The illustrious Max Scratchmann, parvenu extraordinaire, is bringing a bevvy of beauty & talent to Leith Walk this Fringe. The Mumble managed a wee blether…
Hello Max, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Max: I currently live in Edinburgh but I was born in India as part of the huge ex-pat Scottish community who worked in the jute mills there and brought “home” when I was six. I’ve since lived all over the Untied Kingdom from London to Orkney and I settled in Edinburgh seven years ago when I totally fell in love with the city.
Which poets inspire you, both old skool & today?
Max: I have very catholic taste in poetry and the people I read tend to range from Poe to Pam Ayres. I’m a great fan of the late 19th and early 20th century nonsense writers, like Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Harry Graham – and of course the iconic Victorian to Edwardian female poets like Christian Rossetti, Emily Bronte and the absolutely stunning and underrated Charlotte Mew. Contemporary poet wise, most of the people I admire tend to be featured in my shows, since when I find a poet or performer who inspires me I stalk them until they agree to take part in a Poetry Circus gig. It’s hard to single any one poet out, they’re all so good, but I’ll make a quick mention of our two fantastic headliners, Rosie Garland and Elise Hadgraft, who really push poetry to the furthest realms of its borders and use words in ways that even cynical old grumps like me find themselves amazed by.
You have traveled to, & perform’d in, events all over Scotland. How do you find the Scottish poetry scene?
Max: Poetry ‘scenes’ differ from country to country and even city to city, but the Scottish scene is particularly imaginative and vibrant right now. Rana Marathon is doing wonders in Perth; Glasgow is flourishing with Sam Small and Kevin Gilday & Cat Hepburn putting on regular nights; and though we’ve lost Blind Poetics and Soap Box here in Edinburgh there’s still Inky Fingers, the Goddamn Slam, Loud Poets and, of course, new girl Jacqueline Whymark’s runaway success, From the Horse’s Mouth.
Can you tell us about Poetry Circus?
Max: Yes. Poetry Circus started way back in 2014 after a chance meeting between myself and the dancer/poet, Josie Pizer, at a writers’ workshop. We had both been bemoaning the lack of theatre in poetry gigs, and the tendency of some poets to stand hiding behind the mic with their nose buried in their very expensive Paperchase note book, mumbling what was often really good poetry. What we really wanted to see was more visually stunning work, and more of poets who could demonstrate a big personality on stage. We were also particularly keen on ‘poetry’ that was expressed with more than just words, and, before we quite knew what had hit us we’d formed a spoken word theatre company and, over the last four years, we’ve hosted dancers, performance artists and film-makers under our all-encompassing banner of poetry.
What does Max Scratchmann like to do when he’s not being creative?
Max: I think I’m always being creative. In addition to my writing and performance work I’m also a visual artist & animator and an occasional tutor and workshop facilitator, plus I find time to be an artist’s model and – currently – a living sculpture in an art installation.
You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Max: They would have to be very long books that could stand re-reading! I’d have to say The DANNY Quadrilogy by Chancery Stone; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and the complete works of Kirsty Logan. What would really be better though would be a perpetual library card and mobile library that was driven by passing dolphins…
You’re about to shoot the meteor of dazzling wordplay that is Poetry Bordello back into the Fringe’s poetical stratosphere, how did you get involved & are you excited to be back?
Max: Because a lot of my personal work is comedic I’m quite heavily in demand for cabarets – particularly during the Fringe – and, as such, i became very intensively involved in the burlesque scene a couple of years ago and was blown away by some of the performers and performance artists on that stage. It occurred to me that a lot of burlesque acts were visual poetry and lots of the artists make statements on important issues like gender politics and personal sexuality, so from there it was only a short hop towards inviting burlesque performers to join the Poetry Circus regulars, and the chemistry that we’ve discovered between the artistes is electric.
Can you tell us more about Poetry Bordello?
Max: Poetry Bordello is a unique show because it fuses physical performance art and burlesque with spoken word and poetry and provides a safe space for poets to perform their more personal work on themes of sexuality, gender and personality in a supportive environment. Plus they get to dress up if they want to!
Who is the MC & is she any good?
Max: Because we’re running a Bordello we really needed a Madam, and we found the ideal one in the shape of our very own Madam Isla. Bearing a passing resemblance to the outstanding stand-up comedian, Isla Maclean, Madam Isla will steer you into the shady underworld of the Bordello and ensure that you have an amazing time. And, yes, of course she’s good…
What acts have you got for us this year?
Max: We’re totally thrilled to be presenting bestselling novelist and chanteuse Rosie Garland headlining on 9th August, and Elise Hadgraft aka Corporationpop on 16th August before she heads off to Berlin to start a world tour with her new punk band; plus a mouthwatering array of slam-busting performance poets including the Belfast Slam Champion, Elizabeth McGeown, Imogen Stirling, Gray Crosbie, Max Scratchmann, AR Crow, this year’s Stanza Slam Champ, Jo Gilbert, Suky Goodfellow, Orla – Sparklechops – Kelly, Katy Kat, Express Yourself’s Carla Woodburn and the poet laureate of Aldi, our very own Angie Strachan; plus we’re super chuffed to be welcoming back the renowned sideshow dancer and choreographer, Andromada Mystic, from Sanctuary of Sin plus astounding physical performers Taylor Swift 666 and Sharrow.
Why do you think the blend of spoken word & burlesque works so well – especially in the hands of Poetry Bordello?
