Saturday was by a mile my favourite day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival so far. The Babble On programme kicked into gear with a day of poetry and other spoken-word events. Curated by Luke Wright and produced by Becky Fincham, it was a day of passion, humour and innovation.
My first event was Protest!, a look at politically tinged verse, featuring voices from overlapping generations of poets.
Luke Wright opened proceedings, surprising many of us with the fact that the self-styled Fat Dandy had transformed into a rather thin, rakish one. The mission of the event was, he said, to move people’s idea of political poetry on from the image of Rik Mayall’s People’s Poet.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
First up was Phill Jupitus “who was around in the 1980s” as Porky the Poet, who quipped “as Luke says, I was around in the 80s, which is just as well, because as you can tell by my look, I’m not going to make my eighties”.
He outlined his life as a civil servant from 1980-85 that ended with an employment assessment manager, Dave, pointing out: “Phill, you’ve been with us for five years. This job, it’s not really you, is it?” Contrasting today’s always online world to his career then, he pointed out that the only place to get polemics out to the world was fanzines (he proudly clutched a few) and performing before bands at gigs.
He then gave us the very first poem he ever performed on stage, Everyone’s Grown up in The Beano, with a shout-out to Dundee and DC Thomson. There are YouTube clips of this from a few years back, but they’re more stumbling than the assured delivery he gave here. He then moved on to pointing out how successful fanzines had been by asking: “When was the last time you went to a fanzine festival?”*
Elvis McGonagall was next up, running through An Analysis Of The Effects Upon The Arts Of The Collapse Of An Unfettered Free-Market , Risk-Prone, Privatised, Profit-Driven, Greedy-Bastard, Turbo-Capitalist Economic System And The Concomitant Economic Policy Of Deficit Reduction And Neo-Liberal Austerity Measures.
McGonagall is very much in the stand-up, funny mould “shouting in dark rooms at bemused strangers” to improve the world. His work is short, snappy and silly hiding some savage barbs, such as making Plans With Nigel.
A run through the A Bed at the Ritz was followed by a new poem about the Independence vote in the voice of Harry Lauder Stop yer Swithering, Jock, featuring the words “let’s build a flatpack auch-aye-KEA” and “bawbag Old Etonian” to much laughter. He closed with a great piece of satire with a “message from Number 10” delivered in the style of Cameron, beginning with Conservative values degenerating into more nonsense before morphing into a stab at Labour. Lovely.
Jupitus came back to read from a zine, (Tirane Thrash, I think it was) a poem by Vic (?) Campbell called Cor Blimey, Did the Earth Move for you, Too?, which reflected the obsession of several generations in the 1980s, namely the spectre of the four-minute warning, which we all expected at any minute back then (in the days when we thought it was something that actually existed).
Then it got weird. And fascinating. Hannah Silva uses a loop pedal to layer sounds in different ways. The first was a piece about Ed Milliband’s famous four identical replies to different questions. It’s very hard to describe the effect, so it’s probably best if I point you over here where you can hear the poems as part of an interview with Ryan van Winkle.
The next piece, about sex workers in Berlin, was less striking, contrasting sung sections, showing their outward display, with spoken words conveying their inner truth. The next, though, The Riverbank, was a hypnotic performance backed with layered choruses and sounds. I don’t think I was the only one with my jaw hanging open at this point. Astonishing work.
The poems are creative with their political context. Prosthetics, again using the layering and cut-up quotes from a documentary about amputee war veterans, is impressionistic, slowly resolving to one central line that inspired it, then breaking up again. After a more straightforward, new sestina about Mexico City she closed with a piece that mixed politics with semantic satiation, Gadaffi. A very weird experience, and quite captivating.
We were then treated to a couple of samples of Phill’s Ten-Line Fringe poems, created by taking only show titles at the Fringe and compiling them.
Hollie McNish was the final poet, opening with stories about her two grannies from Glasgow. One of them, who is 94, she said, had just got her independence polling card through, so Hollie asked how she was going to vote. The reply? “I don’t give a shit, I want to die.” Very succinct. She bridges the 80s comedy agitprop and more lyrical works, delivered in a rhythmic almost rap style. Bungalows and Biscuit Tins and Big Bricks were dedicated to her grans and had strong personal and sexual sense of politics that are quite affecting, even when broaching the erotic charge of accidental farting. Yes, really.
She continued with Embarrassed, written sitting on a toilet seat, nursing her six-month-old. She’s got a whole channel of these readings by the way, which are well worth browsing.
The title of another poem, about the small dreams of the poor and the importance of duty, that circled around the Dartford Tunnel Toll, seems to have gone missing from my notes, I’m afraid
(EDIT: oops, that’s because my frazzled brain has elided this event and the Luke Wright one later, it was one of his.)
It, however, like all the rest of her work, was beautiful and affecting. It’s been a long time since poetry has moved me so much as this event did. Well done, everyone.
Oh, by the way, I don’t know who is doing the music programming before and after the events this year, but there have been some great selections. This one had Rock the Casbah, Stand Up for Your Rights and Strange Fruit, for example.
Next up is Luke Wright doing his own show and lesser-known poet Paul Hamilton (and his biographer cousin, Kevin Eldon).
*For me it was 1986, Phill, a PBM convention in London with a bunch of nerds discussing roleplaying zines. Yes, they did exist.