Building the perfect ‘BEAST’: An interview with Liam McCormick

Liam photo 2

A little while ago, I wrote this piece about Glasgow poet Liam McCormick’s one-man show, which is based on his book, ‘BEAST’ and which is on, daily, until Sunday 26 August, at half-past Midnight, in the Banqueting Hall at the Banshee Labyrinth (Venue 156). It’s a PBH Free Fringe production, so admission is free though donations are encouraged after the show. After the show, Liam agreed to talk a bit more about his work and what goes in to it.

CB: Hi Liam, please describe yourself, in three sentences or less?

LMcC: My name is Liam, I am a poet who writes about people you probably know. I am nice person who pretends to be mean because I am sad. Hashtag No Filter.

CB:Can I start by asking who you’ve been influenced by, as a writer and as a performer?

LMcC: Bill Hicks, Pussy Riot, Loki, Louie, Mog, Valerie Solanas, Victoria McNulty, Sam Small, Cee Smith, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Alan Bisset, Sarah Kane. Leyla Josephine. There are probably a lot more, but those are the ones that come to mind right now. 

CB: You played a lead role, as Billy Jnr, in Louie John Lowis’ ‘Inheritance’ – what did you learn from doing ‘straight’ acting and has that influenced the work you’ve done since, in any way?

LMcC: In terms of craft playing Billy taught me how to re-act. Until I played Billy, most of my work was solo performance, which doesn’t like space between lines. Billy taught me to milk a moment, and play off other performers. 

But the biggest lessons I learnt were gained from working alongside Erin Friel. She is a brilliant conversationalist, when she listens you really feel heard (even if you are talking crap). Without meeting her, the difficult conversations I had to have to make BEAST would not have been possible. 

Louie asked me to write some poetry for the play. He invited me to workshop it up at Platform theatre, and while I wrote it I got to watch him write. It was like getting invited to train with Bruce Lee. Seeing how fearless he was made me believe that any story I thought was worth telling could be told.  

Liam McCormick - Billy Jnr image - 19 August 2018

CB: You brought ‘BEAST’ to the Fringe for a 20 night run, going on-stage at half-past midnight every night in the Banshee Labryinth. This must have been a punishing experience, how did you manage to stay positive and keep your energy levels up, night after night?

LMcC: Stopped drinking, taking drugs and smoking weed. Suddenly I had a massive reserve of energy I could pull from. Good night’s sleep, lots of bananas water and coffees. At the end of the day, performing is a job and if you approach it with discipline and dedication, it’s really a pretty easy one. If you ever moan about it, you are in the wrong game.

As for staying positive: performing gives me a buzz. There is nothing better than it. It has a come down, but the come down just makes you want to go do it again. Which- lucky for me- there’s always another show. It’s when the run ends that I’m worried about!

CB: For a whole number of different reasons, ‘BEAST’ is a bit of a head-fuck. It is linear but not in the way that drama or spoken-word usually is. I’m fascinated by how you sit down and write and plan and develop chaos. What’s the process of putting a show together that’s very much a barrage of different moods and emotional states? Were you playing different sections off against each other, to get a particular effect? Or, in your mind, is there a clear emotional arc or progression going on?

LMcC: Everything I write begins with Star Wars Episodes 4, 5 and 6. Those films are the clearest; most efficient story ever written and any writer trying to create a narrative should study them. 

This what I learnt from Star Wars. Take the world you live in, twist it a bit. Add a goody. Add a baddy. Give the goody a goal. Give the baddy a redemption. Give them both some pals. Get a few good solid laughs, a few solid cries. Break up the time you have into 3 chunks. Give each chunk it’s own unique flavour. First chunk is a microcosm of the whole thing. Put the darkest point at the end of the middle chunk. End on message for the kids at the last chunk. Tack on an epilogue that is a microcosm of the whole thing. To create chaos, just stick all that shit in a blender.

In my mind the story takes place over a weekend. Zara goes on a night out after work on Friday. Goes into work still steaming on Saturday night. Then she spends Sunday in her bed watching cartoons, before she drags herself out to go to mass. Finally she has a bath. 

But it also takes place over an entire year during a break up cycle. First you want see your friends, meet new people and numb the pain with your poison of choice. Then your friends get sick of your chat. So you spend a few months manically working on whatever your passion is- or if you’re lucky enough to like your job you spend as much time at work as possible. Then the combination of the poison and pushing: you crash and burn. Then you finally spend some time on your own. Working it all out. At last: you emerge with all the lessons you learnt from that relationship. 

CB: That leads me to ask about the way ‘BEAST’ keeps changing and evolving. The book is quite different from the first version of stage show, that you put on with Sonnet Youth back in March, and the Fringe show is different again. What’s driving this regular revision and re-working of the show? Are you finding different things you want to say, different ways of saying the same things or do you just think it needs to be re-configured for different audiences? Will there ever be a final, definitive version of ‘BEAST’? 

LMcC: As a human being I am a work in progress. I react to everything said around this issue. And until the culture is done with the conversation: I don’t think I’ll be done chatting shit no.

As for a definitive version: I would like to film a 1-hour stand-up style special. Taking inspiration from Pussy Riot, I’d like to have a film playing above my head complementing the imagery of the poems with a subtitle track the reads the words I speak. Ideally the subtitles would be written in real time. I’d like to have a producer making live beats which sometimes become actual tunes, but mostly just complement my reading style. Add a dancer to my left and live musician to my right (playing a guitar, keyboard or horn). 

If anybody wants in giz a shout xox 

CB: Also, while we’re on the subject, a lot of the effect of the book version of ‘BEAST’ comes from the design and the lay-out of a lot of the poems – there are even poems presented a screenshots from Facebook or text messages on a phone. How much of the design of the book was your design, and how much of it was a collaboration with others – I see you’ve credited Bram E. Gieben, for example and Mark Penrose for the art.

And Ella Russell for the cover! Bram is a straight up pro. I told him what I wanted: he made a draft. Sent it to me. I said change this, change that. He did. Rinse-repeat till we’re both happy.

With Mark, I just took him round to my flat and read the poems I wanted pictures for. He latched on to certain images within the work and took it from there. He created 3 original pieces for the book, and the rest were ones that I was looking at while I was writing the book. So: he inspired me and I inspired him. We are both watchers, not very chatty and prefer to work in solitude. It was a bit like sending messages in bottles from each of our wee islands.

The Facebook poem was a gimmick, I consider it the weakest writing in the book. It was a daft story about an (the heaviest of air quotes here) ‘alpha’ male and a ‘beta’ male switching bodies freaky friday style that hopefully exposed both constructions of masculinity as sexist, selfish piggery. 

The visual poems were me trying to be creative with having work published on a page. The context of art is important to me: even down to wether there is a bar near the stage. I didn’t want to be a spoken word artist writing a book- I wanted to write a book I’d like to read.

The book is my vision. But everybody needs some giants to stand on. I hope I can repay the favour to all my collaborators some day. 

CB: Talking about collaboration more generally – both of the stage versions of ‘BEAST’ that I’ve seen relied, to a greater or lesser extent, on other people performing alongside you. The night I saw ‘BEAST’ at the Fringe, for example, Jade Taylor was playing the part of ‘Zara’ in the show. Does getting different people involved lead you to start seeing the material differently? 

LMcC: Definitely. A good example of this is the poem Mirrors. I’ve heard it read by a variety of performers and each one brings a unique take on it. It is a poem that tries to put the listener in the shoes of the third person that exists in every relationship. The one that is neither partner A or partner B. The one that starts to come out as two people become a unit. They are a mix of all the insecurities and baggage both people carry around with them. 

But when it is read out it becomes the readers. I like to read it imitating a very stoned person. Deep voiced, not caring and bored. This is not a good way to read a poem on stage. I saw Cee Smith read it with very intense anger at Mugstock. It becomes a frightening poem. One that really challenges the audience. 

When Jade reads it, it becomes the private thoughts of woman trying to repress her emotions. It becomes a deeply sad piece. I feel the disappointment, the ‘just-get-through-this-and-tomorrow-it’ll-be-better-please. It becomes very hard to listen to. But; most of my work is hard to listen to. And it’s good that I am as challenged by it as the audience are.

