at Edinburgh Fringe,” something to perhaps rival the dominance of talented, but mostly England-based performers who flood Edinburgh each August as part of Peter Buckley-Hill’s Free Fringe. As my experiences with SHIFT/ show, carving out new spaces for paid shows featuring spoken word is possible, and potentially viable – and it certainly seems like no-one is going to do the hard work on our behalf. Indeed, many Scottish performers, including myself, got their break and did their first shows at PBH – so engagement with existing opportunities is also key.

As for whether Scotland will ever produce a star with the reach and appeal of Kate Tempest, that remains to be seen. “I believe that only individuals can go mainstream, the scene as a whole cannot,” says Robin Cairns. “Why? Because there is no room for the quirky and plain awkward side of our movement on radio and TV. And those mediums are not the slightest bit interested in open-access to microphones for all. We are. In five years I hope we still offer five minute spots to the best and worst poets around… A few Scots poets have the capability to go far. I imagine this will happen, despite the fickle wattage of the BBC [only] being turned on us every now and then.” Robin’s words perfectly characterise the spirit of the Scottish scene we call home – independent, defiant, perhaps sometimes a little cheeky with it… and confident of our own abilities.

In Part 2, we’ll dig deeper into the development opportunities available for spoken word artists as students, teachers, and published writers. We’ll look at touring, and engagement with UK-wide and worldwide networks. We’ll take a look beyond poetry, at some of Scotland’s other spoken word traditions, covering ‘live literature’ and storytelling. We’ll tackle diversity in Scottish spoken word, or the perceived lack of it, and find out whether Scottish poets believe their scene is a safe space. Join us in a few days!

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  1. Bram says:

    I’d be well up for turning the comments section here into an extended discussion about our wee ‘scene’ – its borders, how to dissolve barriers to entry, the pros and cons… So come on folks, lets get stuck in.

  2. Peter B says:

    Hi Bram, I appreciate that you have acknowledged a central belt emphasis in talking about spoken word in Scotland, and I agree that your survey failed to capture the opinions of people outwith Glasgow and Edinburgh . . . but even if the folk not in Edinburgh and Glasgow didn’t respond or if the survey failed to reach them, you could maybe have acknowledged their work.

    In fact for every poet and event you name-checked we could easily come up with several more not based in EH or Glas. What about The Poets’ Republic in Stonehaven? It is just one of many. There are lots of spoken word events in Scotland in toto.

    I’m not saying you *should* have done any of this, but if your article had left Edinburgh it might have demonstrated there is an actual nation here somewhere, and that you are aware of it and keen to promote it.

    I know it can be difficult to find out everything that is going on in Scotland, I am in the process of trying to collect our country’s literary weblinks myself, and it is a never-ending task:

    I disagree that the “event provision and infrastructure for spoken word” is heavily based around Edinburgh and Glasgow. The only thing that is heavily based around Edinburgh in terms of poetry and literature are the nation’s literature bureaucrats and their many quangos. But they are not to be confused with the actual creation of literary work, or even events, surely? Event provision and infrastructure exist elsewhere, wherever people work to create them. It is easy enough to find out what’s going on and who knows, you may even be invited to read at one of these non-Edinburgh/Glasgow events one day.

    Don’t think I don’t appreciate your article, I always like reading about this stuff. I liked the quotes from your interveiwees also, little to disagree with there.

    1. Bram says:

      Thank you for your response Peter! Honestly, one of the reasons I didn’t include much of the scope of the scene beyond the Central Belt is that I have consistently failed to engage with it as a performer, and am largely ignorant of its details and complexity – which is exactly one of the problems with the notion of a ‘scene’ – it tends to exclude those beyond the city borders. One of the things I hoped to do with this piece is open up a dialogue with poets beyond the current city ‘scene’ and perhaps encourage some more exchanges of poets, bills and work… I am this year’s slam champion, but have not ever been asked to perform beyond Edinburgh/Glasgow. There seems little interest in the ‘scene’, or its champions, from beyond its outer rim… unless one seeks out that kind of engagement oneself. Unarguably, we need to do more to strengthen links and build infrastructure that allows more healthy dialogue between urban and regional networks. I’d love to hear more about the nights and groups you mention, and what’s more, I am fairly certain that Jenny Lindsay, who commissioned this piece, would absolutely LOVE to hear from folk who could write about the existing networks, writers and events beyond the central belt – perhaps a follow-up or a response piece is warranted? Please also be aware that regional diversity, or lack thereof, is something I am tackling in Part 2…. and that this piece was turned around in under a fortnight, so please excuse me if I didn’t look as far as I could have, with more time… I tried to acknowledge that, and absolutely accept and welcome your criticism.