Max: As I’ve said, there’s a lot of visual and physical poetry being expressed on the burlesque stage right now, and the presence of physical performers in a spoken word gig is very inspirational to poets and encourages them to explore their own range of movements and visual appearances. We’ve been doing a series of photoshoots over the last few weeks, using the themes of bordellos and Edwardian music halls, and in particular the photography of E J Bellocq, and the performers have been pushing their own limits and have a whale of a time.
What do you think the audience will take away from the performances?
Max: Hopefully, they’ll have a totally amazing time but also find themselves thinking about some of the themes raised and maybe want to rethink their own attitudes on gender stereotypes and sexual labelling.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show in the street, what do you say?
Max: Did you really, really hate poetry when you were at school? You’ll love this.
What will Max Scratchmann be doing after the Fringe?
Max: I’ll be producing a new show called Speakin’ Cajun with the Jennifer Ewan Band at the Traverse Theatre on 22nd September (and we’re doing a shorter Fringe version at Woodland Creatures on 22nd and 23rd August); plus I’ll be touring and appearing in cabarets and hopefully finishing my latest book of short fiction.
August: 9th & 16th
Woodland Creatures (20.00)
Can you remember when you were a kid & you got a story at bedtime… well Niall Moorjani certainly does, & he’s created a brilliant selection of tales for the Fringe.
Hello Niall, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Niall: I am from Dundee originally and currently live in Edinburgh where I have lived on and off for the last six years.
When did you first realise you could tell a good story?
Niall: I’ve always loved to write and obviously that is a form of storytelling, but the first time I realised was when I got a job doing Ghost Tours around Edinburgh. I was doing the training and my trainer just looked at me and said “you have got it, you will need work, but you have got it.” I am very rarely good at things so this was just a lovely thing to hear and I have been telling tales ever since.
You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Niall: Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien.
What does Niall Moorjani like to do when he’s not being creative?
Niall: My main source of income is tour guiding, which has taken me all over the world. But at the moment I am very much sticking to tours around Scotland and Edinburgh. I am also pretty sporty, in no way does that mean I am good at sport, but I love playing tennis, cricket, rugby, football, etc, ect. Essentially my criteria for a good sport is the same as a Labrador’s; if there is a ball and I can chase it, it is a good sport.
You are bringing Bedtime Stories to this year’s Fringe, can you tell us about the show?
Niall: It is a live performance storytelling show, so no paper or books, everything is learned off by heart. The reason it is called Bedtime Stories is because it is told through the medium of a father telling his son just those. Essentially the kid asks for a story and all the stories you hear throughout the show are for him. They contain everything you want from good traditional tales: giants, witches, heroes, heroines, lovers, sorrow joy and much more. The stories are also accompanied by live music which adds a sense of serenity and magic. What we are trying to do is get people back into listening to stories like they did when they were children,so as adults we just seem to think it is childish. However, there is no reason why adults can’t enjoy tales told in the same way. So hopefully the show will help fit into and continue the very old and rich tradition that is storytelling.
That rather sounds like a modern version of The Canterbury Tales, 1001 Nights & The Decameron, were you inspired by the format?
Niall: The idea of stories within stories is one I have always loved. As you say it is obviously very old and a classic storytelling device, a way of sending a thread to tie together all the little stories you have and make them into one. So most certainly yes, yes I was and I only hope we are doing the device justice.
How did you select your tales, & which one has the most obscure origins?
Niall: So I write them myself, generally when people don’t throw things at me while I tell them I assume they are good enough and make it into the show. But they are all original tales which I think is important. At the moment there seems to be a divide between traditionalists and modernists when it comes to fairy tales. Traditionalists don’t want to see the stories updated as they feel that causes them to loose authenticity (which is nonsense as stories are always evolving). And modernists often want to subvert and break down the concepts that make fairy tales tick, but for me in doing so they often lose that magic that was so captivating when we were children. So with my stories I am hoping to do both, update old ideas and make them accessible for a modern audience; whilst maintaining the traditional feeling and magic of old fairy tales. So they feel like old stories, when I don’t tell people I wrote them they just assume they are classic stories, but dig a little deeper and they are clearly not. Very few old stories contain gender neutral dragons, male witches, queer love stories, or even female heroes. I don’t know if I have done a good job of this, but my dream is to be able to read stories to my kids (if/when I have them it is a while off), and my kids could be any kind of person, so I have to write stories for all they could be.
Your storytelling will be accompanied by two musicians; who are they, what do they play & how did they get involved?
Niall: So myself and the lovely Anna-Marta were sat chatting in a pub with some pals and I was telling her about the show, and I just asked if she fancied being involved. She said she wasn’t very good (which was a filthy lie) and it started with her playing guitar in the background while I told stories. I then learned that one of my colleges at work played the harp and asked her if she fancied being involved too. She did and Ruth is amazing (despite denying it hugely). So now they have become integral to the whole show, with their music they add an extra layer of emotion and rhythm which make the stories so much better. It is like having two audio-illustrators and Anna-Marta has even written the show a song. They easily worth seeing in their own right, so to have them on board and so heavily involved is such a treat.
Can you tell us about your venue, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop?
Niall: Lighthouse is amazing! Firstly it is just the nicest bookshop in all the land, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but there are so many pretty covers. Going in and not coming out with something is a serious issue. However, I think more important is the community the bookshop represents. It stocks a huge amount of feminist, queer and politically radical literature which is otherwise very hard to find. It also hosts events surrounding these issues and many more allowing for people to have a space to enjoy literature that is aimed at them and is so often forgotten by the main stream. I am hugely grateful for the chance to perform in such a lovely and welcoming space. Telling stories surrounded by the coolest books is a genuine privilege.
