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live artist, poet, and general doer of things

Voices

It seems like there’s no greater compliment you can give a young poet than to say “You’ve really found your voice”. When reading new work, we’re often looking for a certain authenticity of tone, some quality of confidence in the way of speaking. In spoken word, we draw a lot on hip-hop’s emphasis on realness (and for hip-hop’s own discourse on this, just compare K-Rino to Childish Gambino, maybe rock some Das Racist), such that we’re always looking to take someone out for pretension, for middle class white boys rhyming ghetto, and we praise it when someone talks with their own special tongue.

In the past year or so, as a poet and performer, I began to feel comfortable with my voice. That’s taken a long time. Regularly MCing nights has been a big part of it — you can’t spent 3 hours hosting a couple of nights a month and be a massive persona, you have to be at least a version of yourself. The more I perform, fairly obviously, the more I’ve had confidence in my own identity as a performer. And that’s been difficult for me, for a few reasons. When I began performing, I was rapping in a voice very much not my own — my middle class accent had no flow, my Insular Scots undertones weren’t tough enough. And, like every poet, I began by copying the way other people wrote. But, at bottom, it’s because I grew up on a tiny Scottish island but with English parents, which means:

In Orkney, I’m English;
In England, Scottish;
In Scotland, Orcadian.

That’s a line from Visa Wedding, a sequence of poems I’m working on about identity and Scottishness. It’s the most personal material I’ve ever written. I grew up with a voice that didn’t quite fit, and wherever I go that’s the same, in different ways.  My English background marks me out in Orkney; Orkney’s Scandinavian inflection seems weird to folk in Edinburgh; in England,  nobody has a clue where I’m from unless I ham up the Scottishness. (In Orkney, by the way, we say that folk “chant” when they tone down their accent or make it more English to talk with outsiders on the phone.) Strange, then, that in my poetry I think I’m getting comfortable with my voice when in truth I really don’t have one.

This beautiful article on Obama, written by Zadie Smith in 2009, covers some of the same territory. She talks of her difficulty in coming to terms with her voices, the way she moved between Willesden and Cambridge, and eventually lost her London voice for posher tones. she rightly points out how we many-voiced suffer from the way “Voice adaptation is still the original British sin”. And the she moves on to talking about how the many-voiced and the mixed race seem to be born in a Dream City “where the unified singular self is an illusion”. I’d already been finding myself in her essay, and then she gave me goosebumps:

It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.”

Anyone who’ve ever worked with me on project will know how, for all my performativity and ego, I live for the we. I  go out of my way to run collective projects and find ways of being part of a WEness, of presenting myself as one part of a collective conscious. Sure, a chunk of that is due to being bullied and socially excluded in childhood, but Zadie Smith has made me wonder whether bigger part might come from the way

this slippery many-coloured tongue
snaps at identity as though it were
an insect morsel lathered with
the sweet-and-sour of BELONG.

Something else has been happening in my life, too. For nearly four years now I’ve lived and loved with an American. (An American, I should say, who feels more culturally comfortable in the UK than the US). I’ve come to understand my own identity in relation to hers, and to her country. Spending time with her family is great for me, because to them I’m simply from the much-fetishised Scotland. And, to avoid being too unfair, they’re my fetishised South. Bands played country music at the dances in Orkney; I fell in love with blues and country aged 18. I love Waffle House. In the South, I gain another voice.

Whan I was an undergrad I had a folk and blues band. We appropriated mercilessly from every culture we could. I sang delta blues. The Aberdeenshire banjo player liked English folk. The Bavarian bazouki-man liked Irish rebel music (his own folk culture being terribly tainted by fascist appropriation). There was a djembe. Once, we played on the radio, and the interviewer asked why we sang what we did. I said that in a way we played the traditional music of other people’s homes because none of us had comfortable homes of our own. I didn’t realise how true that was until my mother listened in and said how moving it was to hear me say it.

So, back to poetry. What does this mean for my apparently new-found voice? It means that, just as I’m starting to feel comfortable with it, I’m beginning to question whether it’s all I’ve got. I’m experimenting more again. I’ve just completed a first pass at a new piece written in Scots, a language I barely feel I’ve a right to, explaining it’s:

Acause incomer will aywis be a clarty wird,
acause this tongue I gabber wi will niver be the real Mackay, I sing.
Acause fer aw that wur aw Jock Tamson’s etcetera, are we tho? Eh?

I’m kind of scared to start experimenting with tongues and forms again, just as I was settling down. I’m worried that editors will look down on it. Experimenting is good for exploring and strengthening poetry, but, especially in mainstream publishing, it seems like it’s seen as a means to an end, as a way of achieving your authentic, settled voice. I’m assembling the skeleton of a first chapbook collection to start sending round, and need to find ways of making it coherent that aren’t about consistent voice. Because, if I’m being true to myself, I don’t have one. For me, singing, performing, writing is all about constructing my identities as I go. In that Scots poem, Brave, I explain it as clearly as I can:

I sing o a Scotland whit’ll chant hits hairt oot dounstairs o the Royal Oak,
whit’ll pouk hits timmer clarsach hairtstrangs,
whit like glamour will sing hits hairt intae existence,
whit haps sang aroon hits bluidy nieve hairt,
whit sings.

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