      1. We’d be happy to support some follow-up collaboration to build a better national picture. Let’s discuss this?

    2. Jim Monaghan says:

      Peter, the main thing that is concentrated in the Central Belt is the population, so often things perceived as bias are just naturally happening where people, 70% of them, are.

  3. Rachel McCrum says:

    (repost from FB, at Bram’s request)

    Setting aside the picture of Kate Tempest (why, o editors at Bella Caledonia, why?), some wee thoughts about Bram E. Gieben’s well researched, searching article:

    I adore being part of the spoken word community in Scotland. I fell head over heels 5 years ago, when the Edinburgh nights (as I knew it) consisted of Inky Fingers Edinburgh run by Harry Giles and Alice Tarbuck, and The Golden Hour at The Forest under Ryan Van Winkle, and have seen it grow and grow to what it is today. I’ve been part of that growth. I’m prouder of that than of anything else I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve felt like I’ve DONE something with the past five years, helped something to happen.

    Working with Inky, heading up Blind Poetics with Alec Beattie, working on the Inky communities project to support the likes of Max Scratchmann and see that go on to become Portobello Poetry Circus, setting up Rally & Broad with Jenny Lindsay to see if we could push things further (and yes, we will always defend our decision to get funding and pay artists actual fees… smile emoticon, setting up Shift/ Collective with Bram and the others. And the fact that there is now a group of poet-promoters who are confident enough to constantly be looking around, asking ‘what’s going on, what’s missing, what could be next?’

    I love its vagaries, its stubborn to buggeryness, its mischief, its independence. I love its confidence in itself, deserved or not (who cares!). I love its imperfections, I love its defiance. I love that it’s made up of incredibly strong and awkward characters. I love that everyone is partial as fuck. I love the squabbles, I love nobody agrees (yes to funding! no to funding! pay artists fair fees! do it for free! black is white! white is black! hurrah!) and I particularly love the loyalty because, even if nobody can ever agree what IT is or should be, everyone is doing it for the sheer bloody love of it.
    I love that there is constant and evolving work to provide platforms for new performers (as in Catherine Wilson’s excellent phrase ‘The scene has to always offer a non-intimidating stage for newbies). I love that we do talk about it and squabble and discuss. I love that we DO. Nobody else is gonna.

    And more than anything else, I love that the platforms that are created give space for people to use their own voices. To get up and SPEAK their truth, honestly. I love that there is great poetry out there and there is crap poetry out there. I love that it’s out there.

    At Tessa Ransford’s memorial service on Monday, Alan Gay quoted Tessa as saying (I paraphrase) ‘Of course poetry is a political act. It’s democracy, the voice of the people.’

    I love this most of it all.

  4. George Gunn says:

    Dear Bram, I greatly enjoyed your article and applaud all the initiatives you mention and was tickled to read of the poet who was “arrested for swearing”. However, I think it only fair to point out that in Scotland because it is essentially an oral culture, poetry has always been spoken, performed, declaimed. The oldest relationship in literature is not the one between the eye and the printed page but between the ear and the tongue. The problem with the media adopting individuals as opposed to covering a genre is that they like individuals and make them their darlings at the expense of doing their job. It is journalists and broadcasters who live in a bubble, not poets – performance ones or otherwise. Keep up the good work.

    1. Colin Donati says:

      Dear George, spot on. Dear Bram, great work.

  5. James Dow OZ calling says:

    I was born in Edinburgh, removed as a boy to Australia but still retain a poetic sense of my land, and draw inspiration from my origin.

    Tartan, it’s hue and sett
    Woven by ancient hands
    Unique to both base born and titled
    The children of the clans
    James Dow

    For me, Interwoven is also symbolic of Scots’ as an extended family.

  6. tickle says:

    Poetry is s**t and poets are c**ts

    That being said: great article b, nice to see you recognising that edinburgh and glasgow based poets for the most part haven’t connected with the poetry scenelets in other cities and towns across Scotland, always nice to read about the current buoyancy of poetry here (great to think some bella readers might not have known and might now get in and about it) and looking forward to the next instalment!

    1. James Dow OZ calling says:

      If you think poetry is s**t, what the hell do you think prose is?

  7. Robert says:

    There seems to some confusion here about what poetry actually is. I mean, for example, Agnes Török’s video is a nice political speech, but poetry? Nothing there that Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Seamus Heaney or Gill Scott Heron would have seen as poetry anyway. Absolutely not an ounce of heightened language. I think it was Robert Graves who said nobody should call themselves a poet, that it’s an honorific that is for others to bestow. I’d go along with that…

    1. Bram says:

      No confusion, Robert, just differing opinions. Poetry, like most traditions, continues to evolve and change with each generation’s understanding of it. Agnes is a fine poet – of this generation. As for posterity, well, we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? Oh by the way, the Victorians called… they want their opinions back.

