Shift/ – A Best of Spoken Word: A seven-course tasting menu full of brain food

Bram E Gieben explains why he’s teamed up with six other leading performance poets

IN CASE you’ve missed the buzz about Scotland’s rapidly exploding performance poetry movement, here is a handy, quick intro to an exciting new project arising from it. SHIFT/ is a new collective founded in Edinburgh by myself and Rachel McCrum. We saw the need to carve out a new space for Scotland-based spoken word at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Rachel is one of the poets behind acclaimed live lit soiree Rally & Broad. I am this year’s Scottish Slam Champion, just back from representing Scotland in the Coupe du Monde in Paris – a kind of World Cup for performance poets.

Joining us are Edwin Morgan Award shortlisted Harry Giles, and Ali Maloney, his co-promoter at experimental performance jamboree Anatomy. There’s Rachel Amey, a poet with a background in theatre and performance, and Sam Small, founder of irreverent literary zine and monthly cabaret The High Flight. Completing the ensemble is one of the Scottish scene’s hardest-working poets, Jenny Lindsay, co-founder of Rally & Broad.

While it’s easier than it used to be to convince people along to spoken word shows, thanks to the popularity of acts like Luke Wright, Hollie McNish and others, we all agree with Lindsay, who says: “Performed poetry is actually a distinct form, worthy of more accolade. It’s not quite theatre. It’s perhaps not quite always poetry. It’s not quite storytelling. And it is all of those, at once.” Performed poetry shows are far from a loose collection of disconnected verse.

As a collective, we were all committed to presenting shows that make people think, make people question, and, as McCrum has said, challenge the idea that “poems are meant to lie in grace”. All seven shows tackle big ideas, difficult to capture in just three minutes – the typical length of the slam poem.

Jenny Lindsay’s Ire & Salt is “part-memoir, part-fiction”, telling the story of Lindsay’s close involvement with 2014’s Yes campaign, and exploring in parallel the character of Julia from George Orwell’s 1984. Her show asks difficult questions about the successes and failures of the Yes movement, while offering an essentially uplifting account of “keeping the heid in a world where disempowerment is stitched into us from the age we’re old enough to hold a fork”.

Several of the shows deal with the idea of change; some in more mythic terms. Ali Maloney’s Hydronomicon is “an update of the flood myth”. He is interested in “whether or not we’d deserve to be wiped out in a flood”. From themes to presentation, it will be “deeply, physical, theatrical and visceral… worlds apart from the cliché of trembling voices reading heartfelt therapy from scribbled pages”.

Harry Giles might be more traditionally literary in his bent, but his show’s thematic concerns are utterly modern: “It’s about the life and anxieties of a military drone,” he says; that “most emblematic technology of contemporary life… We submit ourselves to the panoptic gaze of social media and CCTV; we are all very anxious!” His response was to write “about what it might feel like to be a drone,” because, he says, “I think I already am one”.

Rachel Amey’s show Peacock Blue is dramatic, and politically resonant: “I am fascinated by history. What we bring with us and how we shake off the past when it no longer serves us,” she says.
For Amey, spoken word performance is a way of “making sense of the world”, drawing on her experience of theatrical performance and dramatic monologues. “I am interested in playing around with silence, with using the body as metaphor,” she says.

Sam Small’s show, Love & Other Drugs explores love poetry through the lens of various narcotic triggers, while also delivering a hectic, rapid-fire hour of wit and verse.

My own show, Ex Nihilo, meanwhile will combine cyberpunk storytelling, live electronic music and high-energy performance poetry driven by big philosophical concepts. It is an exploration of nihilism, and an attempt to escape from nihilistic thinking.

While we unanimously champion the health and vibrance of the Scottish spoken word scene, myself and my fellow SHIFT/ers share a desire to move beyond the genre’s comfort zones. Maloney expresses a wish for “more experimentation, more viscera” in spoken word. Giles would like “to hear more accents, see more identities represented”. Amey agrees, enthusing about “multi voice poetry” and opening up the scene to deaf and disabled artists.

“The scene in Scotland is inclusive,” says Giles, but “we’ve a long way to go: you can still find regular all-straight-white-male bills, and that’s boring. Diversity equals excitement.”
That’s certainly true of the SHIFT/ collective – our seven shows offer a diverse, dynamic menu of food for the brain.

Spoken word is in the ascendant – SHIFT/ wants to tread confidently where other artistic disciplines tiptoe, offering a refreshing and direct way to engage with big ideas.

SHIFT/ – A Best of Spoken Word, Summerhall, until 28 August, 9:30pm / listings. There is a different solo show every night, with Rachel Amey, Bram E Gieben, Harry Giles, Jenny Lindsay, Ali Maloney, Rachel McCrum and Sam Small each performing once a week.

Main image: Chris Scott

Published in The Scotsman on 10 August 2015

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