What do you think the audience will take away from hearing the stories?
Niall: I just hope they leave feeling like the stories were accessible and heartwarming. They are not especially clever or sophisticated, so the real aim is to just make people feel something. In a dream world they will leave feeling like they once did when their family members told them stories when they were children. In an even dreamier world they will retell the stories and make them their own.
What will you be doing after the Fringe?
Niall: To publish the stories would be a wee dream come true, but immediately after the Fringe I am moving down to London to start a Masters in Public Histories where I can indulge my far more nerdy side and hopefully continue performing as much and as often as possible.
Aug 4, 15, 16, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25
Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop (20.00)
Real Talk is both a hugely beneficial social enterprise & the fertile bedsoil of a right good yarn. The Mumble caught its founder for a wee blether…
Hello Lily, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Lily: So I’m originally from Connecticut in the USA. I moved to Edinburgh when I was 20 and have been here for the past 5 years and it has become home to me.
When did you first realise you could tell a good story?
Lily: From a very young age I was enraptured with reading, consuming anything I could get my hands on particularly fairytales and high fantasy. I think that this early immersion in story made me naturally inclined to want to tell and share the stories I learned. My Mom constantly reminds me how I’d regale my family with minute details of my day each night at dinner (whether or not the audience was that interested). However it wasn’t until I got involved with theatre at age 9 that I really honed the more performative element of sharing. While I only acted for a few years, I think those foundational telling skills have stuck with me. So it has been a journey from loving to tell to actually developing my craft and I’m presently doing my storytelling apprenticeship at the Scottish Storytelling Centre and am a part of TellYours2018, a development programme for the next generation of UK storytellers.
You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Lily: Oh my, this is really hard because quite a few of my favourite books are a part of a series… If I’m being cheeky I might bring along the entire His Dark Materials Series by Phillip Pullman in one book (which does exist because I have it). I’d bring along The Door by Magda Szabo, there is something haunting about it that makes me want to read it again and again, and then lastly the entire anthology of Grimm’s fairytales for a bit of variety :]
We are here to talk about an event of yours later this week, under the Real Talk banner. Can you tell us about the organisation?
Lily: So Real Talk is a mental health storytelling social enterprise. Our vision is world that celebrates transparency and authenticity around experiences of mental ill health and actively supports wellbeing. In practice we support people who have experienced mental ill health to learn how to share stories about their lives. We have a process where we deliver two workshops that use traditional storytelling tools to help participants craft a 10 minute story. After these 2 workshops we host a community event where these stories are shared to an audience and used as an entry point to speak about mental health more widely. We’ve found the process and these events really cultivate compassion for oneself and for others.
How did you get involved?
Lily: So I’m actually the founder of Real Talk. It was born out of my own experiences with mental illness and realising the need for more safe spaces for people to talk about their mental health and for other people to listen. It started as a passion project in 2016 and over the past 2 years I’ve been slowly transitioning to working on Real Talk full time. It has been quite challenging starting up a social enterprise but also so rewarding. I’ve met hundreds of people all looking to connect about mental health and excited about the power of stories. You can learn more at www.realtalkproject.org.
I can imagine there are some emotional moments involved. Do the storytellers find it a cathartic experience or is it sometimes too much?
Lily: There are definitely some deeply emotional moments along the process. There is catharsis in sharing a bit of yourself to an audience, empowerment in being to share your story in your own words but of course the nerves and tentativeness that comes from acts of vulnerability. I think this is where the process is really important, storytelling as a creative practice is a wonderful vehicle for holding people where they are. However we always emphasise that participation is voluntary (so if people don’t want to complete the process they don’t have to) and I hold a COSCA Counselling Skills certificate and Mental Health First Aid training so am always on hand to help signpost to further support if needed.
Can you tell us about the event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre?
Lily: On Friday the 27th of July at 7.30pm, we will be hosting one of our community storytelling sessions. 7 participants will have come through the process and will be sharing 10 minute stories to a public audience. After all the stories are shared I’ll facilitate breakout discussion between the audience members before ending with an informal Q & A between the storytellers and the audience. We’ve run 11 events to date and they are always magical evenings where people come together to witness each other.
How much experience do the storytellers have?
Lily: Most of the tellers have very limited storytelling experience in a performative way, though some people definitely have experience with public speaking. For some it’s actually their first time sharing a part of their story in this way. It’s a big range but that is exactly why we have this preparatory process, so everyone has had a space to decide what story they feel comfortable sharing and how they want to do it. I’m always humbled by the creativity, bravery and strength of each speaker, even if they don’t see it in themselves.
What do you think the audience will take away from hearing the stories?
Lily: Insight, emotion, resonance, clarity, empathy. Because the audiences are diverse, everyone takes away something different but I think that having genuine insight into someone’s lived experience really breaks down stigma and barriers. Some are supporting a loved one who is suffering, so to hearing a real story helps them know how to help. Others might be suffering themselves and the power of realising you aren’t alone in your journey cannot be understated. Others are just curious and we hold safe space to talk about mental health openly, which we don’t always feel allowed to do during our day-to-day lives.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for both yourself & Real Talk
Lily: The rest of 2018 hold incredible potential! I’ll be working away at building Real Talk’s foundation as a social enterprise; building a team to help run it and expanding our event series. Hopefully we’ll be collaborating with other awesome organisations and supporting more people (feel free to get in touch!). Personally I’m hoping to graduate from my storytelling apprenticeship this year and start working as a traditional storyteller out with my work with Real Talk.
