All posts by thomasjclark

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!

Neu! Reekie – Anywhere But The Cities.

For a town so small and so comparatively remote, we get a lot of good stuff coming our way in Hawick. Whenever a big arts organisation decides to get their show on the road, it’s always a decent shout that the Grey Auld Toon will feature somewhere on their list of community centres and village halls. Only thing is, though these barnstorming tours are great and all, the product as you experience it is rarely comparable to the sort of thing you’d expect in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Everything is shortened and stripped down, the performers are reserves, and though you’re not exactly disappointed you do come away with the feeling that what you’ve just participated in was Diet Culture rather than the real thing.

So, naturally, you do what grown-ups do and you moderate your expectations. When you see that Neu! Reekie are coming to Hawick on the second last date of a countrywide tour, you go along more out of gratitude than actual hope. It probably won’t be that riveting, but it’s just nice to have some visitors.

Because the other thing is that, even if the event turns out to be quite good, it won’t be anything new. Chances are it’ll be some little greatest hits revue, a few crowd pleasing standards. Nothing you’ll be in danger of remembering the next day.

Well, it’s the next day but three, and my recollections of Neu! Reekie are still extremely clear. I remember Michael Pedersen’s poetry, those intricate little boxes of surprise, and the spoken word of Hollie McNish, whose performances are so powerful that they seem to derive from some, like, totally original art form, as yet undiscovered by mortal men. I remember the stupendously grouchy Kevin Williamson, growling about ‘No’ voters (in the Borders, of all places), the hilarious films of Ainslie Henderson and Will Anderson. And then there was the amazing Stanley Odd, a Scottish hip-hop group previously (and inexplicably) unknown to me, and who were so good that their presence on a stage in Hawick three metres away seemed like some unaccountable glitch in a video game, Lionel Messi in an Accies shirt.

We get a lot of good stuff coming to Hawick, but we rarely get anything which runs the risk of failing. By the time it gets to us, most stuff has been gone over so many times that it could run equally well without an audience, and sometimes does. On Friday night Neu! Reekie respected its audience enough to give us an event rather than just a performance. Spread the word.

Writing in Scots.

I’ve had a couple of things see the grim light of day since I last posted. “Auld Hughie’s Losin It” – a rip-roaring tale of bauchles and bowling clubs – is up on McStorytellers, whilst I have a couple of poems and a wee interview on writing in Scots over at Poetandgeek.com.

It’s a fraught business, writing in a minority tongue – though Scots, of course, is a minority tongue only on paper, which is what makes it an interesting exception. The argument against, say, Gaelic in the mainstream can always be reduced to market forces and economic factors – not enough readers/writers, ergo not enough money. Not so with Scots, which has millions of de facto speakers, and enough mutual intelligibility with English to be broadly understandable even outwith our borders. Trainspotting, duh.

So it’s easy, as a Scots writer, to ascribe rejection to political motives. It might even be true, sometimes. But by and large the problem is simply that Scots has been so effectively pigeonholed that many people find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to persist in using it, except as a device for telling stories about Glaswegian lowlifes, and the occasional folksy tale about one’s childhood.

That point of view is wrong about Scots, but it is in many ways right about people’s perceptions of Scots. If you can speak English perfectly well, why bother writing limiting your audience by writing in Scots? And it’s understandable, really. Writing in Scots can seem to other folk like playing the kazoo. You might be world class at it, but it’s a kazoo, for crying out loud. Why not play something proper?

I don’t have all the answers, of course – there are loads of them – but here’s one just to be getting on with. I was reading some of my poetry in Scots at “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” at the Mac Arts Centre the other day. It’s a great event with some superb poets, well worth going to. People are usually very receptive to Scots poetry, though there will always be one who says “I really enjoyed it, though I couldn’t quite understand it…” So that’s what I was expecting when a lady came up to speak to me afterwards. But she didn’t say that. Instead, with a certain thrill in her voice, she said:

“I didn’t realise before that I was bilingual!”

