So it’s the day of the first ever spoken word stage at the Stowed Out Festival, the first ever event of this sort that I’ve organised, and I’m looking out the window that morning at the bucketing rain and I’m thinking to myself Is this good? Is this bad?
Because I have no idea what to expect, or what omens to hope for. In disaster movies, there’s at least a few ominous warning shots – a straining girder, a meter’s pointer edging towards red – but what are the key indicators that a poetry event is about to go all Towering Inferno? Silence, and space, and strangers, perhaps, as Larkin wrote – but when we get to the festival and the first face we see is Rab Wilson’s (“Just writin a wee poem,” he says, arising from a bench) we know there’s only so badly things can go. One by one, our poets arrive hours ahead of schedule – Colin Will and his wife Jane, with an assortment of dark luggage which, over the course of the afternoon, will miraculously unfold into a tenor sax set – and within half an hour there is the quorum of a festival, eight, nine, ten performers flattening out folded bits of paper and pacing around from tent to tent.
The organisers are up first – Bridget Khursheed gets things going with a flawless “no paper” performance, and by the time I get up we’ve already been joined by the first members of a continual thoroughfare of audience. Sara Clark finishes off the first set with some superb readings from her book “How to Destroy”, and although the rain beats briefly against the plastic squares of windows in the tent, everything seems to be turning out quite bright.
Anita John and Dorothy Alexander are next, with some brilliant pieces inspired by their work on various collaborative projects, chiefly “Scott’s Treasures” and “The Written Image”. Then it’s Pat Miller and David Holmes, two of the competitors in the Stowed Out Poetry Slam. We originally only had room on the timetable for the slam’s top three, but the standard was so high that we were delighted when the vagaries of music festival organisation opened up another slot, and we were able to fit in another couple of our slammers. Both Pat and David give performances at the festival even more impressive than they had at the slam, and as more and more people turn up to the festival the audience numbers continue to swell.
After the break, it’s the first of our three headliners, Rab Wilson. Rab starts off with a few works from his upcoming book “Zero Hours”, which bids fair to be his best collection yet, if these poems are anything to go by. Rab is just such a superb performer, really accomplished at taking audiences with him wherever he goes, and the emotional journey his readings take the listener upon make it seem impossible that only twenty-five minutes have passed when he finishes with a couple of ribald reflections on MacDiarmid and the status of the Scots language.
Colin Will, who has probably single-handedly boosted our audience numbers by 33% just by the presence of his sax, performs next. His sequence of sea poems, separated by some improvisational sax, are both haunting and beautiful. Colin tells us it’s something he hasn’t tried before, and it’s to be hoped that he adds it to his permanent repertoire, if only for the benefit of everyone who wasn’t there. It’s certainly the most powerful combination of poetry and music that I’ve encountered in a long time.
By now the tent is filling rapidly, and the biggest crowd of the festival is in attendance for the performances by our slam winners. Stuart Jones gives maybe the best performances of his career, and has passers-by stopping by in their droves to witness his lively and hilarious set. David Hendry’s quiet and reflective imagery brings a hush to the assembled and appreciative crowd, before Calum Bannerman unveils a new work of real imagination and intimacy, a superb way to bring the curtain down on this year’s spoken word stage. There is still more to come, of course, but it will be on the main stage, where Harry Giles, fresh from Fringe success, gives the kind of performance which makes it a privilege for anyone else to have shared a bill with him.
Poetry, performance poetry – they’re tough rackets, especially here in the Borders, where the support networks, if they exist at all, aren’t always apparent. Workshops and writing groups and the like are fine, but unless they’re very carefully managed they can still result in people being left out. We’re really chuffed at the way the Stowed Out Festival gave so many people a chance to be involved – over the course of the festival we had thirteen people perform, ranging from old hands to veritable first-timers. We had folk who’ve only performed once or twice in their life before alongside people who make a living out of it. And we had the start of an event which can surely only go on to be bigger and better as the years go by.