Wordly Wisdom: Read or recited – it’s all performed

Mar 31 2014 | By More

Slammed-poet argues for diversity not directives

Jem Rolls’ recent comments to Æ concerning performance poetry and the art of reading have caused a right stramash among Edingurgh’s poetry peeps these past few weeks. Resident spoken wordsmith J. A. Sutherland has penned a riposte.

Rally & Broad

Rally & Broad. Photo © Chris Scott

When the so-called Godfather of Scottish performance poetry talks about an “aesthetic regression” in the scene, you know something’s up. Yes, indeed: Jem Rolls’ contribution to this blog certainly put a lot of backs up.

To say he created a healthy debate in the household would be a generous evaluation. So, is Jem Rolls still Head of the Family? A benevolent patriarch, playground bully or wily provocateur??

It seemed, as I watched the shots being fired over various social-media sites and pints of beer, the main difficulty was in defining what I have chosen to describe as ‘spoken word’. This encompasses all forms of Live Literature, and goodness knows, Edinburgh’s ‘scene’ is diverse to the point of total dilution: sometimes, there are no words spoken.

Some call it regression; others call this challenging, boundary-pushing, outside-the-box-thinking. Take Rally & Broad, for example.

Named after Jenny Lindsay’s poem, Rally The Troops, and Rachel McCrum’s poem, Broad, this innovative event is a rallying-call for a new way of presenting spoken word. Described as a ‘Lyrical Cabaret’, Rally & Broad have featured over sixty writers and poets, presenting them alongside an eclectic mix of music, dance, theatre, comedy – even audience participation. With an imperceptible lean towards representing a fairer gender balance, this monthly event has come to exemplify the significant change in the way spoken word is produced, and received by Edinburgh audiences – and further afield.

To say that ‘Performance Poets’ should only perform from memory, or must at least fit Jem Rolls’ amorphous mould, is misleading. At both of Jem’s recommended events, Caesura and Talking Heids, poets read from the page. The reason I write on the blog section of this website is because, although there is much overlap with many (if not all) other art-forms, spoken word is not theatre. Practitioners can learn craft from other performance-artists, but to call this practice ‘theatrical’ leads to choppy waters.


While some employ a natural flamboyance, for others this is simply overacting. A poet may be dynamic and entertaining, but can come across to some as amateur or ham. I am deeply moved every time I hear Rachel McCrum’s gentle rendition of The Glassblower Dances, Rachel Amey’s powerful critique of NHS South of the Border, or Jim Monaghan’s touching portrait of his hometown, The United Colous of Cumnock. All engage warmly with the audience without resorting to ridiculous histrionics or exaggerated gestures, gimmicks or props.

I’m not against enhancing a performance with other art-forms. At March’s Tricolour, after Robin Cairns’ performance – which at times verged on stand-up – the acclaimed poet Brian Johnstone performed his poems with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major improvising to his words, creating a unique soundscape for each poem. Brian read from the page, while his musicians pulled their notes out of the air in way that very few poets can do with words.

Experience and technique are important, especially when it comes to using a microphone. This depends on equipment; Shore Poets suffer in this, as do Blind Poetics (where the nice barman is careful not to use the coffee-machine during sets). Inky Fingers offer ‘speakeasy’ sessions to help performers; and Illicit Ink provide ‘rehearsal-time’ since theirs are ‘showcase’ events that are nonetheless open to beginners and established performers alike.

“discussion has raged”

In another forum where this discussion has raged, Rolls questioned whether, in other art-forms, this debate would be acceptable. ‘Are they standing there with scripts at the Traverse?’ he asked. Well, yes. The Traverse have made an art-form of ‘rehearsed readings’ with events such as Words Words Words giving new writers an opportunity to hear scripts performed from the page, and the theatre a chance to suss out emerging talent. Last year’s Fifty Plays for Edinburgh wasn’t billed as a ‘reading.’ It would have been inconceivable to present fifty micro-plays in one evening from memory, but it was one of the most exciting evenings of theatre – especially for the fifty writers.

This is also a strong practice among grassroots theatre groups, such as the Village Pub Theatre. Their last show introduced six new writers to the audience in Leith’s Village Pub, and after only one day of rehearsals, presented an evening of high-quality entertainment – and cake! The VPT have also presented their famous twitter-plays at the Lyceum, and are currently at The Traverse for a week-long run. This is hardly regressive.

In (say, vocal) music, ‘performance’ covers a wide range of styles. Of course opera and musicals are performed ‘off-book’ – unless they are in concert or semi-staged. Song and Lieder recitals are often given from memory, while choral concerts tend not to be. It would be impossible for professional choirs to memorise their vast daily repertoire; whereas many amateur vocal groups in fact learn by rote, since some members do not read music. There is room for all in music, and drama, and – I feel – in spoken word.

To accuse those who perform poetry from the page as merely ‘reading aloud’ denigrates the form, belittles the poet, and brags of elitism. I’m not hiding the fact that, particularly at ‘open-mic’ poetry evenings, one experiences the gamut. Sometimes I find the poetry is not to my liking, but I thoroughly respect anyone who has the guts to perform their words in public, no matter how accomplished or otherwise.

“read, recite, or declaim … it should always be a performance.”

At the Loud Poets Launch, a line in Rachel Rankin’s poem stuck with me: ‘this is a performance, not a recital.’ While it rhymed snappily with ‘beautiful and vital,’ I questioned the word ‘recital.’ To ‘recite’ means to perform from memory – which makes Rachel’s line tautological. But I like it, because the sentiment is that whether people read, recite, or declaim poetry, prose or drama, it should always be a performance.

I have been known to sing Gregorian plainchant – a truly ancient form of recitation – between poems; other poets employ rap, beat-box or drum-machines. Either end of the performance spectrum is valid, and anything in between. At Illicit Ink’s last ‘Underground’ show at the Bongo Club, there was a rainbow of performances, with stories being read, danced-to, interpreted through movement alone, and enacted with the aid of a hand-drill and fake (hopefully) blood. Live Literature at its best: poetry literally in motion.

We have moved on a long way since the early days of The Big Word, and the Poetry Slam that Jem Rolls introduced to Edinburgh. That said, I wonder if slams – designed to introduce new voices, fresh ideas, or undiscovered talent to the scene – have also had their day, dominated as they often are by the same poets. Poetry is for everyone, not the elite, nor a hierarchy with Jem as Godfather. As Chris Scott, Edinburgh’s literary paparazzi, said: ‘Things are growing, changing, adapting, experimenting, and yes, accelerating.’

I would urge people to go to The Accelerator, not least because Jem Rolls and his co-host, Bram E. Gieben are impressive performers. Furthermore, they feature poets firmly established in the performing scene, and some new voices too. I believe the future of spoken word and poetry in Edinburgh is dependent on a desire to continue representing a rich diversity: of age, gender, talent, style, experience and experimentation. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: pigeonhole a poet at your peril.

J. A. Sutherland also has his own blog at: http://throughtheturretwindow.blogspot.co.uk/

If you would like a spoken word event listed on All Edinburgh Theatre, please use the contact page to get in touch: https://www.alledinburghtheatre.com/about-2/contact/


Tags: , , ,

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Derek White says:

    I can only imagine that anyone who denigrates “reading aloud” has never had children. Reading aloud can be one of the most beautiful things on earth.