Update: there’s a great discussion going around this post where I linked it on my Facebook artist page – check it out here and please do join in! -K
Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library released its annual list of the Best Scottish Poems of 2015, a selection curated this year by novelist and poet Ken MacLeod. It is a fine list containing a variety of excellent pieces, and my hearty congratulations go out to each poet named there. In no way in what follows do I mean to question the merit of these excellent poems, or MacLeod’s judgment in choosing them. However, upon reading through the selections this year I was disappointed to see that not a single performance-based poem was selected, and reading MacLeod’s essay accompanying his selections it became clear that only text-based, print-published poems were considered in the pool for selection. This frustrated me because I feel that this selection method passes over the rich offerings in performance-based poetry produced over the last year in Scotland, and reflects a blind spot towards one of Scotland’s richest literary traditions. In this post I will address why this is frustrating to me and encourage that the pool might be widened in future years.
A wee disclaimer: I’m writing this with the utmost love for the SPL. It’s my favourite haven in Edinburgh and I think the folks there do wonderful work encouraging and supporting poets and lovers of poetry. I also think the SPL usually works very hard to publicise and support all sorts of poetry across Scotland, so this seems more a rare instance of oversight for them than symptomatic of bad programming (more on all the great work they do later).
As SPL Director Robyn Marsack writes in her introduction to this year’s list, this selection “is in no sense a competition but a personal choice.” MacLeod is responsible for the selection, and it is based on his tastes and should not be considered objective or final (when is judging art, ever?). My issue is not with his selections—they’re fantastic—but with the limited range of the pool from which he was choosing. A selection bearing the title “Best Scottish Poems of 2015” implies a wide ranging pool of poems from which to select: all Scottish poems produced in 2015, assumedly. Marsack claims that the function of the list is to offer “readers in Scotland and abroad a way of sampling the range and achievement of our poets, their languages, forms, concerns”; however, the list’s range was limited by the fact that all of the poems are text-based poems, none of which were primarily published in live or audio format.
MacLeod refers in his Editor’s Introduction to picking up the books and pamphlets from which he made his selection—all of which were new poetry books published in 2015—from a trolley compiled by the SPL librarians. He also cites the SPL’s “oft-restocked shelves and the marvellous archives of poetry magazines from Scotland, and the ever-thickening folder of photocopies of poems published outwith Scotland.” All of these are great places to find poetry—but they’re not the only places.
MacLeod was only drawing from print-based poetry sources: his pool was limited to poems which can fit on a trolley. A trolley cannot hold a a crowded pub full of poets performing work which has never been written down. Neither can it hold a poetry video combining poetry with music and visual art, nor an innovative hour-long solo spoken word Fringe show. Simply speaking, MacLeod’s parameters of only judging work which is based in print automatically eliminated the possibility of his considering the wide range of aural- and/or performance-based poetry which existed in Scotland in 2015. It sure won’t fit on a trolley, but from my perspective that doesn’t mean it should have been omitted from consideration.
To some, this complaint may seem extreme; perhaps some might wonder how many poems actually exist without any print incarnation. The answer is surprisingly many. I know several poets who compose work in their heads and never write it down, and several who believe that performance poetry should only ever exist live or in video recordings, never in a purely textual form. And even if one doesn’t share that philosophy, many pieces are only ever shared onstage or through video, never in print. For example, Doug Garry’s poem “When I Travel, I Don’t Bring Maps” has never been published in print, and only exists in live performance and in a video recording taken from the 2015 Loud Poets Fringe show and posted on YouTube. So it wouldn’t exist in MacLeod’s pool, but I consider it one of the most powerful poems I heard in Scotland in 2015.
This list would be better titled “Best Text-Based Scottish Poems of 2015,” since the text of the work was the selection criteria. (I suppose in a sense it is sub-titled this way: Marsack clarifies that it is a list of “twenty of the best poems by Scottish authors to appear in books, pamphlets and literary magazines during 2015” (emphasis mine)). I wonder: was there any encouragement for MacLeod to go out into the ‘field’ and to listen to live poetry and include what he heard in his selection pool?
I understand, of course, that this might pose a logistical challenge. How is MacLeod to know which poems were composed or first performed in 2015? Because performance poems are ephemeral (communicative events rather than static printed poems) they tend to change over time—there is no single publication date, and thus it becomes difficult to gauge the origin point of a poem. I also appreciate the time and monetary commitment to scouring the nation’s open mics and live poetry nights; one must spend a fair bit of time attending shows throughout the year and travelling to see performances outwith Scotland’s Central Belt in order to gain a comprehensive sense of what constitutes the ‘best’ performance poems in Scotland that year.
