MORE THAN UNREHEARSED DIARISING, SPOKEN WORD IS A CRAFT: An interview with Glastonbury Festival Poet-in-Residence, Katie Ailes

More than unrehearsed, unprepared diarising that’s only valuable for its emotional authenticity, spoken-word is a craft and poets put real effort into imbuing their work with meaning – last month, the Glasgow Review of Books sat down, on a glorious, sunny day in Somerset, to speak with Glastonbury Festival 2023’s official ‘Poet in Residence’, Katie Ailes. We talked about where the spoken-word scene in Scotland finds itself in 2023, the challenges for poets, in making creative work pay, the role of a Poet-in-Residence and much more besides . . .

GRB: So, Katie Ailes, can we start by asking you to introduce yourself to our readers?

Katie Ailes (KA):  Yes, so my name is Katie Ailes. I am an Edinburgh-based poet, primarily a spoken-word poet, but I write for the page as well. I produce live poetry events, I’m a researcher specifically into spoken word poetry and I’m also a dancer.

GRB: And, as well as all that, you’re also an academic . . .

KA: I am Doctor Katie Ailes, yes. My PhD focused on the performance of authenticity through spoken word poetry, which was particularly interesting to explore as a poet myself. That was very much my route into it, noticing certain trends in the scene or facets of spoken word poetry in my own work and in the work of my peers that I thought merited more academic exploration. And, while the field of research in spoken word poetry has really grown in the last 10-15 years, it’s still a new, emerging field. And so I saw a really great opportunity to give some much-deserved attention to this art form, which hasn’t been studied as much as it should be.

GRB: Giving spoken-word some ‘much deserved attention’ is an excellent way of describing it. We’re interested in what critical writing about performance poetry should look like. What ought it to be focusing on? What are the principles that should underpin writing about spoken-word and performance poetry?

KA: The main motivation behind doing the PhD was actually a frustration with the existing critical writing about spoken-word. Firstly, that there was very little of it, and secondly, the reviews that do exist about spoken-word, are generally done by people with backgrounds in reviewing theatre or comedy, or other fields, or poetry for the page – work that is adjacent to spoken word, but there didn’t exist, and I would say still doesn’t exist, a vocabulary for discussing spoken-word poetry and a critical language for that.

The thing that I saw in those reviews that frustrated me was a tendency to make emotional authenticity or performative authenticity the core element for criticism. By which I mean saying, ‘This performer was so real and so raw, and that’s great’. Or, ‘her honesty shone through and it just felt so real’.  Within the scene, we value that reality, that semblance of authenticity and the sense of connection audiences feel and the sense that it isn’t put on, that someone is sharing their own lived experiences. And I understand and value that. But at the same time, I recognize that this is work that has been pre-written, it has been rehearsed, and it is craft.

So, I was just not seeing a recognition of that craft, that real effort has been put into imbuing this work with meaning. Because if spoken-word is just seen as unrehearsed, unprepared diarising that’s only valuable for its emotional authenticity, then we’re not getting into a discussion of the craft. So, a lot of the PhD was about developing a different critical language which prioritises craft.

GRB:  We’re here at the Glastonbury Festival, outside the Poetry and Words Tent and there are a number of Scottish poets appearing here over the next few days. Where do you feel the Scottish spoken-word community is at in terms of its development, at the moment?

KA: Oh man, there’s so much to say on that! So, I first came onto the Scottish scene properly in 2014, and I would say that the period between 2014 to 2016 was a really big boom time in Scottish spoken word. We had a lot of fantastic nights, Loud Poets had just started but we also had Neu Reekie and we had Rally & Broad going and Poetry@Inn Deep and tons of other nights and there was this real sense of excitement.

Then, when the pandemic hit, I think – like all performing arts – we struggled. Because, while, of course, spoken-word is legitimate and great on the page and publication should be an available avenue for those who want to see their work in print – it is a live art form, that embodiment and liveness is core to it. So obviously, with the pandemic, we lost our stages. Thank goodness for digital platforms enabling us to still perform and witness live poetry without in-person gatherings during that time, and still now.

And now, I think there’s the good and the bad. The bad, I would say we’ve had a lot of nights that were doing really important work featuring spoken-word that have wrapped. So, you had Neu Reekie, Sonnet Youth, Flint & Pitch. They were some of the biggest nights across the country and they’ve wrapped up for various reasons. And that is difficult because there are fewer opportunities.

At the same time, one thing that I think is incredibly exciting and heartening is that we’ve seen this incredible crop of new spoken-word poets, many of whom started writing or started refining their craft over the pandemic and are now coming out and who were just not playing a part in the scene before.

So, we’ve had this transformation, where some folks are maybe less active, but there’s so many amazing new poets who are hungry for their opportunities. So yeah, it’s a mixed bag would be the short answer.

GRB: The number of paid opportunities has dropped. The thing about Sonnet Youth, about Flint & Pitch, about Loud Poets, was you were all able to pay people. So, is it that we’re back where we were, pre-2014, where the scene is living off people’s voluntary labour?