      1. Robert says:

        Thanks for that. Made me giggle. Gill Scott Heron, Victorian values? Who’d have guessed? Me, I’ll keep reading / listening to stuff that makes me “feel as if nothing can ever warm me” (Dickinson), not stuff that sounds like a rewarmed Twitter feed…

        1. Bram says:

          Each to their own! And your shameless attempt to pretend that you think GSH is “proper poetry” is fooling no-one pal.

          1. Robert says:

            Well, he’s the best “performance” poet I can think of (the other ones I mentioned may have been great in performance too, for all I know. OK, probably not Dickinson…). Not that I’ve made an exhaustive study. Of course if I had mentioned only white poets you’d have been all over me for racism; since I mentioned a black one, it’s tokenism, apparently.

            But leaving all that aside, can we agree that poetry has to have something that goes beyond ordinary language, not to be “proper” poetry (whatever that is) but just to be any good? Or do we have to swallow postmodernism whole without even chewing?

          2. Bram says:

            That is an interesting question, Robert, and I’m half-teasing (if you hadn’t guessed that already). I am wary of any justification / definition which excludes – full stop. Poetry, as I have experienced it – so, slam and performance poetry specifically, and since about 2005 – is all about inclusivity, or at least it claims to be. In terms of performance, people using props and costumes annoys me more than people not rhyming. But I wouldn’t really say ‘That’s not poetry’ to anyone, if they had written something they considered to be a poem. There is, of course, bad and good poetry, but that is a subjective thing, and depends wildly on what your cultural background is, I suppose. I think Agnes is terrific, and I find her work very lyrical. I am not sure by what criteria you have decided that her work ‘isn’t poetry,’ that’s all. Your original statement seemed pretty loaded, snobbish and needlessly catty – which was why I dug you up about GSH. Most people who are “proper poetry” snobs would consider GSH beneath them, or not a proper poet. And if you look back to ancient times, each generation has agonised over the next’s abandonment of “proper” form and vocabulary… there are examples of this on Sumerian clay tablets! So I just view the place where you arbitrarily draw the ‘poetry/not-poetry’ line to be, at best, pretty amusing and pointless…. and at worst completely without merit.

    2. Joe says:

      “what poetry actually is”

      Self-appointed gatekeepers are hilarious.

  8. Redguantlet says:

    Bram, thanks for this informative piece, I had no idea so much was going on.

    I agree with Robert above I must say.

    Agnes´s video has more in common with music than poetry, rap music of course. There is no value judgement underlying that. But just because it rhymes doesn´t make it poetry, and rap is not poetry either. It has other values…it´s alive, it´s immediate, it´s flexible, it is energetic, it is politically charged…

    As for your emphasis on inclusiveness…well, fair enough, but poetry for sure in not democratic, because art isn´t democratic, just as football isn´t, or chess or a flair for mathematics……poets mine the language, and in fact invent the language…

    1. Robert says:

      Thank you Redgauntlet. That’s what I was getting at. There are different kinds of language; poetry — though it obviously cannot have a single, accepted definition, because that would be like biting your own teeth — is different from the other things we do with language, and is at the root of them…

      1. Bram says:

        I vehemently disagree with both of you – but perhaps part 2 will illuminate the issue a bit more. I’ll ask people to discuss the meaning and worth of terms like poetry and spoken word; and to interrogate the differences. But for my part, as an observer, a writer and a performer, I’m far mote interested in how a community self-defines ir redefines these terms than I am in arguing over the etymology and definitions of these terms. I’d also point out that spoken word, the oral tradition, is far older than your classical definition of ‘poetry’ – it both precedes and prefigures it. Arguably what Agnes is doing – direct, lyrical, rhetorical address – has a senior pedigree, as a cultural artefact. It’s an earlier form revived and reinvented. There’s an argument that spoken word is to poetry as root is to branch.

        1. Redguantlet says:

          Bram, I look forward to part 2 and ultimately you´re right, if people want to call themselves poets, fine by me.

          Of course you´re right about the oral tradition too, that is obvious, and again, I am not placing more inherent value in the written word than the spoken word per se.

          But even there, it seems to me we in a different terrain. The troubadours wandered the courts of medieval Europe, but they generated a whole number of different genres covering different themes. Basically most of European epic poetry from “The Iliad” to the Icelandic Sagas come from the oral tradition, but the best of it is highly complex.

          Agnes´s piece is excellent, I love it, but at least half of what I like about it is her performance. She´s telling me something I already knew – and actively endure on a daily basis by the way – in a vibrant and artful way, and she is an excellent performer. She is using the medium of our time to deliver her performance too, another factor, and her performance, if we examine it even in a cursory fashion, clearly draws on rap music to some extent in terms of her body language.