CB: Do you look for collaborators that can surprise you, or people you can rely on to do what you expect them to do?

LMcC: I’m a pretty massive control freak. It’s hard to let go of any idea or piece. I like collaborators that can take direction well- even though I am not very good at giving it. It is rewarding when I am surprised by my collaborators, but I like to have a firm idea of what they will bring to the table. I don’t like being a follower. Maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it just comes with the vision. But a good leader knows when to take a step back. Like everything else, I am working on it.  

CB: It seems to me that, in order for ‘BEAST’ to work, it has to be a shared experience between the people on-stage and the audience. It doesn’t strike me as a work that can just be watched or observed, the audience has to be willing to commit to what’s going on, men-tally and emotionally. How do you manage when the audience just isn’t willing to come with you, do you have any particular tricks, routines or strategies to get them onboard?

LMcC: The free fringe is probably the worst place on the planet to do this show. Every single poem requires some form of content warning, most punters expect comedians and there is a reliable group of english media types that go to free fringe shows to get drunk and heckle. 

But I love a challenge. 

Some audiences need their hands held through the material. A bit more inbetween chat, explaining the point I’m driving at. Other audiences don’t need any of that at all. When I judge it right, I feel completely in my element. But when I fuck it up- it can be a total car crash. But the point of doing 22 nights in a row is so I can learn every possible way of presenting the work. 

The first thing I recommend is being vulnerable with the audience. If you can show them your heart then they will always pay you back for it. Never get angry. Be provocative, be passionate- but do not get angry. 

And finally: shake everyone’s hand and ask everyone’s name. It’s an old commie thing my friend Jiggles told me about. In the show I twist it so that while I am shaking everyone’s hand a section of the S.C.U.M manifesto (by Valerie Solanas) describing the mental state of an alienated man is read out. This means my ‘getting to know you chat’ is undermined with the idea that all I am thinking about while delivering it is pussy and power. This sets the audience up for the dichotomy of Liam, nice wee guy who reads poems and the BEAST; a troubled, lonely aggressive sex pest. The two are eventually made one. 

CB: Talking about shared experience, when we spoke after the show, you were telling me about some of the conversations you’ve been having with people who’ve seen ‘BEAST’. How important is it to you, that ‘BEAST’ generates discussion, that it creates a space and an opportunity for people who’ve been effected by the issues you deal with in the show, to share and talk about their experiences?

LMcC: It is very important to me. Obviously it takes an emotional toll, but I am asking the audience to go through a lot. You can’t ask people to go through an emotion without giving them a way out of it. Sometimes that means letting them tell you their story. Sometimes that means referring them to resources like Samaritans.  

One night of the run I had a woman come in who was staying at the Shelter. After the initial shock of the material we sat down and had a long talk about art, healing and what we wanted in life. There were three people in the audience. One heckled the whole show, one left crying. But she stayed.

It was the best solo night of the run. 

CB: However well intentioned you are, though, some people will hear about ‘BEAST’ and maybe come and see it and just think that you’re being exploitative and that you’re just out to shock people. How do you deal with the fact that there will be people who will never see past the surface? Does that matter, do you need everyone who sees it to ‘get it’ or have you made your peace with the fact that some folk just won’t.

LMcC: People will judge you no matter what you do. Might as well be yourself. I’ve never had thick skin. But a very wise man once said: 

N’wit? Fuck ‘em. 

-M.O.G 

CB: And, talking about people not ‘getting it’, you’ve written a book and a show about a girl be-ing molested and abused in different ways, what do you say to the people who will inevita-bly think that, as a man, you shouldn’t be trying to tell this girl’s story, that the male gaze is never going to see things the way Zara would?

LMcC: I used to get shit off poets for not writing enough female characters. Now the beret brigade want to have a go at me because I did. Zara is me. At first I wanted to write about rape culture but I was not willing to talk directly about myself. I thought writing as a woman would make the work more palatable. But then Zara didn’t want to be me- and definitely didn’t want to be palatable. 

I think the book never places you in Zara’s shoes. It is always observing her. The titles refer to her in the third person- to give the impression that she is being watched. Stalked. Either by the baddy or by the society she lives in. Zara is woman as seen through the eyes of a seriously disturbed man. In the same way that the man in Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto is man through the eyes of a disturbed woman.

I ask female artists to perform Zara because it means the character becomes filtered through their experience. The exaggerations and untruths become either ironic, or obvious posturing. Each artist I have asked has had a different take on the poems, and brings their own baggage to the role. Which, in terms of audience experience, removes the worry that ‘oh a man wrote this so he can’t know what its reeealy like’. This is, regrettably, not present within the book. 

At first I asked other poets to take on the role, but I came to the conclusion that it is ultimately disrespectful to ask an established writer to read your work in the guise of a poet. It means they may be credited with ideas they do not want to support, or do not come from their own soul. It may undermine their own work, and it leaves me partially obscured as the source. It means the audience never has to confront the fact that the words were written by a man. 

CB: Which leads me to ask, there are easier ways to entertain people, you must have ideas for ‘easier’ shows that you could write, that wouldn’t seek to put you and the audience through the wringer in quite the way that ‘BEAST’ does. How necessary is it for you, that you’re do-ing this show, just now? 

LMcC: Before I wrote this book I hadn’t spoken to my mum honestly since I was about 10. I wasn’t speaking to my brother. I’d go round to my dad’s maybe twice a year. I bullied everyone around me. I was living in a complete fantasy land and anyone who tried to challenge it would get undermined, belittled and and berated.  This is especially true for my romantic partners. 

Being better isn’t something that you achieve. It’s something you have to work on every single day. I fuck it up a lot. Having BEAST as an outlet for all the things I think and feel while I go through this process is incredibly valuable. It’s not a replacement for therapy, counselling or using helplines, but it has improved every single one of my relationships. With family, lovers, friends, drugs, money and work. 

I could have just kept lying. I could have come up and done some banter and memes, made a few weed and poo jokes, hit them with some issues, tug some heart strings and walk away with some cash in my pocket. But I reject the clean-cut happy-chappy image. This book, this show, is me. I needed the audience to knows what kind of person I am and what kind of person I want to be . There is always going to be time for more weed bars. 

CB: What would you do if, for some reason, you couldn’t do ‘BEAST’ – if you were told, you can write and perform something else but you can’t do that particular show anymore?

LMcC: I was told that. My best friends, my partner, other poets, my family all said it couldn’t be done. Some said it shouldn’t be done. I did it anyway. You can’t tell me nothing. What if you told Louie he couldn’t do Inheritance? What if you told McNulty she couldn’t do Confessionals? What if you told Loki he couldn’t do Poverty Safari?

I suspect they would say the same. 

Liam_Beast_Image

CB: And, finally , while we’re talking about doing other things, once your Fringe run has finished, what are you up to next?

LMcC: Taking the first week of September off to crash. Eating cake, drinking tea, playing zombies, Skyrim and FIFA. While I’ve been at the Fringe, I’ve been writing a pamphlet which will be called ‘Glasgow Uni Accent’, in which I will finally publish the old favourites (hash is great, shite craic etc), some new ones and a highlight reel of my in-between chat. Need a bit of a laugh after BEAST. The pamphlet will be complemented by a series of releases on BBC’s The Social. 

I’m in the process of making an album from BEAST. I’d say I’m about 20% done so far. Still looking for collaborators and writing material for it. A rough and dirty version should be ready for the next GAG gig at the Govanhill baths. 

I’d like to start a band. Been coming up with good names all my life- but I think next year is when I bite the bullet and just do it. I’m also working on a book of short stories set in Dingwall. But I think I need to go back there for a long time before it will be ready. 

I’ve written a script for a TV show that I’m really excited about. But making a full 30 minute episode is a massive undertaking and I’d need some serious backing before I’m anywhere near bring it out. It’s great craic though.

But BEAST isn’t done yet. I want to see the world, and through the fringe I’ve made the connections that might make that possible. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me and Jade again. 

Liam McCormick is a Glasgow-based poet. He has had work featured on BBC 1xtra, BBC 2 and during the Scottish Cup Final 2017. His first collection ‘BEAST’ is available now from Burning Eye books.

