Breathing Space

On Thursday, I spoke at an open-mike night jointly held by two groups from the University of Dundee: the Feminist Society and the LGBT+ Society. I’d spoken at the previous one and enjoyed the experience.

English: Malin Jakobsson med spoken word-texte...
This person was not involved with the event; she’s here for illustrative purposes only. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were a number of fantastic readers who tackled a range of themes. I have a few poems on the subject of gender, but I instead opted for another topic: mental health. However, it was around me looking at the health of friends and acquaintances and being unsure exactly what to do.

Two of the poems I read were ones I’d last performed around a year previously. When I’m reading them from the page, I don’t really feel their impact. It’s only when I say them out loud that it hits home what they actually mean.

An interval was called after my set. I had people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my work, and that was much appreciated. By this time, I was almost in tears, which is not like me. But I steadied myself, stayed until the end, and left the event ready to write more poetry.

That’s the feeling I want after every event.

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Back for More

As I’m in National Novel Writing Month mode at the moment. As such, my entries will be shorter than usual until next month.

In my podcast-style entry a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been to see The Maids at The Rep in Dundee. I’d walked out at the interval as I wasn’t engaged by the first half. It’s rare that I would do that.

Dundee Rep Theatre
Dundee Rep Theatre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, after independent recommendations by friends, I went back to see it on Saturday and stayed for the whole show.

What I liked is that the play didn’t tell you what to think, but presented itself unfiltered and allowed the audience to make their own interpretation. It delivered a number of genuinely surprising plot twists too. However, there was an attempt at ennui rather than action, which can be effective in the right hands, but I feel it wasn’t quite carried off here; I’d happily have cut it down to an hour.

It serves as a timely reminder about the importance of engaging the audience early in the performance, as it was ultimately worth staying until the end.

Let’s Push Things Forward

There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.

For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.

To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.

Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.

Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.

Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.

These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.

I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.

Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.

From Scratch

I haven’t had much time to pull this entry together, but working quickly has very much been the theme of this weekend.

The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre

I attended a workshop run by poets Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC), aimed at those who have a spoken word show either already written or at the draft stage.

On the Saturday, we discussed such topics as: how the show might be mapped out, technical considerations, and how to attract funding. We were also invited to try a number of physical movement exercises and experiment with using the space.

The next day, the group put together a show from scratch, making sure the running order flowed, discussing lighting requirements with a technician, and ultimately performing our best pieces in the custom-built Netherbow Theatre at the SSC.

I found the group a joy to work with. Jenny and Rachel pointed out there were no ‘egos’ and that we all took each others’ ideas on board. The final show went incredibly well. I usually find among a group of writers that I like many of the others but there’s one whose work I especially admire. This weekend, I found that person and let them know.

As I begin the week, I’m excited to take my project to the next stage, and I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the other participants.

A review of Fat Kid Running by Katherine McMahon

Every so often, I’ll hear about a show and instantly feel compelled to go along. Much of the time, is because I’ve heard great word-of-mouth; sometimes it’s because I like an actor or musician involved in the project.

On the odd occasion, I go because I find the concept utterly arresting, and that’s why I bought a ticket for Fat Kid Running at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Friday. The poster warned that Katherine McMahon’s debut show is not an inspiring before-and-after picture, but an honest insight into her body image issues. As I’ve been overweight all my life, I wanted to hear from someone in a similar position.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met and spoken to McMahon before, but we’re not otherwise acquainted.

The show opens with a mock bleep-test, a theme revisited at the climax of the piece. We’re taken on an autobiographical trip through bullies in the school changing rooms, via health checks at the GP surgery, and how she built up to running several kilometres without stopping. Sometimes the narrative is poignant but always peppered with a sense of humour that lifts the audience at just the right moment.

A pair of ASICS stability running shoes, model...
A pair of ASICS stability running shoes, model GEL-Kinsei (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although the poetic prose was compelling in itself, what shone through for me was how genuinely she appeared to accept and love her body with no excuses and no delusions. There are two costume changes, both done in view of the audience, and she makes direct reference to her unshaven armpits and ‘boyish’ figure.

Even after seeing Fat Kid Running, McMahon and I still differ in one respect: I’m still committed to losing weight while she’s determined not to lose any. Yet it’s allowed me to understand the other point of view for the first time, and sends a message that a healthy body is not necessarily a slim body.

This performance, presented by Flint & Pitch, was the only one to date. But I’d love to see it go on tour, along with the support acts.

Calum Rodger was the first act to take the stage with a narrative called Rock, Star, North centred around the landscape of the Grand Theft Auto series. He takes a fresh look at what millions of players see but never study, and creates a rapid-fire homage.

Secondly, a musical group. Belle Jones, Audrey Tait and Lauren Gilmour presented Closed Doors, a story told mostly in rap verse about an unfolding major incident that forces racist neighbours out of their flats to mix with each other. The current ending was left too open for my liking, but I’m assured that it’s a work in progress.

Altogether, a Friday night well-spent.

Public Liability

I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.

A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.

With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.

However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.

As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.

I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.

I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.

My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poem after well over a year of redrafting.

I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.

Slam

For a few years now, I’ve been going to the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On Saturday, I was invited to compete in the Slam, hosted by Paula Varjack. Although I’d applied some time ago, I was only told that week I’d been granted a place.

There are a few simple rules:

  • The running order is drawn from a hat.
  • In round one, everyone is allowed to read a poem for up to two minutes. You’ll be stopped if you run over.
  • In round two, after the interval, the top four scorers from round one are given 2½ minutes each to read another poem.
  • The 2017 Slam Champion is crowned.

    English: Textbox at the Casa Encendida (2008) ...
    English: Textbox at the Casa Encendida (2008) – Textbox is a performance space for spoken word poetry and literature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first poem was always going to be Crossing the Road, published last year; it’s punchy and takes less than a minute to perform. The strength of this Slam is that there’s no ‘house style’, so the contenders spoke on subjects as diverse as ageing, love, insomnia and contemporary politics. Just about everyone put in a sterling performance, including the other first-timers, and I thought I made a good job of mine.

The exact number of points given by the judges were not revealed, but five people progressed to round 2 because two contenders had scored exactly the same, none of which where me. The ultimate victor was Kevin Mclean, who goes on to compete in the Scottish Slam.

I’m not disheartened by my placing. I’m accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, but not with a competitive element. So what I want to do now is sharpen my skills even more by studying what other poets do and how they appeal to the audience.

Elsewhere at the festival, I witnessed excellent performances from Jackie Kay and Sarah Howe, and I chatted to the latter for a while. I also bought Paula Varjack’s book, and filmed performances from poets inspired by looking around St Andrews.