Most of us, in this country, are. And most of us are delighted to find it out, when finally we do. What better gift can you hope to give anyone than a whole other language, especially when it’s their own?

Writing and Politics.

Seems like as good a day as any to write about politics. Well, about writing and politics anyway.

In the Scottish Borders, political engagement is rife amongst the artistic community. The vast majority of those in the creative industries down here, particularly writers and musicians, are politically active one way or another, with those on the left outnumbering those on the right something like four or five to one. I won’t attempt to guess why that is – let’s just assume my explanation involves a long, self-aggrandizing list of the shared virtues of the creative community and the political left – but it’s an important and encouraging fact that the resurgence of engagement by Scottish voters is also paralleled amongst our artists.

I’m not saying that art itself should be politically motivated. But I do think it should at least be politically aware. Orwell famously wrote about the impossibility of remaining an “artist” in a fascist state, of somehow rising above the murky political landscape, of keeping your mind clean in a dirty world. There are plenty of reasons why that’s not practical, but there are just as many reasons why it’s not desirable.

Politics isn’t about elections and parties and constituency boundaries and legal precedent. Politics is simply the science of how we are to live together. That’s one of the most basic values we as human beings have to think about. It’s so core to having a coherent worldview, so vital to our sense of who we are (collectively and individually) and where we’re going, that without it there’s no basis to anything we do. I guess what I mean is that anyone who is “not bothered” about how human beings agree to treat each other really has no business writing. They don’t have anything to say.

Everybody has got their little internal checklist of what it means to be a “proper” writer. Snobbish and exclusive things, sometimes, like having an agent, or a proper income. Me, I think being serious about reading and serious about writing are all that’s needed. You definitely don’t need to be serious about politics to write something good. That’s only for if you want to write something important.

Alchemy.

On Sunday I was over at Old Gala House for the launch of Julian Colton’s latest poetry collection, “Cold Light of Morning”. It was a good venue for a well-attended event. I’ve never had a book launch of my own, primarily because of my grim certainty that nobody would show up and I’d be left standing in a draughty hall with a pile of books on a table by my side, declaiming to no-one as the open bottles of own-brand Coke go slowly flat. But Julian’s launch was a brisk and memorable affair, and it was real privilege to be asked to read a couple of poems from his collection; his best yet, and one of the strongest to emerge from the Borders in quite some time.

Also last weekend was the Alchemy Film Festival. Hawick RFC were playing in a cup final up at Murrayfield on Saturday, so Hawick would have been a ghost town but for the constant stream of visitors brought in by the festival. You don’t often get the feel of a cosmopolitan city in wee towns like ours, but that was definitely the vibe generated by Alchemy and its attendees. Some excellent films throughout, especially at the last showing, where my own collaboration with Sara Clark, “The Fifth Miracle”, was on show. If you missed it, you can catch it online here: https://youtu.be/jD7_84LGfts

Lastly, next meeting of the Teviotdale Writers’ Group is this Thursday 23rd April at the Border Club in Hawick. New members always welcome!

Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon

I’m not one for jazz, but I had a great time at “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” at the Mac Arts Centre in Galashiels on Sunday (duh). Great to have something like this happening on our own doorstep, and very well supported too. After many years of Borderers having to traipse up to Edinburgh for their fix of live arts maybe the shoe is finally on the other foot, and when the Borders Railway opens in September, the direction of the prevailing traffic might be towards, rather than away from, the Borders. Anyway, the jazz afternoons are the last Sunday of every month – thoroughly recommended if you’re in the neighbourhood.

I, along with some other superb poets, gave a reading at the jazz afternoon – video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sRCB4jtiSk

Oh, and I also have some new poems online at Octavius – you can check them out here: http://www.octaviusmagazine.com/writing/thomas-clark

P.S. I also have three poems in the excellent new Lampeter Review, which you can find at http://lampeter-review.com/issue-11/, as well as a video of the second half of my “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” reading, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n59sAmA6g0U