Nobody knows better: ‘Poverty Safari Live’

Poverty Safari Live - image

[Author’s note: This article includes links to embedded content, some of which contain language which readers of a sensitive nature may find offensive.]

It must be weird being Loki right now. He’s a lauded, prize-winning, best-selling author whose book, ‘Poverty Safari’ opens with the line – “People like me don’t write books”. He’s billed as ‘the Scottish rapper’, even though some of the people in his Fringe audience probably thought this was a joke. And, he’s the only person to ever appear both on  Question Time and at The Classic Grand in Glasgow, defeating Edinburgh’s Oddacity in Scotland’s most one-sided rap battle.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that ‘Poverty Safari Live’ felt like a stop on the road rather than a destination. Loki’s achievement, just in getting to this stage, is unprecedented. He’s done more than most in the Scottish hip-hop community, to put Scottish hip-hop on the map, help it reach a wider audience and break down prejudices towards the music and the people who make it. If he did nothing else, ever, he’d still have exceeded, pretty much, everyone’s expectations of what a Scottish hip-hop artist can achieve. But, let’s not kid on, there’s more to come. The big question that ‘Poverty Safari Live’ leaves you with is – what happens next?

The show is an hour-long, spoken-word/hip-hop performance that charts the journey of a young working-class man (who may or may not be based on Loki himself), as he crosses with the ‘ravine’ between people from his background and the middle-classes. It’s arguably as much, ‘Trigger Warning Live’ as it is ‘Poverty Safari Live’ – featuring a number of tracks from Loki’s most recent, full-length album – and the narrative, loosely, follows the arc of the record as much as it does the content of the book.

It’s also interesting to hear him integrate material that’s already familiar from some of his Facebook posts of recent months. There’s, maybe, a whole series of scholarly articles to be written about this use of Facebook as an engine for ongoing consultation by an author on their work-in-progress and it’s, probably, the first time I’ve seen an artist with Loki’s profile subject his work to this kind of feedback – but we’ll leave that for another day.

For the meantime, the album and EP tracks are mostly delivered in new, more or less beat-less arrangements. There seems to be a wee bit of reluctance, on Loki’s part, to give the audience the full boom-bap and this filters through to the spoken-word segments as well, some of which (as this review in The Scotsman notes) spend a little too much time, for my liking, trying to appease Fringe audience sensibilities. I’d have liked to see a Loki that gave fewer fucks and spent less time trying to win the audience over – but that’s just me.

This is, I think, one of the biggest challenges facing Loki, as this stage of his life and career comes to its next turning-point. Plenty of people have opinions about what he’s doing but none of these opinions are really worth a damn – because no-one else has ever been where Loki is now and, unless you’re in his shoes, which none of us are – no-one else has a clue how to deal with this situation and what to do next.

There are no maps for the territories he finds himself in. His peers, loosely speaking, are people like Jack Monroe and Akala – socio-cultural, multi-channel/multi-platform commentators, who’ve grown cottage-industries into populist content and have expanded local, community-based audiences into national platforms. Their success has been predicated on the extent to which the UK’s progressive/liberal establishment has been prepared to accept and promote them – and must feel like an uneasy relationship at times. What’s given, after all, can also be taken away.

As well as his regular newspaper columns in The Scotsman and The Guardian, Loki’s book is also due for re-publication by Picador, a division of Pan Macmillan – with, no doubt, a significantly bigger marketing budget and many more sales. All of which brings with it the inevitable circling of online harpies shrieking, ‘Sell-out, sell-out’. I hope Loki gives these cries the due attention and consideration they deserve, which is to say none.

So far as I’m concerned, accusing someone of ’selling out’ pre-supposes that there is an alternative – an approach that doesn’t involve ‘selling out’. There is no such alternative here, because no-one’s done what Loki’s doing before. No-one’s had to negotiate the ethical and moral labyrinth that he’s currently trying to navigate. Everyone’s opinion on whether Loki is selling out is just that, their opinion -based on speculation on what his options actually are. Nobody knows better. Nobody knows fuck-all.

Which is why, to me, ’Poverty Safari Live’ felt, like a stop on the road. A dispatch from one young man’s continuing journey towards a better understanding of how someone like him (or, ‘a character loosely-based on someone like him’) might create content, create art, and create a better understanding between classes and communities based on his own increasingly unique and divergent experience

If the show was more tentative that I’d have liked, at times, I think that’s understandable. One thing that’s always been clear about Loki is that he thinks things through. Not everyone might agree with his conclusions, but no-one can argue that they don’t come from a serious consideration and reflection on the matter at hand.

The tricky thing, now, is that Loki’s having to do his thinking and responding in public, in real-time and in a spot-light that’s only going to get brighter and brighter. It’s not easy being a trail-blazer or the first head about the parapet and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to be in Loki’s shoes, all of the time. But I trust him to know figure out where he’s going and I’ll be fascinated to see what he does next.

Loki’s one-man show, ’Poverty Safari Live”, is on, daily, until Sunday 26 August, at 5.00pm, at The Stand’s New Town Theatre (Venue 7). Tickets are £12.00/£10.00 (concession) and are available here. You can buy Loki’s albums, including his latest six-track EP, ‘Send For That’, from his Bandcamp page. His Orwell Prize-winning book, ’Poverty Safari’, is available from Luath Press. and most popular booksellers.

The Magic Bus: Onboard with ‘The 900 Club’

The 900 Club_image

‘The 900 Club’ was produced by ‘In The Works’ – a spoken word theatre company, run by Bibi June, Ross McFarlane, Shannon O”Neill & Ellen Renton and based in Glasgow. The company develops spoken word theatre shows – ‘The 900 Club’ is their latest show, which ran from 3 – 12 August at the Scottish Poetry Library. Wanting to promote spoken word theatre as an art form, and build a sustainable, accessible tradition for performance poets, In The Works is meant to be a hub for anyone wanting to grow as a poet, performer and theatre maker.

Bibi June’s solo collection, ‘Begin Again’, is available from Speculative Books.

I have yet to meet anyone entirely new to performance poetry or spoken-word who isn’t, on first exposure, unfailingly, without exception – Every. Single. Time – impressed with what they’ve seen.

And so they should be. Done well, spoken-word is an art-form that seduces, beguiles and inspires. Watching skilled performers (and there are a lot of skilled spoken-word performers on the Scottish scene) wrap words around images, around phrases, around rhythms, around words is a beautiful thing to witness. So when you put four of Scotland’s best-regarded performance poets together on one stage, as was the case with ‘The 900 Club’, the results, at times, were quite sublime.

‘The 900 Club’ is the second production by Glasgow’s ‘In The Works’ theatre company. I confess that I didn’t see their first show, ‘A Matter of Time’ – but I was very much onboard for this one. 

The subject matter – the burden or gift of friendship, relationships and the loss of a loved one – was deftly handled and beautifully articulated in much of the verse. It all rang true without being obvious or cliched. It was, in most respects, exactly what you’d want from the marriage of spoken-word and theatre – a production that showcased the strengths of both art-forms.

There were niggles (I’m afraid there are almost always niggles), the Scottish Poetry Library – delightful though it is, in so many different ways, is no theatre. This was a show that cried out for a bit more tech – foley sound, to bring the bus journey alive a bit more, variable lighting states, to support some of the mood shifts and add emphasis to the isolation and distance between characters at key points.

And I couldn’t help but think that the staging, which left the actors sitting down for 80-90 percent of the performance caused a wee bit of an issue. Spoken-word performed standing up often relies (consciously or unconsciously) on a range of body movements. When performers echo those movements while they’re sitting down, it kind’ve makes them look like they’re squirming, slightly uncomfortably, in their seats. But none of this really mattered, in the greater scheme of things.

Of course, the big difference between ‘The 900 Club’ and all of the other spoken-word theatre shows I’ve seen recently was in the number of people on-stage. Put simply, having four people gives you more options. It lets you be more recognisably ‘theatrical’ in that you can write passages that are more like conventional, theatre dialogue. You have more scope for movement as multiple performers can be in different places at the same time, pin-balling words around the auditorium and it gives you recourse to what is, IMHO, the most powerful weapon in the performing-arts armoury – multiple voices, speaking or singing in unison.

