Photo Credit Sally Jubb photography.
Claire Askew was born in 1986, grew up in the Scottish Borders and has lived in Edinburgh since 2004. Her poetry has appeared in many magazines and several anthologies, including Be The First To Like This: New Scottish Poetry (Vagabond Voices, 2014), and has three times been selected to appear in the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems of the Year. Her first collection, This Changes Things is published by Bloodaxe in 2016.
I recently sat down with Claire at the Earthy Cafe in Canonmills to discuss poetry nights in Edinburgh, as well as the dynamics between promoters, performers, and audiences. Our conversation began on the subject of memorising poetry for an open mic, but quickly developed into touching on subjects of funding, production, and accessibility at venues.
Claire Askew: So, I wanted to start with a question. This whole idea of setting up a poetry night where there’s a rule that you cannot read off paper – this is something I can’t get my head around. So my question is, what is the reason for that?
Freddie Alexander: I think it’s about how the organisers of these events want the aesthetics of their night to work. They have a particular vision in mind for what their audience is receiving – they have an audience that is paying, and they want to give them a high quality product. It’s a different kind of set up to events that I organise, which are free, and largely for other artists – there’s a paying audience, and they have certain expectations.
CA: I hadn’t thought of the onus being on the audience rather than the performers. So I suppose another question is, should your priority when organising a night be ‘how comfortable are your performers?’ or should your priority be ‘what’s the experience your audience is having?’ And I suppose the logical thing is that your audience are the people who’ve paid to come in the door, so prioritise them.
FA: Well I think part of the difficulty around that conversation is, you need to find a balance. If you’re a promoter and you’re interested in cultivating an artistic community, you have to make sure that your performers are still looked after and comfortable. But at the same time, when you are paying your performers, is it reasonable to ask them to provide a certain kind of performance, like memorising their work before they arrive?
Should your priority when organising a night be ‘how comfortable are your performers?’ or should your priority be ‘what’s the experience your audience is having?’
CA: There are many spoken word nights in Scotland – at one end of the scale you’ve got a very well established event like Shore Poets, which has been around since the early nineties and is the kind of reading where everyone reads off paper. I think it’s good to have an event that upholds that sort of tradition, because it caters to a certain audience who don’t maybe feel welcome at something more experimental. And similarly I think that more experimental nights need to exist for that same reason – to welcome people who want an event where no one reads from paper. So I understand wanting to try new stuff and try to separate your event from the herd.
FA: Yeah, I think it’s definitely good to be new. Because there are a lot of spoken word nights in Edinburgh that often have the same performers, and similar formats, and so how do you then do something different, to make sure that audiences want to come back to your event in particular? Having a no-reading-off-paper rule is one thing to try.
CA: I’m thinking about poetry events where you go and there’s someone who talks for a really long time before the poem starts, and has a tendency to say, ‘this poem is about this, this and this,’ to the point where in the end you don’t even need to hear the poem! That’s not great. And then there are people who flick back and forth through their book trying to find the right page. Nobody enjoys that! So I totally appreciate the logistical removal of that, and how asking poets to memorise their pieces facilitates a much more slick product – and potentially, a much more enjoyable night.
FA: I think it’s also an adaptation of the slam model, because all slams really do is create a structure that removes the faff, and offers just pure concentrated poetry. It’s more efficient, and that makes it more enjoyable for the audience. However, that model is less enjoyable for the poets! I think that the reason behind the best slams, and behind events like Loud Poets is attempting to get an audience that doesn’t engage with poetry to engage with poetry.
However, to be my own devil’s advocate, I think one of the problems with asking poets to memorise that it comes with a subliminal message about professionalism. There’s maybe a snap judgement that some audiences make when they see someone reading off paper: they think, ‘that’s less impressive than someone who has memorised.’
CA: The point of experimenting is to see what it’s like, that’s how things change. But yes – what troubles me is that, as a result of this growth in poets performing from memory, I’m now hearing poet friends saying to me things like, ‘oh you know, I’d be so much better if I memorised, that would make me a better poet…’
FA: And ‘that would make me get noticed,’ yeah.
CA: And I want to say to them, not necessarily. There’s more to it than that. Personally, I think it’s more important to produce the best poem you can, regardless of your performance style. It feeds into that old idea of the ‘page/stage divide,’ which I really don’t like, and think is largely a myth. It’s worrying, when people feel like they have to pick a side: either ‘I am a poet who memorises things and therefore I am a performance poet,’ or ‘I am a poet who reads off paper and therefore I am a page poet.’ It’s not that simple, and I’m worried that people are reducing it to that kind of binary.