Friday, July 27th
Scottish Storytelling Centre
How to get the most out of your gallery visit
How do you feel about visiting an art gallery? Do you go for pleasure, for education, self-improvement or to socialise? Or do you avoid them and feel that art is just not for you? Many people feel uncomfortable just stepping over the threshold of a gallery, whether it’s a huge and majestic Victorian building or a temporary white box as cutting edge as they come. Maybe you just nip in for some quality cake and a clean loo?
If it’s pleasure; at the appreciation of human-made beauty, the vision and talent in expressing it to us, the viewers, does the act of viewing the art actually engender a feeling of joy inside you? Can you express that joy in an environment where you’re frightened your shoes will make too much noise on the ancient marble floor? This may come more easily to the introverts among you, savouring the silence and opportunity to have your own private encounter with a beautiful painting and the mind of the artist. What about the extroverts among you? Can you express that joy when you’re trying to quietly cross that marble floor or tentatively pad across the carpet? Perhaps you’ve gone for self-improvement purposes. If so, it could be a little easier to gain some satisfaction from spending your precious time, as you add to your bank of cultural capital. Or you might simply appreciate the respite from a frantic life; a chance to feel solemn, silent and dutiful, like in a Presbyterian church or libraries of old.
Or do you prefer the ‘cocktail party’ setting of a smaller gallery, and relish jumping into the intellectual debate with passionate, quirky artists discussing cutting edge contemporary art? Or do you worry that you don’t quite understand, that commenting at all will mean missing the mark with an inane comment, or worse, unwittingly become part of an experimental performance piece? Does it feel like forced intimacy, standing awkwardly with your wine glass at smaller events, where you feel expected to say something worth ransacking the smaller, more homely silence of a white-walled box? Uneasy at a sense that the artists might be observing you observing their thoughts made manifest. Do most of us realise the extent to which we have been trained to behave in prescribed and acceptable ways as we enter these environments?
I’m just as ambivalent about children making noise in libraries as in art galleries. I want to hush noisy children so I can concentrate on reading in our shared space, but perhaps I’m only resenting their freedom because we had to be quiet, back in our day. I’m glad they feel free enough to express themselves; perhaps they’re part of a budding, enthusiastic pre-school book group. Just not when I’m there. I relate to their childlike state in a way, as I seem to have something resembling a middle-aged onset of ADHD, where sitting still or concentrating for long periods is difficult, but I generally manage for others’ sake. I can’t bring myself to raise more than a whisper in a library, but, bloody hell, in other settings, I want to join in with the conversation, in an almost ‘repressed Tourette’s’ type way. I want everyone to join in. If I’m honest, generally I want all hell to break loose and it to become one big carnival. Politeness and shyness merge with bourgeois norms of behaviour in high arts settings, hell, even cinemas, and it drives me to distraction. British audiences are expected to refrain from moving their bodies or making any noise during a play, except for polite applause or perhaps a hastily wiped tear. Partly because in an urban setting, the audience are the maligned or tolerated ‘public’, rather than friends and acquaintances, and the British are still the last nation on earth to embrace a messy and unnecessary display of emotions. Unless it’s splashed across a wall or screen or stage and safely at a distance. Perhaps the tots in the library are leading the way forward after all.
We seem to edging back toward the boisterous interaction of Shakespeare’s audiences in theatre settings, and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable, even necessary, in visual art environments. Accompanying a school group to the National Gallery is much more engaging and fun than going alone. I learned more about the secret symbols embedded in paintings in an hour than I have in years. We could take over the space and not worry about annoying anyone else or depriving someone more deserving of the leather couch. If art galleries went the way of museums with hands-on activities, even for adults, or just meeting or watching artists at work it would make you feel part of the place and stay for longer. There’s a wee gem of an exhibition currently showing at the oft-overlooked Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gadens; yet another collaboration of poetry and art that both delights the senses and delivers an deep message. The gallery space is warm and welcoming for all ages, this time with quiet opportunities for children to allow nature to inspire their creativity.
There are huge debates about why certain ‘demographics’ are less likely to visit British art galleries. Mostly between people who are not from ‘those demographics’, who, in awkward terms, display some imaginative ideas of what, for them, constitutes ‘the other’. Some of it is simply a ‘perception problem’, that art galleries are for the white and middle-class, and indeed, there is often a very real psychological discomfort for certain people in places that are not, perhaps in small but significant ways, welcoming to all. Women artists, working-class artists and artists of colour are still underrepresented, marginalized and ‘othered’ by curators and board members who are not from these backgrounds, partly because of the narrow understanding that results from stultifyingly homogeneous social and professional networks. As talented artists and their works suffer unduly from the lack of exposure that they deserve, whether through tokenism, pigeonholing or downright exclusion, some important conversations about history and society are also being omitted from the mainstream art world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’ is often used to explain why the intellectual elite, reared on a steady diet of high art from childhood, frequent and feel at home in high art institutions, which generally cater to their particular interests. Content, and how and by whom the content is curated, of course, can also be key, and is currently the subject of heated debates. http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/black-people-dont-go-art-galleries.