What was really interesting for me, was the way that the four performers, and their script, dealt with the tension between the discipline of slam-style, performance poetry – which, basically, aims to grab the audience, hold them tight for three minutes, then let them them breathe – and the progression through a narrative arc that allows for multiple instances of build-up > tension > release, that a long-form show needs.

There were some fantastic interventions or disruptions to the poetic flow. At one point, a group sing-a-long to Ben E, King’s, ‘Stand By Me’, worked beautifully – both as a release of tension but also as a highly-effective mechanism to move the narrative on to its next emotional peak.

Personally, I could have done with more of the performers ‘riffing’ off each other – but, overall, ’The 900 Club’ had the swing and performative dazzle of a really good jazz-quartet gig – four virtuosos swapping solos, picking up themes and playing to each others’ strengths. There was some real imagination and creativity in the use of the four voices. There were lines spoken in shimmering unison – followed by dialogue delivered in a plainer, more conversational style, to move things along – then moments of acrobatic synchronicity that made me think of a, kind-of, high-wire verbal trapeze act.

The build-up to the final section, where Ellen Renton and Shannon Doherty stayed seated and Bibi June and Ross McFarlane moved to the back of the auditorium and the two pairs flipped exchanges from one performer to another, and one pair to another, was a marvellous example of what spoken-word theatre can be, when you bring the best of both art forms together. I think anyone who saw ‘The 900 Club’ – whether they were new to spoken-word or long-standing supporters – will have been impressed. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what ‘In the Works’ come up with next.

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately obvious, I am not a ‘professional’ writer/reviewer. I take no position on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. There will be no star ratings here. What you’re getting, for the price of however long it takes you to read this piece is one person’s opinion. I am up for debate/discussion. I am happy to be told that, while I felt like ‘this’, you felt like ‘that’. Your thoughts/responses are as valid as mine. ]

In the belly of ‘Beast’

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately obvious, I am not a ‘professional’ writer/reviewer. I take no position on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. There will be no star ratings here. What you’re getting, for the price of however long it takes you to read this piece is one person’s opinion. I am up for debate/discussion. I am happy to be told that, while I felt like ‘this’, you felt like ‘that’. Your thoughts/responses are as valid as mine. ]

[Author’s note #2: Trigger Warning – the article below discusses physical and sexual abuse.]

‘Beast’ is on daily at half-past Midnight, in the Banqueting Hall at the Banshee Labyrinth (Venue 156) until Sunday 26 August. It’s a PBH Free Fringe production, so admission is free though donations are encouraged after the show. You can buy the print edition of ‘Beast’ from Burning Eye Books.

I went to see Liam McCormick’s ‘Beast’ at the Banshee Labyrinth, in the early hours of this morning. Afterwards, I chatted to Liam for a little while and I hope to follow this article up with another Q&A, in due course. It was (sort of) the second time I’d seen this show. The first being Sonnet Youth’s presentation back in March, to tie-in with Liam’s book launch.

I say, “sort of”, because it’s clear to me that ‘Beast’ doesn’t really exist as a finished, scripted show, so much as a continuing investigation of exactly how you put a book like ‘Beast’ on the stage. The show I saw this morning was markedly different to the staging at Drygate in March. Bits had been added in, bits taken out.

The opening was more immediate, it started with an interactive, call and response poem and then a hip-hop piece, rapped over a recorded backing track. There was more use of technology overall – video segments, performers interacting with pre-recorded audio, more music – all sorts. 

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But ‘Beast’ is still a difficult show to write about – partly because it’s deliberately chaotic and partly because of its subject matter. ‘Beast’ comes from, and goes to, some very dark places.

Its not show for everyone but, if you’re open to being challenged by what you see and hear, it can be weirdly entertaining. Sometimes, it’s entertaining in the way that The Fall were entertaining during their ‘Hex Enduction Hour’-era, or Vic and Bob were entertaining in the first series  of ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ – in that, you don’t really know why you’re enjoying it but you are. Sometimes, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, it’s none of these things.

I’ve always admired Liam McCormick as a performer. I never got to see him as Billy Jnr in Louie John Lowis’ ‘Inheritance’ – I wish I had and I wish ‘Inheritance’ would get another run somewhere, sometime soon – but I think Liam pushes the performative aspects of performance-poetry further than almost anyone else I’ve seen. During ‘Beast’ he’s a ball of energy, dashing off-stage to shake hands with everybody in the back row of the audience, switching characters and pulling faces.

He’s also got phenomenal mic technique – something that, maybe, doesn’t sound like much but really matters in the context of spoken word. He has a battery of effects – a close-miked, ‘heavy breathing’ style, stepping away from the mic and using his voice naturally, making the mic work with his body and movement –  and they were all deployed in the course of ‘Beast’.

All of this adds to the show’s impact. It’s chaotic and it often doesn’t always make much linear sense. It’s also really, really dependent on its audience. Every show benefits from having an engaged audience – but I don’t think the audience’s experience of most shows will be as dependent on the extent to which they themselves, as an audience, are up for engaging and responding to the show. (If that makes sense.) You’ll come out of ‘Beast’ feeling very differently if you see it as part of an audience who either ‘get it’ or don’t ‘get it’ (Bearing in mind that ‘getting it’ may mean different things to different people).

The chaos is, I think, both deliberate and consequential. It reflects the subject-matter, in that ‘Beast’ tells the story of a young woman, Zara (played this morning by Jade Taylor) and other characters who are living chaotic lives. It reflects the chaotic mental state of its characters and their chaotic emotional states.

‘Beast’ is a show about abuse – and about coming to terms with abuse, in different ways. It clearly comes from a dark place and it features characters who, for different reasons and in different ways, are trapped in dark places – though it ends on a note of catharsis and there’s no doubt that the emotional and narrative arc takes the characters towards the light, rather than leaving them entirely in the dark.

But it doesn’t present much in the way of obvious answers. I can’t help but think that Liam McCormick’s continuing re-working of the material – after the show he talked about wanting to make a film version which will, no doubt, be different again from what I saw onstage – is, in itself a continued attempt to work out how he feels about the issues that ‘Beast’ deals with.

Part of me hopes that, one day – sooner, perhaps, rather than later – he comes to feel that his work on ‘Beast’ has reached some kind of apotheosis – that he can leave it be, and ‘Beast’ can leave him be for a while.

Another part of me thinks – given that some of the value in ‘Beast’ is in the opportunities it presents for discussion and reflection on stuff that usually gets swept under the carpet and never, ever talked about – that he should carry on and keep on carrying on. I suspect the latter is more likely than the former.

After all, the experiences that ‘Beast’ is built from aren’t something you can put down like a book and come back to when you feel like it. People’s experience of abuse is a weight that they carry all their lives.

Years ago, I worked for an organisation involved in safeguarding children in schools and children’s homes. One of the things I learned, in the course of this work, was that adult survivors of abuse often don’t come forward until later life – more specifically, until after their parents have passed away.

There are reasons for this, to do with the barriers that the abuser places between the vulnerable child and his/her family and the feeling, among some adult survivors, that they need to protect their parents from the guilt that they would feel if they found out what had happened to their children.

What this made clear to me was the extent to which adult survivors were living with the pain of their abuse all their lives. It’s symptomatic of the twisted mirror-world that abusers force their victims into, that the death of a parent can present, in a truly terrible  way, as a form of release.

I believe this is changing. I believe that more young people today (Not enough, to be clear, but more) are being helped and supported to escape from the emotional and psychological prison that their abuser and their experience of abuse locks them into.

I believe that, sometimes, this help comes through supporting the discussion of abuse, its enablers and its effects, creating and maintaining frames and spaces within which everyone – but particularly young people – can be helped to understand and escape the effect of abuse on their own terms and in their own way.

I believe that ‘Beast’ is intended to be, and acts as, such a frame and that it can help enable some of these discussions. For that reason, but not just for that reason, I hope that ‘Beast’ is seen by as many people as possible.

