Edinburgh International Book Festival
12 August 2017
This event was a one-off event for the Edinburgh Book Festival as part of their series Babble:Spoken Word. It was the result of a week in May of intense collaboration between Australian poets Luka Lesson and Omar Musa and local Scottish poets Jenny Lindsay and Michael Pedersen, now fully developed into an electrifying performance. They had already shaken us up with their teaser at the Scottish Poetry Library in May, and didn’t renege on their promise of a bigger, bolder, polished show on the opening night of the Festival.
Jenny Lindsay, well loved on the Edinburgh and Glasgow poetry circuit with her Rally and Broad events series, starts with a wry piss take of ‘Edinburgh, oh Edinburgh’, with a knowing sigh and sarcastic weariness. She threw the first of a few well-aimed jabs at its contradictions; ‘dreadlocked fire eaters alongside a career in buy-to-let’, Edinburgh, the ‘old tart’, prostituting itself to American tourists with its packaged history on the Royal Mile. And so begins a night of magic journeying through life and lands, as each poet takes a turn on the mike, again and again, the four comrades arm in arm, skipping down the yellow brick road.
Jenny is the warrior woman, the person whose words empower you to throw off your artificially crafted burden of femininity, your ‘box of false womanhood’ and reveal yourself in all its fullness. Omar is the lover; seductive in his handsome sturdiness with tender odes to the freckles on his beloved’s face, turning ‘fireflies at night’ in his poem ‘Lantern’. Michael is the jester; his frenetic energy spitting out of his wiry frame and high top hair, with perfectly timed, quintessentially Scottish punctuations of self-deprecation. And Luka, the High Priest, staring into the infinite, and taking us all with him on his mythic quest to find Self. They would resist these simplistic labels, rightly, as they all share these characteristics in their own defined and unique ways. Each one sharing a common human story of struggle; telling their stories with expletives, wild tenderness and jokes.
Jenny savagely mocks the middle class making art out of others’ suffering; those looking to find prettiness in others’ poverty, a young girl stuffed full of fish fingers and CBeebies singing somewhere over the rainbow’. Contrasted with these poets who do it right; as they bring us the real beauty in suffering, plunging and probing into the heart of our tough realities. She brings forth some wry laughter with her acute observations of modern predilection for dating at arms length as a text bounces in at 1am with ‘I promise I won’t fall in love’, juxtaposing it with the miserable, desperate ‘glory days’ of lifelong marriage. Michael, whose performance and power racked up several levels since the original, tentative reading at the Scottish Poetry Library, rapidly fired a cannon of finely crafted images onto the screen inside our minds; from junkies to vicious birds at a BBQ, passionately letting us see the underbelly of Edinburgh in a new light. Breathlessly talented with words, he’s expert at playing with pauses, to create pathos and great comic relief.
My favourite one from Omar is his journey to a planet where everything is perfect; his first love still loves him, his father plays without a hint of malice, and best of all, he can understand his grandmother perfectly as she speaks to him in her mother tongue, Malay. We hope this is a version of the promised heaven waiting for us all. All the poets share a common struggle of fighting different types of marginalization, and as they share their fight to come from the margins to the centre, the power of their voices comes from it being very much on their own terms. They are angry because they love. Truly loving anger is a rare thing, but this is the special experience we were fortunate enough to witness.
Luka bestows on us a touching new poem, ‘I killed a man’. Like Omar’s rise from his tough home town of Queanbeyan, where boys ‘get hard at the thought of carnage’, managing to keep his heart open along the way, Luka shares his inner transformation as he walks the age old journey; shedding the old restrictions to newly embrace what was inside him all along as he ‘healed a man’, in a cave in Greece, the home of his ancestors. And what glorious ancestors they were, as he invokes their presence to call on their strength, positioning himself in the long, unbroken between them and his imagined great-great-great-great-great granddaughter. Luka’s respect and love not just for his ancestors, but the land and the original people of Australia despite and, importantly, because, of the existing power structures’ attempts to ‘colonise, compromise and conflict me’ shines through his whole being. Like a true mystic, as he looks into the distance but flickers a warm smile over the audience, he exhorts us to see beyond our twisted histories and false sense of separation, and live as our divine selves.
Sometimes poetry can feel self-indulgent and pointless. But as the night’s themes spiralled around from childhood, to love, to loss, to dreams, to personal and common struggle, these poems felt vital. Not just alive, but vital to our sense of feeling. Vital to our sense of connection. The same struggles, same hurts, same hopes, from human beings coming together from thousands of miles apart, reminding us we’ve been doing this for thousands of years. Like the fireworks firing away up at the Castle between and around the poems, those carefully chosen words and crafted phrases took turns to sprinkle over us like fairy dust or pepper us like mini shrapnel. Jenny and Michael we can catch up with again in Scotland, thankfully, but our Australian preacher-priest-poets have to fly away, leaving behind their trails of tales…..As Omar and Luka share the stage to end with their hip-hop influenced poem-song, ‘The Light’, we we know we’ve been privileged to have shared a truly moving and transcendent experience.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams