Teddy Jamieson meets the men and women at the forefront of Scotland’s poetry renaissance
THE BBC’S NEWLY APPOINTED POET IN RESIDENCE STUART PATERSON SAYS POETRY IS FOR EVERYONE. SO IS THE REVERSE ALSO TRUE?
It doesn’t matter to me where there’s curves! Where there’s planes, or where your hair grows! Cause heaven knows! We all have hallways made of veins! Windows to the souls! And four chambers where we can rest!
IN A basement bar in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow I am listening to a 27-year-old film director talking about love and desire and the labels we attach to our sexuality. In poetic form. Sarah Grant, the film director in question, is performing at Broadcast. From memory. It’s a warm, witty, compelling account of growing up and trying to discover who she is. Using rhyme when required.
And this is just the start of things. It’s the open mic section of the evening and for the next two hours some 40-odd people will be entertained with poems about love and sex and relationships, poems about class and politics, and poems about Star Trek’s post-capitalist philosophy. All set to a musical backdrop supplied by keyboards and strings (or Sam Thorne and Fiona Liddell, one half of Edinburgh band the Ekobirds, to be precise).
Here is poetry as wordplay, poetry as humour, poetry as polite polemic, but mostly poetry as entertainment. Each with a specially tailored musical backdrop. For the most part it is, to use the favourite word of many of the predominantly twentysomething contributors this evening, “awesome”.
It is also the latest monthly outing to Glasgow for Edinburgh-based spoken word collective Loud Poets, just one of the many groups who make up part of Scotland’s thriving spoken word community.
For the last decade now (at least) poetry has been at home on the stage just as much as on the page. Whether it’s the Loud Poets or Neu Reekie or any of the other spoken word collectives who fill venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, performance poetry has become a vibrant scene in Scotland.
Grant actually came across spoken word poetry via YouTube. “It’s well documented in the States and I really loved it but I honestly didn’t think it would translate to Scottish. There’s just something about the Scottish accent. ‘If it’s not Burns it’s not happening.’ I’d been writing poetry but it lived under my mattress, never to be seen by
any humans ever.” And then she saw the Loud Poets and the experience was Damascene in its impact. “I was so sure I was going to show up and it was going to be these 22-year-old people who couldn’t grow beards telling me about their pain. But it wasn’t. It was people utilising their Scottish humour and timing and having a lot of fun with it.” Soon enough, she was joining in. The Loud Poets were formed in Edinburgh in 2014 and have since been holding regular nights in both the capital, Glasgow and beyond. “We’ve done two Brighton Fringes and two Prague Fringes,” says Kev Mclean, who’s been with Loud Poets since the beginning. “We’ve done Comic Con, we’re doing an ‘adult youth club’ this weekend down in Cumbria.”
Performance poetry is not page poetry, points out Loud Poet Katie Ailes, a willowy 24-year-old expat from Philadelphia who loves the live poetry scene in Scotland. They shouldn’t be judged on the same terms. “Reading The Wasteland to a pub full of drunk people is not going to go over well,” she suggests. (You might pay to see it though.)
“The whole idea behind it,” Mclean adds, “is making poetry more engaging, more accessible to people.”
As I look around me this Thursday night at a small but enthusiastic audience mostly half my own age, it seems clear that for some it’s working.
WHAT’S your attitude to poetry? Are you one of those who tune in to Poetry Please every week, who can recite the entire works of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas by heart? Or are you one of those who shudders at the memory of being forced to read Gerard Manley Hopkins at school?
We have as a culture a rather schizophrenic attitude towards the art form. As Mclean, who admits himself that he hated poetry at school in Livingston, points out, on one hand we appoint a poet laureate, “an official representative of the monarchy” who is asked to write poems on grand public occasions. And yet, at the same time, poets and poetry can often be looked down upon as unnecessary, dilettantish. What is its
end use value, the natural accountants of this world grumble? Poetry has no part to play in the real world.
Or at least so its critics like to believe. And it’s true that once you leave school it is perfectly possible to get through life without poetry being part of it.
But to do so, of course, you’ll have to avoid the internet where poets are all over You Tube, you’ll have to close your eyes when poets turn up in the Nationwide ads, you’ll have to avoid exploring the Mercury Music Prize list where this year Kate Tempest was nominated for her album Let Them Eat Chaos. Oh, and if you’re in Scotland come January, you won’t want to be celebrating Burns night either.