[If you have experienced abuse and need support or someone to talk to, Victim Support Scotland (0345 603 9213) will be able to help or put you in touch with a group or organisation in your local area]

Poking a butterfly with a stick – Imogen Stirling’s “#Hypocrisy”

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately and painfully obvious, I am not a ‘professional’ writer/reviewer. I take no position on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. There will be no star ratings here. What you’re getting, for the price of however long it takes you to read this piece is one person’s opinion. I am up for debate/discussion. I am happy to be told that, while I felt like ‘this’, you felt like ‘that’. Your thoughts/responses are as valid as mine. ]

[Author’s note #2 – in the interests of full disclosure – I was invited to see this show and I didn’t pay for my ticket.]

#Hypocrisy” is on at the Scottish Poetry Library, until Sunday 12 August. You can buy tickets here.

Imogen Stirling - Image

I have no idea if there are butterflies with wings the colour of Imogen Stirling’s hair but – after seeing her one-woman, spoken-word theatre show “#Hypocrisy”, I was struck by the sense of something emerging, tentatively, as if from a chrysalis.

Played out in broad daylight against a plain, black backcloth – the only ‘theatrical’ elements being the performer’s movement, a handful of props and some limited interaction with her on-stage guitarist – there’s a hesitancy and uncertainty about “#Hypocrisy” which meant that, whilst it wasn’t entirely (a word I’ll come back to latter) without its charms, the show didn’t exactly grab me by the throat.

It was a fluent, proficient performance. Imogen knew how to hold an audience and command their attention. She delivered lines well, got her laughs, got her crowd engaged and into that shared-space, where the audience are happy and willing to follow the poet, to wherever he or she wants to take them.

She built plenty of energy with rhythm and cadence and then dropped into moments of pause and quieter reflection. (There’s a scholarly article to be written, I reckon, about the way tendencies in spoken-word mirror techno and trance music – both with their emphasis on the build-up and ‘the drop’.)

But the pauses were sometimes a bit uncertain – stumbles, even, in the train-of-thought we were following onstage. They seemed to offer confusion, rather than resolution – whatever was emerging from the chrysalis wasn’t coming into the world fully-formed.

Maybe I didn’t quite have the patience for the journey that “#Hypocrisy” took me on. The show started by detailing Imogen’s “one and a half years’ travelling”, busking round Europe, protected from hunger and, one assumes, serious bad-shit of the homeless/hopeless/penniless sort by “the emergency credit card award by my family”.

There was some soul-searching – mostly inspired by (amongst other things) the realisation that picking up gigs on the basis of cultural capital inherited by being from the land of The Beatles/Oasis/Ed Sheeran [delete as appropriate] wasn’t exactly fair on the kids being shunted down or off the bill just because no-one from their home city ever appeared on Top of the Pops.

The second-half mixed stories about different characters (80 year-old Glaswegian, Helen and her 30 year-old Muslim lodger, Amal – Nicholas, a charity worker who dies in Somalia – and Dorin, a refugee from Syria) with Imogen’s reflections.

We were told that the British media draws a veil over Western atrocities in foreign lands; that there’s a very different tenor to being singled out when it gets you gigs and drinks in “Amsterdam, Berlin, Montpellier” and being singled out when it gets you abuse and discrimination in Glasgow; that not everything we see on TV or read in the papers may be ‘entirely’ true; and – finally – that if we “view all people as people”, the world may be a better place for it.

But, I’m afraid my initial response to “#Hypocrisy” was weariness. I’m tired of this shit (not the show, the shit that goes on in the world). I was tired of the British media ignoring the slaughter of civilian families by the West in the nineties, I was tired of it in the noughties, and I’m really fucking tired of it now. Coming from that place, it was hard not to feel that a lot of the show’s insights could just as easily have been gleaned from the op-ed pages of The Guardian or even, the lyrics of this song by Depeche Mode.

There were serious stories woven into the flow – stories worth telling, stories that aren’t told often enough, stories that deserve a platform – but they had a slightly uneasy relationship with the rest of the piece. I felt that the narrative progression, with the emphasis on ‘I’ right through the first-half, lurched slightly awkwardly into the sudden introduction of 3rd parties, Helen and Amal, at the start of the second. And the move from ‘I’, to ‘we’, as the story wound up didn’t really resonate with me. 

I could have done with a bit more anger, a bit more certainty and a bit more commitment. The repeated refrain, “Not entirely true” – which closed each section of the show – was, after all,  another polite qualification (“Not entirely?”. So, a bit true? A bit not true?), a bit of a compromise when I could have done with something more definitive, something that got its arse entirely off the fence.

Let’s face it, if we’re talking about the current state of our social and political discourse – which “#Hypocrisy” was – there’s plenty of shit being published, reported and spoken which isn’t remotely true. No ‘if’s, no ‘but’s, no ‘Mebbes aye and mebbes naw’s.

Now, I really don’t want to be just another moaning old bastard. There was, as I’ve said, a sense that something was emerging onstage – even if it was still finding its feet. If she can find more of herself to put into her stories and if she can deliver something that’s definite rather than qualified, that has a bit more fire and fury and teeth, then I reckon Imogen Stirling could put on quite a show. And there were plenty of people in the room who seemed pretty on-board with what “#Hypocrisy” had to say.

So, if what I’ve said here does make me sound like a moaning, old bastard doing nothing but sniping from the side-lines – it’s because that’s basically what I am and what I do. Even when, sometimes, I really don’t want to. 

Confessionals (Pt.2): An interview with Victoria McNulty

Victoria McNulty - Image 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this response to Victoria McNulty’s one-woman, spoken-word theatre show, “Confessionals”. After the show, Victoria agreed to talk a bit more about the work and the thought behind it. (Photo credit: all photos by Andrew Tracey)

CB: Hi Victoria – thanks, again, for agreeing to do this. Just as a quick introduction, can I ask you to describe yourself, in three sentences or less?

VMcN: Working mum, lefty romantic. Like dogs more than humans. Is probably better at describing other people.

CB: You’ve said that ‘Confessionals’ was, “the most rewarding and challenging thing I’ve been involved in to date”. What were the challenges and what were the rewards?

VMcN: I think for me the biggest challenge was to be honest in the content. As a performer, there is sometimes a pressure to people-please. I was very mindful that “Confessionals”. doesn’t tell a story that will necessarily leave the audience feeling happy after hearing it. It was a challenge for me to accept that this is ok. I’m not a comedian or light entertainer. If people hate what you say but engage with the fact you have said it, then that’s a small triumph. But if I’m honest, I had a lot of anxiety about approaching the issue of gendered violence so openly, and how that would be received. I didn’t want to belittle experiences or glorify it in any way. For me, the rewards come from the connections that are made. The people who have approached me afterwards saying, ‘that’s my story/ my daughters story/ my mums story,’ make it worth while. To have been able to create something that makes anyone feel that personal connection is an amazing feeling. 

CB: You’ve worked with Kat Hepburn and Kevin P. Gilday, the team from Sonnet Youth, to bring this version of “Confessionals” to the stage. What was that experience like and what did working with them add to what the audience saw on stage?

VMcN: Both Cat and Kevin are writers I admire in the Scottish spoken word scene, so, from the set-off, it was a positive experience for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of Sonnet Youth on a number of occasions, so being part of that new chapter was a privilege. What I hadn’t really thought of, thought, was that this was the first time they had approached a project like this as well, in a directorial role, and that enthusiasm they have really drove things forward. They work hard, consider everything, and were completely bold in enhancing what was already there. They encouraged me to be unafraid. If you told me, a year ago, that  we would be projecting imagery of female fighters along with Bernadette Devlin interviews at the Roxy, I would have choked. And all of that boldness added to what the audience saw. They are excellent at seeing what needed to be done to bring the audience into the setting of the story, where to be shocking, where to be soft. They understood what mine and Abi Normal’s strengths were and how to maximise those. 

CB: Can I ask about your writing process? You’ve said that you “basically . . .  spewed 30 odd years of venom and frustration into a note book and it became a spoken word show” – but how much of what went into that notebook has ended up onstage? Have you added to it, taken stuff out? Was the narrative arc there from the beginning or was that something you added later?

