Poetry at the..., one of Edinburgh‘s regular live poetry events, is three years old. I founded the reading series three years ago because, at the time, there were few opportunities for Scottish central belt poets to read their work in the city. The Scottish Poetry Library hosted excellent reading events, but these were often from ‘touring’ poets or groups of already established names. The Shore Poets was the only regular reading series. It was (and still is) an excellent series but, of the three readers in any month, one was always a ‘big name’, and one a Shore Poet member, which left eight or nine opportunities per year for anyone else to read. Nothing much was happening in Glasgow at the time or in the smaller towns and cities, so opportunities to read were sparse, to say the least. For young poets and new poets to the city, it was almost impossible to find places to read to an audience.
Things have changed a great deal since then. Glasgow has the Mirrorball series, Words Per Minute, Vital Synz and others, and Edinburgh has a far livelier poetry scene and with far wider participation than was the case three years ago. I’ve been thinking about whether ‘Poetry at the...’ is still necessary. Audience numbers would suggest otherwise. They are enough to keep the series afloat, but not much more than that. The exceptions have been the ‘themed’ events, in which I’ve asked a group of poets to write original poems on a theme – Valentine’s Day’s selection of love poems based loosely on verses from the Song of Songs was one such occasion, and the Norman MacCaig celebration was another. Both times, the attendance was way up and these have also constituted two of the most memorable poetry events of the year for me.
So my thoughts are those, which are tentative, not cast in stone. Comments very welcome:
1. It’s been suggested (by Stuart Kelly, somewhere on his site, I think, but I can’t remember where) that live poetry events, in which reader follows reader follows reader, ought generally to be given a swift burial.
2. Events like the Golden Hour in Edinburgh combine poetry with fiction, live music, animation, film etc. I like it, but I imagine it takes huge organisation and massively time-consuming networking skills.
3. There are several events more attuned to the ‘performance poetry’ scene. I’ve no problem with that, but I don’t want to go down that route with ‘Poetry at the...’
4. I will, of course, continue with ‘Poetry at the...’ to fulfil existing commitments – I have already booked readers for February, March and April of 2011. It looks like a great programme to me!
5. I could hold two themed events a year in Spring and Autumn, starting from October 2011, each featuring many poets writing to a theme.
6. Maybe I could hold a more conventional reading the month after the themed readings, each featuring three or four poets – a mix of well known names (whether ‘mainstream’ or innovative’) and new, original talent. So just four events each year – quality rather than quantity.
7. The idea of creating an Edinburgh Poetry Festival occurred to me - not on anything like the scale of StAnza etc, but an autumn festival over a single weekend, featuring relatively local poets and poets with debut collections. But would such a venture attract an audience? It would need to, if it were to survive.
8. Any other ideas for structuring unique, affordable, regular poetry-related events are welcome. Where are the gaps? Are there any?
Another problem with Edinburgh at the moment is the shortage of cheap-hire, decent venues. When I visited London the other week, there were loads of venues doing live poetry, and most of their function rooms were either given free or for a token charge. In Edinburgh, most venues are costly to hire. Alternatively, the free venues are either out-of-the-way or staffed by bad-tempered idiots who hire you a room and then do all they can to cause as many difficulties for the readings as possible! I know London is unique, with several poetry events every day of the month, many having substantial audiences. It could be that Edinburgh has already reached saturation point for poetry events, especially during a recession. Admission prices, drinks and raffles, combine to reduce how many events people will want to attend - but without those accessories, the events couldn't happen at all. Perhaps in Edinburgh, and in other cities of similar and smaller population, less might be more. Might fewer events lead to bigger audiences and higher quality for those which remain?