I started my spoken word career in Edinburgh when I was 21. I moved there because of a by then nationally known night called Big Word, run by Jenny Lindsay. She was only a few years older than me, ‘til my arrival the youngest poet on the Scottish scene…she was kicking ass, taking names and doing it all in heels. To a lot of us female poets who came up on the Scottish scene, Jenny Lindsay is why we’re here, why we slam, why there are just so many of us. She’s also why we’re successful: I was the big, brashy poet taking up the stage..all noise and force and energy. Jenny Lindsay was the one who taught me poetry is a dialogue between you and the audience, you need to initiate a conversation, give the audience space to be involved. I used to perform at, she taught me to perform with. Jenny’s a natural leader, not least because she’s almost annoyingly humble (read her accept absolutely no credit for anything ever below). During the lead up to Scotland’s Independence Referendum, Jenny Lindsay became a driving force for dialogue, discussion, for questioning. Few poets have ever had the credibility to also be a go-to talking head on news shows.
But when I say leader, I really mean where Jenny has taken her career. She’s a former Scottish National Slam Champion, has performed at the European Parliament, done all the things that makes you a certifiable Big Fuckin’ Deal, but has spent most of her career organizing events for others. Providing platforms, giving people their breaks…every poetry night she’s run, from Big Word through to Rally & Broad has been pushing the envelope. The last show I toured was inspired by a performance art set I saw performed at Rally & Broad a few years ago. Cabaret might be the best way to describe it, but still inaccurate. A night where the headline acts are a poet and a band, sure, but alongside them are sets for physical theatre, performance art, novelists doing readings…It’s one of the shows where there truly is something for everyone. There will be at least one act in their line-up that will get you excited, will intrigue you, surprise you. Jenny Lindsay is all about bringing as many people as possible into spoken word, and she will expose you to this genre any way she can.
We don’t just need writers, we are in desperate need of builders: people who want to shape, to strengthen, to grow and to expand this scene for all of us. Each poet I’ve featured this week is one of those people. But there are few in the poetry world who expend so much energy on other poets, on creating audiences.
At the bottom, there’s a video of Jenny performing. I’ve intentionally chosen one where you see her intro. Her conversational, laid-back style just brings the audience straight to the palm of her hand. She creates intimacy in seconds, has the whole crowd on side before she begins her poem. A skill I definitely wish I had.
1) You are the reason there is a Scottish spoken word scene, though interestingly, when you began running nights, you were easily the youngest poet on the scene. Most UK scenes are now very young. What do you feel we lose from that? How do you think we can retain poets, retain experience (as opposed to now, where people quit after a few years)?
Without downplaying the role that I have played in contributing to the live lit and spoken word scene in Scotland, I’m definitely not the reason there is one! I reckon it’s vital to understand the history of yer scene, and Rally & Broad, the popular event-series I run now with Rachel McCrum, wouldn’t have been possible without all of the things that went before it. Direct inspirations are Words Per Minute (run by authors Kirstin Innes and Anneliese Mackintosh); Rebel Inc (a publication run by Kevin Williamson, also of Neu! Reekie! fame); Inky Fingers; The Golden Hour that ran out of the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, Big Word, Is This Poetry? and much more besides. But even Rachel and Is own personal inspirations aint the whole picture. Audiences for spoken word are thriving because of everything from grassroots open mic nights to the efforts of literary figures like Liz Lochhead – the Scottish Makar, who has always championed the spoken word – and every act brings their own history of inspirations too. Yer right kind to say it, but I’d never expect anyone to feel they owed me anything because I happened to run the event they first cut their teeth on. Any act I’ve ever booked – whether with Rally & Broad, Is This Poetry?, Big Word or the other events I’ve run are only possible because there’s such a wealth of talent that deserves a stage and a live audience. I’ll take yer compliment that I’m dedicated to giving that a platform, and have been doing that since I was pretty young. I started out at the age of 20 and was, at the time, one of the youngest performers and promoters in the UK, yes. I’m definitely not anymore!!
