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Rules are made to be broken

18 Apr

About three and a half years ago, when I decided to seriously take up poetry again I also decided that I would only perform on stage when asked.  How so?  Well, like many page poets, I (secretly) hate performing.  I get incredibly anxious, I spend hours worrying about how to order my set list, I worry that my voice won’t come across, I worry something unfortunate will happen with the mic stand, I worry that I will get tounge tied, I worry I’ll be shit, I worry that I will be the worst poet reading, I worry, I worry…  Yes, you get an adrenaline kick from a good performance on stage, but after doing some performance poetry years ago I realised that the adrenaline kick wasn’t enough to make it worth it, for me anyway.

So I’ve only performed when I was asked.  Which means that I haven’t performed a lot.  However, the fact that I will have a pamphlet published sometime in the near future by Red Squirrel Press means I will have to step up my self-publicity game.  So I am performing, I even volunteered, I felt slightly enthusiastic for a whole half an hour after.

And whom would tempt me out of my performing retirement?  Inky Fingers.  To “celebrate” the dullest event of the year (the Royal Wedding in case you’re wondering) they are hosting a spoken word night themed To the altar! To the block!  With  a lot of  poems on the subject of my recent separation, how could I resist?  Hope to see you there.  I think.


The best conversations you’ve had all week

2 Feb

Me:  So, what are you doing Tuesday?

You:  The 8th?

Me:  Yeah.

You:  Not much, did you have something in mind?

Me:  Well, I will be reading my poem from the new Red Squirrel Press anthology “By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept“, at it’s Scottish launch.

You:  That sounds great.

Me:  Yes, it’s the first time my writing will have appeared in an actual book, so I’m quite excited.  I’ve been assured it has a spine and everything!

You:  Well, I was planning on washing my hair.

Me:  There are free “refreshments” (wink).

You:  I suppose I could wash my hair another night.  Where is it?

Me:  It’s at the Fruitmarket Gallery, near Waverly Station (Edinburgh, Scotland).  And before you ask, it starts at 7pm.

You:  Well, I shall really look forward to seeing you.

Me:  There will be a host of other talented poets reading as well.

You:  Even better.

A chorus of poetry loveres tweeted this poem

17 Dec

As my regular readers will know I was the Tweeter in residence for the latest TraVerses evening at the Traverse Theater, which took place on Monday.  Yet again TraVerses proved itself to be a vibrant night with an eclectic mixture of acts, and there is a real feeling of the vitality that is created when people collaborate across art forms, and the audience of perhaps 50 or 60 proves that there is an interest and that poetry is very much alive in Edinburgh.

I was tweeting what was happening on stage live all night, and also creating a Twitter poem.  For the Twitter poem the audience on the night were given paper and pens, so they could add their own tweets to the poem, while others, who were not able to make it tweeted in lines.  I am afraid that I didn’t get everyone’s name, so can’t thank you all personally here, but you do have my thanks for taking part.  The first line, was taken from the first line of the first poem by  Trio Verso‘s who were the first performers.

TraVerses Twitter Poem

The wind holds you up

only as long as you can stand it.


Iorn.  Gold.  Felt.  Fat.  Breeze.  Frost.  Chill.  Ice


Running against the standing force,

but the wall will hold you so long as it stands.


Emily melting those things again,

useless lumps that bubble blue

and red, eventually becoming not very useful,

but a full poet is pretty validity.


Storm Chaser,

perusing air whipped like ice cream,

thinking wind will keep you warm

while my arms hang cold,

my kiss to vanilla.


Even the wind gets a better offer

and secretly withdraws

its sexual grip and loving attention

to your bones, everything ends.  Ever.

Published and performing

17 Aug

Well it was about time for some good news really, and it came in the form of an inclusion into an anthology, which is a first for me, and very exciting.  I have had a poem, called The Management of Hope included in the anthology from Caparison E-books which is titled Emergency Verse:  Poetry in Defense of the Welfare State and in Support of a Robin Hood Tax on the City and should be available to download in a few weeks.  I have managed to squeeze my way in among some much more well know names such as Michael Rosen, Michael Horovitz, Mario Petrucci and many more.  Political poetry often runs the risk of turning a little lecturous (yes, I’ve just invented a new word) or polemical, however I feel sure that such experienced writers will tackle this issue with great skill.

