Archiving Spoken Word: Some Thoughts

Hello everyone! I’m writing today on the subject of archiving and documenting the contemporary spoken word scene in the UK.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of Strathclyde researching the performance of authentic selfhood in UK spoken word. I’m using an oral history methodology to collect data for this research – I’ve been conducting interviews with spoken word artists, event organisers, publishers, critics, and others engaged in the scene since May. To date I’ve collected over 60 interviews, and by the end of my data collection this month I’ll likely have approximately 70.

A major motivation behind my PhD has always been to contribute to a more rigorous critical culture around contemporary spoken word, as I’ve observed that unfortunately that seems to be lacking. There are several reasons I think that’s the case – one being that this is a relatively new (whilst also ancient) art form, one being that it’s been often considered low art (cough cough Harold Bloom calling slams “the death of art”), and one being that the scene has tended to be rather grassroots and underfunded.

There are other reasons as well which I won’t go into here, but all of these factors have contributed to a culture in which it’s been unfortunately rare to receive a well-informed, in-depth review for one’s work, to have awards for achievements in the field which are judged by experts and carry real weight, or even to have a standardised language to discuss the structures and practices in one’s own work.

The interviews I’ve been able to conduct with artists and others in the field are therefore wonderful occasions for me (and, I hope, for the interviewees) because they’ve allowed us to have deep discussions about their creative processes, the complex politics of this art form, and its history and future.

They’ve also been rewarding because I know they will be archived and thus serve as a record of this boom period in our art form. The Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow will be archiving all of these interviews, which will carry different levels of public access depending on the artists’ wishes. I’m delighted about this, as in order to build this critical discourse we need to understand the breadth of opinions and experiences in our scene (Again and again in this research process I’ve been struck by the diversity of approaches to our form – homogenous we are definitely not). I’ve learned so much through these conversations, and I’m sure those who access the archive once it’s public will as well.

My data collection and archiving pertains to critical materials: conversations about craft, etc. But there’s another question here: how do we archive the actual art? Ours is an inherently ephemeral art form: spoken word poets are performance artists who (generally) write with the intent to perform material live to an audience, and thus publication and archival is usually not a consideration in the creative process.

Today on Twitter, several of us engaged in documenting and archiving the UK spoken word scene got into a discussion of how to best go about this work. The lovely and extremely hard-working David Turner of Lunar Poetry Podcast has written a blog post summarising those discussions and suggesting some routes forward, which I’m linking to here and I’d highly recommend reading: https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/2017/11/10/legacy-building/ 

David’s post excellently covers many of the practical issues around archiving, and I don’t have anything to add there. I do want to muse briefly on the questions of why we archive and a few things to keep in mind around it.

One thing it’s important to remember is that the act of archiving is inherently political, particularly given the ephemeral nature of our form. I know several poets who have actively resisted their work being fixed in any way, including rejecting opportunities for print publication and for their live performances to be filmed. For those artists, their work is only meant to exist as a live communicative act between them and their audience, and thus to record and archive them would be to bastardise their work and disrespect their wishes.

I bring that up as a reminder that archiving – though we may think of it as a dusty, bland process – can actually be controversial. As well, the question of who is doing the archiving and who can access the archive is of course very political. If those building the archives are all of the same demographic or geographic background, they/we are likely to miss entire communities, leaving an incomplete history with no record of swathes of artists. As one of the few academics researching spoken word, I have been incredibly conscious of my privileges and what work I have tended to access. When inviting poets to participate in interviews, I worked to ensure I wasn’t simply interviewing my friends or those with similar experiences or styles to myself – but there is always more that can be done to ensure academic work and archive building is less biased.

There is also the important question of accessibility. Spoken word has long prided itself on being an accessible art form, both in terms of the affordability of being an artist (you don’t even need a pencil) and lack of a requirement for any formal education in poetry to practice it, as well as the accessibility of the work itself to a wide range of audiences. For any archive to be expensive or otherwise involve a barrier to access it would undermine many of the core tenets of our form. I’d speculate that this is a factor behind many artists publishing their work via free, Internet-accessible mediums such as YouTube (there are of course other factors there as well, and a discussion to be had around the sustainability of careers when the primary publication vehicle doesn’t net a profit, but that’s another subject). But given that YouTube can’t serve as a permanent or reliable archive of work, it seems important to find others which are longer-lasting but equally as accessible.

