An Update to “Spying on the Poetry Scene in Edinburgh’ by Posie Rider’

By | 1 March 2015

[Note: the below article by Posie Rider, written November 2010, first appeared in Openned January 2011. She wasn’t findable to provide an update, so Jeremy Beardmore has kindly stepped in.]

Update on page 2.

Hail! When I received the call from Openned in late October, asking me to go as their envoy to the ice-encrusted city of Edinburgh and chronicle the most ferocious of its frost-rimed rhymers, I was both thrilled and anxious. Thrilled both because of my love for that gothick conurbation – a gathering of complex forces, like glacial cracking, to which the word ‘settlement’ is hardly applicable – and the appeal of being a bit of a poetic missionary from the South, and anxious, because daunting is the attempt to encapsulate, like some terrible Captain Cook of the mind, the current state of writing, reading and performing of any place – let alone one of which you cannot truly say ‘this is my place’.

When I was invited to read in Edinburgh on 3 December, alongside Tom Raworth, nick-e melville and Sophie Stamina (whom you may have encountered under a succession of names elsewhere), my fate was sealed. It was to Edinburgh at once by East Coast Rail, and to hell with my crisis of authorship and my tenuous claims to authority!

The best place I can think of to begin is a deconstruction of my upcoming reading itself, seeing as it chivvied me into action. Anything Anymore Anywhere represents an exciting new poetic venture organised by the charming poet, poetic impresario and massive fan of yours truly, Colin Herd. By the time this has gone to press, readers, we will have completed the first in a series of uniting readers from ‘over there’ with readers from ‘right here’ (actually over there – i.e. Scotland) – I believe the next in the series will see Andrea Brady ascending from [Londres] to read alongside local writers. The idea for the series jumped fully formed, like a young Dionysus, from the thigh of Colin, or more properly that of his journal. This publication, of which three issues so far exist, is not restricted to Scottish poets, or indeed to poetry, and its transatlanticism undoubtedly reflects Herd’s own interest in American writing. Still, certain poetry included does demonstrate tendencies in the reception and writing of poetry in Scotland, not least its concrete and visual strain inherited from endlessly beloved Scots writers of the sixties, seventies and beyond, like Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Tom Leonard and the late makar, Edwin Morgan. Text and fish-based work from Greg Thomas is certainly in this tradition – and indeed Greg will be co-curating an exhibition of concrete poetry at the SPL next Summer alongside librarian Julie Johnstone, as well as co-organising next year’s soon-to-be-announced, quasi-academic conference, Con/Versify: Poetry, Politics and Form, with other Edinburgh students, Lila Matsumoto and Samantha Walton, which should be a great deal of fun.

Another concretey offering in the journal comes in the form of the letter-based spirals and chequers of the mysterious Andrew Topel, who may be from Mosstodloch, Achnahannait, Boston or Leith, for all I know. The definitely Edinburgh-based nick-e melville’s found poetry and deleted text works, published in selections and dissections (2010), are drawn from bank-letters, benefits advice brochures, party manifestos and Robert Burns, and feature a direct intervention in social issues often absent from or nebulous in the more twee concrete work (‘frog pond plop – piss off!). They are best seen as a projected backdrop to his rage-electro, dance-punk, post-grime two-piece band, ShellSuit Massacre. Nick-e will be reading unaccompanied on the 3 December, but I did have the pleasure of seeing the band perform at the Throat Cuts, Not Bonus Cuts night he organised on 7 October. The political agenda of the event should, of course, be evident (chins up, Lib Dems!) and fusions of poetry and spoken word (i) with rousing film art by Sacha Kahir; (ii) with extraordinary renditions of Kanyé West-ish and Spanish folk songs; alluring megaphones and furious ad hoc speaker-drumming by Zorras; (iii) with visual art in a vast collection of posters by Tom Leonard; and (iv) with just its good old self by ‘punk poet legend’ Rodney Relax and Glasgow’s Jim Ferguson … who all contributed to a night sizzling with activist solidarity, heated debate and much heartening violence directed at Tory and Lib Dem rule. ‘Fucking posh-boy roulette!’ I’m sure I heard nick-e cry at one point, as I waltzed to the sounds of ShellSuit’s ‘ASBOy’, a post-techno ditty about the newly-acquired social status of an ASBO holder, accompanied visually by the lurid front pages of The Sun.

