Tuesday, 1 September 2009

November 2008 - Postcards from the Song, Edinburgh

The first poetry event I organised took place in Edinburgh in November 2008. Below is the report/review I posted on my other blog once I got home. I post it here in an archive stylee.

So...I've been warbling on about it for a while now...there was a night out in Edinburgh on Friday...some poems, some music...now it's over...so how did it go? Did we bomb? Did anyone come? Did we end on a song?

Well...it was fantastic! You can see photos over at Colin Will's - although it seems he got my photo mixed up with one of a tired-looking sweaty woman who I don't quite recognise. You will also be able to see some video snippets of Hugh and I quite soon...when my beloved Mark has done all his other chores...he's a busy lad, lots to do...plus he has to recover from the stressful experience that is travelling with me ('neurotic' really doesn't cover my behaviour when I get on busy public transport...where's that damned chauffeur-driven limo when you need it?).

So, the night. First off the venue (Forest Café) was great. The staff are friendly, the room is a good size and very relaxed (none of that sitting in rows business that makes me twitch uncontrollably...). The sound system was good (thanks Mark for looking after that all night too!) and there were all kinds of food and drinks available...plus the very welcome sight that is a tap where you can help yourself to free water (so simple but so useful!). OK the toilets did seem to get more and more threatening as the evening went on...but you can't have everything and I've seen much worse (Glastonbury toilets...once seen, never forgotten).

It is a really unusual venue (Hugh McMillan kept saying 'it's like the Beat Hotel'). It's free to hire on the condition that you don't charge admission and people float in and out all night... but in a good way...if they stay (which they did in impressive numbers) you know it's because they are enjoying it, not just because they've paid and they're staying to get their money's worth. Sure some people are there for the free WiFi and the warmth and comfort too (and there are all ages, all fashion schools in evidence...) but some of the talent on offer was so great that Mark (sat at the back with the sound desk and the video camera) said it was interesting to watch people getting drawn in and sitting down to stay, paying their laptops less and less attention and the tales and poems of Hugh McMillan, for example, more and more. I was sat right at the front (to jump up on stage and introduce everyone) but every now and again I would turn round in a set to see how the audience was going and pretty much every time all I could see was a room full (really full!) of engaged faces (attached to bodies obviously). It made the organising work all worth while (it wasn't really that much...I got in touch with people, I did a little planning...). I chose all the people on the bill because I think they are all fabulous so I was glad the audience agreed with me. Poems and music, poems and music...I know I bang on about it all the time but for me they make the perfect combination (when they're both good...). The poetry (and lyrics) stir your brain and the music works on everything else....a night out for the whole body, mind and soul! Hallelujah indeed.

We started off with Andy Spiller. I asked Andy to go first because... someone had to – there was no pecking order or anything! Andy is a great guitarist and one of those quite quiet, unassuming guys who really loves to play and gets lost in music right before your eyes. On his song 'Lotus' in particular (a lovely song!) I watched him just travel miles whilst stood there right in front of me. We were tripping, man, really tripping! I look forward to many more musical poetry nights with Mr Spiller on the bill!

After Andy I did my first set which was mainly poems about music. Obviously I can't tell you how I did really...I think I was a little more on edge than normal on stage (because of the organising side of things perhaps) and at times I think I spoke a little too quickly...but overall I enjoyed it and I think others did too. I tried out my new dancing poem and that went well. That poem ('Are you askin'?') is very much at the performance poetry end of my output I suppose (I write some poems that might get filed under 'performance' and some that might just fit under 'literary' at a push – but overall I wish the terms just didn't exist at all...I much prefer Colin's 'polymorphous'...damn those pigeon holes!). Maybe thinking about stuff like that made me a bit nervous too...when I read to a crowd that knows me (like at the folk club here) they have heard me do all kinds of poems so I don't worry about how I am coming across and I just get on with each poem on its own terms. I suppose with this being my first outing in the capital I did have certain other nonsense of that kind on my mind...I'm good at filling my brain with unnecessary nonsense...too good!

After me came fiddler Kevin O'Donnell (accompanied by Kim Edgar on guitar). I'd never heard Kevin before but had asked him on Kim's recommendation and I'm really glad I did. Kevin was charming and maybe a little nervous but then, when he picked up the bow, he played with a passion and a gentleness that, again, was a delight to witness. The fiddle is one of those dangerous instruments (an unskilled or misguided player can cause a lot of damage to an audience!) but Kevin was skilled and spirited and really quite smashing. The crowd loved it!

Was it at this point that I invited Claire Askew up on stage to give us a bonus poem? I think so. Edinburgh resident Claire had really helped by recommending Forest as a venue so this was a little thank-you. Claire was great to watch too and introduced her dramatic poem and reading with lovely subtle deadpan humour. Thanks again Claire...all the performers were thrilled with the venue and want me to take them back on a regular basis. I'm not sure I will do that...organising from this distance is not ideal! Maybe we'll go somewhere else...