With major prizes going to women artists of colour recently, notably, Lubaina Humid’s 2017 Turner Prize win, and Barbadian-born, Glasgow-based artist Alberta Whittle claiming the 2018 Margaret Tait award, this no doubt encouraged the new director of Glasgow International to hold a variety of exhibitions, talks and performances by artists of colour. This was particularly welcome in the wake of Transmission’s Gallery’s funding recently being unceremoniously cut by Creative Scotland. The decision was made despite Transmission receiving high acclaim for their work and social impact by the very same organisation. The artist-run institution, founded by Glasgow artists in 1983, has continued in its radical tradition to encourage important conversations, particularly around Black art and artists, gender and sexuality; pushing boundaries and inspiring new ways of thinking. One of these artists is Camara Taylor, exhibiting at GI this year. Seeing as this is exactly the raison d’être of contemporary art, this has been a massive blow to both the artists and Scotland’s modern art scene. https://frieze.com/article/why-did-creative-scotland-defund-storied-glasgow-art-gallery-transmission
One of the exhibitions I attended at Glasgow International was ‘(BUT)..WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? which included powerful live performances to a rapt, multiracial audience. https://manystudios.co.uk/syfu/ Sometimes the conversations that result might be unsettling for some people forced to reflect on and reframe some of their most cherished or simply unconscious beliefs about their own history and identity, but that’s precisely why art must make space for them.
The fear of ‘wasting time’, is a real one. Whether you’re hustling on the breadline, trying to make ends meet with three dead end jobs, or hustling as a CEO of an investment bank, the risk of wasting time aimlessly wandering around a gallery that doesn’t immediately serve your needs, is not one you are going to take. Even the visitors don’t like to waste too much time. Various studies have shown the average visitor spends 30 seconds in front of a painting, perhaps a masterpiece that has taken decades to complete, with careful patronage from a house of aristocrats or royalty. It’s rather like gobbling up a beautifully cooked and arranged dinner in 5 minutes flat. But, hey, don’t stay there just because you feel you should. The gallery will be gaining extra points for a steady stream of punters anyway. But why might you want to go to a gallery in the first place? What do you expect to gain from going? Seeing as most other arts, from novels to songs, involve story-telling of some kind, perhaps the emotional connection can’t be had easily without knowing something of the back story. Of the artists, the time, the place, the emotional state they were in during the period of creation and who else and what else they may have been responding to. I’ve been doing some research into Scottish historical figures and how their personal stories relate to wider themes, and it’s been exciting to spot them in both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and realising how just how limited and misleading the information plaques very often are.
Big galleries are free, open, not demanding of a special invitation. You can stay as long as you like. In theory, it is entirely democratic, as it’s yours to share during opening hours. Yet, for many people, it doesn’t feel that way. The National Gallery in London changed their stairs at their entrance because apparently people found them intimidating. Do you like the majesty of columns and chandeliers or does going into these buildings, with architecture that stems from a tradition of an entrenched class structure, make you feel like you don’t belong there? Temples all over the world have stairs. Even the Christ statue in Rio has 220 steps… Ordinary people make the pilgrimage. Yet how familiar might we find the surroundings, let alone the people, of Oxford University if we haven’t gone to a top public school? How at home might we feel in the Houses of Parliament? The Vatican? Do we need to feel a sense of belonging? Does the beauty elevate us or oppress us? Edinburgh is well known for its snobbery, and tribal groupings easily coalesce around ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Neu Reekie! is a local arts organisation that loves to mess with this dichotomy, and enjoys taking over otherwise solemn spaces like the National Galleries with an irreverent mix of poetry, music and animation, creating an atmosphere that’s a little freer. http://www.theskinny.co.uk/books/events/neu-reekie-does-titian-national-gallery-of-scotland
Collective (www.collectivegallery.net), a contemporary art gallery that’s been based in Edinburgh since 1984, has recently made the heights of Calton Hill its new home. It states emphatically that a major part of its mission is to be the friendly face of contemporary art precisely in order to encourage dialogue. Accessibility is its watch word; extending itself to offer an experience welcoming to all, adapting the trails to the site and the exhibitions to accommodate visitors who are blind or partially-sighted. I’m sure with advances in technology, visiting an art gallery as a blind person will be just as fulfilling as for a fully sighted person https://www.rnib.org.uk/blind-artist-launches-genuinely-audio-visual-art-exhibit-aid-talking-books.
However, a couple of years ago, I excitedly stumbled across their temporary gallery, in use while the painstaking restoration process was being finished, but I was left to my own devices in an exhibition I found bewildering and incomprehensible. I had no idea what I should ask the assistants to help me understand, and instead was happily distracted by the incomparable view of the city which in itself gave me the sense of elevation I needed. I hope Collective put their money where their mouth is for their relaunch later on this year, because their relaunch is a very impressive and ambitious project. They hope to create a visitor experience that encompasses not just contemporary art but heritage and science, having restored Playfair’s original observatory from 1818. They’ve put a great deal of effort into letting visitors choose the level of freedom or support and guidance that they might need and are hoping to create a space where people feel especially welcome, relaxed and inspired to observe their own reactions and engage in dialogue with others.
And of course, this should perhaps be the main point of creating, funding, and visiting contemporary art in the first place. The thoughts, conversations and debates that follow from experiencing and being affected by the art; the blending of the unique personal resonances that each viewer has due to their mood, life history and hopes for the future. I’m always interested in the ways one might catch something of the possibly ephemeral responses, solidifying them for just long enough to transmit a spark to the next along the circuit of new ideas, filtering through and co-creating a change in the zeitgeist. Or this is perhaps too much like pinning down a butterfly, for no one can foresee where or what a thought or word might spark. The Sunday lunchtime poetry events that accompany the Royal Society of Artists annual exhibition have recently drawn me back again and again, to look at the artworks through someone else’s lens. The poems have been written in response to selected artworks, and the events allow time for questions and discussion about the themes that emerge. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/art-review-the-rsa-annual-exhibition-2018-royal-scottish-academy-edinburgh-1-4739530 Fortunate to attend the private viewing, I enjoyed reading Raman Mundair’s powerful poem accompanying a short film by Pernille Spence/Zoe Irvine. However, I felt rather rootless wandering around the vast exhibition alone. Returning to their poetry events and sitting next to the artworks has given me the time, space, comfort and company to enjoy the exhibition’s varied works in much greater depth.
