Slam poet slams scene’s “aesthetic regression”

Mar 13 2014 | By More

Is Edinburgh’s performance poetry scene being diluted?

Jem Rolls. Photo © Mattheus Kothe

Jem Rolls. Photo © Mattheus Kothe

By Thom Dibdin

Veteran performance poet Jem Rolls says Edinburgh has lost the crown it once held as home to the best performance poetry scene in Europe.

Described by the Scotsman as the ‘the godfather of Scottish performance poetry’, Rolls was speaking ahead of a workshop on his chosen artform he is holding on April 6 at the McDonald Road library.

In terms of performing poetry, Rolls is at the top. He not only wrote the rules for poetry slams most commonly used in Scotland but he has risen to the point where he makes a living from his hour-long, one-person poetry shows.

So when he describes an “aesthetic regression” in the current Edinburgh scene, you know something is up.

That regression is to reading aloud – a form that has its place, according to some, but which Rolls points out is not performance poetry, and is becoming more and more prevalent.

“Ten years ago we had real-deal American Slam Champions who did shows for us and went back to the States saying Edinburgh had the best performance poetry scene in Europe,” he told Æ. “These days they might struggle to find any on the bill.”

Ever one to put his money where his mouth is, Rolls is to hold a four hour workshop on the exacting process of creating a one-hour performance poetry show.

It will be “more discursive, more lecturing and seminarial, rather than group work or physically active”, he promises, as he intends to cover some  of the techniques of creating successful performance poetry and pulling it together into an hour-long slot.

“Performance poetry certainly isn’t in the ebullient state in Edinburgh that many people seem to think it is.” he says.

“Although there are more good acts than ever and loads of audience, its simply that there’s been something of an aesthetic regression. The bigger shows have had nights on which everybody reads and there is no – as in zero – performance poetry.”

This is not about the quality of the poetry itself, but its performance. And Rolls is happy to name-check the current events and acts which he sees as taking the genre further.

“A very exciting prospect…”

“I’ve been to some great shows – at Caesura and, particularly, an LGBT poetry night at Talking Heids in Leith,” he adds. “Meanwhile, the world is increasingly looking like Michael Pedersen’s oyster, giving everyone an almost unprecedented sight of what success looks like.

“And, even more meanwhile, the Loud Poets look like becoming unstoppable, even though they are having to kick open the same doors I had great fun kicking open ten or twelve years ago.

“So acts like Miko Berry, Agnes Torok, Kevin McLean and my favourite, Sam Small over in Glasgow, make the future look like a very exciting prospect indeed…

“This, however, is not reflected in the higher profile nights where performance doesn’t necessarily get a look in. I’m shocked to have come back after seven years away to find that reading at a microphone is considered adequate.

“The first time I went to a big night where nobody performed, the retreat behind the page made me want to cry.”

Rolls is nothing, if not heartfelt about his chosen art form, which he sees as a far from passive medium. One which is clearly defined by its name, where the poet is not just a creator of words, but a performer who should be able to have the full range of techniques available to an actor at their command.

“I actually make a living as a performance poet and every year I have a to write a show that isn’t just adequate, but knocks people’s heads off,” he says.

“This involves going for it verbally, vocally, facially, physical, and theatrically. Or else I don’t eat all winter.

“Me and Bram Gieben see performance poetry as an essentially dynamic medium, as text, voice, body and face.

“It is a very naked form of performance, where the performer can grasp the immediate in a way barely possible in any other medium. And where the performer who is up-for-it, who wants to say – and do – something new, can use a vast variety of techniques from other theatrical and literary forms: not least, acting, comedy, rap, dance, clowning, song and much much more.

“While if someone simply stands and reads at a microphone, it simply avoids, for whatever reasons, a huge array of the possibilities of performance and of their own writing.

“There is so much more to enjoy, for every girl and boy.”

Performance Poetry Workshop Looking In Depth At The Longform Poetry Show
Sunday April 6 2014, 1pm-5pm
McDonald Road Library, 2 McDonald Road, EH7 4LU
Fee: negotiable.
Full details on facebook at
Rolls hosts The Accelerator with Bram E. Gieben, at The Canons’ Gait (Edinburgh) and The Roxy 171 (Glasgow). details: Next event Wednesday 12 March, Canon’s Gait.

All Edinburgh Theatre carries a regular blog and listing of Edinburgh’s spoken word scene – performance poetry and other forms included – written by J. A. Sutherland: tag: “spoken-word”


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