Diversity & Scottish poetry

intersection

So, it appears that a few days ago, I said some stuff (on Twitter) that pissed some people off. (I know, I know — so what’s new?) I’m generally seeing this as a good thing (I’ve started a conversation that needs to be had, IMHO), however, the statements most folk have seen aren’t as well worded as I’d like them to be (because Twitter), so I felt I ought to take to the blogosphere to clarify. Also, there’s a comment box here. Yay!

So what did you say now, you serial pain-in-the-butt?!
Basically, I wrote a tweet in which I celebrated the fact that Colin McGuire (that’s THE GREAT Colin McGuire to you, sunshine) had won his heat of the Edinburgh Fringe Fest BBC Poetry Slam. All fine and dandy, except in typical flip style, I added that this made me less inclined to think that said slam was a load of bollocks, or something to that effect.

Well, that’s pretty rude.
Yeah, it was rude. It also didn’t show a whole lot of respect for the many people who put a lot of time and effort into making the Beeb slam happen — particularly the performers, many of whom I not only admire as poets but also feel in awe of as humans generally. Nothing about these people’s work is a load of bollocks, and I apologise for being a totally crap human and tweeting that. Seriously: I’m sorry guys. (The tweet is still up btw. I take full ownership of my assholeishness.)

So that’s it?
Nope. Fortunately, the rest of what I said is a bit more coherent. Off the back of that tweet, I got chatting with the excellent Mr Bram E Geiben, who very sensibly prodded me and asked me to explain myself. He wanted to know the reason why I was not a fan of the Beeb slam. And the reason is its lack of diversity. No reflection on the performers — I’m sure it’s an absolutely cracking night’s entertainment (in fact, it’s a week’s worth! And free!). But I said that I felt — ’cause I do feel — that this event is a good example of the fact that Scottish spoken word (and poetry in general) needs to do more to include a wider range of voices.

Poetry in general?
Yeah. Actually, in comparison to “page poetry” (since folk insist on the divide I’m just going with it here, btw), any and all spoken word is far better at this diversity stuff. Read the Free Verse report if you don’t believe me.

So, what’s the issue?
OK, here’s where I make things a bit clearer. Because Twitter, one of my tweets made it sound like I was suggesting that the Beeb slam didn’t include enough queer poets. This isn’t the case — I think queer voices were generally well represented, and I think this is something Scottish spoken word is actually pretty good at, for the most part. What we need to work harder at is including, encouraging and promoting the work of poets of colour, disabled poets, trans* poets, and poets who maybe feel uncertain about getting involved because they fall outside the age range of the vast majority of spoken word performers (let’s say 21-35). Poets whose work is at an intersection, or intersections, in short (aha, now you understand my choice of top-of-post photo!) Lots of grassroots and regular local poetry nights are already working on this, and set a good example. Bigger, flashier events — especially ones like the Beeb slam that draw huge crowds, have money behind them, and claim to represent the national scene — ought to be following this example. When they don’t, I get pretty disappointed.

But isn’t it tokenism to include poets of colour/disabled poets/trans* poets etc, just for the sake of it?
Yep, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. We have this vicious cycle where poets whose voices are at intersections get less gigs (unpacking the reasons why is not something I feel qualified to do here, btw), which means promoters/audiences don’t get to hear about them, which means they get less gigs, which means… etc. These poets are no less talented than the ones who get gigs all the time, so including them is not tokenism. It just takes a bit more effort.
What I’m suggesting is that big, flashy events with lots of cash do the stuff that smaller events can’t or can’t afford to do. Big promoters who run “national” events have the ability (and if you ask me, the responsibility) to do the necessary research to find good poets from all walks of life and bring them to our attention. They have the ability to accommodate a variety of performer needs — travel expenses, accessibility, creating a safe space etc — in a way smaller events and un- or less-well-funded promoters might not be able to afford. They can do it, so they freakin’ well oughtta.