Often people are simply afraid they will have nothing to say, or won’t have the required background knowledge to make comments that are informed enough without feeling embarrassed. Part of this perhaps stems from the fact that our hierarchical education system lays down very early whose ideas carry the most legitimacy and weight. What if we fully integrated both democratic dialogue and art into mainstream schools in the UK like Paolo Friere advocated, or alternative schools like Krishnamurti schools do? Rather than relegate it to a separate, second-class subject? If children’s ideas were treated with more respect from the beginning, and a constructive and ongoing dialogue was encouraged in the classroom, we might have a generation of learners who, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, are not afraid to make public ‘mistakes’.
In the meantime, the risk of appearing foolish or wasting precious time can be mitigated by friendly gallery staff, and creative ways to engage the viewer, without doing all of the ‘work’ for them. If, as a punter, you’re still a little unsure, here’s some handy tips to make the most of your experience. At least let people know they can have an exhibition list for basic information about what they are looking at. If people have some background knowledge of an artist and painting, or their sense of curiosity is piqued with the help of a friendly assistant, they might just spend longer than 30 seconds in front of it…come and see it again..read about it online..discuss it..respond to it artistically..maybe even buy it!
Who is this Imogen Stirling, who is breaking over the Scottish Poetry Scene like a sudden Tsu-Na-Mi? The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & find out…
Hello Imogen, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Imogen: I’m originally from North Berwick, a small town just outside of Edinburgh, and have since spent a long time living in Glasgow. I’ve also traveled a lot, mainly through music work, and have lived everywhere from Germany to the Canary Islands.
You have a background in musical theatre, so why the shift to spoken word?
Imogen: My roots will always be in theatre and music and I’m currently planning projects which really merge all three art forms. However, when I was solely working in musical theatre, I began to find the genre quite stifling in that you’re always performing somebody else’s material. Transitioning to playing in a band brought more creative freedom but there’s still that constant audience demand to hear cover songs. It just wasn’t me. Spoken word gives me complete autonomy over what I perform which is liberating. I find it a very exciting and malleable art form because it allows me to draw upon various genres to find a balance that feels right, so forming a show and performance that is creatively unique and very much my own.
You’re really enjoying quite a shooting star ascent into the Scottish poetical stratosphere, are you enjoying the journey?
Imogen: I certainly am! It’s been a whirlwind. I’m very driven and knew from the outset that I wanted to find success in spoken word. It’s required a lot of work on my part but has paid off as, in less than a year performing spoken word, I’ll have put on my first full length show, toured the UK, and performed at some major festivals. The effort is cushioned by being part of such a warm and supportive community. There’s a unique sense of camaraderie that motivates my work.
Which poets inspired you, both old skool & today?
Imogen: I have pretty eclectic influences, and a lot of them come from outside of poetry. I first drew inspiration from music – the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner, James Taylor. I’m a Kate Tempest girl through and through, her work brought me into poetry and consistently drives my performance. At university, I was taught by both Kieran Hurley and Kei Miller, between them they demonstrated the way that theatre and song can emerge through poetry and I still refer to them to hone my vision today. I’m a big fan of Jahra Rager who fuses contemporary dance with poetry to create some of the most blistering work I’ve seen. Ocean Vuong is a beautiful page writer and a useful foil to the more extroverted performance poets. I’ve found myself working alongside the most incredible talent in my current project: Piers Harrison-Reid, Zoka, Thomas Wolfe, Tamar Moshkovitz, Minty Taylor, Rob Carnie, and Billy Pilgrim with The Heartsease Kid. The diversity and sheer quality of the work they produce keeps me on my toes and encourages me to push my writing.
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
And I adore it
The bearded baristas
The hashtag heroes
The craft beer, the matcha
The smashed avocados
The tattoos, the typewriters
Instagram, instagram, instagram
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
Time for my go at breaking this mould
I dye my hair
I get the piercings
Start writing poetry
Learn how to tarot read
Know which wine is which and
Which coffee to ditch and
I think I could get used to living like this
Everybody wants to be the most hipster
I come home different’s taken over
And grown addictive
Whose beard is the longest
Whose man bun the tightest
Who’s the best read
Knows their Hamlet from Titus
Don’t know what the goal is
But we’re all chasing it
Topping the craze and the craze and the craze and it’s
It’s all a distraction
Because something is missing amidst it
We inflate the gravity of this dress up game
Engage the safe space to exercise difference
To learn to talk recite and proffer
But not to offer any real substance
Seems unconstructive, seems over indulgent
Seems underwhelming, seems empty headed
Seems where is the empathy
When we resort to trending hashtags to mitigate apathy
Seems appearance has superseded moral integrity
When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
Imogen: To be honest, it takes a while. I’m a very harsh critic and need to have a piece well received by an unknown audience before I believe in it. A lot of what I write is political and intended to motivate a response from a crowd so it’s hard to judge its merit purely by my own opinion. That said, I’m at the stage now where I can recognise when a piece of mine is creatively strong – for me, it all comes down to flow, wording and clever rhymes. It’s quite mathematical really. But I can’t judge the overall impact of a poem until I’ve performed it live.