Wrapping up here, as I’m conscious this is already a long post (I’m in thesis-writing mode so brevity is a challenge right now!) – I think that documenting the scene and curating diverse and comprehensive archives is vitally important to developing a critical discourse within our field. This should include not only holding and recording conversations around creative practice, but also the poems themselves. However, we need to be mindful as we go about this work about the wishes of the artists regarding whether or not they wish their work to be fixed and preserved in our living art form. I should emphasise here that I’m not a librarian nor do I have much experience in information and library sciences, so I’m not writing with any expertise in that field! Any ideas folks have to contribute are of course more than welcome in the comments.

Thank you as always for reading! David’s article contains links to several documenters of our scene, which I’d highly recommend you check out.

 

PS. Last week I read US poet and scholar Javon Johnson’s new book “Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities.” It’s an excellent exploration in US slam culture, particularly as it pertains to the performance of race. I may do a full review of it soon, but in short – if you’re interested in spoken word and want a critically rigorous but accessible text on it, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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Self-Care during Edinburgh Fringe

Hello again, everyone! As I mentioned in my last post, it’s nearly time for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While I couldn’t be more excited about the show I’m performing in this year (Loud Poets) and the opportunity to see other artists’ shows, I also wanted to write a post acknowledging some of the more difficult elements of the Fringe. The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, which means it’s a thrilling confluence of international artists, complete with opportunities to network and soak in various styles of performing arts. It also means that it can be overstimulating, exhausting, and expensive. This being my third year performing at the Fringe, I’m by no means an expert, but I have accrued some tips for artists – and for festival-goers – on how to have a healthy Fringe. I’m sharing them here in the hope that they may be useful for others based in or travelling to Edinburgh this August.

  1. Make sure you eat!

This might seem obvious, but I can’t stress it enough. The first year I performed at the Fringe, I lost 20 lbs over August because I transitioned from a generally sedentary life to one where I wasn’t getting enough sleep and was on my feet flyering and performing all day. Trying to save money meant I sometimes didn’t eat as much as I should have. But I learned my lesson: skipping meals leaves you exhausted and grumpy, and that’s no fun! This year I’ve stocked up on granola bars and I’m planning lots of big batch, easy-pack meals that I can store in my fridge and grab on my way out the door (I highly recommend egg-broccoli-cheese mini quiches and fajita bowls with rice, beans, veg, and cheese). And make sure you always pack a water bottle, especially for shows in those sweaty cramped venues. Staying fed and hydrated doesn’t need to be pricey, and it is essential!

2. Plan in advance…

The Fringe doesn’t sleep – there’s always shows on to go see, flyering to do, social media to be updated. It’s easy to get caught up in the mentality that you must always be working! While there is a lot of work to do to keep a show afloat, I’ve found it to be more productive for me to plan the shows I want to see and the times I want to flyer in advance. That way, each morning when I wake up I have a plan to tackle, rather than facing a wall of stress and anxiety but being unsure of how to get everything done. This also goes for planning your other work – giving yourself blocks of time to get certain pieces of work done, and other blocks of time for every-day tasks like laundry and dishes.

3. … but be flexible enough to go with the flow.

You never know when an opportunity will pop up, or a performer will fall ill, or some unexpected non-Fringe related work will need to be done ASAP. Over August, it’s simply impossible to stick to a schedule 100%. Plan ahead, but be easy enough to go with the flow of whatever’s happening on that particular day.

4. Find your happy place.

I mean this one literally and metaphorically. Literally: find that place in the city where you’re happy and return there whenever you need it. If you’re an extrovert, that might be the Banshee Labyrinth at midnight with loads of pals and a pint. If you’re more introverted, like me, that might be a quiet close off the Royal Mile where you can retreat if you need 5 minutes to yourself in the middle of the chaos. There’s a garden near the bottom of the Royal Mile which is always peaceful where I love to go if I can spare the time to sit and breathe and eat. In the metaphorical sense: if you have a meditation practice, remember to take the time to be present – or if you don’t, now might be a good time to start! Go in your mind to the beach, or to a blank space – whatever floats your boat and brings you some calm.

5. Take care of your body.

With the chaos that the Fringe brings, it’s easy to stop all the habits that keep you going – to take on the “Well, it’s OK to not exercise or sleep and just live on chips and cider for a month” mentality. And – hey, a little bit of that is unavoidable. But try to keep self-care habits going to the extent you can. Last year’s Fringe, I did 10 minutes of yoga backstage at every Loud Poets show, and it helped so much. I know some Fringe performers who bought an inexpensive one-month pass to a spa in the centre of Edinburgh and went there for swimming and massages whenever they needed it (reminder to self: ask them which spa and sign up!). And again, don’t forget to eat and stay hydrated!

