Every few years there’s an article saying, ‘Is poetry the new rock’n’roll?’ And the answer is always ‘No’ – Kevin P Gilday
Kevin P. Gilday is an award-winning poet, performer and theatre-maker from Glasgow. He is the founder of poetry performance collective The Scribbler’s Union and co-founder of much loved spoken word cabaret night Sonnet Youth. He is a National Theatre of Scotland Breakthrough Writer, a BBC Writers’ Room Scottish Voice and one of Scotland’s most celebrated contemporary poets. He was recently included in the Saltire Society’s ’40 under 40’ list celebrating outstanding Scottish creative talent.
GRB: Kevin Gilday, we first saw you perform around 8 or 9 years ago. How would you say your work has changed since then?
Kevin P. Gilday (KPG): I feel like I’ve been getting better at it as I’ve been going along, which is good news! I also feel I’ve brought other elements into my work, which I think is where the theatrical stuff and the community stuff comes in, music as well. They come from the poetry but they go down an avenue, to explore something else but taking the poetry along with it.
I’ve also got more interested in writing for the page as I get older. I think more about the page, and less about the performance nowadays. I used to always say, ‘I don’t care about that stuff, I only care about the performance’. But as I get older, I feel like I’ve at least softened on that, a wee bit.
I’m never going to be one of those proper page poets or lit people. And I probably never will be appreciated by that establishment, but still, I feel like for my own kind of growth, I’ve been thinking more about how my work translates on the page. For my latest collection, ‘Anxiety Music’, I really pored over that, much to the annoyance of my editor, moving stuff about daily.
I used to think that anyone who read one of my books would be doing so because they’d seen me live and thought, ‘Oh, that was really good, I’ll buy the book’. And so, it was less of a book and more something for people to take home, as a reminder of the night they saw ‘that Scottish poet’ and he said this stuff. This time round I’ve been more aware that people will buy the book without necessarily having heard the work. So, now it needs to stand up without the performance.
GRB: ‘Anxiety Music’ was published by Verve Poetry Press based in Birmingham, England. Which makes this the first time you’ve been published by a press outside of Scotland.
KPG: Exactly. So, I was like ‘This is going to be in some Waterstones in England’, you know. The reader won’t have any context from my performance, they’re going to pick this up off a shelf, and read a poem and go, ‘Oh, what is this saying to me? Is this resonating? Is this meaning something to me?’ In that moment without any kind of extra help. So, it was, definitely, that feeling of stepping up to a bigger audience and a newer audience as well.
GRB: Looking back, how do you think the spoken-word scene in Scotland has changed over the same period?
KPG: It goes in cycles. We had a cycle when spoken-word was more popular, then less-popular and we’re probably going to hit another up-swing soon. You know how, every few years, there’s an article saying, ‘Is poetry the new rock and roll?’ And the answer is always, ‘No’.
GRB: Open mike nights have always been a proving ground for spoken-word artists, so it’s interesting to see what people do when they ‘graduate’ from open mikes and how they deal with that.
KPG: I agree, that that happens but I also kind of resent it. Because, if I could make my living entirely from performing poetry and spoken-word, if there was an infrastructure that allowed me to do that, then I would. But the other stuff contributes a vital part of my income.
And it’s the same for everyone who hits that ceiling because they all go, ‘What do I do now? And the answer is, write a novel, write a theatre show, go on tour, or, you know, do something else with your life. Because there’s not enough of an audience, there isn’t the infrastructure there to support you, for you to make a living, if you just do poetry and spoken-word. And that’s sad. I think it’s really sad.
GRB: It’s a two-sided challenge. Poets need promoters who will pay them but promoters need a model, a way to put on poetry and spoken-word nights, that will actually sell tickets.
KPG: You need to teach an audience that they like poetry, to get them to come to the show. No one goes to a poetry show unless they already like poetry. Although, when you do manage to drag someone there, who’s not been before, sometimes they’ll love it.
So, we have this issue, ‘How do you create an audience that doesn’t already exist?’ That’s why regular poetry nights, like Sonnet Youth when we were about, and Loud Poets and the rest of them, they have to be funded. Because, if they were reliant on ticket money alone, nobody fucking pays. There has to be a model where people are getting Creative Scotland money to do it, and then that’s relying on people caring enough to fill out the forms, and to do all that work.
I get so jealous of all my pals that are comedians. Unbelievable. They can work every night. Because comedy is an art form that people know, you don’t need to sell it to people. People just think, ‘Oh, it’s a promise of laughter, it’s a promise of fun’. I can’t say that about a poetry night. But, I think, when people do come, they go, ‘Oh, it’s actually the same energy of giving trust to a performer in the moment, in the room, and hoping they take you on a journey’ – whether that’s a funny journey or a sad journey or whatever. But they recognize, it’s the same principle.