Secondly I will be performing this Sunday as part of the Free Fringe at Chaos Raging Sweet: 14.40-15.50, Banshee Labyrinth, Banqueting Hall, Niddry Street. MCing are Andrew C Ferguson and Rob A MacKenzie.  Having been initially very pleased to be asked, and having written a poem especially for the occasion my nerves are now beginning to get the better of me and I’m realising why I don’t perform very often.  However, it would be lovely to see and meet any of my readers, so please do come and introduce yourself.

Does it really have to be performance versus page?

5 May

Jenny Lindsay, too young to be a veteran, too experienced to be a foot soldier, but the veritable Colour Sergent of the Scottish performance poetry scene discusses performance and page poetry.

Performance poetry is the lowest form of art. It is a bunch of assymetrical hair-do’d teenagers ranting on about Iraq and feminism like they have some kind of insight the rest of us don’t. It is stand-up comedy masquerading as poetry. It is ranty, it is in-yer-face, it is masculine, aggressive, populist. It is postmodern. It is to poetry what the soundbite is to politics: occasionally memorable, but ultimately meaningless. It is style over substance. It is a democratising art-form: anyone can join in. It is open to all – come along and share… It is freedom of speech, man. It is far less elitist than page poetry. It’s not ‘really’ poetry.

I have promoted live poetry events for around 8 years, and the above represents the most common assertions I hear from both page and performance poets regarding the difference between stage poetry and its more traditional counterpart. I agree with none of it.  Page poetry does not have a depth and substance that performance poetry necessarily lacks; nor does performance poetry have the patent on appealing to diverse audiences. Quite simply, where page and performance poets split is on their intentions as they write, not on their ultimate intentions or appeal. Any good poet wants to communicate a message of some sort, uses poetic techniques and devices to get that message across, and wants – to differing extents – to communicate to an audience.  Quite obviously, if you want to perform your poetry rather than try to publish it, you will have to employ different techniques to make your work successful, which, to some poets means performance poets are less ‘serious’ somehow than page poets.

The question of what makes performance poetry any different from page poetry requires a longer answer than lies within the scope of a short blog, but the differences start with the intentions of the writer. A performance poet knows that their work will primarily and above all else be heard by an audience that does not have the luxury of having read the work beforehand (and nor will they afterwards), and thus knows that their poem must have an immediacy and a plain message that can be immediately understood – something page poetry does not need by necessity. Does that mean the writer is an entertainer rather than a poet: does it mean, as has often been asserted, that comedy is the only tool of a performance poet? No. While comedy is one of many tools that a good performance poet can employ to get their message across, it is by no means the only one – in fact, with most performance poets the comedy is incidental rather than the prime purpose of their writing.  What a good performance poet will do is find a way of making a point through a combination of literary and performance techniques.  They will use universal language and themes to say something personal. They use personal experiences to say something bigger. And always, above all, they use plain language: performance poetry is not studied academically nor is it deconstructed in seminars. It is not written to be. It is written to be informative, immediately understandable and entertaining. It is written to be performed.

There are clear differences between page and performance poetry, though many poets would disagree with me on this. However, I often think that those who try to say there is absolutely no difference between performance and page poetry are more often than not merely at pains to say that one is not better than the other – and that I would certainly agree with.

All poets will have their own prime reasons for wanting to write and/or perform their poetry, but, as with all writing, this will usually be a combination of ego, a burning desire to communicate something important and a love of and knowledge of the power of language. All writers feel this to a greater or lesser extent. So, does the added motivation of wanting to entertain mean that performance poetry is all style over substance? Again, no. Though good performance poets will be keenly aware of their audience, audiences ( including the generally non-literary audiences of performance poetry shows) want an entertaining evening out and an impressive use of language.

