Book Review – Please Dont Punch the Poets by Robin Cairns
“I ran a poetry night at The Rio Café in Glasgow for a decade… not sure why.”
Robin Cairns might not be quite sure why he did what he did but what we can be sure of is that it made a huge difference to poets and to poetry in Scotland. For many established poets Last Monday at Rio was a way in to a blossoming live poetry scene. To me, it was a way back in after years of taking little or no part. Rio was a unique space, unlike other nights that appealed to certain types of poets or certain audiences it had a variety and breadth that meant that poets of all kinds and poetry fans were made to feel welcome, not intimidated. In this it reflected Cairns himself, never part of any clique or scene, never snobbish about the form but always committed to promoting poetry and poets. It was Cairns who established the National Poetry Slam here in Scotland, bringing together the mix of winners of slams across the country to a national final event which is now a major fixed part of the cultural calendar.
The slams get a frequent mention in this book, as do many “other poetry nights” but it’s the monthly nights at Rio that are the focus. The collection of characters and performers who gathered there each month are a storytellers dream. Although a full list of headliners would read like a who’s who of Scottish spoken word, Cairns focuses on a selection that demonstrates the range of performers, some well-known, others just vague memories in their fleeting flirtation with the scene.
The nights themselves were always good fun, often raucous, rarely controversial and definitely friendly (sometimes). But not everyone has fond memories of appearing there. Like the night that Dundee street-poet Mark Thomson decided to tell Glasgow what he thought of Tommy Sheridan, to be met with an evacuation and door-slamming exit from some prominent Glasgow lefties. Thomson recalls “that night when eh did the Tommy Sheridan poem and it went doon like a lead balloon. Eh hid people walkin oot an ahthin… eh wid have got awah wi that in Dundee”.
The book is peppered with comments of fond memories from those who attended and took part. To some it was obviously like a home to them. There is a genuine affection throughout this book, and this is something that, I think, echoes Cairns himself. He, despite his cynicism and forthright criticism of some, is genuinely fond of poets. It is this that has made him one of the most important people on the scene over the last couple of decades. He has his opinions, he has standards, but he doesn’t hold individuals to account for their style or beliefs. No, he leaves that to sideways swipes when he talks, frequently, about “poetry types”. These types could leave some thinking he is talking about them, the obnoxious poets, the political poets, the committed poet, the fraud, the watchless (those who go over their allotted time slot) but Cairns is less interested in attacks or naming people than he is in entertaining the reader with genuinely funny stereotypical behaviour we can all recognise.
Robin Cairns, you can tell from this book, likes people, likes poetry as an art-form but, like in his work, his one-man plays (regular sell-outs at the Edinburgh fringe) sees all of it as interesting, almost as material. You get the feeling he has been watching us this whole time, with this book in mind.
As a poet, I have always thought him under-rated, perhaps because he is seen as an organiser, the Rio guy, the slam guy, but some of his poems are among my favourites. As a performer he is first class, someone who takes his art-form seriously, works hard and rehearses. He is unashamedly an old-style entertainer, crass jokes, self-mocking and sometimes over-the-top music hall tomfoolery. A friend once described him as being “like Francie AND Josie”. He wouldn’t thank me for saying it but I often thought we would make a good politician, he has all the ingredients of a typical Scottish politician, a son of the manse, socially conservative with a strong belief in social justice.
As the book moves through the years, from 2007 onwards, there is a narrative here that tells you a lot about where the poetry scene was in Scotland at the time. It’s a document of the changing face of spoken word, the differing prevailing styles and thought. Only Robin Cairns, and only Last Monday at Rio, could tell that story with a broad enough knowledge and range of characters.
I don’t think you would need to know the Scottish spoken word scene, or need to know the many characters involved, to enjoy this book. It very funny in bits, interesting throughout and heartfelt. It’s a history of an important but brief moment in Scotlands arts landscape and a story of a performance space that brought together the often warring factions of Scottish poetry. Last Monday at Rio sadly came to an end in April 2017. The last Last Monday was an emotional affair, headlined by Hamish MacDonald, a night where we all paid tribute to what Rio, and Robin Cairns, had done for us. And that, partly, is the strength of this book, its about a night and a person that deserves a tribute.
Please Don’t Punch The Poets is published by Silkscreen Press and can be purchased direct by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or on Kindle from the link below