In terms of poetry written specifically for performance (as opposed to having any desire to be on the page at all) yes, that part of the spoken word scene here in Scotland has gotten significantly younger. As you say, when I started out in 2002 I was the only such poet under the age of 30 and one of very few women writing poetry explicitly for performance.
I don’t think that the current scene (which is incredibly healthy) loses anything from being more diverse than it once was, but there is a slight danger of a certain style of performed poetry, written specifically for slams or two minute performances, coming to dominate what is thought to be ‘spoken word poetry’ and a false perception from some poets that live poetry is a young un’s game… That is a shame. I had a young poet tell me that they didn’t consider my work to be poetry for performance, which I found really hilarious, for example! What they meant was that it wasn’t what they call ‘slam-style’ poetry. I guess that is something to perhaps be challenged, but to be honest, that will happen as the audiences for spoken word events grow, and on a personal level I’m not too fussed how I’m categorised so long as I am writing and performing in the way I wish to.
On ‘retaining poets and retaining experience’…. Hm. I guess it is up to individual poets to decide if they have it in them to keep slogging away. I don’t consider poetry a career that has a particular trajectory, though I know a lot do. Pamphlet – collection – residencies – tutoring. Or open mics – feature set – solo show – stand-up or theatre. I don’t know. For me, it’s something I feel I have to do and can’t imagine ever not doing, in whatever form, and my own battle for the last ten years has been trying to find ways to organise my life to allow me to write and perform and do what I love. I was always of a mind that there was nae point focusing purely on my own writing and performance if there wasn’t a scene, so I focused on the latter over my own writing, which… well… there’s been pros and cons to that, hasn’t there! But I don’t regret it. But if poetry stops being something I feel I have to do, I’ll just stop. I did for a wee while and then came back into it. There’s no age-limit really, is there?
2) Your nights have always particularly attracted non-poetry audiences. You are responsible for bringing many poets and fans into this world. How do you approach running nights where your goal is to expand the audience? Is it different from how you’d approach running something geared solely to an existing poetry crowd? And do you see this difference as one of the reasons the UK spoken word world is still relatively niche, are we preaching to a choir?
The best thing about running a multi-artform event that does have the poetic and the literary at its heart, is where folks come for the tunes or the band or whatever and are blown away by the spoken word. That’s the aim really. We have massive poetry fans in our audiences, alongside folks who wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to a spoken word night; we attract a good theatre-crowd for a lot of our shows too, but also folks who are just after a great night of entertainment. Any act we book – whether it’s an author, a poet, a dancer, a playwright – they are booked because we think they are not only entertaining but are artistically innovative too. We are a showcase and a platform event – there’s no open mic. We programme artistically too – themed events, audience interaction, we’re starting to commission new work… All of this helps establish poetry and spoken word as an art-form worth engaging with and has definitely expanded the audience for spoken word. That being said, there’s nowt wrong with events that are insular, that are geared at poets and writers sharing and learning from each other.
3) What does it actually look like to be a professional poet? How does one make it financially survivable? And how do we prepare younger poets for the realities of such a career choice?
To be honest, it’s really difficult, and I would urge anyone who is after the title “professional poet” to recognise that writing poetry and being creative will seldom make up the bulk of yer earnings. I make the majority of my money out of events and artistic programming, followed by education work and residencies, followed by commissions, followed by being booked to perform. I don’t get paid to be an artist. I do all of the latter in order to have the headspace, the time and the inclination to actually write and create. I am lucky in that I absolutely adore organising events – I find that a creative act in itself, and am now respected enough to be asked to curate events for lots of clients. But the time I have to write is still not always sufficient. I know very few poets or writers who make their entire living out of their creative work. To do so, you absolutely need to tour – not something that is always easy or, to be honest, desirable for many performers and poets. It took me 13 years to be in the position I am now, where I do get to structure my own days (often badly), where I am my own boss, where I can dedicate my entire life to poetry and spoken word.