That is not to say that page poetry readings lack this combination of entertainment and art. But the readings seem to me to be secondary to the ultimate aim of the page poet, which is to express meaning through an impressive use of language, often following certain poetic conventions, rules and traditions. Any performance is secondary to that. Of course, many poets completely transcend the page/performance divide, coming across equally well on stage as they do in print; and many page poets read their work in such a way as to engage an audience completely. This does, however, come from practice; from watching others reading and performing, from making a concerted effort to relate to the audience at a reading and from reading ‘naturally’; not putting on the terribly ubiquitous poetry ‘voice’. Performance poetry is far more than simply reading poetry aloud; and reading poetry aloud (and well) is a skill entirely different from writing good poetry. It is good skill to acquire – and engaging with the performance poetry world can help with this.

I’m no expert on these things of course, but the icing on the cake for a page poet is to be published I would think, or to become the writer in residence of somewhere, or to gain a grant or fund to develop their work. I’m not really sure what the icing on the cake is for a performance poet. Many of us pursue these things too, but really, the ultimate icing for a performance poet would be to make a living out of performing: something that is almost impossible without getting published, teaching, doing workshops and generally taking things on you would rather not and which often detract from what you really want to do: write. And therein lies the ultimate similarity between page and performance poets – we’re all practitioners of an art that doesn’t generally interest or impress the vast majority of people, and most of us will struggle to be heard, read, enjoyed and make a living out of our art. It is therefore quite darkly hilarious that many poets do not read other poets work, and nor do many performance poets attend performance poetry events! I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been promoting as long as I have been performing poetry and have seen a wealth of different styles of performance; but it is as equally important to read poetry. Page and performance poets can learn a lot from each other; and equally.

And so…I think we miss a trick by splitting the two as rigidly as some poets do. Being a performance poet is no excuse for lazy writing or for claiming a popularity that page poetry is perceived to lack. Meanwhile, being a page poet is no excuse for not trying to engage with a wider bunch of people than would generally attend poetry readings or buy poetry collections. Live poetry is, for me, a bloody good night out, and poetry is so diverse; its practitioners come from such a wealth of different styles and genres that it would be quite impossible to say you ‘hate’ poetry. You may well have seen a bad performance poet, (you may well have read a bad page poet!) but if you saw a bad singer-songwriter you wouldn’t consign everyone from Bach to Lady Gaga to the musical scrapheap.Performance poetry has to employ different techniques – both in terms of subject and style – than more traditional poetry, but that doesn’t detract from its artistic merit. And audiences, who in my experience come from all backgrounds, ages, races and classes, enjoy a performance/reading/cabaret/event where they get to hear many different styles of poetry; performance to page and everything in between. Poetry as an art can only ever benefit from being heard in places you wouldn’t normally hear it, and being heard and enjoyed by people who wouldn’t normally think they would like it. That is what live poetry is all about. Poets of the world unite! After-all….it’s all poetry.

Performing, and other news

23 Mar

This Friday, as part of the This Collection showcase I shall be performing at McEwan Hall, Edinburgh, with other This Collection poets.  I am really looking forward to performing in one of the most amazing buildings in Edinburgh, and excited to see what many of the film makers have started to produce to accompany mine, and other poems in the series.

Doors open at 6.30pm and poets will start performing at seven.  What will be really interesting about this performance is that instead of one stage and a static audience, there will be four different stages with four sets of poets on.  This means that the audience as well as wandering from film to film, can also wander from poet to poet, staying for a whole set, or picking up and wandering off as they wish.

This is a very innovative way to perform, placing poets in a “viewing” position, much like a painting in a gallery where the audience is in control, rather than in a “reading” position more like actors on a stage, where the audience is essentially passive.  I will be interested to see how this works, and what the reaction is to it.

But when are you on Mairi, I hear you cry.  I should, all being well, be on at 8pm on the Right Gallery Station on the First Floor.  However I would also urge you to check out the other poets, there are some there who I am looking forward to hearing again, and others I am excited to hear for the first time.  I just have to work out how I get around to hearing everyone.

On the other new front I was surprised this morning to find my blog listed in the Top 100 Poetry Blogs at the Accredited Online Colleges Blog I must say that I have never heard of the Accredited Online Colleges before, and I have no idea how they found my blog, but I suppose that is the wonder of the internet.  I am looking forward to gradually getting through the list, as well as checking out all the links to online resources you were kind enough to send.