FA: I know what you mean. If this was the first time you had to memorise poetry, and you’re suddenly thrown into a scenario you don’t know, in an environment you don’t know, and then you fluff your line, that can be incredibly traumatising as a live performer.
CA: Oh yes, it’s the worst thing! I have memorised pieces before, and I know only too well that feeling when you get to the place in the poem where you’ve said the line about five thousand times, and yet for some reason, you just have the wrong thought at the wrong moment, and it’s all gone…
FA: That’s the nightmare, yes!
CA: And then it feels like you’re standing there in silence for about five hundred years, when it’s probably only a couple of seconds actually, but it feels like, ‘just say something, say anything!’ It is – it does rattle you, even if you’re a seasoned performer. But I mean, now that we’re talking about performers, I guess we get to the meat of the issue for me, which is diversity. I’m concerned – not about any particular event or promoter, but about this no-paper rule becoming a thing that people feel they have to do in order to be a good poet. Because, for me, it appears to not only not encourage, but actively discourage certain voices – namely, disabled poets, who are already very much not in evidence in the Scottish poetry scene – and also poets whose first language is not English.
FA: Absolutely. I one hundred percent agree with this. I’m involved with Inky Fingers. We have a few performers now who have disabilities, whose first language isn’t English – or maybe they aren’t performing in English – and we have a few people who are performing in Scots. That’s really incredible – they’re great performers. However, the successful nights are the nights that orientate towards audiences, not performers. And because they do that, they get lots more people through the door. In turn, that draws all the funding, and with it, the ability to organise successful nights that can keep going.
CA: That’s a really interesting point. When you have funding, the pressure is off in many ways, and then you can think, ‘oh, let’s do something experimental with this event!’ because you can afford to.
FA: One of the things that I’d like to address is that it would be naive of us to say that ‘we’ll make our nights accessible, you can read off paper.’ That’s almost like the most superficial thing you can say! That’s not to say that it won’t help some poets, but I think we have more serious issues to look at if we want to promote diversity. Many venues in Edinburgh that are used by live poetry nights aren’t mobility accessible. Should we as organisers be looking harder for those venues? Because it shouldn’t simply a case of what’s the cheapest venue that you can find!
CA: That’s often the priority, isn’t it? And again, that’s where funding is power.
FA: And you need to think about it from different angles. If you’re thinking, ‘we can invite trans folk,’ is the venue accessible to them?
CA: I think what you’re pointing out very eloquently is that in order to make an event fully accessible, you have to take into account so many variables – and I think a lot of promoters just don’t have the capacity to do that. Should we be starting our own venues, or petitioning for more venues? Should we be raising money to build a venue from scratch? Not necessarily from bricks and mortar, but to create an ideal space?
FA: To have ownership over your own space means that you’re able to make decisions that you can’t make as a rente. For example, being able to charge a fee or not, or being able to provide accessibility in any way you want.
“Funders look at how successful a night is. And success for funders is often about how many numbers do you have through the door.”
CA: We keep coming back to funding, and the fact that funding gives you the power to do things like making a night more experimental – so what is the place of the funder?
FA: Funders look at how successful a night is. And success for funders is often about how many numbers do you have through the door, how much money are you raising? A small night that is organised with BSL interpretation, for example, for an audience for whom no other night will provide it – that’s never going to be seen as “successful” when compared a slam night that draws a crowd that’s twice as big. As promoters, we should be being challenged by our funders, and by our audience. We should be in a position where our audience is asking us to provide for everyone.
CA: So we come full circle, because I think all promoters do what they can to set themselves apart and welcome as many people as possible. I certainly don’t think there are spoken word nights whose promoters are saying, ‘no, we don’t really want this whole diversity thing.’ I think everyone cares about it, they’re just limited in what they can do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do more.
FA: It’s something I think promoters of live literature events should be thinking about from the very start. When I see another white, male, able-bodied person setting up a new night, and they’re booking people who are male, white, able-bodied – I think, I can name ten other nights that do that! We need to be asking, what’s different about the work I am doing? Am I contributing something new to our scene?
CA: Maybe that’s the note to end this on, that’s quite a powerful question. What are we all contributing? How can we each contribute more? We probably all could, right?
You can find Claire on Twitter at @OneNightStanzas, or follow her blog. Her collection This Changes Things has been shortlisted for the 2016 Edwin Morgan Prize, and is available at most major book stores.