          But poetry and art in general are interested in probing the shadows and rarely deal in certainties, that´s my view. Keats´ “negative capability” for example….why does Don Quixote go out onto the plains of La Mancha? Nobody knows. Why does King Lear die saying “never, never, never…”?

          …..and again, to go back to the oral tradition, say, the Border Ballads, there is something in the best of those poems which is unnerving and mysterious and you can´t really put your finger on.

          So, you know, in a poem as straightforward at one level as “The Twa Corbies”…what is going on here? What´s the story? Nobody knows that knight lies behind the auld stane dyke, “but his hawk and his hound and his lady fair”….we never know the answer, there is no answer, but it is an arresting poem…there is something, for me at any rate, something eerie about it, something mysterious, and when Liz Lochhead says that the corbie is the quintessential Scottish bird, then she is on to something …

          …it deals in uncertainties, and the best art almost always does.

          It seems to me that Agnes is trying to do something entirely different.

  9. Redguantlet says:

    By the way Bram, here are the genres the Troubadours developed over centuries…I´m no expert naturally, reading Ezra Pound led me to them, and as old Ezra says in ABC of Reading ALL poetry should be read out loud…which doesn´t make everything read out loud poetry in my humble opinion…

    Alba (morning song)— the song of a lover as dawn approaches, often with a watchman warning of the approach of a lady’s jealous husband
    Arlabecca— a song defined by poetic metre, but perhaps once related to the rebec
    Canso, originally vers, also chanso or canço— the love song, usually consisting of five or six stanzas with an envoi
    Cobla esparsa— a stand-alone stanza
    Comiat— a song renouncing a lover
    Crusade song (canso de crozada)— a song about the Crusades, usually encouraging them
    Dansa or balada— a lively dance song with a refrain
    Descort— a song heavily discordant in verse form and/or feeling
    Desdansa— a dance designed for sad occasions
    Devinalh— a riddle or cryptogram
    Ensenhamen— a long didactic poem, usually not divided into stanzas, teaching a moral or practical lesson
    Enuig— a poem expressing indignation or feelings of insult
    Escondig— a lover’s apology
    Estampida— a dance-like song
    Gap— a boasting song, often presented as a challenge, often similar to modern sports chants
    Maldit— a song complaining about a lady’s behaviour and character
    Partimen— a poetical exchange between two or more poets in which one is presented with a dilemma by another and responds
    Pastorela— the tale of the love request of a knight to a shepherdess
    Planh— a lament, especially on the death of some important figure
    Plazer— a poem expressing pleasure
    Salut d’amor— a love letter addressed to another, not always one’s lover
    Serena— the song of a lover waiting impatiently for the evening (to consummate his love)
    Sestina— highly structured verse form
    Sirventes— a political poem or satire, originally put in the mouth of a paid soldier (sirvens)
    Sonnet (sonet)— an Italian genre imported into Occitan verse in the 13th century
    Tenso— a poetical debate which was usually an exchange between two poets, but could be fictional
    Torneyamen— a poetical debate between three or more persons, often with a judge (like a tournament)
    Viadeira— a traveller’s complaint

    1. Bram says:

      Nice list! I’ll re-state my point once more, just for clarity. I think that knowledge of, and adherence to the ‘old forms’ of ‘poetry’ is less important than rediscovering, reinventing and subverting those forms in whichever way one sees fit.

      You keep mentioning ‘rap’ like it is somehow separate from poetry – it is not. It is another form, another, more modern iteration – just as valuable and just as complex and with as rich a history as any of the forms you list.

      Your definition of ‘poetry’ is a closed loop – to be admitted to the circle, you must imitate an established form in a sophisticated way. Mine is open – I am part of a tradition of poetry which draws on more modern forms which you do not recognise as part of that closed loop (like rap) and older forms (like rhetorical address) which pre-date the categorisation of forms which your list outlines.

      Whereas my poetic worldview embraces and engages with the established ‘canon’ of ‘poetry’ – if only to frequently disregard it or break its rules – yours does not dare to admit that new forms are as valid and as useful as old ones.

      From where I stand, it is you that is missing out and not me. I studied English Literature at university and have read a great deal of traditional, canonical verse. I have also listened widely to hip-hop and rap from all over the world, made in the last three decades. I embrace both, whereas you choose to reject one as an inferior form of the other, or a different category of thing altogether.

      Our ideas are at odds – it will be interesting to see what posterity makes of the argument.

      Thanks for your reply!