GRB: You need to sneak up on people, somehow, ambush them with poetry.
KPG: That was always our aim with Sonnet Youth. We’d bring people in to see the comedians and the musicians, and then they got the poetry as well and it kind of hit a more mainstream audience, by being sandwiched between something else.
That’s why I love doing support acts for bands as well, those are my favourite fucking gigs. A room full of people there to see music, and going, ‘This guy has forgotten his guitar’ and then just talking and winning them over within half an hour, for them to go away going, ‘Fuck, that was really good – like, I didn’t know poetry could be that good’ – but there’s no way that I’m getting those people in a room myself. They have to be there to see some music and then be ambushed with poetry.
GRB: Your one-man show, ‘Spam Valley’, is about coming from a working-class background and the bridges you have to build, to connect you to a more middle-class mind-set. How did that resonate when you were performing it on tour, outside Scotland and around the UK?
KPG: It was pretty universal, in terms of people resonating with it, which I kind of hoped would be the case. And, the first one that I did was during the Fringe, which is always an international audience, so you’ve got people from all over the world in the room, so I was like, ‘If it survives there, it’ll be fine anywhere’.
GRB: When you were doing ‘Spam Valley’, you had that rail of tracksuit tops behind you on stage, which led into the way you navigated your upbringing.
KPG: There’s a massive part of the show that’s about someone who’s growing out of relative poverty in their childhood and how things like the clothes you wear are indicators of social status. I remember getting a Helly Hansen jacket, via a catalogue (which meant that my parents would be paying it off for the next five years or whatever) and feeling that it had instantly made me invincible, like it was a suit of armour that would protect me – and, weirdly, it did because that experience taught me, ‘All you need to do is fake it, then if you can do that, you can apply it to anything’.
And, I took that exact same principle into the world of poetry where I felt completely out of place at first, but then I learned to adopt this attitude, ‘If I dress up, and I wear the right clothes and act a bit stand-off’ish, I can curate a version of myself that will be safe in this space’.
But now, for Spam Valley, I’ve had to strip those layers away and be vulnerable on-stage, which I found really hard at first and then super-liberating once I got used to it. Though, I didn’t realise how emotional and exhausting it would be, to do that night after night.
GRB: To what extent do you see yourself as representing other peoples’ upbringing and their experience of growing up as part of a particular social class?
KPB: I’m very clear that I’m not representing ‘the people of the working class’ because that would be fucking mental. But, I think I do represent some working class people, those who feel they don’t fit in properly with the culture, who feel like failures or outcasts, because they’re caught in-between these things. I think I, maybe, do speak for that demographic because there hasn’t been a voice for it before. You make yourself an outcast to everybody, by trying to be better than what you think that you are allowed to be.
I struggle with the way stuff gets adopted and taken out of context, sometimes. I don’t want to use the ‘H’ word [hipster] but middle-class kids kicking about in tracksuits, pretending to be something they’re not, do annoy me. But, at the end of the day, they’re just cosplaying. They’re looking for credibility by pretending to be something they’re not.
Because I’m a poet, if I wore a tracksuit top, people would say I was appropriating something that isn’t mine. I wouldn’t be afforded the excuse. But some of the poshest poets I know are the ones who do exactly that. And people go on about how ‘authentic’ some things are. The commodity of authenticity, making it something that can be bought and sold – or, more accurately, rented. It pisses me off. Because that idea of ‘authenticity’ is a narrow view of working class life that only middle class people believe in.
Drug addiction and misery, and people in gangs and everyone’s up in a high-flat – these things are such a small fraction of working-class life, but it’s all that some people want to hear about – because working-class voices only get elevated if they fit in with the middle-class view of what a working class person should be. So, that was a big reason why I wrote, ‘Spam Valley’, to challenge that view of ‘authenticity’.
GRB: You use humour a lot in your work, how does that help you negotiate these kind of issues?
KPG: I like making people laugh. It’s always a beautiful moment on stage when you get that laughter. It breaks down barriers, and it lets me be more intimate with other pieces afterwards. But also, I don’t just want to be miserable – you know, ‘Oh my god, everything’s so bad, there’s mould on the ceiling in the high-flats and the children are dying’. All of that is true, but humour can be more effective sometimes, in getting people to listen and to care.
GRB: Let’s talk about your recent project, ‘Bank of Springburn’. How did that come about?
