The Stowed Out Festival

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.

Poetry residency at Selkirk F.C.

My wife asked me the other day how often I think about football.

“Oh, about once every ten minutes,” I said.

It didn’t strike me as an excessive amount of time, but Sara could not get over it. Every ten minutes! Naturally the science is inexact, but if anything, every ten minutes is an underestimate. I don’t see myself at all as being obsessive, but to have been brought up in a certain place at a certain time (a west of Scotland council estate in the Eighties) is to have been raised in a church of questionable faiths, the primary of which is football. You can shake off your inherited religion, divest yourself of the prejudice of peers; but you can no more start at the front page of a newspaper than you can levitate from off the ground.

And, of course, I write a lot about football. I would go so far as to say that anything I write in which football does not figure feels to me like weird, fantastical sci-fi. So I’m absolutely thrilled to have been appointed poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC for the coming season.

Selkirk are a fantastic, forward-thinking club with huge ambitions and a very real commitment to doing things the right way. Not coincidentally, they’re also a great team to watch, and I’m hugely excited to be working with them.

What that will actually entail is something I’ll be discovering as I go along. Right now, the plan is to write some poems and so forth for the match programmes (I’ve already written a couple, published in today’s Scotsman) but bearing in mind what a unique opportunity this is to write about something I really love writing about, I’m sure I’ll have ideas aplenty.

In the meantime, if you’re local to the area and you haven’t been down to Yarrow Park yet, do stop by. You won’t regret it.

The Stowed Out Poetry Slam.

I’ve been bitten by that dog many times before. No sooner have you proudly announced that X is the first event of its kind to happen in the Borders than you are swamped by an angry deluge of letters to the editor informing you in no uncertain terms that the first X was held in Morebattle in 1972. Nevertheless, I’m going to put my neck on the line and assert that the Stowed Out Poetry Slam in Gala yesterday was the first poetry slam ever to be held in the Borders. Which, when you think about the popularity of performance poetry (even in the Borders) is amazing, and something for all involved with the slam to be incredibly proud about.

Trying out something new down here is always a nerve-wracking proposition, because you never have any idea at all whether it’s going to take. It’s about fifty-fifty whether the place will be jammed to the rafters or nobody will show up at all, and there’s no reliable indication whatsoever which one of those things will occur. So it takes a certain amount of faith as a performer, too, to turn out for these events. Eight was the number of entrants we were hoping for, and eight was exactly what we got, though we could never have banked on the variety and quality we actually ended up with.

meslam

What’s particularly interesting about poetry slams is how different they are from any other kind of spoken word performance. A little experience goes a long way, and it was obvious to me that the standard of the performances actually improved as the slam went on, as poets grew in confidence within the slam setting and the supportive environment. The variety of poets resulted in performances which really played off each other, showed participants actively influencing and being influenced by each other’s styles. It was amazing to see.

The major downside, of course, is that there have to be winners, particularly when the field is as close as it was yesterday. There were only a few points in it from top to bottom, but we wound up with three hugely deserving winners.

In third place was David Hendry, a Hawick-based poet and novelist. David’s performances were controlled and nuanced, perfectly pitched to the miraculously rich imagery of his poetry. Poetry slams are not usually associated with quietness, but when David read his poems against the remarkable stained-glass backdrop of the Mac Arts Centre, you could have heard a pin drop.

In second place was Stuart Jones, a performance poet from Selkirk well known to those in the creative communities of the Borders and beyond. Poetry slams really reward the combination of strong poetry with entertaining performance, and Stuart was able to get this balance absolutely right. He demonstrated huge commitment and confidence throughout the three rounds, and was an extremely worthy runner-up.

But our winner on the day was Calum Bannerman, who blew the audience away with his smart, edgy, and ultimately touching reflections on life and love. Calum’s incredible performances were evidence that a huge amount of work has gone into not just his poetry but his own individual style, which formed a perfect, emotionally-honest conduit between the content of his work and the listeners in the audience. A fantastic champion for our first ever slam.

My co-conspirators (Sara Clark and Bridget Khursheed) and I are also particularly delighted that all three of our winners have agreed to perform again at the Stowed Out Festival itself on August 29th. Our spoken word headline acts will include the fantastic Harry Giles, Rab Wilson and Colin Will. Don’t miss it!