What is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
Imogen: How much it seems to affect people. The responses I get from folk after performing poetry are so different to that of a theatre or music audience. Perhaps it’s because poetry is so inherently personal, perhaps it generates a more emotional response in a listener. Whatever it is, it’s special to see the way words can communicate. And plus, it’s exciting. Performance poetry is so dynamic, such a show, and has the potential to be quite interactive – you can see who is responding to a piece, you can speak directly to them.
Can you tell us about Words w/ Friends?
Imogen: Words w/ Friends is a collective of poets working with producer, The Heartsease Kid, to creative innovative collaborations of lo-fi hip hop and spoken word poetry. We’ve just released an album, Words w/ Friends vol. III, which we’re touring around the UK in July. By fusing the genres, we;re aiming to heighten the accessibility of poetry through creating an art form that appeals to more diverse audiences. We want to re-establish the relevancy of poetry for a modern crowd.
What does Imogen Stirling like to do when she’s not being, well, poetic?
Imogen: I like to travel. Once the Fringe is done, I’m keen to get back to the Canary Islands, practice my surfing and my Spanish, find the sun. I’m a vegan activist and write for Vegan Connections, it’s great being involved in such a proactive and important movement. I love theatre – both performing it and watching it. Spending time with friends, drinking wine, discovering new music.
Nicolas died in Somalia
When I met him we were both staying
In Gran Canaria
I told him he reminded me of my brother
Both fiercely determined and destined to be doctors
He said is that right
Must be smart, funny and handsome too then?
I laughed and said yes
The bomb was so strong that most victims could not be identified
It took me 5 weeks to learn of his fate
Every day I saw papers detail the events of the shooting in Vegas
58 victims described and mourned
Yet just two weeks later
Over 300 Somalians ignored
I learned more news of strangers
Than the boy I’d learned to surf with
As though covering his life had not been deemed worth it
I looked at Nicolas and saw my brother
Others looked at him
And saw the third world urchins
The BBC leak through Comic Relief sob reels
We’re taught they’re used to extremities
So we could not assimilate
He was too much other
He must not have suffered
The Mumble caught you performing at Eden festival last week. Where else will your words be winging off to this Summer?
Imogen: I’ve a couple festivals still to come, V in the Park which is a new vegan festival, and then Latitude Festival in July. After that it’s all go with the Words w/ Friends tour, we’ve got 10 dates all around the UK. Finally it’ll be Fringe time where I’ll be performing #Hypocrisy alongside doing some other guest spots throughout the month.
Can you tell us more about your Fringe show?
Imogen: The show is called #Hypocrisy and is a fusion of spoken word, theatre and original music. It’s my Fringe debut and will be on at the Scottish Poetry Library from August 8-12th at 7pm. The show is a response to the bizarre world we’re living in. One where dangerous politicians prevail, where the media constantly sells us fictions masquerading as realities, where an ocean of social media sympathy can pour forth for western terror victims but backs turn on the migrant crisis. Ultimately, a world of staggering hypocrisies. It’s presented from my perspective as a young white woman. Beginning by looking into my experiences travelling as a musician through Europe (during which time I often found myself reaping the benefits of my skin colour) it opens up to explore what is evidently becoming an increasingly racist world. The show is a contemplation and an interrogation of western privilege. It’s an exposure of hypocrisy and a reminder of perspective.
What will Imogen Stirling be doing after the Fringe?
Imogen: Hopefully a brief stint in the Canary Islands to unwind a little after what’s been a very full on year. I’m planning a tour for #Hypocrisy, an album, and a new top secret music project. There’s a lot to look forward to, I’m very excited.
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
TUESDAY 14TH APRIL 1998
So I woke up, a little shivery, but otherwise excellent for a good ten hour sleep (a rare thing on the road), pack’d up & stepp’d out of the train. An old Italian guy gave me a funny look & a smile – to be honest, I must look a little strange to people. I appear a sort of noble scruff, my guitar being carried in a stretchy jumper, & my sleeping bag sticking out of my pack. This is even after halving it in bulk with some wire I found in Villach.
Bought some bread rolls & milk, then caught a train that would take me near to Ravenna – the place of Dante & Byron, two of my favorite poets. The ride was pleasant (easily jump’d) & went thro’ the flat Italian lowlands. These constitute acres of farms & seem quite slow. A more rural pace of life, dotted with young boys or shawl’d women tending the land. Even the stations I pass’d thro’ had chickens by the side.
I chang’d trains at Ferrara, where I bought a beer & cadg’d more fags (like I’d been doing all day) & realised the Italians don’t speak much English. The ride to Ravenna was another jump, & when I arrived I did a quick walk around the streets, saw Dante’s tomb (quite impressive but his bones are in Florence) & a glorious exhibition of metalworks in a beautiful column’d garden. Each piece was based on a section of the Paradisio, & some had come from as far as Australia. The detail was amazing, but I didn’t have time to soak it in properly as I felt fluster’d. I didn’t want to spend any money on a hostel, so decided to head to Florence instead.
Distant Riviera di Levante
My heart’s destination, mine art’s true call,
But first, the mausoleum of Dante,
To tap into a predecessor soul,
Overgrown with moss & creeping ivy,
My man, you were the wildest of us all!
Ravenna, this may be a swift sojurn,
But one day, with my wife, I shall return.
I had a couple of hours to kill, so I went searching for more bread. I found a supermarket, got a big roll & some orange juice – & lifted some sausages & fish. I know stealing is morally bad – but my poetry is all-important right now. I may be a rogue at times, but have a good heart.
