Fighting Talk

As US poetry slam contest Literary Death Match makes its Fringe debut, Alice Saville talks to the spoken word artists of Shift/ collective about Edinburgh's own thriving scene

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 3 minutes
29806 large
Published 04 Aug 2015

While the world's heavyweight authors come crashing in to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, hugely popular US poetry slam contest Literary Death Match is rivalling the comedy world's bombast by using words as weapons in its first ever Fringe run. But Scotland's homegrown spoken word scene is determined to fight its corner, too. Leading lights Rachel McCrum and Bram E. Gieben have ganged up with five other poets to create a new showcase in Summerhall's Shift/, wowing the crowds with everything from Ali Maloney's Lovecraftian bouffon rap apocalypse to Sam Small's ketamine love poems. 

These homegrown slam champions are part of a vibrant scene that's often put in the shade during August's heat rash of festivals. Shift/ artist Harry Giles explains that “the Fringe is often something that happens to Scotland, rather than with Scotland. It's incredible – but sometimes it feels like the world has a massive party on our front lawn and doesn't clear up the mess afterwards.” There's also a toxic hangover for independent venues and artists, courtesy of deadly quiet surrounding months. Giles feels that “if artists are to survive here they have to diversify. Shift/ collective's economic model spreads the risk and benefit, which means none of us are bankrupting ourselves.”

Giles exposed his struggles to stay afloat in Everything I Bought and How It Made Me Feel, littering the stage with Scotmid receipts. In 'Drone', the poetry cycle he'll perform at Shift/, he fuses personal and political by imagining himself as depressed office worker and military death machine all rolled into one. Fellow Shift/ artist Jenny Lindsay's 'Ire & Salt' carries a similar theme, playing on the imagery of the Scottish flag's cross to explore last year's independence referendum from all angles, including her own stability as an artist.

Shift/'s performers have honed their skills in a diverse scene that encourages them beyond reading to croon, dance, rap and perform their work. Rachel McCrum's work toys with the gap between page and stage: her performance 'Do Not Alight Here Again' acknowledges spoken word critics by writing that, “Performance is cheating in poetry/ Accidents of cadence confer charmplate weight/ On anecdote.” 

But her poems stand up just as well in pamphlets as they do in the livelier company of Rally & Broad nights, a "cabaret of lyrical delight" that she co-hosts with Lindsay. Rally & Broad make it extra tempting to cheat on the written word with gender-balanced billing, dancing and even raffles.

By comparison, Shift/'s rotating programme is all about the power of a voice to pin an audience and not let it go. As Literary Death Match presses authors into battle, the Shift/ team are collectively pinning down questions of politics and Scottish identity in knockout performances. Who said wrestling isn't a team sport?


Boxout (Harry Giles)

Your show in five words Genre-bashing poetry superhero team-up!

Your top tips for the Fringe Conspicuous artistic consumption sprees are bad for art, bad for artists and bad for audiences. You don't have to see everything. Maybe just see one good thing and then go for a walk? You'll probably enjoy the art more and the art will enjoy you more.

Your most memorable Edinburgh Fringe moment Paper Stages, Forest Fringe, 2012. There were no live events, but instead a book of strange things you could do. There were guided audio walks, performance scores, blank pages: an artistic activity book for grown-up kids. I spent a full day trying to do as much of it as possible and it turned my mind inside out.