OK, but what makes you the oracle? Are you even a promoter? When was the last time YOU EVEN DID A SLAM?!
Nothing makes me the oracle, nothing at all! (In fact, I thought I was just having a wee chat with Bram — because I’m a bit of a numpty and forgot that Twitter is a public forum.) I’m just one poet who yeah, has actually retired from slams ’cause they scare the crap out of me. No one is in any way obliged to listen to me or do anything about anything as a result of what I say. If I decide your event’s not cool and don’t show up, I doubt it’s going to hurt you any. So feel free to totally ignore my grumpy feminist ass and carry on regardless.
However, I do still perform in Scotland (I’ve been on a hiatus for a while because two jobs & finishing a PhD & renovating a house & & &, but I’ll be back soon I hope), and I yeah, am a promoter. I want Scottish spoken word to be as awesome as it can possibly be, not just so my poetry can benefit, but so that more folk — folk like the women I worked with on the Making It Home Project, for example — can feel confident to rock up to an open mic or a slam with their poems in their hand and take to the stage.

So all the events you’ve ever organised have been perfect, have they?
Oh hell no. I’ve only really started to think about this stuff since I got properly into being an intersectional (feminist) activist, which I am still learning how to do. I was pretty proud of my International Women’s Day All-Female slam last year, and I am so, so proud of the work Making It Home have done to bring poetry and spoken word to brand new audiences (NB: I an take credit for barely any of this — the rest of the MIH team was absolutely stellar and deserve all the praise). However, with other events I ran in the past — like Watskyx2, for example — I was far too worried about how find a venue and how to get people through the door and how to balance the books and WHAT TO WEAR WHEN I MET GEORGE WATSKY to worry about making sure my line-up was inclusive and my event welcoming. So I understand that it’s hard. I’m still learning. I just want to get folk thinking about it!

You’re always complaining though. Don’t you ever say anything NICE?
THIS IS A TOTALLY FAIR POINT. I think I may have become the Grumpy Old Bag of Scottish poetry, which is a title I can happily live with if it gets people having important conversations about how to make our scene more welcoming, diverse and generally fab. BUT YES, there is a lot going on in Scottish spoken word that needs to be celebrated. Too much to list everything here, in fact, but my highlights would include the following:
- Inky Fingers do freaking great work, full stop.
- I’m really sad Ten Red is no more. That was a hell of a poetry night, and I will mourn it for a long time.
- New kids on the block Tricolour and Rally & Broad HELLO THERE. I am sorry I have yet to make it along to EITHER because of MY LIFE GOING AT 90MPH. However, there’s no question that these events are exciting and exciting poets are reading at them. (I am honoured to have been invited to read at Tricolour in September and I hope very much to be in the audience at Rally & Broad soon.)
- Blind Poetics. One of Edinburgh’s most accessible open mic platforms, and they now have a publication, which is extra exciting.
- There are so, so many individual poets whose work I love but here’s just a small selection: Camilla Chen, Colin McGuire, Theresa Munoz, Kevin Cadwallender, Sally Evans, Chris Emslie (I hope the US appreciates you, ’cause Scotland sure misses you!), Gayle Smith, Graeme Hawley, Rachel Amey, Priscilla Chueng-Nainby, Anne Connolly, Mira Knoche, Tracey Rosenberg, Nuala Watt, the aforementioned Bram Geiben, Ryan Van Winkle, Samuel Tongue, Jenny Lindsay, Nancy Somerville… OK, you get the message! There are tons of talented folk out there and I am SO HAPPY about this. If I don’t make that happiness clear enough often enough, I sincerely apologise. We’re great! We just could be even more great, basically!

So, what’re you actually doing about it?
I’ve decided it’s time to revive Read This Press. The last anthology I did was the Allen Ginsberg birthday one, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever had the pleasure to be involved in. (Some of you may recall I was planning a similar Adrienne Rich themed anthology? Yeah, that was before I found out she was a transphobe. Aint no way I’m celebrating that, thank you very much. More details on this soon.) That was two years ago and it’s time for the next thing.
I haven’t worked all the details out yet, but I want to create an anthology (the usual hand-made, DIY, zine-y style, of course) that celebrates poets whose voices a) are Scottish or connected with Scotland and b) explore an intersection or intersections. I’m still figuring it out, but watch this space for more details.

I think that’s it. However, if you want to clarify anything, ask anything, or yell at me, you can do so in the comment box. You’ll go in the mod queue, because everything does (sorry). I’ll get you approved asap, though.

(Photo credit)

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2 Responses to “Diversity & Scottish poetry”

  1. Even Pollyanna would be really hacked off by all this unfair play – Scottish Roundup Says:

    [...] something on the Fringe and who better to write it than the excellent Claire Askew in her blog

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