Slam Weekend

On Saturday, I made my annual trip to StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. And what better way to start than Breakfast at the Poetry Café with a pastry and a panel of four poets, namely Sara Hirsch, Jan Baeke, Esther Mijers and Luke Pell. They talked about the inclusion or exclusion of the self in their work, with an extensive discussion on pronouns.

English: St Andrews Town Hall (of 1858-1862), ...
English: St Andrews Town Hall (of 1858-1862), between Queen’s Gardens and South Street, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, where some of the StAnza events took place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I then moved on to the 12 Showcase, featuring some of the women who collaborate and respond to each others’ poetry via a shared Google document. Dispensing with introductions or explanations, they formed an almost hypnotic chain of verse full of back references and tangents, infused with their individual styles.

Past & Present saw Oli Hazzard speaking about John Ashbery, then W.N. Herbert speaking about W.S. Graham. It’s often difficult to know what to leave out when speaking about a prolific figure, but in their respective 25 minutes, each poet gave a broad sense of their subjects to the packed audience.

StAnza’s theme this year was Going Dutch, ‘shining a spotlight on the poetry of Flanders and the Netherlands in Dutch and Frisian.’ There were Dutch poets peppered throughout the event, but Five O’Clock Verses was the first time I’d heard anyone speak Frisian, the language most closely related to English.

When Tsead Bruinja performed in the language, I was reminded of a childhood memory. In Scotland, there used to be five minutes of Gaelic news shown every evening, and I’d be able to pick out borrowed words such as helicopter. In Bruinja’s case, the most outstanding term was double-D, referring to the bra size. Although he set a high standard, Tara Bergin was able to match it with her absurdist poetry, all delivered in English.

Poetry Centre Stage is held in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre and is always a must-see. I’ve heard a lot about William Letford, but I don’t recall seeing him before. Half of his 40-minute set was devoted to a story cycle about a family who go to live in the forest. It sounded a lot like prose, but it was written in a wonderfully poetic manner. I left before Liz Lochhead’s appearance because I wanted to prepare for my personal highlight.

The StAnza Slam gives two and a half minutes to 12 participants, all eager to impress a panel of judges. Four of them would then progress to a second knockout round, with three minutes allowed.

I’m pleased to report that I managed to enter the second round with a piece called Sir Madam that’s proved popular at previous events. However, Jo Gilbert deservedly walked away with the prize after a poem about cake.

Although slam competitions are by nature competitive, they tend not to be ego-driven – at least in my experience – and I think that’s great.

For the last decade or so, StAnza has complemented the Dundee Literary Festival, which has traditionally been held in October. While StAnza appears to be stable, there might not be a Dundee event this year as we’ve normally been given news by now. If it doesn’t happen, Dundee writers might just have to pull together and hold an unofficial one of our own.

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Upcoming Gigs

Over the next couple of months, I’ve been asked to read poetry at a few events. Each one is free to attend. Here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to them:

Livewire; Wednesday 19 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. I’ve just finished an MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee. This is one final showcase for our class, where I’ll be reading a piece called Sir Madam from my dissertation.

Launch of Seagate III; Sunday 23 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. As part of the Dundee Literary Festival, Seagate III will be launched. I’ll be performing the two poems of mine that appeared in the anthology.

Launch of Aiblins; Saturday 29 October; Out Of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh. I have a piece called Crossing the Road included in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry. I’ll be performing along with some excellent contemporary poets as part of the 20th Edinburgh International Radical Book Fair.

Launch of Aiblins; Monday 21 November; Underdog, Castlegate, Aberdeen. This launch is for the same book discussed above, but in a different city. The event is still being finalised, and I’ll give you more information when I have it.

Relentlessness.

It’s been a busy week for writers and artists in Dundee.

Last Monday, our regular Hotchpotch meeting was held aboard a 19th-century warship. More than 40 people showed up – double our usual maximum attendance – and we enjoyed a fantastic and varied night of writers reading their own work. We even made the local paper. There’s a picture of me dressed as a captain.

Then the Dundee Literary Festival began on Wednesday and ended yesterday. I attended a selection of events, including a play set in a disused jute mill, an interview with Nick Frost from Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and an investigation into the success of Ladybird books over the last 100 years. There wasn’t an event I didn’t enjoy, but I’m not going to review any of them here. Instead, some of them have already been reviewed by students.

In the middle of the festival, I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Hamlet with the National Theatre. The live cinema screening was sold out, but it was well worth seeing the recording. I’m glad, however, that I read up on the story before seeing it. I found it a lot easier to follow when I heard the words than when I read them on the page.