VMcN: I wish I could tell you I had a sophisticated process in mind. Three small pieces in it were pieces I had been performing previously. Leyla Josephine talked to me about a narrative arc in passing, so I then realised there had to be a journey there. But, really, very little of it was changed. I certainly edited lines, to provide poetic strength, rhythm, whatever. But I didn’t overly think about the process. It wasn’t until performing it for the first time at The Visible Women festival that it even crossed my mind that I had written something that could be considered remotely decent.

CB: How do you ‘test’ your work out, before you perform it in front of an audience, so you can be sure it’ll land in the way you want it to? Do you edit your lines, to adjust the way they sound as well as what they say?

VMcN: So, “Confessionals”-wise, before doing it at Visible Women, we did a table reading and that was how it was road-tested. ‘Here is my 25 minute poem about domestic violence’ isn’t really open mic appropriate and, to be honest, little of the content works out of context. So, short of a couple of sets at Inn Deep or Fail Better, I didn’t test it. But it has been over a year in development, from that point until now, so I think I chopped and changed sub-consciously along the way. More generally, I would say testing work at open mics is the best way to really get a feel for audience reaction. 

CB: It seems to me that performance poetry can impact on audiences, not always just because of the content, but because a good poet can generate emotion and energy in a room through their performance and use of rhythm and language. Do you think that some audiences leave spoken word gigs feeling a little unsure about exactly what was said but much clearer about how it made them feel? How important is it to you, that people should be clear about the content and messages in “Confessionals”?

VMcN: Yeah I do. As an audience member, I remember watching Liam McCormick perform and thinking, ‘I don’t have a clue what he said but it made me really uneasy and I fucking love it.’ But, although poetry and spoken word do bleed into one another, I see them as different in aim, as you said. I prefer to read poetry because I admire the craft of it, the form and structure and technique. Something like Sylvia Plath’s Metaphors, how 8 lines can accurately sum up the writers fears and emotions, it’s beautiful. But spoken word gives the writer a different tool-kit. How to use your voice, your body, the pause, to read the room. And that’s what I wanted to use in Confessionals, to make people feel how it feels. But yeah, it was really important to me, for people to know what was being said, because it’s a loaded story. That’s why having the opportunity to publish it with Speculative Books was so helpful. So an audience member could revisit the content again if they wanted to.

CB: There’s a line, right at the start, “the club spilled like smashed amphorae”, that made me want to ask about your use of language. On the one hand “Confessionals” is poetry which comes with its own pre-conceived baggage about what is and isn’t ‘poetic’ language. On the other, it’s an honest account of life in Glasgow, told in true-to-life voices and vernacular. How much of an effort was it for you (if any), to balance the two? Did you find yourself editing lines to be more or less ‘poetic’ (whatever you take that to mean)?

VMcN: To be honest, it wasn’t that much effort. If you sit in any working man’s pub in Glasgow on a Sunday afternoon, you hear poetic language. ‘Feel like a burst baw/ face like a slapped arse,’ or hearing footballers described as ‘Bambi on ice’ or a ‘bus turning in Sauchiehall Street’. That’s as effective as any simile or metaphor! So, for the character pieces, I said what would be said anyhow. And for the descriptive part, there’s that thing about spinning an epic yarn, that saga that’s engaging but ultimately pointless. Everyone I know has served a punter like that or has a family member like that. That uncle that takes 3 whole hours to tell you about the time he passed Billy McNeil in the street in minuscule, Joyce-like detail! I just kinda stole that. 

Victoria McNulty - Image 4

CB: One thing I like a lot is the range of different characters and voices you deploy throughout “Confessionals” – “the Gambler”, the woman at the bar who appears like “a vision in peroxide”, the”hag in a purple Pac A Mac”. How easy or difficult did you find it to write credibly in this range of voices? And how important was it, that the poem should speak from a number of different points of view?

VMcN: I found it most difficult to portray the men to be honest. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man in that environment. How it feels to have these pressures, how they think. So I based them on things I had heard being said, or people I knew. But, yeah, it was very important to show all these view points. We see gendered violence as an act inflicted on a single victim by a single perpetrator. It’s not like that. There are factors that feed it, those who ignore it and so tacitly consent to it, people who don’t even understand it’s happening to them, people who don’t understand that they are acting in certain ways. I didn’t want to portray it as two dimensional. That’s a disservice.

CB: How much of the ‘real’ Victoria McNulty is there in “Confessionals”? Do you think its success rests on the audience accepting it as ‘your’ story, rather than ‘a story’ that you are telling? And what impact does that have on you as the performer of the work?

VMcN: To be honest, it’s all me. And the bits I didn’t experience have happened to my friends or family. And that’s really bloody sad. And yeah, I think the audience know that while they are watching it performed because it’s happened to them, their friends and their family too. And yeah, I do think it’s why it’s been received so well. But it also makes it quite a draining experience as a performer. I don’t plan to be performing “Confessionals” long term, cause I don’t want to revisit the content indefinitely.

CB: The ‘hard man’ archetype casts a long shadow over Scottish writing – from Johnnie Stark in “No Mean City” to Begbie in “Trainspotting” – and, in most cases, there’s a battered wife or partner in the background, trying to cope with the abuse that’s meted out to her. You’ve said that you, “wanted to write about domestic violence from a working class woman’s perspective as I feel that’s sometimes a conversation that is lacking”. Did you see this as a re-balancing, an attempt to bring the battered woman out of the shadows of these popular stories and give her a voice and a place in the foreground?

VMcN: I think one of the things that makes Begbie, for example, such a loved character, is because he’s real to Scottish culture. But he’s also multi-faceted. He’s an abusive fuck, who loves his son but either doesn’t know how to show it, or was systematically abused by his own Daddy. And, yeah, male characters are often done that justice. I started writing “Confessionals” around about the time of Loki’s Gaslight project and although that was a brave and powerful piece of work, it was another piece of work about how men feel as abusers. I wanted to portray the effects this abuse has on their partner and why women accept this or believe it to be ok. Because so many choose to leave when it’s already too late.

CB: For me, the most unsettling scenes in “Confessionals” come at the conclusion of Part 3, with the Barmaids own confessions and a series of abusive vignettes which end with the character’s repeated admission that, “I liked it”. How important was it for you, that there should be this element of (for want of a better word) complicity in the overall narrative?

VMcN: See, I’m glad you’ve asked that, because you’re not the first person to have seen that as an admission of complicity. And that wasn’t ever my intention. We live in a society where we are conditioned to believe that rough sex is good sex, aggression is passion, possession is true intensity. It’s all over our popular culture – from Blade Runner, to The NoteBook, to Friends. So yeah, maybe the first time these things occur, a women might like it, because it’s how she’s been told that true love is shown. Later in that section, the character goes on to say, “I was not born a victim”, because we don’t develop abused/abuser roles from birth. We create them, as a society, by continually perpetuating the myth that this is true. So, I suppose the complicity lies with society as a whole, not just the individual. 

Victoria McNulty - Image 3

CB: “Confessionals” is very vividly and firmly fixed in terms of its location – but I was wondering how fixed it was in time. You’ve written for Common Space about the “pantomime” of gentrification in Glasgow’s East End, with twelve pound fish suppers being sold in the centre of the Barras Market Would you say that “Confessionals” describes the area in the present or the past? Where do you think these characters will be in, say, ten or twenty years time?

VMcN: Well, actually, when I started writing “Confessionals”, it was firmly set in the present but the Gallowgate has changed so much so quickly you’d think it was 20 odd years ago. One of the pubs I had in mind when writing it is now a Bourbon and BBQ bar. The change is so rapid. I don’t know where characters like that will be in 20 years time but the men in it would be dead statistically speaking! But, in all seriousness, that kind of working class pub culture is dying in the city centre. I’m not sure I see it existing there at all soon, but the characters will still exist, in schemes or front rooms, or bookies in outlying areas. Maybe areas like Parkhead or the Garngad will stay for a while, before rapid development claims them too.

CB: You’ve said that there will be more “Confessionals” shows to follow – but have you given any thought to what you want to do next? And how do you find the energy to create new work, when you’ve committed so much of yourself to writing and producing this piece?