      1. Robert says:

        For my part, I wasn’t preaching adherence to traditional poetic forms, by any means — though you seem to have interpreted me as meaning that. Call it spoken word, if you like, and claim a pedigree for it that stretches back into the mists of time — no-one could argue with that. But for me, poetry has to have something to it that goes beyond ordinary language. Whitman’s verse left the poetic rule book in tatters, but it had inspiration in spades. As a mere reader and amateur of poetry, not a teacher or any other kind of professional in the field, I can only say that I think there _is_ a difference. You probably know this poem by Howard Nemerov, “Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry”:

        Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
        That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
        Riding a gradient invisible
        From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

        There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
        And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

        1. Bram says:

          By continuing to stress this nebulous “something to it that goes beyond ordinary language” you completely shut down any chance of debate though. That’s why I am trying to define the terms of the discourse. It’s analogous to the scores in poetry slams – at base, they are completely subjective. You can’t rank poetry by what’s better than what. It isn’t a race. It’s also pretty weak to point at one type of poetry and say it ‘lacks’ something undefined which means it is ‘not poetry.’ Perhaps poetry is in the eye (ear) of the beholder? Defining it is like trying to hold mercury in your hands. I resist all attempts at definition. The minute an artform can be defined, the closer it comes to being extinct.

        2. Thief says:

          Despite not being involved in spoken word or poetry, but none the less a rapper, I would like to throw my hat in the circle by ways of pointing out the difficulty of defining something objectively by holding on to a subjective account of that thing.

          Try defining what hip-hop is by historical, material accounts of whence it came. You’ll arrive at it being a dj-dancer relationship and everything else not involving just that as rap music.

          Is it possible to scrutinize poetry in the same reductive way?

      2. Redguantlet says:


        You can tell that you studied English Lit – not me, I´m an autodidact – when you come out with terms like “inferior” and “access to the closed loop of poetry” and then when you state that rap is just as “rich and valuable” as, say, epic poetry over the course of centuries…

        …it simply isn´t in my opinion, how on earth could it be, but where is the shame in that? We all live in the age we live, to say that all these forms are equally valid is one thing, to say that they have equal value in the course of human history is quite another. It´s about complexity as much as anything else, and about history…nobody could write an epic poem today, obviously.

        What lies behind this is, of course, the well intentioned notion that art be “democratic”. Fair enough, but why only art? Are good looks democratic? Are sports skills or skills in other fields? If all artistic expressions are to hold equal weight, which is what I understand you to be saying, then it must be the only field of human affairs where that is the case.

        It is ludicrous to suggest that all artistic expressions should hold equal weight, just because humans have or ought to have the same basic rights, and have the same right to express themselves…it is one of the great confusions of our age….

        …and it very conveniently leaves the door open to so called poets and writers who “express themselves”, which is another one of the fads of our age, and are quite oblivious to the whole canon preceding them.

        The best writers and poets are always canonizing and de-canonizing as they write, as a matter of fact, but to do that you have to spend a very long time reading. I think Pound said 8 years…these days, the canon is so vast, nobody could read it all if they tried…but that doesn´t detract from the point.

        1. Bram says:

          Again, you consistently fail to define your terms. You say “nobody could write an epic poem today” but provide no reasons for this – I am pretty sure you could identify a great many writers who would be more than happy to engage with this form, and try and modernise it, riff on it, play with it. Check out some Baba Brinkman for great examples of that!

          My point is not that there is no ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ as you seem to suggest, but rather that the evaluation of art is a conversation – a continuous, evolving discourse which is ALWAYS OPEN. The alternative is to divide things into ‘canon’ and ‘non-canon’ which is what you seem to be suggesting.

          I am not asking you to consider all poetry as equally viable or valuable – merely asking you to widen your definition of the canon to include more modern forms. Which, to be fair, you seemed to be prepared to do (you cited Gil Scott Heron), but only subjectively. Which backs up my point that the notion of what is ‘canon’ is ALSO SUBJECTIVE.

          I think I’ve made my point as clearly as I can. Two more things – my Eng Lit degree was the least useful part of my study of literature. If anything I felt suffocated by the opinions and expectations of canon-fetishists like yourself. Reading modern literature and poetry – from Ginsberg to Chuck D. – is what inspired me to ‘express myself’ (although I am sure you would also disagree about the manner in which I choose to do that, too).

          In my opinion (subjective of course), people who think like you are part of the problem. Your attitude discourages engagement and expression, and fetishises form and academic study. These things put off the vast majority of people. The canon is there to be challenged and subverted. Yes, I do believe people should read more. But I am not going to dictate to them what, or how much, they should read. I occupy no ivory tower.

          Fuck Ezra Pound.

          1. Robert says:

            Bram, in the heat of the argument you seem to have confused what I’m saying with what Redgauntlet is saying. I mentioned GSH, not him; and I never mentioned the “canon”.

            Doesn’t seem like you’ve answered my last comment:


          2. Bram says:

            There’s two of you?

            *waves white flag*

            Argue amongst yourselves then.

          3. Robert says:

            Different usernames, not a hard call.

