The word on the street

Published

As Glasgow’s arts scene gets all poetic, Nafees Mahmud reveals the charm and purpose of the spoken word

I have a dark and dreadful confession to make. I write poetry.” The opening words of Stephen Fry’s guide to writing poetry showcase the stereotypical view many take of this artform. Many perceive poetic musings as being akin to PIN numbers: they are to be kept to oneself, and not uttered to another soul. However, this isn’t necessarily so in Scotland’s friendliest city.

Over the past four years, there has been a welcome upsurge in the number of spoken word events. But why has this been the case?

The 17th century academic Richard Burton bluntly stated “all poets are mad.” Socrates once also suggested that a sane mind will never be able to attain poetic excellence. Does the rise in poetry events suggest a decline in the mental health of this city’s inhabitants? One would certainly hope not. However, one thing is certain — poetry in Glaswegian poetry is in a healthy state.

Back in 2005 a new poetry group, Seeds of Thought, was set up and began hosting events around the city, prior to establishing itself at the Centre for Contemporary Arts on Sauchiehall Street. At the first few evenings, turnout peaked at around thirty people, with attendees comprising mostly family members and friends without an interest in poetry, supporting the ambitious readers and performers.

Founding member Tawona Sithole observed how crowd numbers increased at each subsequent event, as initial attendees who came as support were pleasantly surprised by what they heard at the CCA.

Word spread beyond family and friends, and the crowd numbers started increasing. Seeds of Thought now attracts a crowd of approximately one hundred at each event it hosts. In the same year as Seeds of Thought was launched, St Mungo’s Mirrorball was set up at Glasgow School of Art, and still runs strong today, presenting international poets that range from Somalia’s Garriye to local legends such as Liz Lochhead.

2006 saw the birth of two more events in the West end; Don’t Eat the Microphone, now at Tchai Ovna, and Last Monday at Rio. Robin Cairns, founder of the latter, suggests the growth is down to the do-it-yourself attitude that permeates certain folds of society, as seen prominently, for example, within music.

The scene is not tied down by the bureaucracy of dependence on funding bodies, council initiatives or education committees, but is instead run by enthusiastic groups of people, hustling to create a platform for voices to be heard from. The technical simplicity of presenting spoken word pushes aside the barrier of cost, and has allowed those with passion — but little money — to propagate the art, with established arts becoming a networking ground for poets and promoters. In 2007 for example, Expression was launched at the ICafe, as a result of like-minded people meeting at the events listed above. The emergence of vast talent also means that new events are needed to accommodate all the poets who are willing to set aside their inhibitions, and pick up a microphone in front of their peers.

Many of those reading may have horrible memories of being forced into dissecting boring poems, word for word, at school and wonder why anyone would want to use poetry as a means of expressing themselves. A number of those at the events say it is the immediacy that attracts; it is quicker and cheaper to express yourself through a poem than other forms of writing and art. For many it also feels more natural; an extension of the easily accessed skills, used in everyday writing, combined with the emotions arising out of everyday occurrences.

So what is causing the rise in writers sharing their work publicly? Tom Coles of DEtM points to the creative writing courses at Glasgow and Strathclyde University as an impetus for the increase in confidence of new writers. It is also the inspiration and encouragement that can be gained by hearing others’ work when in attendance at events around the city.

Perhaps some people are determined to reach out to others in an intimate atmosphere, as a way of stepping back from the world of virtual communication which can disconnect us from communicating effectively with those in our locality, despite increasing the ease of interaction on a global scale.

But is Glasgow unique amongst the nation’s cities in the outburst of spoken word enthusiasts? The Edinburgh scene has withered, largely due to key players on the scene moving away, or onto other projects. One of the major happenings was Big Word, a slam-orientated event which ran for ten years, ending last April. Many Edinburgh poets, such as Anita Govan, now travel to participate in the vibrant Glasgow platform. However, Newcastle and Manchester have growing circuits, with the former having recently benefitted from investments into arts projects, spawning a fertile foundation from which new writers can emerge.

Boundary crossing arts nights are also on the rise in Glasgow, with nights such as Monosyllabic and Cryptic Rain combining music, visual art and spoken word. Those there for the other art forms are being won over, increasing their urge to indulge themselves more in similies, metaphors, rhyme and reason.

The danger of all the current activity in Glasgow is the possibility of over-saturation, resulting in a decline of quality and and subsequently quantity, in terms of the number of opportunities to hear and take part in poetry readings; just as the launch of one night led to others following suit in the past, one night closing could have a domino effect on others in the future.

Of course, the potential for a possible downturn in the ease with which amateur poetry can be experienced around Glasgow, if anything, is yet another reason to get involved in the spoken word as soon as possible.