Meet modern day Fair Intellectual Rachel McCrum

To support Stellar Quines’ current tour of The Fair Intellectual Club by Lucy Porter we have invited a selection of modern day Fair Intellectuals to share their thoughts and insights on their area of expertise.

Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay

It was seeing a woman my age and sensibility on a stage that made me feel like my voice was also valid. That was the spark.

Meet Rachel McCrum. A poet, performer and promoter working in Edinburgh. Rachel is also one half of Rally & Broad, a cabaret night of spoken word, music and lyrical delight that she runs with poet Jenny Lindsay in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Rachel’s the Broad half.

In the Fair Intellectual Club, one of the subjects the girls secretly studied was poetry, and one of the character’s risks being exposed to scandal when her poems are published – have you experienced any similar opposition to being a female poet / spoken word performer?  

It’s quite difficult to be a spoken word performer in secret! The act of getting up on stage and performing means that you are exposed immediately. And it is quite exposing. I haven’t ever experienced any active or explicit opposition to me being on a stage because I’m female – an audience might not like the poetry but I’ve never had any direct abuse because of my gender.

That said, there are things that are different, I think, to being a male performer.

There are times when I’m particularly conscious that I will be judged differently on my appearance – who the audience thinks I am will be affected by whether I’m wearing a dress or trousers, or makeup, or no makeup, and there are preconceptions that come because of that. I don’t want an audience to make their minds up about me before I open my mouth – it should be about what I’m saying and they can connect or reject that wholeheartedly, as they choose.

I remember a friend and fellow poet and feminist livetweeting an event I was performing in, and tweeting, before I even started to speak, that I was wearing the feminist uniform of flouncy dress and heavy boots. She meant it in a celebratory way but… I am a feminist, and I was wearing a flouncy dress and f***off boots but if a noise or a label starts echoing round in people’s heads before they’ve heard the poem – that doesn’t help.

I’m still not entirely sure how to get around it, really. And the thing with performance and spoken word is that your own physicality is a huge part of that, it should be embedded in the performance, not a distraction from it – but every bit of your appearance is codified, so how to get around that. I’m working on it. Maybe just my pyjamas from here on in.

There are also times when I’ve had unwelcome attention after performances, and I don’t know if that’s something that male performers have to put up with. It doesn’t seem so. You do make yourself vulnerable about going up on stage and putting your view on the world out there, and even if you’re speaking from a persona, some folk unfortunately think they know you better than they do, that they may be the only ones who know you, and that it opens up a channel to a level of intimacy that does not, in reality, exist with that one person. But at the same time, you have opened up the possibility of an honest connection with an audience – that’s kinda what you’re aiming for, whether it’s entertainment, protest, emotion or all of the above – and when that is honest, and there is respect on both sides, it’s amazing.

That’s two negative things. I should talk about the positive things, that really make it worth it. Which, for me, really boils down to – the more women get on stage publicly and do things, the more women will get on a stage publicly and do things. And the public part of that is really, really important. It’s how it started for me – take a bow, Jenny Lindsay! I saw Jenny at her book launch of ‘The Things You Leave Behind’ and she performed her poem ‘Twenty First Century Twenty Something Or Other’. I sat there with my heart drumming, head screaming ‘that’s me, that’s my life’ (we were both twenty something at that point. Now…we are not), she’s speaking my life, oh my GOD, I feel so alive…and I could do that! If she could do that, maybe I could do that!’ It wasn’t quite as easy as that, of course, in the longer run, but it was seeing a woman my age and sensibility on a stage that made me feel like my voice was also valid. That was the spark.

Rally and Broad has been hugely successful in raising the profile of poetry and the spoken word in both Edinburgh and now Glasgow, have you also been consciously raising the profile and the bar for female performers and writers?

Oh, absolutely. Gender balanced programming was one of our goals from the outset, and we’ve achieved it, over nearly fifty shows. As I said above, I haven’t had any explicit ‘We Shall Not Book Her, She Is Woman’ encounters but there are more male performers – musicians, poets, – than female, and you have to think about it to achieve the balance. At a poetry slam in Glasgow last year, I was the only female competitor. At the end, the sister of the guy running it came up to me and said ‘I want to do that. I didn’t think I could do that. Now maybe I think I can.’ More women on stage, more women on stage!

Who would be your modern day Fair Intellectual?

Bidisha. I used to read her columns avidly and she’s just a fanastic writer, thinker, conscience. She wrote an article on Man Ray a couple of summers ago which is one of my favourite pieces of journalism ever.

Also, there are so many amazing projects at the moment, looking at these issues, addressing them actively, passionately, informedly and wittily. Scotland based, three of my favourite are TYCI, Project Naked and Charlotte Productions. Magnificent things, all.

@RallyAndBroad

Rally and Broad’s next shows are on Friday 20th February (Bongo Club, Edinburgh) with Salena Godden, Kirsty Law and band, Kevin Williamson, Graeme Hawley and Liz Cronin, and Sunday 22nd February (Stereo, Glasgow) with Harry Giles, The Jellyman’s Daughter, Rose Ruane, Jim Monaghan and Genesee. Celebrating ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’