What do we learn from this? Firstly, it is undoubtedly true that poetry shares a space more comfortably and cordially with its sister arts in the Edinburgh scene than is often the case elsewhere. There’s very little awkwardness in a night that combines visual arts, poetry and music, and this is something has made the rise of the little bespoke Scree Magazine, edited by shape-shifting raccoon Lila Matsumoto, so encouraging. Conceived as a polite predecessor to Hamilton-Finlay’s generously illustrated Poor.Old.Tired.Horse and other magazines of the ‘50s and ‘60s like Migrant, Rescusitator and Black Mountain Review, the first two issues of Scree have contained ticklish little etching-a-likes, poetry, short prose tales and, joy of joys, a CD featuring local glitch-, boop- and twinky-core music from Conquering Animal Sound, Helheston, Illiop and Dead Leaves, amongst others. That the poetry of some of the musicians is also printed in the magazine should illustrate how inter-media free-for-alls are fostered in Edinburgh, and anyone who attended the second Scree launch would have been worked into a frenzy by the on-the-spot collaboration between Francis Crot, a London expat now ensconced in the Scottish scene, with Conquering Animal Sound, which combined the latter’s definitely boop-core music with the former’s attempt to taxonomise obscurantist music trivia drivel from the last hundred or so years.

Perhaps the cheerful interaction between art forms and artists is a consequence of the teeny-tininess of the city, with its 477,660 people, or perhaps the annual arrival of the Festival is to blame. This fun monstrosity bloats the city out of recognition, with creative types literally willing to kill you just in order to prop up your rigid corpse in a seat in order to impress a reviewer from The Skinny. Whatever your views on student theatre, the festival is probably terrible for poetry, and the only things I managed to see during the fortnight I spent here was such a cartload of tedious slam, pseudo-comedy, spoken word and smug storytelling that I wished I’d never been born, let alone born with an interest in the arts. Storytelling should not be given such a bad name, and indeed another, I feel confident to say it, awesome feature of general creativity in Edinburgh is the revivified interest in traditional storytelling, which is practised both at The Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile and in the upper rooms of nearby pub, The Waverly, on a Friday night. Donations are on request, the pub sells the most reasonable priced whiskey on the High Street, and you are guaranteed to burst into tears when an elderly woman from Invernesshire sings a Highland Clearance ballad passed down through innumerable grandmothers. That is a good thing, I tell you.

Secondly, poetry in Scotland manages, often, to be effortlessly political. As far as I can tell, everyone is basically to a greater or lesser extent a massive socialist in Scotland. As such, there is very little of that South-Easterly squeamishness about ‘how to write about class-issues without sounding like a do-good middle-classer,’ or ‘how to locate class-issues one may possibly write about considering one lives in Cambridge/Hampstead and there are few in sight’ or, even more cripplingly, ‘how to write about class issues considering my readers will need a PhD in order to understand my poetry, and, alas, the upper echelons of higher education and social and economic depravation mix badly, like Vodka and Milk.’ ‘England’, which is often unfortunately used as a metonym for the Westminster Parliament, forms a broad focus of political disdain, highly sympathetic to writers. What other national parliament would run courses for children to encourage them to write their own verse in response to the building, or adorn its expressive, stave-clad walls with Gaelic and Scots verse, including this offering from Walter Scott (actually from a novel but carved to look like a poem, innit? ):-

when we had a king
and a chancellor,
and parliament-men
o’ our ain,
we could aye peeble them
wi’ stanes when
they werena
gude bairns -
But naebody’s
nails can reach
the length o’

The contempt for Lunnon ensured that recent anti-cuts marches were well attended by a comprehensive cross-section of society, including representatives of trade unions, public sector workers, local primary schools and blocks of patriotic piping troops, some with fantastic drums, all with kilts. That said, the student march of 24 November was rather less well-attended than those taking place in England, although the commitment of the protesters (who have since been occupying a floor of the university’s Appleton Tower) was no less inspirational, and all the more so because it was intended to galvanise solidarity with students nationwide, while for some, the university cuts remain an English problem. This week there have been tweets from students occupying a group of snowmen and jumping out to frighten police, and in one unfortunate incident, a cyclist. Just this morning (30 November and St Andrews Day) I attended a spirited student march to Holyrood, which culminated in excellent speeches from a variety of speakers, including the divine Dr Suzanne Trill from the University of Edinburgh’s Literature department, and an epic snowball fight aimed at driving out the dastardly Clegg, who was ensconced inside. A fervent commitment to opposing nationwide fee cuts was on everyone’s lips today, and I will follow with a heart burning with pride the progression of the movement here. If the Scottish Parliament adopts a similar policy to cuts and fee-creation as the Con-Dem’s – degrees here are still free for Scots and at a national low for other British students – Scotland may see even more widespread protest and a more earnest attempt from workers’ and public sector groups to engage with the student protesters. On the 24 November march (attended, might I add, by a number of Edinburgh poets) we were hailed by a builder who advised us to ‘Get a proper job,’ right as we were chanting hopefully to all around, ‘Students and Workers, Unite and Fight!’ How rude! I bet he didn’t say that to the miners, they’d have ‘had’ him.

