Food for Forte
If you want your poetry nights to have the hushed and genteel air of a village library, you better give Loud Poets a wide berth.
From Byron to Duffy, Ginsberg to Zephaniah, some of the most discordant and disobedient figures in our cultural history have been poets – but, regardless of the klout held by the poetic form, even the most zealous enthusiast may have to suppress a shudder at those oppressive words, “Poetry Reading”. Those less versed in the modern poetry night can be faced with a code of etiquette as structured as a Petrarchan sonnet. Should you sit quietly when someone rhymes against reason? At what point in a 28 stanza ode to lost love is it polite to slip to the bar? Is applause the only permitted response to works – good, bad or ugly?
If you want your poetry nights to have the hushed and genteel air of a village library, you better give Loud Poets a wide berth. Based in Edinburgh, and spreading its raucous breed of poetry across the UK faster than you can say “Robert Burns”, this dynamic collective of spoken word artists is working to create new contexts for appreciating poetry. The collective’s founding members Miko Berry and Doug Garry, alongside newer additions to the team Kevin McLean and Agnes Török, host monthly poetry nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh, capitalising on the energy of their five star Edinburgh Fringe show in order to reach “audiences that don’t yet know they like poetry”.
Loud by name, and louder by nature, the Loud Poets strive to create environments that permit a healthy degree of reaction from their audience, turning up their own volume to encourage their guests to do the same. Naturally, then, the team swiftly came to the conclusion that live music needed to be part of their Edinburgh show and, at the 2014 Fringe, started collaborating with a local musical outfit called Baluga, who, according to Loud Poets, made “a huge difference to the show”. Owing to the strength of this festival collaboration, the musicians were invited to continue working alongside the poets beyond the Fringe as part of the Loud Poets Band. And the partnership makes sense. Such is the proficiency of Baluga’s improvisation, that as well as highlighting emotive tempo of each poem, the accompaniment marries well with the thrust of the entire night. And it clearly helps that the musicians have similar goals to the spoken word artists. “By collaborating with as wide a variety of artists as possible we hope to help a wider range of creative people reach the audience they deserve”, explains violinist and band director Fiona Liddell, who has also worked with game designers and short film directors, theatre companies and animators. “The Loud Poets felt that the improvised music added a new and exciting element to the show, and we’ve been performing with them at most of their shows ever since.”
Although the poets may seem perfectly polite, this is a forum that relies on a certain degree of misbehaviour. “With only live poetry, people sometimes find it hard to know how to respond ‘loudly’”, articulates Török. “Is it ok to cheer, to clap, to scream?” The poets have found that this discomfort and uncertainty can obstruct an audience’s ability to enjoy a night. Music, in this case, provides that essential license to let loose: “With live music to accompany the poems at our shows, people instinctively knew they were allowed to dance in their seats, to cheer after a good line, to respond physically and vocally [. . .and] feel more involved. Music really helped make our poetry ‘loud’.” As someone who attended the collective’s one year anniversary show in Edinburgh, I can testify to the goal of spontaneity which, in Loud Poet’s words, “makes for better, more deeply felt, live events”. Liddell supports this view of collaboration breeding richer involvements with storytelling: “Music can manipulate emotions instinctively, whereas poetry does it intellectually. Having music really helps people connect with the poetry on a more emotional level.”
Despite being familiar with working in multimedia projects, with a website boasting numerous projects in theatre, film and theatre, Baluga weren’t completely free from anxiety when they started accompanying poets. Liddell remembers the band’s initial measured approach to the collaboration. “Due to the unpredictable nature of performance poetry, we thought that having music might hinder the poets rather than help them”, Liddell explains, with a modest sincerity. Though, as rehearsals for the Fringe were underway, Baluga’s members became more confident on their ability to enhance a particular piece, and their heightened awareness of each poem’s tone and narrative journey has lead them to develop a generous style that sensitively translates poetic rhythm to musical tempo. The folksy and heavily percussive improvisations are strong yet egoless, prioritising the message of the words. And so, like a good actor will enhance a strong playscript, Baluga offers a form of enhancement for how a poet’s words are received. Liddell expresses the importance of having empathy with performers, who may never have performed with musicians and highlights the importance of having “a mutual respect for each others’ creative expertise”. This supportive and open-minded environment has provided a nourishing context that breathes an electric vitality into the form.
Watching all the energetic harmony that surrounds this collaboration, it’s easy to jump on the Edinburgh press bandwagon, and champion the Loud Poets as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘frantic’, with ‘the ability to convert the biggest cynics’. The artists themselves, however, bring a little more tempered humility to their success. When I ask the poets what they make of their much-hyped position, Török and her colleagues caution me against missing the bigger picture: “The Scottish spoken word scene is developing a whole host of different styles – and diversity is a huge strength to the scene. Loud Poets forms part of that, and represents one ‘loud’ performance style.” The Loud Poets’ approach doesn’t aspire to offer a challenge to traditional formats for poetry reading, and the poets remind me that “When Scottish poetry gets a new fan, we all benefit”. Ever the collaborators, the poets aim to work alongside the existing scene to broaden the ways in which poetry can be appreciated, shaking up the rule-book in order to get more people tuned in to spoken word and more voices heard.
This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Bare Fiction Magazine (November 2015).
UPDATE 7th December 2015: Since the article was written for Bare Fiction, Miko Berry and Agnes Török are no longer working with Loud Poets. Catherine Wilson and Katie Ailes have joined Loud Poets as organisers alongside Kevin Mclean and Doug Garry.
For more details on the Loud Poets & Beluga Music, visit their websites and check out the Loud Poets YouTube Channel.