However, the difficulty of the endeavour does not mean, I think, that one shouldn’t at least try. The lack of any mention of performance-based work in McLeod’s essay was frustrating; he doesn’t explain or apologise for its omission. One wonders if he would even consider this lack of performance poetry to be an omission.
This is especially a pity since Scotland has such a rich performance tradition running through its literary culture. I learned to perform my work here from some of the best in the business. The live poetry scene has exploded over the last ten years or so, with dozens of regular nights across the country and so much fantastic new work being produced. We play host each year to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival, which both showcase some of the best experimental work in spoken word internationally, and in 2015 included very exciting new work from Scottish collectives SHIFT/ and Loud Poets (bias disclosure: I’m a LP co-organiser). Jackie Kay, our new Makar, is a tremendous performer, lively and full of energy, as was Liz Lochhead before her. So to not see any of this rich performance tradition represented in this list is, I think, a huge omission which reveals an unfortunate disconnect between a hugely popular grassroots movement and Scotland’s cultural institutions.
Communities of performance poets and what they sometimes term ‘the academy’ (roughly, cultural institutions and universities) have always been at odds. The performance poetry community tends to nourish a chip on its shoulder and often relishes the idea that it is condescended to by this elusive ‘academy.’ This can be a major aspect of the branding of contemporary performance poetry movements: this notion they are closer to reality, more authentic and accessible, whereas ‘the academy’ is a bunch of old rich white dudes who ignore them. Much of the time, I think that this complaint is overstated (academia is not just a bunch of old rich white dudes anymore). But sometimes it is rooted in a real sense among performance poets that their work is ignored—perhaps not willfully or intentionally, but still passed over—by figures within the mainstream academic/institutional literary culture. And in this omission from the Best Scottish Poems of 2015 list, I can see some evidence for that mindset. As someone who self-identifies as a performance poet and an academic and someone who volunteers for institutions like the SPL, I hate to see anything which could drive the wedge between these communities any deeper.
This leads to another question: one of categorisation and genre. Perhaps the omission of performance-based poems from this list is due to MacLeod not considering performance-based poems to be in the same category as text-based poems; perhaps he considers them to be apples to text-based poetry’s oranges, so the notion of including both on the same list just didn’t come up. Personally, I believe that the so-called ‘page/stage divide’ is ridiculous and the aurality should be important to all poetry, so the more we try to divide poetry into these categories the more we hurt it; however, it is possible that this notion of a dividing line factored into MacLeod’s decision. Or, of course, I may be totally off the mark with this entire post: MacLeod may have cast his net widely and considered many performance-based pieces, and simply not deemed any worthy of selection. Which, in a personally selected list, would be entirely his right.
I should say again: the selections on his list are excellent, and I hold no animosity towards any poet chosen. And while the selection seems to have been made on the basis of the poems’ texts (rather than on videos or audio recordings of their performances), there are many poets on that list who are excellent performers of their own work, and some who might self-identify as performance poets, whose work when performed live includes physical/oral components which substantially enhance the audience’s interpretation of the work. It is also encouraging to see that several of the poems have been published on the website not only in text form, but accompanied by an audio recording of the poet performing the piece. This reflects a consideration for the aural aspect of the poem which I think is hugely important.
And that’s the thing: the SPL normally does highly value the aural and performative elements of poetry. Although they’re perhaps most well known for being a physical text-based library, they have a wide range of digital resources of poetry recordings and they play host to lots of live and experimental poetry events (including the regular night CAESURA). The installation of a sound room upstairs in the renovated SPL building represents part of that commitment to the aural element of poetry.
The SPL has also expressed a desire to expend its range of resources for performance poetry. Last year they asked fellow performance poet Carly Brown and myself to come on board as volunteers in their new SPL Ambassadors programme, where our role involves reaching out to the performance poetry community about how the SPL can better support them. We’re also improving the SPL’s database for live poetry events in Scotland (if you run a regular live poetry event in Scotland, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with info about it so we can add it to the webpage!). So, the SPL have always struck me as conscious of and receptive to a wide range of poetry happening in Scotland. By responding to the Best Scottish Poems of 2015 selection in this manner I mean not to criticise the SPL as an institution but rather to encourage them to continue their good work in expanding the societal definition of what constitutes a poem.