KPG: I did a thing with the National Theatre of Scotland called ‘Thinking Space’, where they got people from different backgrounds and disciplines in a room together, to make some art. We talked about engagement with the arts, and how, a lot of the time, we really only want to engage with the people who agree with us and not the people that we find problematic – which is a lot of people! So, if we’re going to be real about engaging with communities, we have to include everyone.
Afterwards, the NTS asked if I’d like to do something in Springburn and I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ But I said, if you’re serious about engaging with people, there’s only one place you can do it, in Springburn, and that’s in the shopping centre. Because the shopping centre is the only place everyone comes to. So, I asked, ‘Can we take over a unit at the shopping centre?’ And they said, ‘Yes’. Which I was not expecting.
GRB: There’s an extent to which places like that are still very much in the old spirit of the market-place, where you go to get whatever it is you need and you meet other people at the same time.
KPG: Yes. And because these spaces are so utilitarian – you know, nobody’s there for the window-shopping, people are there for a reason. And, Springburn Shopping Centre has seen better days. There’s so many empty units there, I knew that taking one over, however briefly, would feel like a real act of empowerment – to show that it could be something else, something apart from a void.
GRB: Did you have a definition of what ‘success’ would mean, at the end of the project?
KPG: I wanted to create a feeling in people, to move them, make them feel they were being heard and had a space of their own, to do as they pleased. On those terms, it was very successful. There were people who came in regularly, almost every day. And some of the events were great. Because I had, kind of, a dual mission. To bring great artists to Springburn, but also to use them, a bit, like bait – to draw an audience to Springburn who wouldn’t usually set foot in the place, dispel some of the myths, show them that it’s actually just a normal community right next to the city centre.
GRB: So, it’s a little bit like ambushing people with poetry. Sandwiching one thing between another. You were using similar tactics but at a different scale?
KPG: Yes. Because I know how to get people in a door. And, once you’ve got them in the door, you can do what you want because it’s getting them in in the first place, that’s the challenge.
GRB: What did you learn from the experience?
KPG: I learned about my immediate environment from people who were there when I wasn’t. The oral history of the place. One of the things we did, was to set up a wee podcast studio in the back of the bank. So, I could record these really quick conversations with people who came in. And it’s all this great stuff.
And the one thing that kept on coming up was that it used to be a great place. There used to be a row of shops here, there used to be everything. People didn’t have to go into town because everything was in Springburn. There used to be boats in the pond, there used to be a guy who would come round and sell fish. I was like, ‘I’m glad we recorded all that because it feels important’.
But the young people are completely disconnected from that history, they don’t feel any of the pride. You know, at one point, Springburn made trains that went everywhere around the world, it used to be this powerhouse of industry. But young people have no connection to that whatsoever and, therefore, no pride in the area. So, I learned a lot of history but I also learned how disconnected the younger generations are from that, they don’t see any worth in it And it’s kind of up to us to give them that.
GRB: The Scottish Government has spent money, for example, to try and preserve shipbuilding on the Clyde – do you think they’re preserving the thing itself or just the image or idea of it?
KPG: The idea, totally. I think the idea can still be a reality, in some cases, just never on the scale that it was. And people probably need to come to terms with that. But the younger generation in Springburn, they don’t know about trains. They don’t care about that, nobody’s getting a job making trains anymore. So, what are they getting a job doing? What can we actually help them with? And what can we actually give them the confidence to empower them to do?
GRB: What did it feel, like shutting the door on the Bank of Springburn for the last time?
KPG: I couldn’t do it myself, I gave the keys to somebody else and left. And I said afterwards, ‘I don’t know how often you get to do really meaningful things with your life. A lot of the time you don’t. But, with this, the meaning was there every day’. Just to know that I created that space, that people came to visit.
You know, we did writing workshops on Tuesdays. And some weeks, it would just be one older lady who came in and we just spent two hours talking and writing poems together. And I was like, that’s so meaningful, just by its existence. I still feel like I’m in the slump from it just now, going, ‘How do I follow that up?’
GRB: Last question then, what are you doing now and how do you follow that up?
KPG: I’m back out on tour and promoting ‘Anxiety Music’ again. Doing some gigs and some festivals over the summer. Later this year, ‘Spam Valley’ will be back for another run, taking it to more interesting places, like the islands and up north. It’s will be interesting to see how that goes.
Then, hopefully, the next stage of the ‘Bank of Springburn’ project will be a theatrical performance. I don’t know, yet, exactly what shape it’s going to take, but it will be a full theatre show that will be staged within the community.
GRB: Kevin P. Gilday, thank you for taking the time to talk to The Glasgow Review of Books.
Catch Spam Valley on tour from 29 September. Links to tickets here. You can also read a selection of poems from Kevin’s latest collection Anxiety Music on our site here.