I digress. The benefit of blanket left-wing principles is vast for the poet, who rarely needs to engage in the same debates concerning poetry’s mandate to shock, interrogate and cajole its readers into political action and debate. Counterculture doesn’t sit on ice down the gloomy cul-de-sac of critique and mobilisation. Instead, it gets to cooperate in something rather like counter-hegemony – albeit with a little dubious assistance from Scottish patriotism. An antagonism towards Tory cuts and Southern directed policy is easily activated, as, like in so many towns throughout Britain, the repercussions of cuts made by the previous Tory government are still felt in perilously neglected communities. Poet nick-e melville has, incidentally, recently started his tenure as writer in ‘residence’ at HMP Edinburgh, which gives you some idea of the limited hostility to outspokenly left-wing and experimental writers in Scotland (I long for the day Sean Bonney is elected to a similar post!) and a more grassroots, poetic intervention into governmental practice can be eagerly anticipated.

Another thing that defines the Edinburgh scene is its many charity shops, book shops and libraries. Bookshops of note include the awesome left-wing purveyor of books and hoster of readings, Word Power Books and tumbledown, bureaucracy-bating Armchair Books. Anyone who remembers to bring the right bits can get membership (browsing, not borrowing) to Edinburgh University Library, Edinburgh City Library and the Scottish National Library, a copyright library the size of half a landing at the BL, but which nonetheless is never uncomfortably full. Bliss! Full borrowing rights are available at the Scottish Poetry Library. One can retrieve even the slightest pamphlets and chapbooks from their coral-coloured shelves for a month at a time, or at least until they send you an automated message asking you to return them, followed by a personal message apologising for the bureaucratic tone of the previous message, and asking you to do your best to return the book, you know, whenever you can. As well as lending out their stocks (all for free of course) the library used to organise poetry walks around the city, during which attendants were encouraged to compose lines based upon locale; they run reading groups in which participants discuss poems they have brought along; a ‘poetry-retrieval’ and recommendation service, where lost lines are reconnected with long-forgotten works and further reading is suggested. Their list of poetry events happening in and around the city is more than I could ever hope to achieve without giving up my fight against patriarchy for good, and I was hard pushed to attend or report upon but a snatch of them. These activities attest to the library’s desire to be a true public institution and to engage with people who may not as yet be readers poetry. I am always made a little uncomfortable by civilising missions, especially when they are accompanied by bastardised Arnoldian rhetoric concerning the cheering power of verse, but I do think libraries and literature have an essential function and the SPL is doing its best to be a welcoming and socially involved institution, although it still ridiculously charges for many of its evening events involving guest speakers. Poetry should always be free, of course.

Edinburgh poet Ryan Van Winkle, who was one the winners of this year’s Crashaw Prize, organised much of the weekly activity at the SPL as its poet-in-residence, although I believe his tenancy has recently ended. He is currently active in the group that is trying to save The Forest Café, the familiar not-for-profit, creative-and-crusty arts hub close to the university, which has been thrown into financial turmoil with the collapse of the organisation that owned the building and the handing over of their beautiful property to administrators. Poetry in the city will surely suffer, both because the inevitable disruption to Forest Publications, which prints a magazine and chapbooks featuring new writing, and the loss of an affordable space for readings, meetings, exhibitions and events. The related collapse of The Roxy Arthouse, where both Scree and the Throat Cuts events were staged, poses a similar threat, and if Edinburgh is not going to turn into London, where arts venues are being destroyed by the cultural cancer that is luxury hotelery and flats, it needs to put its chipper, pro-arts socialism into practice and provide proper support to these creative centres in spite of government policy South of the Border.

-Posie Rider, Edinburgh, 30 November, 2010

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