A lot of people are in too much of a hurry sometimes, I think. There’s a lot of social pressure in this artsy life too, eh? Folk seem to panic that they haven’t “made it” if they haven’t won a slam within two years; panic that they haven’t toured a sell-out show in their first three years of writing…. Being so bloody long-in-the-tooth on this scene; having seen it ebb and flow, and recede and grow, and then, as now, explode and flourish, I’d say to anyone starting out to take their bloody time and stop panicking. The art is what is important. Write. Make. Do. Stop worrying about trophies and medals and work out what you want to do with all those pretty words you write. What are you trying to say? Only once you’ve worked that out start to explore ways to organise your life to allow you to do it. That might be continuing to work full-time elsewhere and writing and creating in your spare time. It might be working part-time in an arts-admin job. You might be extremely lucky and have rich relatives who whack ye yer rent which allows you to give everything up. If ye are the latter, be understanding of those who cannot. When I decided to train as a teacher of politics in 2010, in order to fulfil my desire to combine my interests in writing, education, and in politics I’ll never forget the teeth-grinding angst I had when a fellow poet, one who was a “professional poet” who toured continually said to me, “Oh God. You’re going to end up one of those poetry casualties aren’t you? Someone who jacks it all in for the lure of a pay-packet.” What breath-taking arrogance! Some of my favourite poets on the scene work full-time in other occupations, and arguably this is of far more benefit to them than the sheer blind panic of not knowing where the next month’s rent is going to come from. I wasn’t ready for the plunge until last year, and I’d have fucked it up if I’d tried because of that. I didn’t, until recently, understand how to go about it. I tried it once before when I was 22 and it was a total disaster.
So, to yer last question: I’d say, it might take ye 13 years because you’re very indecisive and actually secretly always just wanted to be a rock star novelist…. Who knows! But don’t worry about reputation or get envious of others, hard as that is sometimes. Just go write. Make. Do. We’re not in the right world for comfort, so at least try to remember what is most important. Yer talent isn’t equated by how many followers you have on Twitter nor how many shares you get on Youtube. That’s being a successful marketeer – not a successful poet. I’m not a daftie, of course – I know that it helps to be able to do both of these things extremely well, and have seen this starkly when Rachel and I have booked some of the most talented poets and performers in the UK who, due to having virtually no social media presence, struggle to get audiences, even though they are some of the most respected poets or theatre-makers in the scene. Still: the essence is the writing and the performance. Start with that. Going viral has a lot of down-sides. I wouldn’t know anything about that personally, though. I only just got a smart phone….!
4) You have reputations both as a poet and as a promoter. Would you advise poets wanting to build their reputations to run nights? Or does it take too much time away from your own development as a writer and performer?
I’d say to any poet/ performer wanting to build their reputation to GO to any nights that are running already before they feel the urge to run their own. Events programming and promoting are totally different skills from writing poetry, and they take up an insane amount of yer time if ye do em well, so it depends what you want to do really! I barely perform at the events I run. One poem, if that. So no, it’s not the best way to get known as a poet. I think the best way to do that is to develop your set; slam wins obviously help at the start but aint everything, and then look at solo shows or collaborative work or blogging or putting together collections. Or…. whatever you want to do really! Running events is a great way to meet other acts, but then, so is actually lending yer support to other nights in existence. If anyone wants to run more platform-style events though, do feel free to hit me up for a set….
5) What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the UK scene? (Or indeed, is there even a UK scene? Are we scenes in isolation, or are we benefiting from each other?)
In Scotland, but I think across the UK too, there’s quite a growing dominance of confessional, deeply personal live poetry that seems to be inspired by the USA/ North American slam scene…I’ll be honest: while I absolutely love it, it’s not always easy to get that style right – there’s the private/ personal aspect to sort out, actually making an effort to be poetic and artistic and not just personal; giving equal time to the writing as to the performance; not aping others; appreciating your audience by not preaching at them if yer using yer personal experience to make some kind of political point… It’s a tricky style to get right, sure enough, and one I’m not sure I have gotten right all the time, though I have only recently started writing more personal pieces as part of my new show, Ire & Salt… But its growing dominance is a really interesting development that I reckon comes from the advent of Youtube. When I started performing that hadn’t been invented, so folks felt freer to actually believe that there were no rules about how performed poetry should be done.