And at the weekend, artist studios WASPS held an open house, allowing the public to see how their art is made and to buy it directly from the creator. I went along with a friend to visit artist Jennifer Robson and jeweller Genna Delaney, among others.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s session was cut short by a fire alarm apparently set off by someone using a blow torch. The building was perfectly fine, but the alarm malfunctioned and wouldn’t switch off.

And just as these finish, National Novel Writing Month begins on Sunday 1 November. I’m returning as the Dundee & Angus regional organiser for a second year, and there will be someone else helping me.

The five previous times I’ve done it, I’ve exceeded the target, sometimes by less than 100 words. But one of the messages I always give out is that there’s no shame in not reaching the 50,000 word target. I’ll keep you updated during the month.

News, and Other Four-Letter Words.

When you’re a writer, and one of the country’s best literary festivals is on your doorstep, you can’t help but pop your head around the door. The Dundee Literary Festival closed yesterday after five days of events.

The highlights included Dundee International Book Prize winner Amy Mason, BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor choosing his favourite books, the STV Digital Spark Award to develop a Web-based project, topped with off with Sonny Carntyne performing ‘alt echo rock’ and novelist Zöe Venditozzi with her hilarious antidote to a hypnosis CD. For a more in-depth flavour of the programme, visit their Twitter account, Facebook page, and the Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA) blog.

If you only look at one thing, make it The News Where You Are by James Robertson (below). I had a debate with one of the DURA bloggers over whether it was a story or a poem, but it’s a hilarious satire about what is implied when the national newsreaders hand over to the local newsrooms.

 

This year, I’ve become Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month in Dundee. I arranged our Kick-Off Event to coincide with the festival. It’s impossible to tell how many people will come to a given event, but we ended up with ten members altogether, and we listened to last year’s MLitt graduates each reading his or her magnum opus. Our regular write-ins will begin on Saturday, and I’ll no doubt write more about these throughout November.

The cast of Avenue Q performs "It Sucks t...
The cast of Avenue Q performs “It Sucks to Be Me” at Broadway on Broadway, September 10th 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In between all that, I found time to see Avenue Q, the show that’s broken out of Broadway and crossed the Atlantic. The actors stand on stage and sing alongside the puppets, but this soon ceases to be a distraction as they settle into the story of a new graduate coming to town, Kate Monster’s fight to have monsters recognised in society, and Rod’s reluctance to admit his sexuality. Content-wise, there is very little actual swearing. If this was a film, it’s the adult concepts that would probably earn it a 15 classification.

It’s also hard to see why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I also caught this week, was given a 12A rating, when I could find nothing that would it earn it any more than a PG.

I don’t often swear in my own writing. The intention is often to shock, but when everyone does it, the words lose their impact. Comedian Bill Bailey summed it up nicely when he compared effing and jeffing to road humps: one or two isn’t an issue, but a constant barrage is. By contrast, Quentin Tarantino takes the view that, “I’m a writer, no word is in jail,” but from watching his films, I do see the F- and C-words being given more parole than any other.

That said, I’m not above including blasphemy, as that’s commonly used and – generally speaking – is no longer thought of as swearing. There’s a 90-page study from Ofcom on the matter if you have the time, but the relevant sentence is: “There were a small, but vocal number of participants who found the use of holy names unacceptable.”

But in the right hands, swearing can be done well. I’m thinking mostly of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown, in which the F-word appears 83 times to produce an onomatopoeic effect of a chicken’s squawking. When he recorded it in the early 1980s, though, he had to replace 80 of these with bloody.

I was going to end this entry with a word that sounds a bit rude, but I shan’t.

The Blooper Reel.

I promised in my last entry that if I had the opportunity, I would memorise one of my poems and perform it the following Friday. Speakerbox is a new event for writers and poets at Dundee University union. During a chat with the organiser, she told me she hopes to hold it every month. She has also been to the existing Hotchpotch meetings to share her material.

I was asked to read first, and I have some footage of how it went. The purple mood lighting made this stage look fabulous in person, although not so much through a camcorder.

 

That’s right, I fluffed my lines. However, I managed without any further cock-ups in, “Take two,” along with another piece from memory, and two others from notes. I like to use an e-reader to save paper. I was followed by several other acts, mainly poetry but interspersed with prose and music. There were innovations I hadn’t seen before: one man walked between two microphones while delivering a monologue, another gave out chocolate bars to whomever he dubbed, “awesome.”

I hope this event continues, as I plan to be back next month. During the week, I also had a much rarer opportunity to be in the audience at a recording of a Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas episode. Although the story is set in Ireland, it’s filmed in Glasgow.