KA: In many ways yes, and that worries me. I’m so grateful for all the people who do that free labour in terms of organising open mics and coordinating nights and ensuring that there are platforms for people to perform. But I also recognize, as someone who did that unpaid for years, it’s not sustainable. It shouldn’t only be a labour of love because it is work. If you work at the Scottish Book Trust organising events, that’s a salaried job. If you put on a monthly open mic, you’re getting squat.

There’s also the issue of the sustainability of spoken word as a career, which right now, unfortunately, it is not sustainable in Scotland. So, a main objective, I would say, of Loud Poets, is to try and make it more of a feasible option for poets. I’m uncomfortable saying we have ‘emerged from the pandemic’ because I’m aware we’re still partly there but after lockdown ended, we started a free open mic so that we could be part of platforming that new talent – but we also made sure that our curated season would be funded and that feature performers would be paid.

That’s not easy and I understand why there aren’t more paid opportunities because people have to write those applications for free, in their own time, which is also work. That is why I think a lot of our work right now is about advocacy, looking to other organizations and funders and festivals saying, ‘How about spoken word? You’ve got novelists, you’ve got poets who primarily publish on the page, what about spoken word?’ And trying to increase the number of opportunities out there. We would love for there to be way more spoken word nights here. We don’t want to be the only industry-standard-paid platform in Scotland.  

GRB: A lot of people respond to the challenge of finding paid work by diversifying. In your own introduction, you said – you are a poet, you are a producer, you are a researcher. So many people involved in the scene have these multiple designations. Is part of the challenge being able to find time to make the core stuff, while having to also turn away and give your attention to other things?

KA: If you want to be a spoken-word poet or a performance poet in Scotland, you shouldn’t have to… theatre isn’t your only route, right? It should be valid and valued to just do sets, just do poems of three minutes or whatever length, and not have to go down the theatre route. That said, it is amazing what people have done with theatre. Imogen Stirling, for instance, her latest show, Love the Sinner, is incredible. It’s close to the pinnacle of spoken-word theatre-craft. And it is amazing seeing poets explore other genres and combine performance poetics with theatre and with music and with all these other things. But it shouldn’t be the only option available to us.

GRB: While it can be a struggle to get an audience in front of a spoken word poet, often when you do, their response is, ‘Wow, this stuff is amazing!’

KA: My favourite, favourite reaction from audience members after the show is a person who comes up to us, often but not always it’s a middle-aged man, like a husband, and he goes, ‘Look, my wife dragged me here. I was not excited about it, because poetry . . . but you were really good!’ And it’s the sound of surprise. But I never take it in a bad way because I think the way that we are taught poetry – and this is not to denigrate any of the teachers who I know work incredibly hard to make difficult curricula appealing to students – but so often we are taught poems that have little or nothing to do with our lived experience.

If you’re 15 and you’re reading Wilfred Owen, he’s great, but how much is that going to feel applicable to you and how much will that resonate with you? And so, so many people are put off at school by poetry. But when they encounter poets who are writing about their lived experiences now, who sound like them, who look like them, that can be a real light bulb moment, I think, for a lot of people to recognize that poetry doesn’t have to just be Shakespeare. It doesn’t have to just be Homer, or Ovid, or the older stuff. That stuff’s amazing but so is the new stuff as well.

GRB:  You are this year’s official Poet-in-Residence at the Glastonbury Festival. Can you tell us how that came about and what the role involves?

KA: I was invited to be Poet-in-Residence by Helen Johnson who runs the Poetry and Words stage here at Glastonbury. And it’s just a dream come true. I’m really honoured because so many of the previous poets in residence have been poets who I massively admire, both in terms of enjoying their work, but also how they’ve made careers in this art form. So, folks like Kate Fox, Tony Walsh, Jo Bell, Desree – who was last year’s Poet-in-Residence – Dan Simpson, other brilliant poets. So that’s a big honour to follow in their footsteps.

The role requires me, basically, to be open to the full experience of the festival and then translate that through poetry. I wrote two poems before the festival which were shared on social media and then, throughout the festival, I’ll write some more. As many more as come along. So, I’m kind of live-writing, walking around trying to be a sponge, talking to other people so that the poems aren’t just representative of my own experiences here, but everyone else’s as well.

The line-up on the Poetry and Words stage here at Glastonbury this year is just incredible and, as we’ve said, we’ve got an amazingly strong Scottish contingent. There’s Kevin (Mclean), Mark (Gallie), Iona Lee, Leyla Josephine, and Sarah Grant and David Devereux are doing ‘Spark’, Sarah’s one-woman show. And it’s been great to meet other poets from across the UK because the Scottish scene sometimes can feel pretty cut off from the rest of the country.

GRB: And, of course, TS Eliot Prize-winner, Joelle Taylor is here, amongst others . . .