I still believe that, fervently. The whole reason I was drawn to spoken word, coming from a singer-songwriter and theatre background is because there were nae rules, and I could combine all of my favourite ways of putting words together however I bleeding well wanted to without being told I wasn’t doing it “properly” (though there were, at the time, some snooty perceptions from the literary establishment about slams and ‘performance poetry’ that have thankfully died down a wee bit.)
Nowadays, I do worry sometimes that some poets unintentionally limit themselves and the potential of their voice by trying to ape a particular style that they think is how it is “supposed to be done”. That might sound a bit harsh actually, but I don’t mean it to be. I guess, if there is one less positive development in the UK spoken word scene then it does relate to slams and the dominance they have in some parts of the scene. Actually, I probably don’t mean slams themselves, but more the style of ‘slam’ that has come to dominate. Where poets do use that style well it’s bloody amazing – don’t get me wrong! It’s not that…. it’s just… well: slams used to be arbitrary because how the hell do you judge a narrative story-poem against a biting satirical 50-word story? How do you judge a beautifully constructed 1 minute poem written for the page and performed with craft against a 2 minute high-energy list poem? THAT used to be why slams were arbitrary. Now, often when I judge slams I struggle to vary my marks for a different reason: everyone sounds the same. The same subject matter, the same style, the same structure… And yeah, some of those acts will stand out as being quite obviously better than others but… I worry it puts off a helluva lot of talented spoken word poets as they will attend these things and think “Well, I’m not like THAT so I probably shouldn’t enter a slam.” And slams are things of brutal beauty and a great way into the scene more generally, so… Aye. I know from speaking to folks elsewhere that this is a bit of an issue elsewhere in the UK too.
To the other part of yer question: I think that broadly speaking there are scenes working in isolation, but that’s ok really. We wouldn’t want homogeneity. For example, I’ve noticed when I’ve performed at Latitude that there’s a really quite distinct style of English spoken word poetry that you don’t tend to get so much of in Scotland. A lot of it is deeply political and has a strong and genuinely interesting undercurrent of social commentary. I like that a lot. I’m thinking of folk like Luke Wright here, who is one of my favourite poets. Rally & Broad try to get these acts up as much as possible.
Saying all that, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, you’ve got loads of spoken word acts who crossover into publication and also theatre, which is why I love the scene as it is now. There’s also some really pretty incredible slam poets, by which I mean poets whose style and content comes from a rigorous training in slam – with all the theatrical endeavours that entails, which are many. It’s not something I’d ever have done, even back when I was entering slams. There’s a helluva lot going on. I’m very biased, but I would urge folks in the rest of the UK to check out Scotland-based spoken word acts more regularly – it’s arguably the most diverse part of the UK scene. I am very, very, very, very biased though!!
6) You’ve recently released your…third (did I get that right?) collection, which you are about to turn into your first show. What have you learned from transitioning more into the theatre (as in spoken word shows) side of things? Has it changed how you perform?
I’ve published one full collection and two pamphlet collections. The most recent one is the most…. challenging thing I’ve ever written. It’s about power, overall. That’s meant a helluva lot of navel-gazing, political fall-outs, campaigning, a breakdown… It’s was a tumultuous pamphlet-in-the-making, spanning three years of many ups and downs.
It’s also my debut solo show, after a mere 13 years… See earlier comments about not being in too much of a hurry…..! I never wanted to do a solo show until I felt I had something to say that would take an hour to say it. I hope this does what I want it to… So yeah – it has definitely changed how I write. And it’s still in progress so I probably can’t say more than that at the moment! You are asking me these questions as I am surrounded by a story-board, an ashtray, a caffetiere, and a great deal of gnawing aff my ain thumbs as I question my own sanity at deciding to make this transition. I’ll let ye know how it goes…
7) Seeing so many other UK poets moving more towards full-length spoken word shows, is that a transition you are considering? In the recent financial climate, how has your career had to change to survive?
