If you have never heard a poem about mental health, then I’m willing to bet you have never attended a spoken word event.
When Lloyd Robinson, a performance poet who refers to himself as a functional depressive, wrote one, he compared his depression to the faulty wiring in his bathroom. ‘I feel like a lot of metaphor … in prose and poetry is … geared to something beautiful, whereas the reality … is often quite stark.’
He was keen not to dismiss prettier imagery, though. ‘I think it’s important to have a wide variety of voices. Depression…is not experienced by everyone in exactly the same way.’
In terms of poor mental health being a necessary attribute for a poet, Robinson agreed, to a point. In a slam setting, he explained, ‘the winning slam poem needs to be something…very, very personal…about identity politics or mental health.’
Jenny Lindsay is a poet, promoter and part of the team running Flint & Pitch, which hosts special events on the theme of Reclaim This Script as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. She said ‘I’ve heard spoken word pieces where I have felt concerned that the performer isn’t ready to share what they are sharing, or is doing so in a way that isn’t “safe” for them.’
Katie Ailes, a researcher of contemporary spoken word poetry, and part of the Loud Poets collective, had a specific warning. ‘If we’re perceiving this as a space for mentally ill people to share narratives of trauma rather than as an artistic space in which artists perform their work, we’re fundamentally misconstruing this art form.’
Ailes had good news about the deeply troubling idea of don’t take your meds and you’ll write better poetry. ‘I don’t know anyone who would encourage others to think like that … This scene … does not glamorise ill mental health to that extent.’ Robinson has experience of the reverse, receiving comments like ‘Lloyd can’t write anymore because he’s happy’ when he started seeking help for his depression – but that was not in Scotland, and not as part of a spoken word project.
‘The scene is split into two tiers,’ said poet, novelist and multiple slam winner Dr Claire Askew. ‘You have the big nights, with higher expectations, and then smaller nights, often with an open mic element.’ Lindsay also expressed this – ‘there’s a chasm between the grassroots and the professional platforms: how do we address that?’
Askew described ‘a leaching of resources into the top tier, which minimises the opportunities for grassroots spoken word nights.’ When asked to specifically to comment on this, Freddie Alexander, a writer and promotor who helps to run Edinburgh’s Inky Fingers, was less sure: ‘There are several ways you can parse the Scottish spoken word landscape,’ he said. ‘A “high-profile” event may be dependent upon the energies of one or a group of highly dedicated organisers who, on departure, will cause the event and audience to dissipate into the scene.’ Ailes confirmed that ‘the majority of spoken word events in Scotland operate without [any] funding.’
So as a performer, looking to attract the notice of a promoter, or group of promoters, do you have to win slams in order to progress? Here, everyone had a different view.
Ailes admitted that ‘for people with anxiety, slams can be very stressful,’ but ‘the scene doesn’t rely soley on slam success…for success overall.’
Askew felt slam wins were necessary for progression, and reported that promoters often attended slams to assess new talent, rather than open mics at smaller nights.
Lindsay said: ‘It’s one of the most common ways to get into spoken word…But aye…there are issues with them.’
Robinson thought it was ‘slightly harder to attain sustainable success’ without slam wins on your CV.
On the contrary, Alexander did not believe slams were essential to ‘earn your stripes’. ‘Poetry slams aren’t for poets … [the] primary beneficiaries are the audience and promoters.’ He also put the onus back on organisers: ‘We, as promoters, should be developing event structures that are more accessible for poets with mental illnesses.’
But of course there are as many manifestations of mental health as there are sufferers. Robinson (functional depressive, remember?) came 4th in the Scottish Slam Championship. He finds that slams ‘provide a new kind of adrenaline rush … my competitive side comes out … it’s nice to be able to explore that side of me.’
Askew was also troubled that funding bodies often measure success in terms of ‘bums on seats’, which makes it more difficult for smaller events to get a share of the pot.
Lindsay noted concerns about the ‘stubborn lack of …poets actually being paid to perform,’ and issues with ‘burnout, and having to make the choice between focussing on yer own work and promoting other people.’
But Alexander had better news: ‘the range of nights, audiences, and venues is a testament to years of hard work.’
Everyone agreed that within spoken word, in Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, there is opportunity for growth. In which case, there is space for us all on a vibrant, varied, supportive spoken word scene. Right?
By Stella Hervey Birrell
Stella’s first novel, How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? explores mental health recovery and was published by Crooked Cat Books in 2016. Shorter works have appeared in various places including The Guardian, and The Dangerous Woman Project. She blogs at #atinylife140, tweets at @atinylife140, Instagrams as Stella_hb and can be found on Facebook here.