Interview: Rachel McCrum – 'Having the space and time to sit down and write by yourself is important. That's the meat of it.'
First ever BBC Scotland Poet in Residence talks to us about all things versified
Rachel McCrum, AKA one half of Rally & Broad and all-round poetry wonder woman, was announced as the first ever BBC Scotland Poet in Residence this week. Before she goes off to fulfill her noble duties, we caught up with her to discuss her poetry, her work with Rally & Broad and the growing prominence of Scotland's spoken word scene.
Congratulations on being named the first ever BBC Scotland Poet in Residence. What does the role entail?
I'm going to be working with the BBC and the Scottish Poetry Library (it's a partnership project) for three months, from October to December. I'm going to be working with various shows and broadcasters, from the Janice Forsyth Show to Religion and Ethics to BBC Sport to explore the idea of community in Scotland. And writing poems about it! Lots of poems! I'm also doing a series of workshops with the BBC Lab in schools across Scotland: everything from haiku to psycho-geography to sound poetry to film poems to spoken word and performance poetry.
Which aspects of the position are you most looking forward to getting stuck into?
The chance to go out and look at, talk to, get involved with a whole range of different folk, including some that I wouldn't come across in my normal way of things: football, for example...I think I've watched one football match in my whole life, and doing some work with the refugee community. Writing poems about this: I generally do love to write poems, that's kinda why I'm doing all this! And also exploring poetry with these different groups, what, if anything it means to them. Looking at performance too – for example, with groups like DIVE and the queer community in Edinburgh. How does performance support community there?
How did you hear about it, and what motivated you to apply for it in the first place?
Ach, the poetry community in Scotland is close knit and tiny (though growing all the time) – we were all talking about it! Either social media or the pub, I think. In terms of why I applied...the brief – early career poet, big emphasis on performance, on workshops – was really interesting, and for once, seemed to be something that I really could (possibly maybe hopefully) deliver. Or at least have a good stab at. I think the fact that over 70 poets applied – and therefore felt the same way – is a really beautiful sign of the health of poetry in Scotland at the moment.
This appointment feels indicative of how spoken word has been growing in prominence in Scotland recently. Do you think that's the case, and if so, why?
Yes, I really think so! I came to Scotland in 2011 and at that time, there was just one regular Open Mic night in Edinburgh – Inky Fingers, which I then got involved in organising. And now...Neu! Reekie!, Rally & Broad, Inn Deep, St Mungo's Mirrorball, Fail Better, Blind Poetics, Ten Red, Tricolour, Caesura, Poets Against Humanity, Soapbox...the list goes on and on. Not to mention excellent events, from poetry to spoken word and everything in between, being run by the Poetry Library, the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Book Trust, the Storytelling Centre, Aye Write, Literary Dundee, Wigtown. And it seems increasingly that the theatre world is getting interested too. It's brilliant.
As to why. I think that, particularly in Edinburgh (at least that's the bit I've seen growing), there was a community of poets and organisers who spurred each other on, energised one another. Sometimes that was from seeing the gaps: one event would be happening and someone else would think 'well, this is missing from the scene' or 'I really want to build an event around this particular style of poetry' and that's what happens. Which I think is hugely important, as it stops dominance from one particular style, it encourages diversity. And for people coming newly to spoken word, it means there are opportunities for them to find the communities that suit their style of writing, of performing.
One thing that I'm always aware of is how many regular open mic nights are about for poetry. It's so important to have these gateways, these ways for people to get on a stage and learn and fail and succeed and fail again and get better. It's how I got started, it's how most of us got started I think. More Open Mics!
You've made quite an impact on the spoken word scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow as one half of Rally & Broad. Do you prefer working on that along with Jenny Lindsay, or working on solo projects?
Running Rally & Broad with Jenny has been one of the best experiences – is one of the best experiences - of my life. We do pinch ourselves, occasionally, that we actually get to do this for a living. It's been such a joy to see it grow over the past four years, from unfunded and very hectic beginnings to fully funded, two shows (and more) a month; being able to bring amazing acts into Scotland, being able to support the local scene and see people progress with their work and confidence; working with the SPL and Moniack Mhor to devise a masterclass series for 2016; working with the Roundhouse and BBC 1xtra for workshops for 16–25 year olds...it's insane. It's insane and chaotic and absolutely fucking glorious. And sure, sometimes we want to kill each other but we have each others' backs, always. It's amazing.
That said, Rally & Broad is very much us working as promoters/producers, much more so than as poets. I mean, our experience as poets and performers obviously feeds into everything but it's about creating a platform for other folk to showcase their work: we'll do a poem each for the show, but the work is much more about running the shows. So, it's nice to able to go off and actually do something that involves the straight, pure poetry bit! Doing my first solo show 'Do Not Alight Here Again' at Summerhall for the Fringe this August was kinda joyful, much more than I expected. I had space to work on the art for a bit.
I love collaborating with folk, and I find that it pushes my practice in all sorts of ways. I collaborated with Biff Smith and Caroline Evens of A New International earlier in the year (Biff put music behind a couple of my poems), did some translation collaboration with Juana Adcock in Glasgow, and wrote a poem with Ryan Van Winkle that is one of my favourite pieces of last year. But having the space and time – making the space and time – to sit down and write by yourself is equally, if not more, important. That's the meat of it.
What other solo projects do you have coming up in the future?
The BBC residency is going to keep me busy until December, I think! Then from January to June, I'll be the Coastword Poet in Residence out in Dunbar, which I'm really looking forward to – Dunbar is fab, and I'd like to explore some ways of recording the noises and sounds of that landscape, and turning them into poems.
I'll hopefully try and write another show next year, even if not for the Fringe, then as a good discipline, and see where else I can take it.
It's not quite a solo project, but I've been getting increasingly interested in translation and performance, of presenting bilingual performance, and exploring equality and relationship between languages: looking at how spoken word can break down the hierarchy of languages . I've been working with a francophone Montreal based poet, Jonathan Lamy, on this, and we're planning to do some more next year.
Should probably try and write a collection.
And don't you think it's about time that Scotland had a dedicated spoken word festival...?
[watch this space]
Aside from spoken word and poetry events, do you dabble in any other forms of writing?
I don't do much prose anymore. I keep a journal, which I write most mornings: freelance life seems to be mostly fast, irregular and structureless, so it's useful to have a record. But that's private. Occasional bit of article writing or reviews, I have a delightfully intermittent gig reviewing books for Scottish Mountaineering.
And finally, as a newly-named Poet in Residence, do you have a handy yet poetic motto to live and work by?
I have tonnes – the wall in my study is covered with bits of paper as I try to remind myself how to get on in the world. My current favourites?
Be raw to the world. Capsize yourself. Hold your nerves like steel.
And in the words of Kurt Vonnegut – Goddamnit, you've got to be kind.
Catch Rachel McCrum at Rally & Broad Fri 23 Oct at The Bongo Club, Edinburgh, or Sun 25 Oct at Stereo, Glasgow.