And lastly, I finally succumbed and joined twitter.  I can be found @lumpinthethroat, and I am looking for interesting poets, people or anything else to follow, so please keep your suggestions flowing.

Seven adventures in Performance Poetry

11 Mar

This week for A-LiTT, veteran performance poet Kevin Cadwallender writes about some of the strangest and funniest experiences he’s come across in his carear.

1. The funniest thing for me happened at the esteemed ‘Hen & Chicks’ venue in Abergavenny, South Wales. I was reading there with Alistair Robinson and Aidan Halpin. During my set a poet from that community put his hat down on the table. I read a couple of poems it was all going very well. However the poet had put his hat down on a lit tea light candle and hadn’t noticed. I have forgotten the poem I was doing when the hat burst into flames, but burst into flames it did with general mayhem and pints being chucked on it to put it out. As you can imagine this distracted my audience a bit so I kept a running commentary on proceedings and when the fire was finally out went straight back to my set much to the joy and amusement of the assembled poets. They gave me the hat as a memento of the night and I had it for years until I moved up to Edinburgh. It was a sort of trilby, well an open topped trilby by the time I got it.

2. Way back at a gig at Thames Polytechnic as it used to be known a very rowdy crowd threw a can of lager at me which I caught and took a drink out of. This cheered up the hostility until I did a poem by a friend of mine who had decided it was too risky to do called, ‘One Fucking Thing’ which although loaded with irony went over the audiences heads and provoked three women to follow me into the toilet and protest its content. I pointed out the irony and then told them I didn’t write it. Which didn’t appease them. They demanded to know who did and so I led them back to my friend and let them protest to the author. I think he has forgiven me.

3. On a tour of Germany when I was about 21 some of the girls in the audience took a shine to me and queued up to get autographs, one of them had decided I should sign her breast which I declined and offered to sign her less risky arm. She asked me to put my phone number down too. I did write a phone number but this was the poet Bill Levitas’ number. Bill sadly passed away last year but I know he would have coped better with phonecalls from ‘fans’ better than me. The same girl asked to meet me later and pointed to her badge which said simply ‘F#*k me’. I declined although another poet did take up the offer. I best not say who it was.

4. In Edinburgh at the ‘Poems & Pints’ night held in the West End Hotel fights would occasionally break out. One poet who shall remain Barry Graham was heckled from the floor by another poet. His reply sticks in my head, ‘If you think his heckles are sh*# you should read his poems’. Nick Toczek the Bradford based poet thought this was a healthy thing and showed a vibrant poetry scene, although his cries of ‘Oh no! the poets are fighting’ did make me laugh.

5. A similar if more scary event which was christened the Pre-St.Valentine’s Day massacre happened at the Old George in Newcastle. A packed room full of poets and some very drunk Glaswegian poets (You know who you are). This ended in one poet ending up in the police cells and another in hospital after suffering an epileptic fit. The poet Stephen Yelverton (also sadly passed away) had to, ahem.. be asked to leave.  A well known older poet who had never been to a poetry reading before was shell shocked and didn’t believe her husband would let her attend another. I was the M/C for that night, it was bedlam. Happy days.

6. Another night at the West End Hotel had me doing a poem which a woman in the audience said she had heard me do before. I said yes, I read it here last year did she not like it? She replied in the negative so I did another poem. However the audience didn’t like this and decided to have a vote as to whether I should do the poem All but that one woman raised their hands so I duly did the poem (which was of course an anti-climax after the melodrama) and she walked out.

7. Finally at Newcastle’s Green Festival the show was finally ended by the police after I did the poem ,’He do the Police in Different Voices’. The police threatened to arrest me and I said,’ on what grounds? Possession of irony? As I said, Happy days.

There are a hundred stories from the naked poetry streets but most of them are waiting for people to die before they can be told.

If you ever get a chance to read ‘The Yonkly’ (Ran by Mike Dillon and Maggie Jamieson) do so,  a workshop magazine that charted events up and down between the North East of England (and other bits) and Scotland, a lot of these stories are archived there in the form of ‘gossip columns ‘ written by various poets at the time. It remains a snapshot of the poetry scene at that time.