VMcN: Next, I really want to make it through the Fringe and to Electric Fields with Neu Reekie!, then I want to walk my dog lots, go on adventures with my kid and hang out with my partner. A new piece will come when it comes cause – yeah, after “Confessionals”, I’m zapped. All work and no play makes for shit poetry at my end, so I’ll take it easy and see where that takes me for a while. After “Confessionals”, I want to put the same time and care into whatever is next.

CB: Thank you, for taking the time to engage so honestly and enthusiastically. – it’s been a real pleasure putting these pieces on “Confessionals” together.

 

Confessionals by Victoria McNulty

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As Jim Monaghan said in this post, it’s not easy to quickly put a response to Victoria McNulty’s spoken-word theatre show “Confessionals” into words. I’ve tried once already – and this is me, trying again. The first go was too ‘review’y’. “Confessionals” doesn’t want a review (Spoiler: It’s good, “so fucking good in so many ways”), it demands a response. It needs you to go away and think about what you’ve seen and work out how you feel about it. So, this is what I think – or, maybe, this is what “Confessionals” has made me think about.

I liked “Confessionals” but it didn’t leave me at peace afterwards. So, I want to get to the bones of what it is that I liked about it. Saying, I ‘enjoyed’ it wouldn’t be quite right. In its fifty-odd minutes, “Confessionals” cycles through abuse (“Smashed. Against the coffee table glass”), guilt and self-recrimination (“the first time he begged me to come back/My face puffed purple/A tear in his eye/I felt he was the most passionate man alive.”), before finally arriving at a place of redemption and peace. There’s the odd moment of budgerigar/crisp related levity but, for the most part, “Confessionals” isn’t an easy ride.

In an interview with GUM – Victoria’s said that, when she came to write “Confessionals”, she –  “wanted to write about domestic violence from a working class woman’s perspective as I feel that’s sometimes a conversation that is lacking when the subject is broached“. Thinking about this made me realise that – for me – what “Confessionals” really is, is a war story – or, at least, a poem about the victims of war. In the words of Leonard Cohen – 

There is a war between the rich and poor,
A war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
And the ones who say there isn’t. 

“Confessionals” opens with a recording of  Bernadette Devlin speaking to journalists in 1972 – after she slapped Reginald Maudling, the Conservative Home Secretary – and goes on to reference the IRA’s bombing of Bristol in 1974 and the 2004 Madrid train bombings – all of which serves (as this excellent review, in the Herald, has already said) to make the point that one of the outcomes of state violence is to normalise violence in other contexts – particularly, in this instance, in the the inter-personal context of the relationships between women and their partners.

The four parts of “Confessionals” make up a series of despatches from the front-line of several intersectional conflicts – the war between the rich and poor, the war between the addict and the substance of their addiction, and the war between the man and the woman.

In January this year, I saw Victoria work an extract from Wilfrid Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” into another one of her poems – so I hope I’m not horribly overstepping the mark by suggesting that “Confessionals” and the likes of Owen’s war poetry share some similar drives.

Firstly, there’s a shared desire for honesty at all costs. Owen’s poetry adhered perfectly to Voltaire’s adage – “to the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth” – and “Confessionals” treats the victims of abuse with the same respect.  Secondly, both “Confessionals” and Owens’ work recognise that there are no winners in conflict, only victims. But – in keeping with the need for honesty – there’s no easy victimhood either.

In Part 3 (“Confessions”), the narrator rakes over the embers of past assault, ending each reminiscence with the words, “I liked it”. This message of complicity and of guilt runs through the whole piece – you have to be guilty, to have something to confess – but, guilty of what? Of wanting love? There are no easy answers.

Once the narrator has made her ‘confession’ – she’s spurred into decisive action and  – finally – it feels like peace has broken out. The last lines, “She finally/Feels like home”, show a rapprochement between the narrator and the city of Glasgow and give the audience a sense that – while no-one’s walking off, hand in hand, into the sunset and a bright future – a victory has been won. And that’s important.

But the reality in Scotland is that reported instances of domestic abuse have stayed horribly consistent at around 58-60,000 cases per year. That’s a town the size of Cumbernauld populated solely by victims of abuse. Every year. The truth is that “Confessionals” isn’t one woman’s story but many women’s – and that’s something we’re all complicit in, to some extent.

The poem holds a mirror up to its audience and asks them, “Is this the way you see yourselves?” I think we all want the answer to that question to be, “No” – but I also think we all know it’s not as simple as that. And it’s that complexity –  that refusal to be satisfied with anything less than the whole messy, contradictory, complicated, unhealthy, bloody truth – that, I think,  makes “Confessionals” “so fucking good in so many ways”.

 

 

 

 

This post is just to, briefly, introduce Ciaran Murphy to this blog. Ciaran is an artist and illustrator from Edinburgh, whom I’ve been collaborating with to produce this rather lovely illustrated version of my poem ‘The Machine’. You can see the full, four panel illustration as a single image and then the 3 main panels below.

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The Machine – Complete (4 panels)
Panel 1 COLOUR
The Machine – Panel 1
Panel 2 COLOUR
The Machine – Panel 2
Panel 3 COLOUR
The Machine – Panel 3

Writing the city: A proposal for an alternative writing retreat

I came across the slogan, “La beaute est dans la rue” (used on an iconic poster, produced by the Atelier Populaire during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris) in Richard Vinen’s book, “The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies“.  This chimed with an ongoing  preoccupation of mine which is that poetry ‘belongs’ as much, if not more to the city and the urban (and suburban) environment as it does to the countryside.

In my mind, I changed the quote to, “La poésie est dans la rue” – or, “Poetry is in the street” – which seems, to me, to be a excellent slogan for the kind of poetry I want to write (and read, and listen to). I was then only slightly mortified to find that a longer version of the same slogan, “La poésie est dans la rue en couleur pleine de vie” has been adopted by the band The 1975. (For example, it’s referenced at the end of the video for their song, “Chocolate”.) I don’t care. It’s a good line and it captures what I want to say very well.

Then, on Thursday of this week, I was in The Pleasance Cabaret Bar in Edinburgh, at an annual one day conference on creative writing and publishing (#TheCWBusiness), organised by Edinburgh University Writer-in-Residence, Claire Askew. It was a great day, you should definitely go next year if you have an interest in poetry in Scotland. One of the questions, to the fiction panel, was about writing courses (There was a specific reference to Arvon though, obviously, other providers and other courses are available). I confess, my hackles rose, a tad. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Before that, I should just say, that the majority of the panelists (who comprised an agent, a publisher, an event organiser, a bookseller and an author) made the point that – so far as they were concerned, they didn’t care one whit if the author had attended x writing course or had y qualification – all that mattered was the quality of their writing. And I believe they were being entirely  honest, in every case. The one exception was the author, who re-counted a story about a missed opportunity to follow up on an important contact after attending an Arvon course. The story had a happy ending – in that, ten years later, the contact didn’t follow up on is now her agent.

Full disclosure first – I have taken part in a variety of paid-for writing courses/tutorials/work-shops etc. But these have, mostly, been run by people I know, have been locally based and have been aimed at the local writing community. What I haven’t done (yet) is pay to take part in a residential course run by a national provider like Arvon. And there are reasons for that – which lead me to the point of this post, which is that I think there is a need for an urban-based writer’s retreat as a counter-offer to the inducement to spend a week in the (undoubtedly beautiful – assuming it’s not pouring with rain) countryside.

My beef with rural writing retreats is that – by their very nature – they emplace the idea of the ‘poetic’ as being inextricably linked with nature and ‘the natural’, which I think is a problem in the pursuit of a twenty-first century poetics. My view, for what it’s worth, is that poetry needs to site itself in the city as often (if not more often) as the countryside in order that it might better reflect the entirety of the lived experience of its audience. Scotland’s ‘non-rural’ population outnumbers its rural population by roughly 4 to 1. Surely, it follows, therefore, that siting a poetry retreat in an urban centre would be appropriate and would add value. Amongst other things, it would enable poets from marginalised communities to meet, learn and develop their practice in an environment that reflects (rather than erases) their lived experience.