KA: Yes, Joelle, I don’t know what we should call her on the scene now. Icon, hero, Joelle Taylor. She is incredible. And that’s the amazing thing, actually, about Glastonbury – it’s such a great mix of these incredibly established big names in the poetry scene, like Joelle Taylor, John Hegley, Murray Lachlan Young, and people who have submitted to the open call. You get people who I’ve never heard of before, but they’re going to be incredible. And so, I think it’s really exciting in that it’s not – they could just book all the big acts, but they deliberately don’t. And that is such a fantastic opportunity for emerging talent, or for people who are developing new work.

GRB: So, this is your first time at Glastonbury. And the first poem you wrote, in your role as Poet-in-Residence was called, ‘I’ve Never Been’.

KA: ‘I’ve Never Been’ was the first one, which is me talking about the stories that my friends, who were here last year, told which seemed so far-fetched and wild, and me trying to prepare to come here and getting all the conflicting advice of, ‘Oh, you have to bring a trolley’, and ‘You’ve got to bring this and that’. Also, ‘Don’t worry, so long as you have your phone, you’re going to be amazing. Just get lost and it’ll be great’. And the second poem is called ‘Building’, and it’s about my chronic over-preparing, how I set up my tent in my bedroom, to check that everything fit. But also, about how, as I was doing that, the site was getting built. Because I wanted to give some love to all the incredible workers who make this happen. The fact that this is a working dairy farm before 200,000 people come and live on it for five days is insane.

GRB: And where are these poems published, once they’re written?

KA: They’re all on the Glastonbury website.

GRB: You’ve also produced some things recently which have focused more on the dance side of your practice, can you tell us a little more about that?

KA: Growing up, I primarily identified as a dancer. I did pre-professional ballet training from the ages of 5 till 18 though I was writing poetry alongside that and I loved poetry in school. Then at university, I double-majored in Dance and English, so again, they were my twin focuses.

And then two things happened. First of all, I had the frustrating realization that so many dancers have, and particularly ballet dancers, that my body was not acceptable in that industry and that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make a career out of dance, certainly not the ballet in which I’ve been trained.

And secondly, although I don’t think anyone would say that poetry or dance are particularly lucrative industries, poetry became the one that was slightly more feasible, particularly as a researcher. So, when I graduated from university and moved to Scotland to do my Masters on Scottish poetry, it felt like choosing. It felt like me going, okay, I’ve had these twin focuses my whole life, but now I’m choosing one. And I didn’t dance in Scotland for years.

Although it was good for me to have more of a sole focus, I really lost a part of who I was. It was strange that people only knew me as a poet. Dance wasn’t a part of who I was at that point. Then I got a commission from Daniel Abercrombie at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, to do a piece for their ‘Figures of Speech’ programme as part of the Year of Stories. And he said, ‘Look, you can do it in whatever medium you want. You can just do poetry. But I know you dance. Could you maybe think about doing a poetry dance piece?’ And I thought, ‘Great, you can actually do this’.  So, I did. And I’m so grateful for that challenge. The piece we made is called ‘Cutty Sark’. And it’s a twisting of Tam O’Shanter from the perspective of Nannie Dee, the witch, the Cutty Sark in the poem. And I danced it live en pointe, which is something I thought I would never be able to do again.

I really, really enjoyed reconnecting with that part of my craft. I always felt previously when I was sort of growing up as a poet and a dancer that they were quite divided in my mind. Poetry was the medium where I could be precise through language and tell stories, and dance was where I expressed myself physically. But of course, there’s so much in between that, and particularly when you combine them, there’s so many amazing opportunities for artistic expression. So, I really enjoyed creating these poem dances, dance poems, whatever you want to call them, and having access to both media for expression. I’m looking forward to exploring that more.

GRB: Last question. What will you be working on when you get home, assuming we all do make it home?

KA: Assuming we do, yes. After I’ve napped for four years, realistically I’m working on a funding application. When I’m introducing myself to people, I’ll often say I’m a full-time performance poet. The reality is, probably 80-90% of my income is not from writing or performing poems. It is around administrative tasks to do with providing a platform for other people to write or perform poems.

And then, I’ve got an idea, to develop a commission from last year. I want to pitch for funding for that and develop it. I think it’s very easy, when you are someone who works in the arts in a different capacity to just being an artist, to let that production side of things really take over and let your own craft fall to the wayside. That’s certainly something that’s happened with me.

I’m hoping in the latter half of this year to try to refocus a little bit on maybe developing a pamphlet as well. I’m not actually published. I self-published a pamphlet back in early 2015, which I’m still quite proud of, but that was eight years ago. And we did our Loud Poets Anthology earlier this year, which was amazing to be a part of a group publication. So, I’ll be thinking about that and maybe potentially doing a one-woman show at some point. I’ve been so inspired by work like Imogen Stirling’s ‘Love the Sinner’ and Sarah Grant’s ‘Spark’ and ‘Oracles’ and Kevin Gilday’sSpam Valley’. So, that’s something I’d like to explore.

GRB: Katie Ailes, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

[Photo credits: Image #2 (middle of text): Charles Gervais at Both Hemispheres Portraits. Others: Katie Ailes.

Click here to read a short selection from Katie’s work or find more articles under the category heading ‘Poetry’ on our homepage.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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