Poetically Performing Spoken Theatre, with Jenny Lindsay – 2 December 2020

There was a good turn-out for this extremely lively, entertaining and (exercise-wise) challenging talk by Jenny Lindsay. As one of Scotland’s best known spoken words performers and winner this year of a prestigious John Byrne award for critical thinking (the only award she has ever won, she told us modestly), she had plenty to impart.

After growing up in Maybole where she hated school, she moved to Edinburgh with the intention of being a performer, mostly a singer/songwriter. When, during a spell in Glasgow, her flat was broken into and her electric piano stolen, she was forced to start performing her lyrics, and this was a cloud with a silver lining because it was her forte, and the beginning of a very successful career.

She is now back in Ayrshire, having moved literally the week before Lockdown. She was afraid she might be left worrying about loss of work opportunities, but the closing of theatres proved another cloud with a silver lining allowing her to concentrate on preparing her third full collection of poetry and write the novel which has been 25 years in the pipeline.

Her novel is inspired by the time she spent working as a homelessness warden for the Council in Edinburgh, and the first poem she read out, called The send-off’, cleverly explores the true character of her pessimistic colleague, the apparent ‘grumpy git’ in whose office drawer she finds a poignant letter appreciating his help.

At the start of her career, the funding scene was more helpful in England than in Scotland and Jenny lived for a while in Leicester where she was involved with Apples and Snakes, an organisation focused on performance poetry. Her passion for this art form even overrode her love of secondary school teaching. When the two callings clashed, she chose the one which offered less security, although she continued to work with teenage girls, especially school refusers.

Much of her work was co-hosting live events at which music created the initial attraction and then performance poetry, ‘the ultimate cure for the verse-phobic’, received exposure, although its main boost came from the growth of social media. This was because connections could be established all over the world.

Where do the divisions lie between Performance Poetry, Spoken Word, Monologue, Theatre and even Stand-Up? This was a conundrum which Jenny returned to more than once. One thing she was able to tell us categorically is that Performance Poetry, which often has a strong element of memoir, must be performed by its author. Spoken Word is sometimes applied to the reading aloud of more literary poetry. Her unease with this morphing of meaning caused her to become more focused on Theatre from 2016 onwards.

Meantime she had attracted press attention with Rally and Broad, in which she partnered with Rachel McCrum, and then, when Rachel emigrated, she founded her own Flint and Pitch Productions and in 2015 put on her first full-length solo show Ire and Salt which includes a re-imagination of a conversation with the character of Julia in George Orwell’s novel 1984, a character who will be the subject of her first play.

Now, in the second half of her talk, Jenny read us her poem The truth, an affectionate list of the things she misses about her ex. This led into our first exercise in which we were invited to recount what we miss in Lockdown. But we had to adhere to the strict rules of her workshops:-

  1. Consider you’re writing in your sleep so it doesn’t matter if it’s a bucket of mince
  2. Don’t stop writing even for a second

She also timed us for 7 minutes which she considers the ideal for an exercise.

We had some eloquent and poignant responses read out, with a recurring theme of regret for the lack of physical touch.

Dazzled by booking poets of the stature of Don Paterson for her live events, Jenny suffered a severe case of writer’s block. She overcame it through an introduction to univocal poetry i.e. poetry which limits itself to use of one vowel, and this in turn inspired This script, the name of both book and stage show. It is a journey through feminism and in part a response to the Me Too movement. She read us the title poem.

Our second and most difficult exercise was to create a univocal poem. Despite a time window of only 4 minutes 30 seconds, some of the club members came up with astonishing results. ‘A’ was the vowel favoured, although ‘E’ and ‘I’ also figured – not ‘U’ which tends to suggest less-than-presentable words!

The talk rounded off with viewing a film poem associated with This script called The imagined we, which was written a week before the launch of the #MeToo campaign and won Jenny her critical thinking award. In vibrant, rhythmic lyrics set to music by the rock band A New International, it lampoons the strong-yet-vulnerable woman stereotype of popular culture.

The evening drew to a close with the observation that performance poetry is a particularly viable form of drama in times of social distancing and economic hardship. Maybe the wrong reasons for its popularity but still effective!

Damaris West

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