        2. Robert says:

          Bram: “It’s analogous to the scores in poetry slams – at base, they are completely subjective. You can’t rank poetry by what’s better than what.”

          Can’t you? Everyone who has anything to do with the literature business spends their whole time ranking people and their work. As an editor or a curator or a judge or the author of an article like the one above, you are implicitly (or explicitly) stating that the stuff you’ve included is good, worth including, and the stuff you’ve excluded is less good. Writers self-edit in choosing what to send where, hoping to be judged favourably. (There’s a reason it’s called submission.)

          It’s subjective, you say? Yes, to an extent, of course, but that’s unavoidable. What’s avoidable is to be lily-livered about it and pretend you aren’t doing it. When someone claims not to have an agenda, what it usually means is that they have a hidden one.

          1. Bram says:

            Address my points about your elitist, exclusionary approach to this discourse and the problems of defining a ‘canon’ and I’ll continue this discussion, otherwise, I’ve said all I am going to say on the topic.

          2. Bram says:

            Also the “literature business” is going down in flames – but that is another article.


    2. Jim Monaghan says:

      The article is specifically about the “performance poetry and spoken word” scene here in Scotland. To suggest the Agnes Torok doesn’t fit into those descriptions based on definitions set by Ezra Pound is beyond ludicrous. I would say the terms or definitions of “spoken word” or “performance poetry” are there partly because it covers performers and writers outside of rigid rules of what is and isn’t poetry.

  10. Redguantlet says:


    The canon is a battlefield, or should be…how do you define it? By waging dialectical warfare…

    …as for literature going down in flames…well EXACTLY! That is exactly the point…

    Compare the great books of the past with what is on offer today…

    The geeks beat us arts crowd hands down…we are well on the way to a high-tech fascism….

    1. Bram says:

      Redgauntlet, lets end this here, rather than slide into yet more sweeping generalisations, poorly defined arguments, and divisive rhetoric. Not everything has to be dualistic, not everything has to be defined in terms of self/other. I am a human being – so are you. Even if that is the only thing we have in common, lets be satisfied with that rather than continue to draw circles in the sand. Enjoy your Ezra Pound 😉

  11. Redguantlet says:

    …a high-tech fascism which will encounter no resistance from the world of arts if the spirit is, “give everybody a go at this, the important thing is that everybody gets to try…” like art was like a special episode of Blue Peter or something like that….

    …as for Ezra Pound, I think his call to “make it new” – modernism basically – is the key to art…that is where the only hope lies, a constant engaging, wrestling and re-working of the canon or aspects of the canon or indeed a destruction of bits of the canon….the canon as a forcefield….

    …OF COURSE art is elitist. It is practised by an an elite and understood by an elite. It always has been and always will be.

    But ivory towers are something quite different, you can believe art is elitist and not be able to buy a pair of shoes or go to the dentist, which are problems the inhabitants of ivory towers are not known to suffer from….

    1. Bram says:

      “that is where the only hope lies, a constant engaging, wrestling and re-working of the canon or aspects of the canon or indeed a destruction of bits of the canon”

      That’s my argument.

      “the canon as a forcefield”

      This is yours. If you cannot see the ways in which you are contradicting yourself I cannot help you!

      1. Redguantlet says:

        Not sure I follow Bram.

        When I say the canon as a forcefield, I mean an electro-magnetic forcefield, or a field of play or a battlefield as I prefer to think of it…or maybe just a context in plain English.

        To agree with that statement, you would have to agree that to engage in the serious business of art, you have to be aware of the canon, you have to have read it or substantial strands of it. You have to accept that art which takes place in the vacuum is most likely going to be vacuous…with the possible exception of young people and lyric poetry (but very much the exception)

        So how does a “poem” like Agnes´s above relate to the canon? If we are going to compare it to the poetry of the canon, we would have to say it is really not a very good poem at all. It could easily be mistaken for advertising, the language is thin and the message is a commonplace.

        But as I have stated above, that would be to ignore the perfomative aspect of Agnes´s piece and the context in which she presents it, which is where a great part of its appeal lies in my opinion…

        …which is the point I was originally making.

        1. Bram says:

          I disagree with your analysis of Agnes’ work with a violence I am finding it difficult to express here. And yet again, your definition of the canon is subjective, and nebulous at best. You, frankly, have no idea to what degree Agnes or myself (or any young poet for that matter) are familiar with the traditional canon. On-engagement with it does not mean it has been ignored, disregarded or put aside – merely that it is of no consequence to our work. Furthermore, I imagine if you approached a few academics about the notion of ‘canon’ and asked them to define it, you might be surprised by their answers – there is an increasing engagement with and embracing of modern forms like rap in many academic establishments. Your argument is analogous to the claim graphic novels cannot be literature, which I would also dismiss out of hand.