6. Remember this is just one month – life goes on!

This is a tip I’m borrowing from fellow Loud Poet Catherine Wilson. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the Fringe and to forget that there’s normal life after it. Try to schedule in something once a week that has nothing to do with the Fringe – maybe going to see a movie, or spending the morning in a quiet park, or Skyping with family, or visiting a friend and playing with their cat all day (let’s be honest, this is top of my list…). Remind yourself that normalcy is still there under the chaos!

***UPDATE: A few lovely folks commented on social media with more useful suggestions:

“It’s important to maintain a proper schedule for eating and sleeping – this stops your body clock from going haywire. Even if it’s knocked off from your usual timing, try to eat and sleep at the same times each day to maintain a semblance of normality.” – Sam Irving, comedian

“Ask for help if you’re struggling with anything, from low attendances to flyering to general wellbeing. You will feel like you can’t ask anyone anything because everyone is busy and doing their own thing, but conversely this means loads of people around you know what it feels like to be in your situation, so they know what will help, so ask them.” – Andrew Blair, poet

“My tip is be forgiving of yourself if you miss certain shows you wanted to see/can’t fit everything in. I never manage to catch EVERYTHING I want to see and, since Time Turners aren’t real, I had to learn to say: oh well!” – Carly Brown, poet

“Having given this some more thought, I think the best way to stay healthy is to try and discover (then rediscover when you forget) that you chose this presumably because you love it. You can be in love with something or someone and get fucked off and irritated with it or them on the regular. But when it’s good it’s fucking great, no? And natural for humans to seek it out. So you aren’t weird for wanting to do this. If you’re a performer you love to perform, you’re seeking that out. And if you do it a lot, you’re likely to find it. At the Fringe, you get to do it loads, surrounded by people looking for that too. So many of them. It’s exciting.

I reckon self-care is also about your attitudes to your work. The Fringe is such a good change to stop being afraid of it, to allow it to change. If you’re a spoken word performer, you get to constantly interrogate your own writing. And editing’s a form of love too. I’m going into this Fringe being so delighted to keep searching my writing for new methods of delivery, to keep making it better, and enjoy the moments of intimacy that you’ll only get from one audience ever, for the solitary hour that you’ll share together (and try to accept that each audience is different).

Which is a gushy way of saying, use it as an opportunity for a really big search of your work, of its meaning in objective and personal dimensions. Don’t let things stay static, or give the same performance every night (it’s pretty much impossible to do this anyway) – embrace every show being different, test things out, try and write down what you’re learning. You’ll come out of it better at being in love.” – Colin Bramwell, poet & actor

 

For my fellow Fringe folks – hope this tips are useful to you! If you have any other advice, please do comment it below. Thanks for reading, and have a fun and healthy August wherever you are! – K

Edinburgh Fringe 2017

July is nearly through, which means it’s almost time for the Edinburgh Fringe! I’m delighted to be performing again this year as part of the core cast of Loud Poets. We’ve worked hard to craft a brand new show featuring spoken word poetry in a range of styles accompanied by live music from our band Ekobirds and stunning visuals created by our videographer Perry Jonsson. This year’s show takes our usual showcase format and adds a thematic twist… we’re very excited to share it with you. The show runs August 4-28 (not 14 or 21) at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Tickets and more information can be found through this link.

Our show this year also features a different guest poet every night. We’ve curated a spectacular lineup featuring the best of spoken word in the UK and beyond, with emergent local talent and seasoned veterans of the international scene. Check out our full guest lineup below:

I’m also looking forward to performing on a few other stages this Fringe. On August 12 I’ll be chairing an Edinburgh International Book Festival event with acclaimed poet and prose writer Fiona Sampson. Later that evening (in quite a tone shift!) I’ll be competing in the riotous Anti-Slam! I’ll also be featuring at Boomerang Club on August 22, and returning as a guest to the Other Voices Cabaret (date TBA).

There are too many shows I’m looking forward to seeing this year to name them all, but here’s a short list:

Thanks as always for reading, folks! If you’re in Edinburgh for the Fringe, looking forward to seeing you then! -K

Loud Poets have a Patreon!

Hello everyone! I’m writing to share some big news: this weekend Loud Poets launched a Patreon campaign! If you’ve not heard of Patreon, it’s an excellent crowdfunding platform which allows supporters to pledge regular contributions to artists they appreciate. This gives these artists a more sustainable income (in oppose to one-off crowdfunding campaigns which are tied to single projects), which can be a huge help given the usually unstable prospect of arts funding and project fees.