English: BBC Scotland New office buildings and...
BBC Scotland broadcasting centre in Glasgow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many respects, it’s a standard sitcom, except that many of their bloopers and ad-libs make it into the final programme. There were a number of these during the three hours we were in our seats. Many scenes were recorded twice in succession. I found I was watching the monitors rather than the action on the set, so I deliberately tried to keep my eyes away from them to catch the full experience.

Agnes Brown is played by Brendan O’Carroll who also writes much of the material, but it’s accessible scripting that doesn’t require the audience to understand any particularly Irish references, so it plays very well to a BBC1 viewership. It’s less well-known that he is also a novelist. In 1999, his book The Mammy was made into film called Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston as the eponymous character. Unlike the sitcom, these take a sombre tone.

Also worth a look is What We Did On Our Holiday, starring David Tennant and Billy Connolly. It’s written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins, the force behind Outnumbered, although I’ll always remember them primarily for satirical comedy Drop The Dead Donkey. The duo have found a particular niche in giving the child characters all the best lines, often relentlessly, while the adults fumble for an answer.


The coming week is a busy one for me. Not only is the aforementioned Hotchpotch happening tonight, the Dundee Literary Festival also begins on Wednesday and runs to Sunday. At the same time, I’m organising the first meeting of the local National Novel Writing Month group, finishing my library books, and still taking time out to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the cinema.

JC Superstar. (CC: @Sultonna)

After making my fifth post here, my attention was drawn to a service called Headliner, designed to allow bloggers to cross-promote each other. I thought I’d sign up just to see what happened. Today, Mellie Miller promoted this very site on Twitter, so if you’re reading me because of her, a thousand welcomes to you. You can find Mellie’s blog on WordPress and her Twitter name is in the title. What a tangled World Wide Web we weave.

And it’s a good time to join me. Over the next few days, I’ll be headed to Dundee Literary Festival, which attracts some heavyweights of the writing world. It’s possible to see them all, but more prudent to be selective and allow a little time for reflection between speakers. It launched yesterday with a debate over potential Scottish independence, hosted by the neutral Five Million Questions organisation.

Poetry is my weak suit, so I’ve made a point of seeing events with that theme. Today, I heard Robert Alan Jamieson read a little verse, as well as a lengthy extract from his riveting novel Da Happie Laand. Over a ham roll and crisps, I heard Michael Hulse read in a measured, definite voice echoing Tom Baker. I rounded off the day with non-poet Lesley Riddoch, who argues that our country would be better off with localised communes such as those found in Northern Europe.

I mentioned in my entry The Shock of The New that I intended to revisit the subject of poetry, particularly the performance type, although neither Jamieson nor Hulse fell into that camp.

At the start of the year, I was listening to the soundtrack album of Plan B’s Ill Manors when I heard a peculiar part that began, “Pity the plight of the young fellow, too long abed with no sleep…” I looked at the track information to find it featured a John Cooper Clark. I hadn’t previously heard of the guy, probably because he totally disappeared off the radar from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s.

But for the last few years, he’s enjoyed a resurgence. I’ve seen him once live on stage, then once via video link at the cinema earlier this month. His piece I Wanna Be Yours was included in the GCSE exam syllabus alongside poets like Maya Angelou, while Evidently Chickentown was featured prominently in The Sopranos. As well as Ill Manors, his lyrics also feature on The Arctic Monkeys’ AM album. Both of these reached number one.

His amazing story has me wondering if I have what it takes to write a poem for performance. There are still people out there doing exactly that; in particular, one of his live support acts, Luke Wright. But where I find that Cooper Clark often rushes his delivery, probably a result of cutting his teeth at punk gigs, Wright understands his audience, and his delivery is clearer as a result.

Comedian Phill Jupitus has also returned to his roots, performing The Misunderstanding at the Edinburgh Festival, along with another poem comprising solely of titles from its brochure. Craig Charles of Red Dwarf also started his career in a similar manner, before turning to acting.

One omission I’ve made so far is Pam Ayres. I’ve been listening to her recently in the car. She’s a homely, motherly poet, who focuses mainly on domestic matters. I hesitate to criticise because her wit and observations are sharp, and she’s loved by millions across the world, yet her delivery can be forced, for instance using, “On the brinked,” in place of, “Brink,” to rhyme it with, “Extinct.” And she occasionally expresses the same thought in two neighbouring lines, but this can be a useful skill for holding her own on radio panel show Just a Minute against comics like Paul Merton or Graham Norton.

The groundwork has been laid for me, but the question I have to ask myself is: can I produce material for performance that isn’t derivative, especially when it’s something so alien to me? With Wright emerging, Jupitus returning, and Ayers with a new collection on sale, I have a suspicion that performance poetry is about to become massive once again, and I want to ride this upcoming wave.

You can say you heard it here first.