          Overall, looking at our exchange, I can only conclude that your small-minded, petty, weak arguments and analysis are poorly defined, almost entirely subjective, loaded with cynicism and unpleasantness, and completely circular. Feel free to attempt to have the last word (again) but I am 100% done with answering your pointed, snippy, vague-at-best comments.

          Please respect my attempt to disengage – I can feel myself losing brain cells every time you respond.

          1. Bram says:


          2. Redguantlet says:

            Eh? Pretty unpleasant yourself Bram…I haven´t made any derogatory remarks about you or anybody else on this thread….

            …I don´t give a shit about academia or what the academics think Bram, and I made no mention of how well you or anybody else might know poetry. And my opinions are not ALMOST ENTIRELY subjective as you say….they are EXCLUSIVELY subjective and mine and mine only. I have my own canon after 25 years of serious reading….that´s my point!!!

            Take the humph by all means….but please, spare me the insults, capisci?

          3. Bram says:

            Not entirely sure what part of my response you found insulting – I have struggled to remain civil throughout, due to the very pointed meanness and spitefulness in your responses. If I failed, I do apologise. But please, re-examine “your canon” and consider that you might be limiting your own horizons by being, how can I put this, a terrible snob.

  12. Swearyman says:

    You know the acronym ‘Rap’ stands for Rhythm And Poetry, right?

    But apparently that’s not poetry (despite its name) on what do you base this myopic criterion? Is it simply because its using language which is still in common usage, well simple just wait a hundred years until the language has moved on, and suddenly it’ll be worthy of being deemed art by tossers

    Poetry is just an arrangement of words

    Pretentious pricks being told to fuck off is poetry to my ears!

    Keep up the good work Bram

    1. Redguantlet says:

      So, “pretentious pricks” from swearyman above and all kinds of insinuations and slurs from good old Bram who sounds, like so many rap artists do to my ears, just a wee bit aggressive…

      Scotland has this problem – anti-intellectualism – and it has long been commented upon: Kenneth White has commented on it, Hugh MacDiarmid bemoaned it, Edwin Morgan too…it is a culture which is hostile to the slightest whiff of anything intellectual and it goes right back to the Reformation when Calvanism burnt half the art work of Scotland and banned the theatre. David Hume wrote a “A Treatise Concerning Human Nature” IN FRANCE…and of course was slighted in Scotland for his ideas on his return an refused a Uni chair.

      The fact of the matter is that nobody on this thread has questioned the worth of performance poetry or whatever you want to call it. Where did anybody do that? A couple of us on this thread tried to make a distinction – but not a value judgement; that´s a personal matter – between poetry and performance poetry….where is the problem exactly with that?

      Bram, having watched some of your videos on youtube, clearly your performance and your text go together, would that be fair to say? The performer and the poem are part of the same package, just as is the case with music. Obviously Dylan performing “Time Out of Mind” is not the same as somebody doing a cover…

      Aggressive, hostile and frankly embarrassing thread from Scotland´s “poets”….what do you do? You leave the country.

      And, by the way, wee cliques tend to be the hallmark of mediocrity….art, on the other hand, is for the brave, art is for the solitaries…

  13. Swearyman says:

    Scotland doesn’t have a problem with anti intellectualism, it has a zero tolerance to pseudointellectual waffle and wankery like the guff you espouse.

    You could have elected to have spent your time writing a poetic magnum opus to shake the world out of its ignorance, but clearly having to win arguments in comments sections is a far more noble cause.

    Try not to trip up on any of those names you dropped on your way out

    1. Redguantlet says:

      Hilarious….clearly a man of great ideas and intellectual passions, swearyman…somebody who arrogates Scotland to authorise his own catalogue of insults no less….it´s my country too…

      Scotland´s great intellectuals have all bemoaned the anti-intellectual national culture….you don´t have to be an intellectual to agree with them…

      …but maybe I am a poet / and I don´t even know it / and I just have to go out there and show it /…

      …or whatever, right?

      1. Joe says:

        I always find it so insecure a pursuit, intellectually, to police the borders of an artform.

        Who cares? And cui bono?

        If it’s not speaking to you, you could wander over to some that is, eventually leaving that which speaks to nobody to adapt, or die.

        Or you could get all het up proving you ‘get it’, by pointing at people you think don’t.

        I’m not sure the latter has much to offer the scene, or the self, but you do you, because as I said before: gatekeepers are hilarious.

        1. Redguantlet says:

          Joe, what gate is it I´m keeping exactly? I don´t work for the state, or an institution…I live in poverty and write and translate freelance. Can I have an opinion which is different to yours without being insulted?