Loud Poets have been working for the past three years to provide a platform for spoken word in Scotland through organising monthly showcases in Edinburgh and Glasgow, writing solo and collaborative pieces, working with musicians and filmmakers on innovative projects, and touring within the UK and internationally. We’ve done all of this so far with no funding, just ticket revenue, project fees, and merchandise sales. However, we’re now working to pay our artists what they deserve and to become a more sustainable organisation so that we can continue doing this work long into the future. We also want to push the limits of our creative practices by making more innovative, professionally produced videos for our poems and sharing them online freely and accessibly to folks who can’t access our live shows.

If you’re interested in learning more about this work, and about the rewards for patrons who support it, you can check out our campaign by following this link to our Patreon page. There’s a launch video that explains the work we’re planning to do and how you can be a part of it. We’re also running a special competition where folks who sign up before Saturday can win the chance to commission a new poem, so if you’re interested do check that out. Huge thanks to everyone whose supported us thus far; we can’t wait to bring you more poetry! – Katie

Spotlight on Process Productions

Hello all! Just a quick post today to introduce you to a resource on UK spoken word that I’ve found really interesting and useful. The lovely London-based poet and filmmaker Tyrone Lewis has been interviewing UK poets about their practices and local scenes and turning these interviews into documentaries which he posts on his YouTube channel Process Productions. These documentaries are freely accessible to all and contain some fascinating insights from the UK’s top spoken word artists. In our art form which so rarely receives the critical attention it deserves, these interviews are a great resource for thinking critically about our craft, how we build communities, and how to challenge ourselves to innovate.

The first documentary, ‘NEW SHIT! The Open Mic Documentary’ focuses on the role of the open mic in scene building and supporting emerging artists. It’s linked below:

Tyrone is currently working on a series of episodes focusing on the poetry slam, entitled ‘Scores Please?’ Episode 1: Welcome to the Slam, and Episode 2: It’s All About Style are linked below. Disclaimer: Tyrone kindly interviewed me and several other Loud Poets for this series while he was up at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, so you may see a couple of familiar faces 🙂 

Hope you enjoy, and do check out the rest of the Process Productions YouTube channel – it’s a great resource not only for documentaries but for poems as well! -Katie

Interview with Jess Orr for the Dangerous Women Project

This winter I was honoured to be asked to contribute to the Dangerous Women Project, a fantastic initiative currently running out of the University of Edinburgh. The project asks the question ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ and is posting a different response each day for a year (between International Women’s Day 2016 & 2017). For the project I was interviewed in advance of my upcoming workshop for the Audacious Women Festival by the wonderful Jess Orr, a fellow PhD researcher and one of the festival organisers. Jess and I talked about what it’s like being a female spoken word artist in today’s scene, especially the experience of being loud in a culture that generally expects women to be more demure. We also chatted about the poem I wrote for YWCA Scotland for their Envision 2035 campaign, which I’ve linked below. The link to the interview is here; check it out if you’re interested, and definitely peruse the other posts on the site as it’s full of fascinating research, creative work, and essays from a wide diversity of women. Hope you have a great week!

Guest Post: Shannon MacGregor on the Glasgow Scene

Hello all! I’m delighted to feature another guest post on the website today, this time from the incredibly talented Glasgow-based spoken word artist Shannon MacGregor. Shannon came onto the scene like a thunderbolt in 2015, wowing crowds with her sharply written and dynamically delivered work. She recently represented Team Glasgow at the 2017 UK UniSlam. In addition to being an inspiring poet and performer, Shannon also supports the scene by co-organising Aloud, the poetry open mic at the University of Glasgow.

Here, Shannon shares some insights on her experiences being an artist in the Glasgow spoken word scene. Enjoy! 

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson.

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson.

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Spring Workshops

Hello everyone! One of my biggest joys this past year has been doing more teaching. One of the chief reasons I got into academia was to teach – I’ve found that there’s no better way to learn than to share your knowledge with others. In the autumn I taught Intro to Creative Writing at Strathclyde, where the syllabus mostly focused on prose. Since I’ve primarily written and researched poetry for the past several years, it was wonderful for me to revisit the basics of prose writing and work with my students to develop their skills. This semester I will be teaching ‘Writing Real Life,’ a third-year course focused on creative non-fiction. I’m really enjoying prepping for the course by reading as many essays, profiles, and memoirs as possible! It’s particularly interesting for me as a (usually) confessional spoken word artist to consider the fine line between truth and fiction in well-crafted creative ‘non-fiction,’ particularly considering the haziness of memory.

In addition to teaching at Strathclyde, I’m also excited to be delivering several one-off workshops that will be open to the public. Although these workshops will differ slightly, each is focused on getting folks started composing and performing spoken word. Details are below; would be wonderful to see you there!