And the not-so-secret truth is that in times of joy and times of trouble many of us turn to poetry. In the wake of the terror attack on the Manchester Arena it was Tony Walsh performing his poem This is the Place that offered the city an expression of consolation and defiance. In the key moments in our lives – births, deaths, marriages – we will often turn to poetry to provide a context for the depth of our feelings.
Poetry is imbricated in our daily lives whether we know it or not. What follows is just a snapshot.
FRIDAY lunchtime in Dumfries. Stuart Paterson is helping his friend move house when I call. On another day he might be in the garden or baking a plum crumble. “There are a million things that people do,” the 51-year-old tells me. “My days are not filled with poetry. But some days they might be.”
Paterson is a poet, though he doesn’t always tell people this. Why not? “I suppose it’s a Scottish thing, a slightly working-class consciousness of people’s perception of the arts as being above them, as something that isn’t connected to them.”
But, really, he adds, that’s not the truth of it. “I don’t think poetry is like that at all. I think poetry is immediate and a very personal thing and I think a lot more people like it than they realise.”
This week, on National Poetry Day in fact, Paterson takes on a new role. He will become BBC Scotland’s poet in residence. “It’s an excellent platform. It’s based around The Janice Forsyth Show but hopefully I will be involved in other platforms as well.”
He’s looking forward to being asked to write about current events and what’s happening in the world. “It’s not all about golden daffodils in the fields.”
Paterson’s time as poet in residence will last four months, finishing on Burns night, appropriately enough for an Ayrshire boy.
“When you’re born and brought up in Ayrshire you can’t escape you know who, Mr B,” Paterson admits. “But my mum was full of wee rhymes and stories and songs. She loved poetry, so I suppose it got passed on. It’s quite a natural thing. It wasn’t something that was remote or aloof or academic or removed from reality. It was something that was very much part and parcel of everyday life.”
Burns, of course, is proof that it’s not only for the upper and middle classes, Paterson points out. “I don’t think poetry has a class. Look at Burns. Look at Lord Byron. Opposite ends of the spectrum.”
There have been times in his life when Paterson had no room for poetry. After a spell as writer in residence in Dumfries and Galloway he moved south to Manchester for a decade and a half where he worked in residential child care. “Some jobs you do don’t allow a lot of head space for other things. I was away from literature for about 15 years. I wasn’t involved in publishing and I wasn’t writing as much. But that’s all changed since I moved back.”
What is it about poetry that makes it special to Paterson? “It’s the sound, the rhythms, it’s the impression it has on you. It is very lyrical, very musical, very immediate. People will remember poems more than sections of prose because it’s almost like a song.”
And, he points out, it’s an art form with history. “It does go all the way back and particularly in our society was used as a commemoration, as a link to the past. Bards like Duncan Ban MacIntyre, the Gaelic poet, carried something like 5000 lines of poetry around in his head at any one time. He was commemorating the past, he was holding his family histories in his head, important stories about past battles and events and the history of that society in which he lived. It was a means of commemoration and keeping the past alive.”
And poetry today? Paterson is optimistic. “Art forms go through phrases of fashionability. Poetry for a long time was seen as something that was quite removed from working-class life. I think it’s become popular again through people like Kate Tempest.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the new rock and roll. I don’t think it ever went away, to be honest. I live quite far away from the central belt but I know there’s a lot going on. There are a lot of poetry gigs, poetry slams, performance stuff and it seems to be getting a much younger crowd involved as well. I’ve been at a few gigs the last year where I’ve been astonished by the turnout. And by the age range. From 16 to 60.”
This positive note is echoed by Asif Khan, the director of the Scottish Poetry Library, when I speak to him a few days later.
“I would say there’s a cultural renaissance in poetry in Scotland I don’t think it’s ever seen the like of. We’re in the middle of it and we’re not quite aware of it. People hark back to this golden era of Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Sorley MacLean. But actually in 25 years I think people will look back on this as the golden age of poetry.”
And who will be the poets who will be remembered, I ask? “Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, Hugh McMillan, some of the younger writers coming through; Iona Lee, Leyla Josephine, Billy Letford. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
But do we talk that up enough? Khan thinks not. We should be celebrating our poets in the same way as we celebrate our sportsmen and women, he thinks.
“If we have a poet who wins the Forward Arts Foundation award or the TS Eliot award we should say: ‘You know what? That’s as good as Alan Wells winning the
In 25 years people will look back on this as the golden age of poetry Katie Ailes of the Loud Poets (top) entertains the audience at Broadcast (above) PHOTOGRAPHER: PERRY JONSSON
Stuart Paterson looks forward to writing about current events during his BBC tenure: ‘[Poetry] isn’t all about golden daffodils in the fields’