Part one of this interview is here
How did you break into the Spoken Word scene?
I think the Spoken Word scene generally has ebbs and flows like any art form or expression of popular culture. That is one of the reasons why we at I am Loud Productions are aiming to cement a top level which can maintain itself regardless of the ebbs and flows.
I think that I came in initially when there was an upward trajectory, and Edinburgh is a very international city, and the Spoken Word scene was populated with young people, particularly young international students.
Where did the events take place?
A lot of the well-known poets now, just like me, got their start in the University open mics. I would go along to a night called Soapbox which was the University of Edinburgh open mic and that was run by students.
There was a Literature Slams that would get good crowds. There was another event, Neu! Reekie! which did, and still does, amazing things for poets.
There was a scene but you wanted to bring about changes?
What we were looking at doing was to create a specific event for Spoken Word Poetry. That is important to name the genre accurately because at that time the definition of spoken word was very broad, so at the Edinburgh Fringe for example you might go along to “An evening with John Bercow” and that would be considered spoken word. Some stand up shows would also fit under the spoken word banner.
That also meant that there would be Cabaret style nights where Spoken Word Poets would be included along with musicians, or drag acts, or singer songwriters and it felt like poetry was the awkward cousin that you had to bring along to the event.
What happens then?
We wanted to create a specific space for Spoken Word Poetry and at one point when the scene was at its height there were lots of gigs for people to be part of. But then there came a dilemma. What do you once you have performed at the 6 or 7 gigs which are available to you?
You can set up your own night which more than likely only poets will come along to and that will be hard to sustain. You might try to diversify and do other things or you can try to go down south (England) where it can be quite difficult because there isn’t much of an interface with Scottish poets and the English scene.
There is another problem in that very few people are aware that you really need to pay attention to the marketing side of the equation. We have to understand that only very few numbers of people are searching out spoken word poetry shows.
If you are looking for them you might find them and once you do a small world opens up to you but in the general scheme of things the audience outside of the scene is very small. It has to be built and it has to be made aware of your existence and at some point to encourage people that this genre is worth paying attention to.
Building an audience beyond the poets was your starting point?
Yes, that is a vital part of our approach, but we need the poets to up their game as well. I can give you an example of a situation which happens quite often. A Spoken Word Poet will approach our organisation for a gig. I will ask for a video of them performing. They won’t have a video so they suggest to us that they will send us a transcript of one of their poems. But we are a performance orientated night and we need to see them perform in order to make an informed judgement.
There is also another thing to consider. The difference in ability in terms of writing and performance skills might be marginal so the person who has produced a high quality video will be the person who gets picked for a performance.
You need to pay attention to the development of your craft and then it has to be presented in a way which makes it accessible to an audience. You really are trying to get people to pay attention to what you do in a world where there is an unlimited amount of cultural material to pay attention to. Why should anyone pay attention to what it is that you do?
Does the development of I am Loud Productions emerge from that situation?
A lot of people start off quite young and with the best of intentions and they want to maintain things at a certain level. They would prefer that the work they do is a hobby, it is fun and they don’t subject themselves to any of the pressures which come when you shift gears towards professionalization.
We had a situation where we had developed a very large team and there were people who would put a lot of time and effort in and eventually those people came to the fore. Because if you do get some traction with a wider audience you have to be able to capitalise on that if you want to move forward.
And of course people will drop off and there will be a rotation of new people coming in and people who have been around for a while leaving, and that creates certain difficulties with the running of your operation.
There will be a point where you are confronted with a situation where you stay where you are or you make significant changes, and a group of us, myself and the filmmaker Perry Johnson amongst others, decided to set up a company.
The company allowed you to move forward?
We decided to become a professional entity and we had to then make sure that we took that development seriously. It is the case that forming a company changes the environment around you substantially. It affects how you can access funding, how you deal with other companies, you are also responsible for ensuring the finances are handled responsibly. Myself and Mark Gallie are the owners of the company, and there is Perry Jonsson who I mentioned earlier; Katie Ailes and Bex Sherwood complete the team.
We do spend a lot of time beyond the organisational aspects of running the company, thinking about what we need to do to develop the scene. I still think open mics are incredibly important, I still think that avenues have to be open to everyone who wants to express themselves poetically, sometimes as a means of catharsis, the need to get something out of your system once a month.
But for those who want to look at Spoken Word Poetry as potentially something you make a living doing, then we need to work diligently to make that happen.
Once you form a company does that impact the writing and performing side of what you do?
I do often say that we have to ask ourselves sometimes whether we are writers and performers or are we administrators. I don’t come from a business background and I have never been particularly business savvy but you have to learn and you have to learn quickly. I did get a lot of help at the beginning. There is a woman called Sandy Thomson, the Director of Poor Boy (A Dundee Theatre company). and she walked me through a lot of the steps you have to take to set up properly.
It must have been a steep learning curve?
There is a level of trial and error.
The first thing I did when I went self-employed was that I spent three months writing a funding application and it was declined, the funders said no. I was turned down for the next three applications, and that would stop most people. I lost a lot of money but I learned how to write a funding application and my perseverance paid off.
It took us quite a few years to get our first successful funding application and because we had worked as a company, because we had, albeit almost on an amateur basis, worked seriously, when that funding came in, we knew what to do. We were able to move into action immediately.
If you act like a professional company, if you orientate yourselves in a serious and professional manner, then you will be treated that way by other people. There are some benchmarks though; poets have to stop doing gigs for free, and if you can’t afford to pay people if you are a promoter, or an organiser of an event, then really that event probably shouldn’t happen.
We have always tried to ensure that we worked in good venues, with a backstage area, and good sound, and the audience was there to see the show. And even if that meant that a sold out show just broke even, and even if initially we lost money, we were inching towards a situation where we were able to make sure that people are paid, where we have created that situation that we wanted to be in.
Part three of this interview is here