On ‘poetics’ – my observation (based, I confess, mostly on anecdotal rather than hard evidence) is that rurally-sited retreats and courses encourage the mind-set that the ‘poetic’ (by which I mean the linguistic and imagistic currency of the poem) is found most readily in natural places. I disagree. I think this risks placing a barrier between poetry and a wider audience. In my view, the ‘poetic’ can be found as often and as easily on the street, in a bar or in a supermarket as it can by the side of a tranquil river or in Yeats’ “bee-loud glade“. You just need what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the right kind of eyes” (and ears).

This isn’t something I’m going to have time to go into, in detail, here – other than to make a couple of further observations. The first is that the recent stooshie over Rebecca Watt’s article in the PN Review might also be seen (particularly when looked at in the context of Watts’ own published work) as a battle between a (well-established and deeply-felt) school of thought which centres a rural ideal of the poetic and the work of three very different young, female poets (Hollie McNish, Rupi Kaur and Kate Tempest) – who all, I would argue, in their different ways, come at poetry from an urban perspective. The London Magazine’s review of Watts’ collection, “The Met Office Advises Caution” describes it as, “reinvent[ing] nature poetry for the 21st Century” – which is a laudable ambition but still one that locates poetry in a landscape which most people don’t inhabit.

My second observation (again, mostly anecdotal) – which follows, to an extent, from the first one – is about the kind of poetry most often taught on a rural retreat. I’d suggest that rural writing retreats pre-suppose (if not entirely, then certainly to an extent) that the poetry written on such retreats will be (for want of a better term) ‘page’ poetry – that is poetry which is intended to be read rather than performed. This creates a disconnect between such retreats and the ever-growing community of performance-poetry and spoken word artists in Scotland (and their audience) which thrives best in urban settings, where the poets and their audience can find each other and interact more easily.

So, what to do instead? Well, the title of this post is “A proposal for an alternative writing retreat” and that’s what I set out to produce, when I sat down at my lap-top this morning. So, without further ado, I think that – as well as (not – I should emphasise –  ‘instead of’) the more ‘traditional’ rural writing retreats – organisations (by which I mean any group or body with an interest in supporting poetry in Scotland) should fund and poets (who are, after all, the punters who (mostly, if not entirely) pay for these courses) should demand the provision of writing retreats which:-

  • are accessibly located in urban centres;
  • are based on the tenet that poetry is of the urban environment and should respond to the urban environment;
  • make use of the urban environment to support poets in their learning and development;
  • accept all forms of poetic practice (written, performative, visual etc.) as part of their core ‘syllabus’; and
  • foster links with the community of poets within the urban area in which they are located, in order to help both the wider community and the individuals taking part in each retreat to develop and grow.

In practice, I would see such a retreat being held over a period of around 5 days. Teaching would be carried out in an accessible venue in an urban centre. Students would be accommodated either in the venue or, if this isn’t manageable, as close near-by as possible, in order to foster a sense of community and to encourage brain-storming and collaboration both during and outside of ‘teaching hours’. The retreat would have access to a venue or performance space so that work produced on the retreat can be performed at the end – as a, kind-of, ‘end-of-term’ show. Teachers on the retreat would be drawn from a range of poetic and related-disciplines and would be able to offer an equality of teaching, criticism and support regardless of students’ background, community, experience, language and their chosen form or medium of poetic expression.

All of which begs the question – “Why a retreat and why not just a course or series of workshops like those offered by any number of providers in most cities?” My answer to that is that there are things that a retreat offers which you can’t get from something like a one-off, or even a series, of work-shops or classes or a weekly-writing group. The first is the deep immersion which only comes from spending a period of days talking, learning and thinking about poetry at the expense (literally) of all else.

The second is the opportunity that an urban-located retreat can offer, to connect students to the city in new and (hopefully) exciting and interesting ways. This could take the form of identifying and helping them to access resources in their local environment of which they may  not have been previously aware – library collections, local journals and magazines, and spoken-word open-mic nights, for example. It could also take the form of exercises to encourage students to connect the poetic with their lived-experience and their environment in new and different ways – for example, walking tours, treasure hunts and exercises carried out in public-spaces.

Finally, I think it would be helpful to the furtherance of a twenty-first century Scottish poetics which fully (rather than partially) reflects the lived-experience of the majority of the people of Scotland, if we were do something more to normalise the idea of poetry as being part of the urban fabric and take back the idea that to be ‘poetic’, you have to go off into the country-side and ‘find’ something that is not immediately and excitingly present on the streets and in the public and private spaces of our cities.

The end-goal is a much more-deeply embedded collective understanding that poetry born of cities and poetry located in rural-settings both seek, in Ms  Watts’ words “to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable” – and that the fact that they may do so in different ways, using different tools and different means, for different audiences – does not mean that either is any the greater or any the lesser for the way in which it seeks to achieve this goal.

[Author’s note: this article is my opinion based on two-years (so far) of immersion in the poetry and spoken-word community in central-Scotland (mostly, but by no means exclusively, in Glasgow.) It should not be taken as a disparagement of any of the excellent rural-writing retreats and opportunities offered around the country – it simply proposes an alternative as a complement, not a replacement. Nor should it be taken as a negation of any urban-located retreats that are currently being offered. If there are such, this article welcomes them. It doesn’t refer to them because I haven’t encountered them (yet) – but this may just be ignorance on my part and shouldn’t be taken as criticism.]

 

Rappers vs Poets

First thing, a little bit of housekeeping – I’ve changed the theme and updated the header image for this blog. The new image is a photo by a gentleman called Graeme Macintosh, of the Botanic Gardens railway station in Kelvinside, Glasgow. I’ve been trying to add a photo credit to the image but haven’t managed it yet – I think I’ll have to add it as text to the image itself. In the meantime – you can find Graeme’s post on the Lost Glasgow Group page on Facebook here. And more on the Botanic Gardens station here and here.

Next, a bit of a whinge.  I’m currently corresponding, in a fairly half-hearted way, with a promoter who’s running a ‘Rappers vs Poets’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’d asked if he had any slots for poets left. He asked for videos of me performing. I sent him links to a couple of videos that I’ve posted on this blog. He responded with, “If you are still interested can you scribble a one-minute thing on one of our themes: poets v MCs; tories v lefties; scotland v england and post a quick phone vid of it. Big ask in little time, but… if you’re up for it…

Big ask – not so much because of the timescales – but because I don’t really understand what the fu*k it is that he’s asking for. How do you write a piece on ‘Rappers vs Poets’? I don’t see how this is a subject for a poem. Ditto ‘tories vs lefties’ and ‘scotland vs england’. I get that there are poems that may appeal more to people of a labour-voting persuasion and poems that might appeal to people who are more inclined to vote Tory – though, I struggle to think of many examples of the latter, unless you want to go back to Kipling, or Tennyson etc. Are there ‘Tory poets’ on the scene? I’ve never come across any – although, all the poets/spoken word artists I know are based in Scotland, so maybe that’s not surprising. Anyway, I sent him a desktop video of a poem with a loose, ‘austerity’ theme, to see what he made of it. He hasn’t been back in touch since.

On a more positive, Edinburgh fringe related topic – you should watch this year’s BBC Social Rappers vs Poets face-off, which you can find on their Facebook page here.  It’s fantastic. All of the poets involved – Iona Lee, Leyla Josephine, Jenny Lindsay, Colin McGuire and Calum Rodger were uniformly excellent. It’s an amazing showcase for the spoken word scene in Scotland and I found it genuinely inspiring.

What I particularly liked was the range of styles – from Iona Lee’s melancholy, magic-realist storytelling – Leyla’s direct self-examination – Jenny’s uniphonic (if that’s the right word) tour-de-force – a poem wrapped around the single vowel sound – ‘I’, that cleverly ends by calling-back to the idea of ‘I’ as well as the sound – Colin’s political barricade storming and Calum’s pre-historical romance, a genesis myth for the idea of love. Geniuses, one and all.

I have to say, if I’d been judging the rounds, the final score would have been a lot less equivocal. Although I like hip-hop as much as the next middle-aged, middle-class, cis-gender, white male – I think the poets on display here were streets ahead of their rapping rivals. Some of it may just have been their experience as performers – but most of it, I think, was down to them having a braver, wider and more imaginative creative vision. Anyway, enough sychophancy. ‘Twas good. Give it a watch.