I would hope that next year, the pool of poems being considered for this list be widened to include more performance-based work. As mentioned earlier, I understand the logistical challenges that this provides: the question of how one can find and judge these ephemeral poems without going out to live poetry events every other night is a valid one. And the question of how to compare performance-based and text-based poems when determining which should be included in the list is pretty thorny. I don’t wish to understate the complexity of these questions; rather, I would hope that this post starts a conversation about how those concerns might be addressed in the interest of a more comprehensive selection process next year.
To wrap up: without targeting the SPL or MacLeod, I would ask that all literary institutions think more broadly and consider the changing landscape of the poetry world today when making up the pools from which to award honours, or determine curricula, etc. Definitions of what a poem is have changed radically over the past century, and they will only continue to evolve. Performance-based poetry is one of those evolutions (or reversions to past oral traditions!) which has stuck and is wielding enormous influence on the larger field of poetry today: to ignore it is to miss out on a great opportunity to showcase some tremendously exciting work.
As always, I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this. Do you agree that this is an omission, or do you feel that the selection criteria were representative and fair? Thanks for reading!
2 thoughts on “Best Scottish Poems of 2015: A Response”
Apologies for another long response. It’s your fault for writing such engaging articles. I’d join in your Facebook debate … but I’m not on Facebook.
Firstly, I’d question a little your initial premise about the list. Some of the poets on it I’ve never heard of. Kathleen Jamie’s work I’ve known for years through her published work. But Jane McKie, Ryan van Winkle and JL Williams I’ve all come across in the spoken word haunts that I go to. And the most egregious exception to your thesis is Harry Giles. Not only is he one of our best spoken word poets, he has also played a big part in creating the spoken word scene you rightly celebrate. Indeed it was Harry who made me feel safe and welcome when I started doing spoken word, even though I am an old rich white dude (not an academic though) and I’ve seen him do the same for countless others. Moreover the poem included here may have been plucked from a printed work, but I’m pretty sure I saw Harry perform it (or an earlier version of it) some years ago.
My second point would be that I think the SPL has a couple of roles, as a repository of poetry and as a promoter of poetry. I don’t think it sets out to be a judge or arbiter of poetry. I’m pretty sure they know that “The best poems ..” is a pretty hokum title, but “Here’s a few quite good poems you might enjoy” doesn’t carry the same punch. Anyone promoting poetry is good, although I have to confess that even as a poet, when I once heard that someone was doing a poetry project at the SPL I spent a couple of happy days under the misapprehension that Scottish football was hiring poets.
My last (honestly) point is that I’m not personally interested in ontological questions about poetry (is that a poem ? is that really a poem ?). They remind me of a Woody Allen joke in Manhattan: “I had an orgasm once, but my doctor told me it was the wrong kind”. I’m interested in poets. Not only are they generally interesting people, but they also do interesting and beautiful things. When I find a poet I really like I’m happy to follow them through whatever medium of expression they choose to adopt.
Thanks for another interesting and clearly expressed post.
Hi Derek – thanks for your response!
I definitely agree that some of these poets have rich performance backgrounds, Harry especially but certainly also Jennifer and Ryan and others. And I do think it’s fantastic that they’re on the list – as I say, each of those poems absolutely deserves to be there. My point was more that none of these pieces were published in any format other than text; the pool was only drawn from text-based work – MacLeod only looked at the text and not the performance when making his decisions. I think Harry’s work especially is so informed by his performance of it; it would have been fantastic to have a video of it published on the SPL website, although it is great that they do have an audio recording. But yes – you’re right that the list does include poets with performance practices, which is great.
And yes – I don’t think the SPL has ever really wanted to be the arbiter of what the ‘best’ Scottish poetry is, and in the post for this year’s selection they did try to distance themselves from that idea. It’s a matter of branding – you’re right that a softer title like “One person’s subjective notion of some of his favourite poems published in print in Scotland in 2015” doesn’t really have the same ring! So I understand why they used the punchiest “Best Scottish Poems” label, even though some, like myself, have found it a bit problematic.
And finally – I again agree that these questions over categorising poetry can be a bit ridiculous. That’s kind of where I’m coming from here. In the discussion over this post on Facebook, it was suggested that perhaps what we need is a separate contest for performance-based poems: that rather than widening the pool for this survey to include performance-based work, we just hold separate surveys. I can see the merits of that approach, but I’d prefer that we just include performance poetry under the umbrella of “Scottish poetry” when we’re trying to survey the body of work to find the ‘best’ work.
Thanks as always for commenting! The response to this post has been so fantastic – really made me evaluate my thinking on the topic in a different way. Hope you’re well! -K