I’m definitely hoping to, but to be quite brutally honest: I don’t know. Deciding to throw in the towel with security and jump into this extremely precarious lifestyle, I honestly don’t know if it is possible to say with any accuracy what I might be doing in a year, two years, never mind five. I have no children, no partner, no mortgage – I live month to month and very much try not to panic too much about failure. The only time I ever had any financial security was the three years I worked as a high school teacher, but even then I wouldn’t have got a mortgage on a letter-box. So in terms of how my career has had to change to survive…. hm…. I certainly demand payment for everything I do! Too many poets and artists (both new and established poets and artists, I have to say) let themselves get taken advantage of.
I suppose that, having been an events promoter and programmer for as long as I have been a writer, if a promoter or organisation tries to rip me off then I’m more able to call them on it as I know all too well that, often, “we have no budget” means “we haven’t allocated any of our substantial budget for paying artists because we don’t think we have to – you all want ‘exposure’, right?”, but it utterly infuriates me when early-stage and especially established poets and performers undermine the sustainability of the scene by running workshops for less than the industry standard, or perform for free for massively funded organisations and festivals….
In order to make this whole poetry lark possible, knowing my rights and the going rate for my labour is really important, and if others are willing to do it for absolutely nothing then it makes me look like a fanny when I ask for recompense. This year I’ve had a steep learning curve as I start changing the types of events I perform at and commissions I’ve been writing, including theatre-makers using parts of my work in their shows; collaborating on devising work that I will not be performing; co-writing, etc, and I’m learning about performance rights and royalties and the like too. It’s far more advanced than in the spoken word world, though like in all of the arts there are rip-off merchants and charlatans everywhere, really. Ah, money! If only it didn’t exist!
Mainly, I survive on equal parts willpower and bloody-mindedness. And a lot of to-do lists. And constant financial precarity. And some months of glorious plenty. And overall: constantly mildly aware that it could all end tomorrow. And finally, trying not to mind about any of that and just bloody write. *Slurps more coffee*
8)Where do you think our spoken word scene is heading? As more and more poets attempt to make it their careers at the exact same moment there is less and less funding and fewer and fewer paying nights, what do you see ahead?
There are actually more paying nights in Scotland now, though still not enough, and the scene is rather dominated by the Central belt, which has to change I reckon. There have been some brilliant discussions happening since the referendum about Scottish culture and the arts, but this needs to stop being dominated by artists in the Central belt, lest we end up aping the dominance of London in the UK arts-scene in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Hm. In terms of where the UK spoken word scene is heading, I don’t really have the foggiest. I’ve seen the scene overall flourish in the last decade or so, but not without years in-between where it felt like nothing was happening at all and where I very nearly gave up. It’s hard to separate yer ain personal artistic endeavours from a wider scene though, so perhaps it’s easier to think about where I’m headed…
To be honest, when I started out everyone told me I had to go to London or I’d never ‘make it.’ I’m still trying to work out what ‘making it’ means, or if I even want to, and certainly whether or not I want to do what it takes to ‘make it.’ Other people think I’ve “made it” already, but I don’t know what they mean. What is “it”? I’ve made “it” as an events-programmer, in that I make a reasonable living out of it, but as a poet? I really don’t think so! Plus, it could all end quite easily, and tomorrow. And I don’t even know what ‘making it’ means for a poet who writes for performance, when there is no path… Maybe I’ll work it out in another 13 years… Or, tae mis-quote and mis-use Antonio Machado, perhaps we’ll make the path by walking it…
But I do know that whatever I end up doing myself it will be here, in Scotland. Because if it doesn’t exist, ye build it. A more collective effort to make this scene sustainable, and not just for one or two individuals, for the art-form itself would be glorious. And if not, I shall embrace being a poetry-casualty. And write some goddam poems about it.
Find out more about Jenny below: