Continuing a series of classic essays on literature. This month sees one of the greatest Victoria poets pontificate upon the poetic art – originally published as the introduction to T. H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880)…
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.
If we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry.
The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be, and to distract us from the pursuit of it. We should therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset, and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed.
Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious. A poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticising it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal.
Both fallacies are natural. It is evident how naturally the study of the history and development of poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure, and to quarrel with a careless public for skipping, in obedience to mere tradition and habit, from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry, which they long neglected; the study makes many of them dissatisfied with their so-called classical poetry, the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century, a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp, with its politesse stérile et rampante [sterile and bombastic politeness—ed.], but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed. The dissatisfaction is natural; yet a lively and accomplished critic, M. Charles d’Héricault, the editor of Clément Marot, goes too far when he says that “the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history.” “It hinders,” he goes on, “it hinders us from seeing more than one single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there was once a man, and hiding from us all trace of the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and hardly will it be possible for the young student to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready—made from that divine head.”
All this is brilliantly and tellingly said, but we must plead for a distinction. Everything depends on the reality of a poet’s classic character. If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. This is what is salutary, this is what is formative; this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. Everything which interferes with it, which hinders it, is injurious. True, we must read our classic with open eyes, and not with eyes blinded with superstition; we must perceive when his work comes short, when it drops out of the class of the very best, and we must rate it, in such cases, at its proper value. But the use of this negative criticism is not in itself, it is entirely in its enabling us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent. To trace the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures of a genuine classic, to acquaint oneself with his time and his life and his historical relationships, is mere literary dilettantism unless it has that clear sense and deeper enjoyment for its end. It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him; and, if we lived as long as Methuselah and had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect steadfastness, this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork, the better we shall be able, it may be said, to enjoy the authors. True, if time were not so short, and schoolboys wits not so soon tired and their power of attention exhausted; only, as it is, the elaborate philological preparation goes on, but the authors are little known and less enjoyed. So with the investigator of “historic origins” in poetry. He ought to enjoy the true classic all the better for his investigations; he often is distracted from the enjoyment of the best, and with the less good he overbusies himself, and is prone to over-rate it in proportion to the trouble which it has cost him.
The idea of tracing historic origins and historical relationships cannot be absent from a compilation like the present. And naturally the poets to be exhibited in it will be assigned to those persons for exhibition who are known to prize them highly, rather than to those who have no special inclination towards them. Moreover, the very occupation with an author, and the business of exhibiting him, disposes us to affirm and amplify his importance. In the present work, therefore, we are sure of frequent temptation to adopt the historic estimate, or the personal estimate, and to forget the real estimate; which latter, nevertheless, we must employ if we are to make poetry yield us its full benefit. So high is that benefit, the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying the really excellent, the truly classic in poetry, that we do well, I say, to set it fixedly before our minds as our object in studying poets and poetry, and to make the desire of attaining it the one principle to which, as the Imitation says, whatever we may read or come to know, we always return.
At any rate the end to which the method and the estimate are designed to lead, and from leading to which, if they do lead to it, they get their whole value,—the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best, the truly classic, in poetry,—is an end, let me say it once more at parting, of supreme importance. We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of monetary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.
The essay continues with a historical survey upon famous poets
StAnza International Poetry Festival
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Harry Baker (8th March)
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Ben Norris (9th March)
Studio Theatre, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews
I’ve decided to roll two reviews into one, because in many ways the ‘Poetry Café’ experience at StAnza is of-a-piece. For example, your ticket entitles you to a drink, and a pie by Stuarts of Buckhaven – you get a choice between macaroni, scotch, steak-and-ale, and chicken curry, and believe me, they deliver more pie for your peso! The chicken curry pies are insanely delicious and, without fail, I’m in danger of regarding the poetry as an afterthought. You get a comfy armchair too.
However, the good folk at Stanza have a knack of picking poets for the Café that they know will deliver on a par with the pies. On the two occasions I was there this year, for example, they put up two Slam Champions for us. First up, on the Friday was Harry Baker, at one time the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion. The other amazing fact about him is that he is a mathematician, though really I don’t know why that should be amazing – the juxtaposition of poet and mathematician – because a love of numbers and patterns can manifest itself in both disciplines. In Harry’s case, it can result in poems that are actually about prime numbers. Equally it can result in alliterative displays about proper pop-up purple paper people.
Harry Baker delivers, somehow, with the air of a boy in Year 10, but a very clever boy. If he were wearing a blazer you would want to hate him, but you wouldn’t be able to, because not only would he be too clever he would also be too damn funny. You would let him hang out with you and the rest of the kids who think that school in uncool, he would take a sip of Relentless and say “Bloody hell, that’s strong,” and proceed to tell you the percentages of the ingredients, and then multiply the calories by the number of minutes in a week. He, and only he, could compose a poem about the number of birthdays there are every day, or how many hours he has been alive, or could say that ten thousand days equals 27.39726 years, unless you’re talking binary, and then it’s sixteen.
A panel of five random French people crowned him champion, true, but there is one thing that worries me rather than delights me in his delivery. He has a tendency to let his voice die away at the end of lines or phrases, to the extent that sometimes, regardless of the mic, one can lose an important word and thus fail to succumb to the force of the slam. High point, though, was the poem in which he taught us a brand new word in German: Falafellöffel. As I said to him afterwards, “Das war ausgezeichnet!”
Two slammers means more of the same, right? Wrong. For a start, have you ever had this nagging feeling that you recognise someone’s voice? That’s how it was with Ben Norris. “Who the heck is this bloke?” I kept asking myself. It turns out he plays Ben Archer in BBC Radio4’s The Archers. StAnza sure know how to pick someone for a middle-class, middle-aged audience!
Ben Norris is not as outright funny as Harry Baker, but then he doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. Twenty minutes of his performance was dedicated not to a poem, but to a short story written from the point of view of a young man visiting his gran, who is hospitalised and in the grip of senile dementia. It is written in a style, and was delivered in a style, that demanded and held attention. For most of it the story had a solidity and a flow; towards the end it became more fragmented, but for the listener that was the part which reminded us that Ben is a poet, its fragments signaled ideas, breaths, images.
A Poetry Café performance, you see, does not need to be funny. As Ben launched into a series of poems about the time when his parents split up, and he learned that his mother had been having an affair that lasted six years, he told us there was no need to applaud. And indeed, they were moving, intense, and personal, so we didn’t. Not that they were full of angst or resentment – though he did refer to them as the poems he wouldn’t recite to his family – indeed the poem dedicated to his father’s subsequent partner, Sue, was a work of dedication and appreciation. Strangely enough, this was probably the point in the performance where the majority of the laughs came, if only because Ben forgot the opening words of the poem – ‘The Only Ethnic Minority Dentist in Boston, Lincs’ – and decided to do the millennial thing of reading it all off his phone. And why not. Hand-held devices are now part of the performance poet’s natural toolkit.
It’s marginal which of these two poetry lunches I liked best. I liked them both, I loved the poetry, I warmed to the poets. Ben, by a whisker, though. People slightly ahead of numbers. But do appreciate these two guys, and if either comes to your town, give him a look-see and a listen-hear.
The Mumble have recently, & rather happily, discovered there is something quite addictive about reading the bitter-sweet paeans of Glaswegian poet, Megan Mccorquodale.
I like it when a slim volume of poetry lands on my carpet with the one o’clock post, wee Daisy barking in recognition of the package-size, knowing we’ll be out in the hills soon enough as I ponder over this fresh bouquet of page-uncrimpled poetry. I also like it when I don’t know anything about the poet, which was the case for Megan Mccorquodale, described on her book’s blurb as;
but being as stable as the dust
in the kitchen draft
I was aimlessly thrown around the house today
as fickle as Glasgow summers
After reading Megan’s book, however, I now believe I know her a hell of a lot more intimately than when I first opened the pages of WHAT I TOLD FRANK, her debut collection published by Clochoderick Press. These fledgling poetry publishers have a keen, keen eye for quality, with the noble ambition of declaring their, ‘overall mission is to run Clochoderick as a non-profit service and to use any income to invest in new literary talent.’ So far so good, for WHAT I TOLD FRANK is an ethereally excellent book, in which the viscera of Megan’s voice – all bleeding & skin-gnaw’d – strips back the modern poetical psyche like the faded crumbling wallpaper of a condemn’d Glaswegian high-rise.
In fact the best sex we ever had
was after we argued about the existence of a god
and for a long time I felt like we
weren’t kneeling at the same altar
but in the end you told me no matter what
you had met your match with me
To begin with, WHAT I TOLD FRANK, is less a collection of separate poems, but rather one long unbroken piece of epyllia, like an Eve of St Agnes or something like that. The vast majority of the stanzas are in short, solid blocks of unrhyming free verse. In these Megan operates her mental music is if it were the drone of Milton’s epic organ, monotone but certainly not monotonous. She is gritty, & urban, but not in the cliched way of so many contemporary poets; for her angst contains beauty.
A product of youthful punkdom’s spit & distortion, the residues of those sweaty speed-fuel’d nights linger in her unglamorous lines, as does a woman completely aghast at the world she lives in – but is either too afraid, too drunk or too comfortable to escape. Some of her stanzas were brilliant, some were a little abstract – perhaps on purpose, like a diazepam dream – & it was rare that a complete poem had a full complement of those brilliant stanzas. Her efforts that did were, in the main, Megan’s more dramatic pieces, such as the fantastic I’VE NEVER BEEN GOOD AT PARTIES.
The poem has a final stanza which reads; ‘the shaking soul was the first / to answer the door / the most sober / but when it opened I sighed with relief / grabbed my coat / & followed Frank back out of the door.’ Frank, of course, is Megan’s muse, & companion through their shar’d Glaswegian half-life; & the whole collection is some kind of paean to her imperfect love for Frank who flutters in & out of her creative window like the Raven in Poe’s masterpiece & on the front cover of Megan’s book itself. In the next poem we gain an excellent flavor of her polluted love for Frank;
I can’t write today
when I wash my hands
waiting for the sting of bar work from the night before
I can’t feel the cuts on my fingers
As we wander through the moody, graphic, polaroid novel of Megan’s poetic art, we find her to be an uncomplicatedly natural poet. She extends her metaphors effortlessly. She is definitely neurotic, & obviously a chain-smoker – there seems to be at least one reference to cigarettes in every poem. She is also hypersensitive & hyper-accurate in her observations of the mundane & the marvelous, all of which intrigue Megan but ultimately bore her. But not us, by the way, we’re not bored at all; for she is blessed with the Bukowski droll, the melody melancholic of Barrett-Browning, polished off with the prettiness of Auden. A fascinating book which deserves several reads before, one hopes, the next collection is out. The bar is set very high now, however, so good luck Megan Mccorquodale!
Scottish Storytelling Centre
May 4th, 2018
Four diversely different characters, each with an important story to tell. Maybe too many are recaptured in the 90 minute performance; blink once and you might miss something. One has to keep in mind just how far these guys have traveled to bring such magical words to our attention, with the show taking shape at a residency in Mumbai earlier this year. Each of the stories could have been a full performance, especially the conversation between Sheena Khalid and Eilidh Firth, about the similarities between the industrial nature of both Mumbai and Dundee – in itself was a very interesting history lesson. One has to remember that this performance of stories is still in its conception stage, a work in progress. Four performance artists all with something valid to say.
Jumping from story to story was a bit like a mental dream after a weekend on Magick Mushrooms. Mohammad Muneem Nazir was spectacular, a very confident man, full of grace and musical sparkle. With a genuine spirituality and deep wisdom. A True Sufi. Eilidh is a quiet genius who came across as being more comfortable as a violinist. In a recent interview with the Mumble, she gave an excellent account of the essence of the piece;
A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
Sometimes during the performance, it felt like I was eavesdropping. It was very captivating & the night flew by. I have known Daniel Allison for several years having shared the performance stage with him at prominent Scottish festivals. He’s one of the best didge players in Scotland and he has already built a solid reputation as a raconteur with a deep wisdom and understanding of Celtic mythology. Like I said, each of these performers was infinitely interesting. Sheena Khalid is a natural actress who delivered quite beautifully, so much so this beautiful Indian mystic has inspired poetry within my soul. Possibilities and ideas became inspired within me. But still it was too much take in. Like a collection of ideas waiting to unfold to their potential.
Brilliant art always works me, and this has not been an exception; it has taken a weekend to process everything that I bared witness to. I think it will work me for a bit longer. The conception of the collective and the merging of culture, the Pagan roots of both Mumbai and Celtic Britain brought to life.
Indeed, my performance poet has been inspired.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
This Friday sees Edinburgh-based storyteller Daniel Allison, Dundonian fiddle-player and composer Eilidh Firth, Mumbai actor, writer and director Sheena Khalid, and Kashmiri poet and songwriter Mohammad Muneem Nazir begin A New Conversation. The Mumble managed to catch a wee blether with the Scottish contingent
Hello Eilidh, so when did you realise you were musical?
EILIDH: I started getting violin lessons at the age of five, but I definitely wasn’t up for practicing! When I was ten I joined a local group called the ‘Tayside Young Fiddlers’ when I began to enjoy playing and after that my playing improved more and more.
Hello Daniel. You are a true international troubadour. What is it about travelling that thrills you the most?
DANIEL: It’s very easy for us to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, seeing things. Going to a place where nothing and no one is familiar frees you from outdated routines and perceptions, giving you the chance to experience the world and yourself anew. Unless you bring your phone…
You have worked as a chimpanzee tracker. What does that entail?
DANIEL: I worked on a chimpanzee habituation project in a developing nature reserve in Uganda. The job was to habituate chimps to human presence so that eventually tourists could come along and see them. So, we would walk through the forests listening and looking for chimps, in silence, all day, every day.
So Eilidh, you are a relatively recent graduate of the RCS; how did you find your studies there?
EILIDH: I loved my time at the RCS. It was great to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about traditional music. It gave me a grounding in the context around the music – the history, folklore and language – and they encouraged me to start writing my own tunes as well.
Back to Daniel. Creative Scotland have funded you to give four Scottish tours to date, visiting schools as if they were Dark Age courts & you were the travelling bard. Can you tell us a little about the experiences?
DANIEL: I love working as a modern-day bard, but I wanted to have a go at being a ye olden day bard, so I organised tours in which I would walk coast to coast across the country, wild camping and stopping to tell stories at schools along the way. The first one was very hard as I made my schedule too tight, so at one point I walked 28 miles in a day, slept and then got up at 5am to run for miles across the hills in the rain – with horrendous blisters – to get to my next gig. But I learnt from my mistakes and had wonderful experiences, like telling stories outside a chambered cairn on a hilltop on North Uist at sunset, and dancing Strip the Willow down Stornoway harbour at sunrise.
How does travel inspire your creativity & can you give us examples?
DANIEL: I love how people often begin creative practices while travelling, even if it’s just writing down what they’ve seen. I think somehow you can leave self-limiting beliefs at home. For me, I see or do things that stir my imagination, and then at some point they come out in a story. Based on that period in the forest, I wrote a story years later about a Tanzanian boy who is possessed by a chimpanzee, and a novella about an English girl encountering a local shaman while living in a Kenyan nature reserve.
Eilidh, you are in integral member of the Scottish folk band ‘Barluath.’ Can you tell us about the experience?
EILIDH: We formed ‘Barluath’ while we were still at university and I feel like we’ve really grown up together. It’s been wonderful to travel and perform and I love making new music with them.
What is it about traditional Scottish music that makes you tick?
EILIDH: I love traditional music because every player can put their personal stamp on the music. No two performers will play a tune in the same way. I also think it’s great that the music has so much history surrounding it but it’s still as vibrant and relevant today.
…& Daniel, which instruments do you use when you add music to your storytelling?
DANIEL: My main instrument is the didgeridoo, which I play in traditional and contemporary styles, but I also use Tibetan singing bowls, rattles, chimes, drums, jaw harp and a few other bits and bobs to give texture to stories.
What does Eilidh Firth like to do when she’s not being musical?
EILIDH: I love getting out into the countryside with the dog or up a hill – he keeps me fit! I’ve also recently taught myself how to knit so you’ll usually find me cursing under a pile of yarn!
Can you tell us about A New Conversation?
EILIDH: A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
What will be your contribution to A New Conversation?
DANIEL: The meeting of the mythic and contemporary is a strong current in our piece; I think my job has been to hold the place of the mythic, choosing the right stories and presenting them in a way that shows their relevance to Scotland and India now, and to our own lives as individuals. One story I tell is the legend of a poet who went to live in the otherworld but returned because he missed th madness and sadness of this world. Mohammad and I worked together to explore how his own story of a growing up in and later escaping a conflict zone reflects this tale.
Are you finding connections between European music and stories & that of India?
EILIDH: I knew there would be links between our two countries and cultures, but I couldn’t have imagined how many similarities there would be. I think both countries are going through periods of change and in some ways uncertainties and it’s been fascinating to see the parallels reflected in the stories brought together in ‘Where I Stand’.
To which places will an audience member’s imagination be taken through the event?
DANIEL: A lot of places! Audiences will experience the murder of a giant, Iron Age warfare, industrial Mumbai, cosmic turtles, Urdu poetry, soul-stirring music and an erotic proposition from the goddess of war. I think that’s plenty to go on.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Daniel Allison?
DANIEL: This year I’m going to be working hard to get my novel ready to send out into the world. It’s a dark and bloody adventure story for younger teenagers set in prehistoric Orkney.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Eilidh Firth?
EILIDH: I’m really passionate about music education and when I’m not performing or composing I love to teach. Over the next few months I’m going to be taking some courses to give me some new approaches to working with young people and taking on some outreach projects to widen access to music. I also have a few jumpers I want to finish knitting and a couple of Munros to ‘bag’!
WHERE I STAND: A NEW CONVERSATION
Scottish Storytelling Centre
April 30th, 2018
The situation of the Scottish Storytelling Centre; half-way up the Royal Mile by the old Tolbooth where John Knox used to preach to the passing public, & the World’s End pub, which marked the edge of the medieval city walls; is one of the most historical places in Scotland. No better site, then, for the modern dionysia that is Tradfest, thrust annually upon a receptive public by the TRACS organisation, with TRACS standing for – Traditional Arts & Culture, Scotland. A Monday is as good a day as any for culture, & so I headed into Edinburgh for a double helping of story-hearing.
The occasion was to be two hour-long sessions, divided only by a quick dash of time between performing areas in the Centre. On arrival I noticed that one of Edinburgh’s finest storytellers would be in the audience, the irrepressible David Campbell. He had surrounded himself with a bevvy of intelligent, bonnie ladies, who spontaneously burst out into a rendition of que sera sera in the cafe. ‘Only at the Tradfest,’ I thought to myself, sipping on one of the rather especial speciality beers they have in stock.
The first session was called MARY RUSHIECOATS AND THE WEE BLACK BULL, which turned out to be a celebration of Bulls, Beltane & the Buddha’s birthday performed with highly praisable panache by American storyteller, Linda Williamson, & Japanese harpist Mio Shapley. Linda opened with a tale recorded in 1985 by her husband, Duncan, who sadly died a decade ago. He did leave behind some remarkable works in the passing, including a classically nerve-wracking, mind-bending starburst of fairy tale, the Mary Rushiecoats, all in iambic pentameter with the odd rhyme thrown in too.
Following the charming wicked ogre ending, Mio also told a tale, the Bamboo Cutter, a tenth century story full of treasures & human change, & the oldest survivor in the Japanese tradition. The third tale thrust us straight into the Buffalo Nation of America, a remarkable cross-species flourish of glorious storytelling. Throughout, the ladies made us feel extremely comfortable, & the harp was so hypnotic & that it projected into my mind the harp-use of the Celtic bards in the mead halls of ancient days. In thus mind, I was perfectly set up for the second half of my Tradfest outing.
The second part of my outing was downstairs in the Centre’s main theatre, & went by the rather elongated title that is A FLAME OF WRATH FOR SQUINTING PATRICK. The soul of this story is a Weegieland modernisation of a bardic tale, recited quite engagingly by snow-haired David Frances & accompanied through a theatrical splinter of the Pìobaireachd tradititon with the curiouser & curiouser music of Calum MacCrimmon, a direct descendant of the famous pipers to the Dunvegan MacLeods, & John Mulhearn of the ineffable Big Music Society. When Mulhearn said of the story that, ‘the underlying narrative is easily brought into the twenty-first century,’ he was completely accurate in his sentiment; & as I heard the madcap jauntings of Skelly Pat, Big Donnie, Devil MacKay and Mad Dog Mackenzie, I did rather take joy in the timelessness of a good story well told.
Damian Beeson Bullen
This Friday, Leyla Josephine will be returning to Edinburgh with her highly-acclaimed show, Hopeless. The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & to see some of her poems
Hello Leyla, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I am originally from Glasgow spent most of my life there. I lived in Japan for a while and now I’m in Prestwick. I moved to be near the coast for some peace and quiet but it’s been a lot of commuting. I spend most of my time on the M77.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt like a poet. There’s certainly not been a moment I can specifically think of. I think my work has always sat on the margins of performance, storytelling and poetry. I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud when I call myself a poet. But I also believe that anything can be poetry, so when someone gave me the title I took it and ran with it.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
I think in the beginning of liking words and rhythm I was more focussed on music and looking back some of my favourite musicians could definitely be considered poets like Jamie T, Ghostpoet and Alex Turner. At school I was obsessed with Liz Lockhead’s Medea. I try to look around me in the UK Spoken Word community for inspiration, Iona Lee, Sam Small, Liam McCormick and Lisa Luxx are some of my favourites. I have always been a fan of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish. I love reading Ocean Vuong and David Ross Linklater. But I definitely look to people like Taylor Mac, Kieran Hurley, Julia Taudevin and Third Angel and who manage to so beautifully tie theatre and spoken word together. I think I’ve always been really lucky to have one foot in the door of both Spoken Word and Contemporary Theatre. I have seen so many brilliant performers and poets and I try to take inspiration from everywhere.
You’re quite the creative polymath; teaching drama, making theatre & writing poetry. Do all these artistic endeavors bleed into each other?
Definitely, usually I can’t really tell the difference between any of them. It’s just the framing of what you’re doing, all the creative processes are very similar. The blurring of the lines is what makes it the most interesting. My pamphlet isn’t a poetry book, it’s documentation of a theatre show which has poetry in it but does that make it a poetry book or maybe is it a script or because it’s true story is it a memoir? I find it fascinating when people try to name it because really I’m not sure either. I don’t know even if drama teacher is right because I’m encouraging people to write their own stories and perform them which is maybe more like poetry. I’m not sure what I am in any of it, but I’m happy to just cruise along and be whatever people want me to be.
You first rose to public prominence when in 2014 you won The UK Poetry Slam at The Royal Albert Hall. Can you tell us about the experience, & what was the prize?
There was no prize but it has definitely helped me get exposure and book gigs. I came joint first with Vanessa Kissule – another brilliant poet. It was a long day, I think about 100 poets taking part. I really liked being one of the only Scottish people there, I think it gave me a bit of an edge. Slams are fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. The best poet never wins, it’s all about manipulating the audience, it’s a performance, it’s a show but it’s so entertaining and such a buzz! That day was great because it was only my second slam and to come out top was really exciting.
You have performed all over Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and as far as Prague, New York, Victoria and Vancouver. Which are your three best gigs (in no particular order)?
That’s such a hard question! I’d say my favourite ever was at The Wickerman 2014, it was the first time I came off stage and I was like this is what I want to do. I love this feeling, I’m in control, I’m with my friends, I’m good at this, it’s sunny, the audience are enjoying it. This is it, I’m going to do whatever this is now. The BBC Stage at The Fringe with The Social’s Rappers Vs Poets is always great. There’s an audience of about 300 and it’s always absolutely terrifying cause it’s all filmed live, but I live for the pressure!! My pamphlet launch felt like another real moment – I packed out Inn Deep which was the first place I ever performed, people couldn’t get in and everyone was standing. I felt like a rockstar for about 10 mins. I had invited all my favourite musicians and poets to perform. The mic wasn’t working and my performance wasn’t perfect but it felt special and a milestone. I never thought anyone would ever want to publish me and I was so overwhelmed with the support.