Next on the little crowded stage (beware the drum kit...) was poet Hugh McMillan...all the way from Penpont near Dumfries. In his first set Hugh read from his latest book 'Postcards from the Hedge'...he even stuck the poster from it up on the wall as a visual aid (always the educator!). I was a bit nervous about Hugh never having seen or heard him before...was there a reason he has been called 'Scotland's most overlooked poet' (or some such)....did he have a terrible flatulence problem that no-one had told me about or something? Was he just a giant pain in the arse? Well...it sounds like he drives his wife crazy but as far as we the poetry audience were concerned he was absolutely brilliant. He was interesting, funny, tragic, strangely charming...and the poems spoke for themselves well too (so much variety, such a skillful blend of style and content). The audience loved him, really loved him...I watched people warm to him with every new witty line, with every clever observation, with every beautiful little detail. It was quite a masterclass. Why he's not headlining at StAnza every year I really don't know. Or at least every other year.

After Hugh came Charlie Williamson – all the way from Montrose like me. Hugh and Charlie have things in common, now I think about it. They are both family men (3 kids each I think) and they both work 'regular' day jobs (or jobs anyway). Plus they are both funny, thoughtful...good blokes. They both like a drink too! Charlie's secret though, is that he has a voice to die for. He can just stand and sing and fill a room with the most amazing soundwaves...no accompaniment (well, apart from the beer...), no frills, just fine, heartfelt singing. I love listening to Charlie sing...truly the human voice doing what it does best...and he did a great set on Friday. On a related note Mark and I stuck the radio on when we got back into the car in Montrose. It was on R4 (Mark likes news) and it was an excerpt from that week's Women's Hour talking about the range of the human voice and how many of us don't get near using our full power for a whole range of reasons. I thought of Charlie and his room-filling range...some people manage it, some people really sing!

After a short break I read a few more poems – this time about everything but music. I read about city living and being rubbish at office work and war and relationships and dinosaurs and the end of the human race. As you do. I probably enjoyed this set more...the night was going so well...maybe I was even relaxing! Maybe I spoke a little slower...

Next came Pauline Hynd (formerly Pauline Meikleham...she's trying out a new stage name!). I've seen Pauline several times at the night she runs herself in Dundee (Out of the Woods). As she's usually running the show she is usually on early and no doubt her thoughts are somewhat on other things so it was great to watch her let loose (as it were) to just do her own thing. And what a thing! Pauline was on fire! Again this is a performer with an amazing voice -she can sing in any style you like and sometimes several different styles in the same song – and her songs are funny, clever, really original and kind of groovy. I think she is something really special – a real entertainer, a beautiful singer. Watch out for that new name because that Pauline Hynd, she's tremendous!

After Pauline, Hugh did his second set (reading from his other books – he has several). He stepped effortlessly back into his wandering stride and the audience just lapped it all up...so many good moments and poems, such a great way to spend an evening, people were literally hanging on his every word by the end. There were many highlights but I liked 'Marked' in this set best of all (it's a poem about marking exam papers, taken from the book 'Strange Bamboo'). I'd loved it in the book but read aloud it was close to perfection. If I'd been a Strictly Come Dancing judge..I might just have held up my '10' card. Full marks indeed.

The last performer of the night was Edinburgh singer and musician Kim Edgar. I first saw Kim performing with the magnificent Karine Polwart in Dundee earlier this year and slightly later on I bought her CD 'Butterflies and Broken Glass' and little by little I fell in love with her voice and her lyrics and her whole musical project, if you like. She has the gentlest voice you can imagine (but still a steely power in there somewhere) plus she is a great pianist and guitarist and a gifted writer too. On Friday she started off with two numbers that were poems of mine that she had turned into songs ('Significant other deceased' and '25 year tears') and as you can imagine this was really quite exciting for me! I had not heard the tunes before and it really was quite earthshattering to hear them in that place, surrounded by friends old and new, sung by that voice, turned into quite such beautiful entities. They are both lovely but 'Significant other deceased' (perhaps because she sang it first) nearly knocked me off my chair. It is a sad poem (simple but sad) and she turned it into something...almost celestial. I didn't cry (oddly...I cry so much and so easily!) but my goodness, I won't forget that experience for a long time. Kim also sang her own beautiful song 'Heavy Skies' and one she co-wrote with Karine P. Go and hunt down Kim's CD, honestly, you won't regret it.

So that was it...the end of the night...everyone tired but very happy. The guy at the venue said what a great night it had been, the atmosphere, the crowd, everything...and that was good to hear too. I felt kind of proud of all the performers and of course was tired too but couldn't sleep (once I'm hyper..I'm hyper for life!). We stayed over and didn't get back up north till Saturday night and then there was normal life to resume and all that. For now...I wish you'd all been there! And Hope...the vids are on their way, I promise!

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