I ate a hearty meal, then caught the train to Bologna, but disaster struck! I got caught (too slack!) & paid 15,000 lira (tho’ it could have been worse)! However, it cannot be too bad to pay just over a fiver for a journey around Europe. Chang’d trains again (by now its 9-30 in the evening) at Bologna. I didn’t have time to see the city, so stay’d on the station, sharing some food with a tramp & being quite impress’d by the uniforms, all shiny, of some Italian policemen.
My ‘instinct’ help’d me get pass’d the police on the intercity to Florence, which was full of slick young Italian guys, well dress’d & wearing shades – we even had a little strum together on my guitar. Then we arrived in Florence, & after dashing back on the train for my journal just in time, I entered the capital of Tuscany.
So I stash my bags in some bushes & start to look around Florence. I have an hour or so before the train to Pisa. I saw the main cathedral, which was breathtaking at first, then as I walked around the building it began to remind me of one of those cardboard cut-outs you build yourself with glue. Very surreal.
So I was just about to return to the station when I came across an Italian busker singing a Verve song (The Drugs Don’t Work) to some young Germans, accompanied by an old looking North African on harmonica. Of course I sang a song, then decided to fuck Pisa off & go get a pizza with my new mates instead. They all had sleeping bags & whatnot, so I would spend the night with them.
We had a beer & pizza in a bar, where I got offer’d some hashish off an Arab, who kept talking to me in Arabic & would not understand that I didn’t speak any Arabic. Just as I was about to buy it, the Germans decided to leave – they were mostly 14-16 year old girls (with a young 12-year-old lad & a mid-twenties German guy) as they were being hit upon. I follow’d, passing the house where Shelley had written Prometheus Unbound & Ode to the West Wind – the Palazzo Marini – & we chill’d at the station, where Louisa, a 16-year-old, began to take a rather uncomfortable shine to me.
Two more German girls then arrived, in the same situation, & wearing flares! Cool – some hippy brethren! One was half-Turk, half-Yugoslavian, & look’d like a full-on gypsy – Romany hair, beads, head-scarf & string features. Her name was Eva & I took an instant shine. The other girl was a red-headed German, quite nice & calm. She was call’d Mia, & they both spoke quite good English.
We all found a park & huddl’d up in our sleeping bags, broke out the food & had a small shindig. Me & the German guy play’d guitar, I read some poetry & so on. Eventually they all left, just leaving me & my new friends – Mia & Eva. I manag’d to sleep in the middle (I can’t wait to get a harem one day) & we went to sleep after chatting about life, magic & fairies. I told a story (Fairy Exodus), then we all had sweet dreams & morning birdsong.
WEDNESDAY 15TH APRIL 1998
Woke up feeling quite nice at about 10-30. We slowly got ourselves together, play’d a little in the park, then went for cappucinos. As I sipped mine in the street outside the cafe, I saw how Italy is so very stylish, but the people have somehow lost their sense of dignity.
Afterwards we meander’d about town, dodging the occasional rainstorm (we got gradually wetter), seeing more nice buildings & doing some shopping! We all got on very well as we carted our stuff round the streets like a mini-hippy tribe, with Florence gaining a definite sense of romantic character in the daytime. Full of Americans, but old & calm.
We bought some food – our plan was to find a place to cook some veggies – lots of fruit & veg, a huge loaf, some water & a big bottle of dry Italian white. I also bougth a new string for my guitar & tried haggling down a hat on the market, which only cost 5000 Lira. Then it started to rain so I bought it to replace the one I lost in Belgium.
Then, in a beautiful stationary store, with amazing azure blue pens & ink, I bought a bound book for my poem, The Death of Shelley. It is going to be excellent, & Mia did the front title page as we sat in the street.
We then wander’d to the other side of the river, over a bridge where jewelers shops lined the road, climbed a hill & made camp near the top. I then made a fire thanks to last year’s woodsman’s summer in Bournemouth.
Altho’ we were next to a road, only one police car pass’d by, saying ‘no fire’ & threatening us with imaginary handcuffs. I pretended to put it out, then Eva went full steam ahead with the cooking.
The view of Florence at sunset was beautiful – no highrises, a sea of red rooves – & after dark we eventually had some home-cooked vegetable soup, assisted by my very own Knorr spice cubes. We then drank the wine & I sang some songs – new string sounds good – a special moment indeed on a Florentine hillside at dusk.
We wake in arms, after cappuccinos
Wander moped streets, O sacred city
Where argent-sheen’d Arno ardently flows;
I buy a book to fill with poetry,
On the title page Maya draws a rose,
Then buy fresh foods & climb a hill where we
Build a fire, cook dinner, watching sunshine
Fade over Florence with a sweet red wine.
After, at about 11PM, we wander’d thro’ drizzle to the fabulous city square, with statues of famous Italians every where. I could sense Shelley & Byron, who must have walk’d in these very streets. Indeed, Florence seems to have hardly changed in those two centuries.
Then, a kindly Tunisian call’d Karmel found us, scored us some cannabis from dodgy North Africans in the street, & we all proceeded to get stoned. It blew us all away, & the girls began singing, the acoustics in our coloumn’d corridor being amazing. Unfortunately, as I was playing along I snapp’d my brand new string!
Karmel’s French was worse than mine, but we still had a great life, him just babbling in Italian & me giggling along stoned off mi nut. Eventually, after 3 or 4 reefers, Karmel left & the girls huddl’d into me to get to sleep. Our clothes were quite damp, but it wasn’t too bad. It rain’d all night, & we were lucky to have shelter.
I now have 100,000 Lira (10,000 a day) & £10 sterling. The tests of my virtues & willpower begin tomorrow.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
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!