What does Leyla Josephine like to do when she’s not writing?
I like to read, I drink a lot of tea, I like going for walks, seeing theatre – the madder the better. I was a ski instructor for a while so when I get to ski I absolutely love that. I used to party all the time but that’s slowly starting to fade out, I do love to dance and drink beer with my friends when I can but not I’m not as hardcore as I used to me.
The road stretches ahead much like life does.
Mount Errigal, purple in the morning light,
greets me generously.
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
The smell of turf reminds me of home
but you can’t eat turf,
you can only burn it
and fire in the belly
doesn’t feed the starving.
The long grass brushes against my knees
much like grief does.
The ghosts from the Gorta Mor whisper from the ditches
‘Do not be afraid, you are not alone’
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
I’m trying to prove something,
anything, while the earth beneath me spins,
The rain keeps me company,
it sounds like footsteps running.
I’ve got the girls.
they’ve been with me,
staggering down streets,
on table girls,
with our tales
that we keep for take-away meals,
Hold your hand
and make you tea,
come to bed with me
Seas separate us
we come home to melt into each other
the MAC counter warriors.
Belt of lipstick
Fuck him, fuck that.
Taking our bodies back.
Bring the girls out of the dark and
try call us hysterical
Fire in our cheeks
Keys between the knuckles
When we are alone
you underestimate us.
we take up
are the greatest love stories never told,
we are bold,
and the too much
We laugh just as loud as our mothers,
feel the moon in our waters,
don’t chew when we eat,
take no breath when we speak,
don’t interrupt us
we are angry
We’re coming for you,
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your poetry?
I always want people to feel less alone in their sadness or try to dilute shame by talking about things that are not usually talked about. I mostly write about my own experiences with the hope that they tap into the universal experience.
You are currently touring your 5 star Edinburgh Fringe show Hopeless which was nominated, I understand, for both The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for Saboteur Awards for Best Spoken Word Show? How is it going so far on the road?
Yeah it’s going really well. It’s pretty hard work, I’m currently organising everything myself, marketing, photoshop, ticket sales, performing, admin, tech – it gets really exhausting and a bit lonely. But having audiences that aren’t just friends and family is really cool and I have a lot of friends that help out when they can. I feel really lucky to be able to travel and see new cities all while doing something I love.
The pamphlet version of the Hopeless has been published by Speculative Books and is illustrated by Rosalind Shrivas. Can you describe your working relationship with Rosalind?
It was so fun working with Rosalind. She managed to do a great job without even seeing the show! I would send her photos and ideas and she would come back with such amazing pieces that just brought the pamphlet to life. She blew me away every step of the way. As I said before it’s a bit different from a normal poetry pamphlet so her drawings helped shape it into a visual of the show too and actually you get different images that you don’t get in the show.
You will be performing Hopeless at the Summerhall on the 4th May. Is it the same show, or has it been tweaked over time?
I’ve now done the show to an audience 30 times. It’s changed a little but I’ve kept the structure the same mostly. I was lucky enough to have Drew Taylor come in and direct me before the tour. He was brilliant at changing little things like my facial expression or tone just slightly. It’s been quite interesting to repeat the same thing over and over again. I need to find emotion in it every time or it comes across insincere and that’s been the biggest challenge. To still find the belief and love in all the words and actions. It changes every night but my goal is to give every audience a good experience and the attention they deserve.
To someone who has never seen Hopeless, what are they to expect?
It’s a rollercoaster! Some of it is funny and some of it is upsetting. I talk about my dad, my great-great grandfather, The Day After Tomorrow, The refugee crisis and walking 55 miles one day to try and prove a point! I always want people to leave feeling hopeful but it really depends on the person.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Leyla Josephine?
Hopeless is on at The Brighton Fringe, The Prague Fringe and Migration Matters Festival.
I’m starting to make my new show ‘Daddy Drag’ to be performed at The Fringe 2019! Lots more workshops and writing and walks on the beach hopefully (no pun intended).
Leyla will be performing Hopeless @
Edinburgh’s Summerhall, this Friday, the 4th May
Price: £12 / £10