​Rachel McCrum talks Rally & Broad, Stage vs Page, and the ‘Thing’ of a Night

Rachel McCrum, inaugural BBC Scotland Poet In Residence in 2015, has just wrapped up the last shows of Rally & Broad, a spoken word, music and live lit events series she ran with Jenny Lindsay from 2012 to 2016. Poetry Correspondent Frederick Alexander finds out more about the genesis of the project, and what its legacy might be.

I'd love to see is more investment in professional development for spoken-word artists

Tell me about your favourite moment from the past four years of Rally & Broad.

I remember the morning after the very first show, at The Counting House in Edinburgh. It was a gorgeous October Saturday morning, I was profoundly hungover and driving back up to the venue to pick up our props. And it felt good. It felt like an honest night's work. It felt like we might be able to do something with this.

At the beating heart of it, I think what most of my favourite Rally & Broad moments had in common was seeing when an audience and an artist really connected with one another. That was magic. That was goosebumps.

What do you believe the legacy of Rally & Broad will be?

We set out to do some very specific things when we started the Rally & Broad shows, and we stuck to our guns on them. Things like gender-balanced bills; fair pay for artists, particularly for spoken-word artists but also for bands; trying to create an atmosphere in which new acts are given as warm a welcome onstage as the big names; general spraffiness and not being scared of the audience; and trying to create a big, shiny show, really.

Rally & Broad had a kinda odd thing … it was very hard to describe what it was until you'd been to one. But once you'd been to one, you understood it, and it was fun (that observation from my mum). I really love seeing regular shows develop with that kind of understanding of their particular 'thing' – I think folks like Neu Reekie, Loud Poets, Blind Poetics and Inn Deep do this really well, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Sonnet Youth develops.

Jim Monaghan recently said that Rally & Broad ‘succeeded where others have failed in linking the “pagey” poets with the “stagey” poets.’ How did yourself and Jenny Lindsay go about choosing your performers?

It feels like the binary divide of 'page' vs 'stage' is being dismantled, and it should be. Anyone who gets up on a stage to read is performing. Poets have varying interest in and dedication to developing 'performance' skills – and there is a whole spectrum of styles and techniques that work for both, but poetry is, fundamentally, about language, the joy of language, about making language sing. It's meant to be heard.

Both Jenny and I were, I think, looking to challenge that tired old divide, and to find the best voices around Scotland, the UK and further afield who could reflect that diversity. The choosing was somewhere between our own personal taste – and we were pretty active about going out and scouting for poets – and what we thought would be new, exciting, challenging, beautiful for audiences.

Where would you like to see the trajectory of Scottish live literature and spoken word going?

One thing I'd love to see is more investment in professional development for spoken-word artists. When I started out in 2011, the journey was very much: get experience by succeeding and failing on open mics; take part in and eventually win a slam; graduate to 10-, 15- then 25-minute sets; move onto doing solo show. Perhaps publish a pamphlet or CD somewhere along the way. And that's grand, and grassroots, and does mean that you can find your community along the way. However it can also be competitive, dispiriting, expensive and pretty inaccessible to anyone who doesn't have the capacity to go to every open mic on the circuit, or who doesn't find spaces like noisy bars the place they want to be, or is under 18.

I think we need to look at this, to find other ways for people to develop as artists. Rally & Broad ran a week long workshop called Words First in Glasgow in conjunction with the Roundhouse and BBC 1Extra, for poets aged 18 to 25 (part of the conditions of the project!). There are some FANTASTIC new voices that have come out of that – Georgia Barlett-McNeil, Michelle Fisher and Ellen Renton, and also Liam McCormick.

I'd also like to see training for spoken-word poets who would like to lead workshops. And more open mics. Everywhere. Open mics are so important. More of that sort of thing.

What does the future hold for you?

I'll be in Quebec for July and August to work on the manuscript, for my debut collection, due out with Freight Books in 2017. This is terrifying. But good. I'm also going to be working on a Quebec-UK funded project around cinepoems with Montreal poet-filmmakers Jonathan Lamy and Genevieve Gosselin-G, and Glasgow poet and performer Calum Rodgers.

Come September and October, I'll be working on two big projects, one with Luminate and Alastair Cook (filmpoems), to develop filmpoetry and digital skills with older people in Livingston; and a series of workshops with schools for ConFab, for Scotland's Youth Poetry Slam (the first national slam for young people in Scotland! Hurrah!).

Then in November, I'm in Grez-Sur-Loing in France for the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, which just a huge huge gift of a thing. More writing then, and some performance work.

That's pretty much all I've got worked out so far! I'm deliberately leaving a little space to see what happens in 2017. There are some projects underway but I don't want to jinx anything by speaking out about them too soon. Space is good. Have a wee look around, see what could be built next. These are heady and tumultuous days. I feel like it's time for art to do a bit of work. Something around communication, compassion, empathy, radical kindness, speaking out, love. These things.

Rachel McCrum’s second pamphlet Do Not Alight Here Again was recently published by Stewed Rhubarb Press, and she performed her first solo Fringe show with new spoken word collective SHIFT/ in August 2015.

Her Twitter is @kickingparis

Photo Credit: Colin Usher, Studio Faire

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