 

First, I’m delighted to be giving a workshop as part of this year’s Audacious Women Festival in Edinburgh! The festival’s motto is ‘Do what you always wish you dared,’ and the workshops offered encourage women to get out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to boldly do what they never thought they could. I’ll be delivering a two-hour spoken word workshop specifically for women on Saturday, 25th Feb. at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. This workshop is for women of all ages and experience levels, and will give you the tools you need to begin writing and performing audaciously. Tickets available here.

Second, I am incredibly honoured and excited to be delivering a workshop at this year’s StAnza festival in St. Andrews! My fellow Loud Poet Kevin Mclean and I will be giving a two-and-a-half hour workshop on Sunday, 5th March to anyone interested in composing and performing spoken word. The workshop is FREE and open to all. Later that day we’re holding a Loud Poets showcase in the same space, so why not make it a spoken word afternoon? Details on the StAnza website.

Finally, in May I’m very pleased to be giving a workshop for the new social enterprise The Curious Thing in Stirling! This project provides classes for adults looking to learn new skills and re-invests all profit back into the community to create social change. I’ll be giving a two-hour workshop on 18th May at the Stirling Smith Gallery for adults interested in writing and performing their own poetry. Tickets are now available via this link.

 

If you’re interested in booking me or any of the Loud Poets for a workshop, please contact us through iamloud@loudpoets.com and we’d love to work with you. Hope you’re having a creative 2017 so far! – Katie

 

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson

Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry

Hello all! My apologies that this site has been so quiet over the past couple of months; I’ve been quite busy working on several projects so I haven’t had the time to post as regularly as I’d like. However, more posts on spoken word are coming! I have several drafted plus a couple guest posts lined up for you, so stay tuned . . .

For now, though, I’d like to share with you news of one of the projects that’s been keeping me busy this year. As many of you will know, my MRes research (Univ. Strathclyde, 2014-15) focused on poetry written for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, specifically investigating narratives of national history and identity woven through this body of work. Early in my research, I was introduced to Sarah Paterson, a fellow researcher doing similar work through her PhD at the University of Glasgow. We wanted to connect more researchers, artists, and activists engaged in this field, so we co-organised a conference for Sep. 2015 at the National Library of Scotland entitled ‘Poetic Politics: Culture and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, One Year On.’ The conference was opened by Scottish culture minister Fiona Hyslop and featured talks and performances from cultural figures including Robert Crawford, Scott Hames, Liz Lochhead, Alan Bissett, and many more.

One of the ideas discussed during the conference was the ephemerality of much of the poetry (indeed all art) composed during/inspired by the referendum campaigns. Much of it was performed a couple times or shared privately but not published in any sustainable, accessible fashion. Sarah and I had discussed how, as researchers, this made our work more challenging as we had to gather material from the individual poets; and also that it was a shame that this work wasn’t more available more widely for folks to read. So, we decided to take a small step towards remedying this issue by co-editing an anthology of contemporary Scottish political poetry.

My co-editor Sarah Paterson and me with our book!

My co-editor Sarah Paterson and me with our book!

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Summer Festivals!

Hello everyone! Just a quick post today to share details of some upcoming performances at festivals this August.

This August is the third annual Loud Poets run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where we’re delighted to be returning to the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile. We’ve written an entirely new show for this year, on the theme of “making it loud.” Loud Poets has always performed off-book with a live band, but for this show we’ve really experimented with all the ways we can bring poetry off the page and combine it with other art forms to create a truly multi-medium experience. In addition to poetry and live music, there will be movement, dance, videography, audience interaction, and plenty of surprises. We’re really excited about this show, and can’t wait to share it with everyone.

We’ll be performing Aug 5-14, 16-21, 23-29 at 9pm every night at the Storytelling Centre, with tickets at £10/£8 concession. There are two 2-for-1 tickets nights, on Aug 8 & 9, though these are selling out quickly so I’d recommend booking soon. Tickets and more information here.

LP Fringe A3

Although performing with Loud Poets will be taking up most of my time this August, I’m also delighted to be performing at two other festivals. On August 27 I’ll be performing on the Roar spoken word stage at the Stowed Out festival down in the Borders, alongside a great lineup – more information here. I’ll also be a featured performer at Flint & Pitch’s Unbound showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 28 at 9pm – event page here. If you’re in Scotland, would be great to see you there!

Thanks as always for reading (and for tolerating the shameless self-promotion here…) Hope everyone’s having a wonderful summer! -Katie