A Wishlist for Spoken Word in Scotland

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I’m just back in Edinburgh from my first overseas poetry tour. It’s been an amazing trip, but I’m glad to be home. From getting around as many scenes as I could in North America over two weeks, I feel like I’ve learned a lot. (I hope you’ve enjoyed and got something from the blogs.) By looking at comparisons, I’ve come to appreciate what we do really well, and I’ve also been given a bunch of ideas about what we might be able to do better.

I founded Inky Fingers with Alice Tarbuck back in 2010. It’s always focussed on open mics and workshops and ways of supporting new writers into the scene: nurturing the grassroots. Earlier this year, I finally stepped back from the organisation and passed it on to a new guard of organisers so that I could focus on my own work. I’m so excited to see what they do. And over that past 4 years, I’m so excited by what’s happened in Scottish spoken word: there’s been an explosion in the number of events, and also I think a real ramping up of quality. There are more nights, with more diversity between them, several now with funding, and all with drive and ambition. Well done, everyone. We’ve done good. We’ve done really good.

Now let’s do more good! Here, post-tour, and with my mind buzzing, is my wishlist for spoken word in Scotland. I’m writing this just as I step back from doing any major organising, so I’m feeling very cheeky about it, but I can’t step back without writing something. And even though I’m not running a regular event now, I’ll be around. See you there.

1. Get More Money

Funding makes the scene sustainable. From talking to people with way more experience than me, it’s clear that spoken word here (as everywhere) goes through cycles of boom and bust. And from tour, even in heartlands of spoken word like New York and Toronto, I’ve learned that a similar pattern repeats itself: a regular event runs for three or four years, builds an audience, peaks in excitement and quality, and then starts to dwindle as people struggle to take it to the next level, before it eventually folds. Our events and organisers are vulnerable, overstretched and underpaid. I believe that more events going after funding is a really important thing to do, to make sure acts get paid and organisers get paid and the scene continues to grow. And I believe that we need to help each other make this happen. I don’t think we’re all necessarily in competition for funding: I think that the more spoken word events get funded, the more the profile of the artform is raised, and the easier it gets to argue for funding a diversity of events. This is not a zero sum game. But getting funding is hard and gruelling work, and so I also think we need to share our skills. I’ve written successful funding applications and failed funding applications, and I’d love to share what little I’ve gleaned with you. Get in touch. Pass it on.

2. Learn to Tour

We are not good at touring from Scotland. Our spoken word artists often stick mostly to the Scottish scene, maybe occasionally popping down to England. This isn’t about individual fear, but about a lack of collective knowledge and support. Touring is rarely a money-spinner, but it does grow your work, your knowledge of different scenes, and your connections with international artists. If there’re a lot of artists touring a lot of events, spoken word audiences are constantly seeing new acts, and those acts are constantly hearing new things, which grows the art. When you tour to other events, you learn different ways of organising and pick up useful new ideas that strengthen the scene.  And when you connect with artists from further afield, it makes it so much easier for us all to find international touring acts: a network of scenes makes everyone stronger. And learning to tour might seem intimidating, but it isn’t actually that hard: most people are willing to share contacts, and most contacts are willing to hear from you. I’ll be running a workshop soon where those of us who’ve done a bit of touring share what we’ve learned, to encourage more people to give it a shot.

3. Take Diversity Seriously

This is a big problem for us. While a couple of our showcases operate a 50/50 (or better) gender balance in feature acts, several big ones are still have a majority of male names over and over again, and open mics are often totally dominated by men. While we’ve got a couple of good LGBT+ focussed events, too often marginalised groups aren’t represented in line-ups and open mics. The majority of spoken word events aren’t in wheelchair accessible spaces, let alone trying to meet wider understandings of accessibility. And our scene tends to be really, really white, which in a diverse artform like spoken word is very strange. When you go to events anywhere else, the ethnic make-up of our scene really sticks out as a problem, and we’re often not better on other diversity counts. We need to sort this out. We need to take seriously diversity demands in our line-ups, taking affirmative action, and we need to learn what excludes people from open mics. We need to find ways of reaching out to minority communities, finding where the spoken word is and how we can work together. We need to find ways of supportively calling out events that aren’t doing this properly, and offering advice and ideas to help. We need to grow the diversity of the scene as a central part of growing the scene.

4. Lure in the Schools

If you want to build careers in spoken word, growing spoken word in education is vital. Workshops in schools tend to pay well, and in North America (and just beginning in England) youth slam is a really big deal and is central to the health of the scene. It’s an artform that works really well in a school setting, with its focus on speaking up and speaking out. It’s exciting, and powerful, and political, and it keeps the form contemporary and rich in new ideas. Goldsmiths is now running an MA in Spoken Word Education, but as far I know no Scottish artists have gone after it, and there’s no equivalent in our universities. Spoken word artists tend not to be on the Live Literature Database, even just as a start, even though they’ve now broadened their criteria for us. It’s going to take some time to grow interest and skills in Scotland to do spoken word in education, but I’d love to talk about how we can make a start.

5. Make Slam Work Harder

Our slam scene is pretty eccentric. Most of our slams are special one-off events, rather than a regular slam series, which is the norm everywhere else I’ve been, and which helps to build a real community around slam. We have a dominant judging and scoring system (pre-picked judges, scores out of 10 in three criteria) that I’ve never seen anywhere else, which runs against the audience-focussed purpose of slam at its founding, and which leaves our slam winners unprepared for the more usual scoring systems in slams everywhere else, including in the international competitions. Bar a couple of acts, we like England have almost no tradition of team performance, which is a major form elsewhere (although this year’s English nationals had a team slam element). All of this keeps our slam scene pretty separate from the rest of the world, even as we’ve finally in the last couple of years begun sending our winners to international championships. We’re not getting youth audiences involved in slam, which risks an aging population of performers; we’re not building a sense of real community and camaraderie around regular events, which makes slam often work against us rather than with us; and we’re not handing slam over to the audience (so how will they ever learn to judge us?) We can make slam work harder for the scene, and we can enjoy it more. I wrote this about how it happens in Ontario, but there are many more people we can learn from too.

6. Keep It Messy

But let’s not let our scene become dependent on slam, or ever homogenous in style. We need a scene that’s diverse in styles as well as performers. This, I think, is one of the things we do best right now. Every spoken word night I go to in Scotland, there’s a real range of different styles on stage, from declamatory slam to comic verse to sonnets to experimentation. We’re also exceptionally good (even if sometimes it doesn’t look like it) at blurring the boundary between page and stage: our poets tend to move more between the two, and tend to share events and books more often. Let’s hold on to all of that. It’s very special.

7. Get More Organised

Back in early summer, I met with Jenny Niven, the new Literature Officer at Creative Scotland, to chat about spoken word in Scotland. She was interested in and encouraging about our scene, and keen to hear from us about ways development could be supported. One thing she encouraged us to think about was ways of getting organisers together, organising together. How can we work together to share touring acts and make them more affordable? Could we put in joint funding bids to support the development of the scene? Could we set up a development body like an Apples & Snakes for Scotland? Could we have a Scottish Festival of Spoken Word? And can we please have a listings site that is clear, easy to use, includes everybody, and brings us new audiences? In 2013 I helped organise an informal Big Blether that brought a lot of organisers together but led to no clear conclusions; maybe it’s time for another, but with clearer actions. But, of course, we’re all tired, and we’re all overstretched, and that makes it hard to get things off the ground. I’d like to join in, but I’m reluctant to pour my energy into getting it started. Where can we begin? Let’s begin.

Onwards!

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