Teddy Jamieson meets the men and women at the fore­front of Scot­land’s po­etry re­nais­sance



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’

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