        2. Redguantlet says:

          Maybe you guys are the new gatekeepers, Joe….has that crossed your mind? With your BBC pish dole cheques disguised as…whatever…

 teeth are falling out, my whole life is books and writing and you f@cking tourists come along and stand there and say….anybody who doesn´t think like me is the Academy…

          Fckin toursist…you don´t know what hard work is, you don´t know what it is….

  14. Swearyman says:

    ‘Clearly’ you know everything about me based on two comments, I’m glad you agree it was hilarious as that was the intention 😀

    You have your own country huh? That must be nice. I like drawing imaginary lines around things and calling them mine too.

    ..Must have last word ..must comeback with pithy comment ..must win tragic argument ..must have last word ..must win social brownie points ..can’t lose face in a faceless internet comment section

    Go on surprise everyone with your inevitable comeback that no one cares about

    ..fragile ego can’t handle letting someone else have the last word

    Bet your top of everyones list of people to invite to their party with such witticism, in fact you should come along to the next WA meeting its full of anonymous wankers, you’d love it, we meet up and sit in a room where no one communicates we just stare at our phones arguing with strangers about nothing

  15. Bram says:

    Can I just say how brutally disappointed I am that this comments section descended into a pointless, petty fight about what is or isn’t poetry.

    I’m gutted that an honest attempt to delineate the borders of an often closed loop of a Central Belt ‘scene’, and open it to scrutiny and discussion, has turned into a mud-slinging match between generations and cultures with a seemingly endless and withering contempt for one another.

    Personally, this whole comments section makes me wonder why I bothered to engage in the first place… I could have just dropped the article and walked away (like other, more sensible Bella scribes sometimes do!) but no! I hung around in the hopes of opening up a civilised, productive discussion. I feel a bit let down.

    Maybe my article is full of shit. Maybe I’m as incapable of having a civilised online discussion as the next internet comment-bastard? I’ve been accused of displaying aggression here, and maybe I did. But really, some of the dickishness on display in this thread is pretty damn shameful. Colossal, epic diskishness. All so keen to proclaim your maturity but you act like a bunch of weans. Me included. Sake. Can we all just bloody grow up?

    I can’t help but feel a bit gutted to be honest… I thought more of us were better than this.

    Part 2 coming soon! 😉

  16. Redguantlet says:

    La policía te está extorsionando (dinero!)
    pero ellos viven de lo que tú estás pagando
    y si te tratan como a un delincuente (ladrón!)
    no es tu culpa, dale gracias al regente.
    Hay que arrancar el problema de raíz,
    y cambiar al gobierno de nuestro país,
    a la gente que esta en la burocracia,
    a esa gente que le gustan las migajas.
    Yo por eso me quejo y me quejo,
    porque aquí es donde vivo y yo ya no soy un pendejo
    el que no wachas, los puestos del gobierno,
    hay personas que se están enriqueciendo.
    Gente que vive en la pobreza!
    Nadie hace nada pues a nadie le interesa!
    La gente de encima les detesta!

    1. Bram says:

      One final response for you, Redgauntlet:

      “Ningún arte es especial, pero todos personas en el mundo estan un tipo especial de artista.”

      (Paraphrasing Hakim Bey, and excuse my poor translation)


  17. Robert says:

    You’re right Bram, this has degenerated into the online equivalent of a bar brawl. Lucky no glass was involved. Anyway, I did enjoy the article and your honest responses to critical comments. Look forward to part 2.

    1. Redguantlet says:

      Bram,…it´s a good article…I agree with Robert….

      …these things happen, they happen more and more….

      …and people in the arts squabbling is like that line by Borges about the Falklands War – two bald men arguing over a comb…

  18. Jim Monaghan says:

    Most people would say that Spoken Word as a performance art form emerged in Harlem about 50 years. Although it has similarities to other forms such as storytelling etc, this is the start of what we know as Spoken Word today. I find it interesting that the American style that emerged from that, def jam poets etc seems to only now become the dominant style amongst younger Spoken Word Artists in Scotland. I’m wondering if people think that is because its just the time it takes for a cultural style to spread, of it because of rap or because of the internet?

    1. Bram says:

      I’d definitely say rap had an influence as did YouTube vids of people lke Taylor Mali and Shane Koyczan. The latest wave of poets definitely seem to be a touch more influenced bu US slam style, and some of the Scottish scene’s most exciting and polishes new performers – Carly Brown, Katie Ailes, Jess Smith – are American. I’d tip Katire or Jess to win Nationals this year. But what got me into performance poetry was Big Word, Jenny’s night. I went along and it felt completely new. I only looked up Mali, Koyczan etc after a while; only connected what was happening at Big Word with Ginsberg and Gil Scott-Heron after being influenced by Jenny Lindsay, Jem Rolls, and Milton Balgoni. I hope spoken word retains DIY ethics and a strong grass roots movement as it grows.

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