Stellar Quine of the Month: Rachel McCrum

How would you describe your current job/what you’re currently working on, and what do you like best about it?

I’m currently working on two main projects, with lots of little bits and pieces clustering in around the edges. The first is working as the first BBC Scotland Poet In Residence, until the end of December 2015. The second is working with poet Jenny Lindsay to run Rally & Broad, Scotland’s cabaret of spoken word, poetry, music and lyrical delight (!), which has just started its fourth season in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Alongside that, I’m working on a series of workshops about creative failure called ‘All In A Fankle’ with writer and academic Elizabeth Reeder, with Artlink on some spoken word sessions in hospitals for Book Week Scotland, a series of workshops for the Scottish Poetry Library, and an ongoing translation project with Montreal based poet and performer Jonathan Lamy. And some performances of my own work about the place too!

For the two main ones…the BBC residency is intense but utterly rewarding. I’m one month into it now, and have already done four workshops with different schools, looking at everything from sound poetry to ekphrastic poetry, written five poems and skittered around the BBC from News programmes to talking with Janice Forsyth, poems about weather. There’s a poem about football coming up soon, about bothy culture, Orkney, at the refugee community, at marginalised groups using spoken word as a form of expression, a way to be heard, and more. The overarching theme was initially to look at different communities across Scotland: what I’m finding is that language is playing a huge part in this, and in how communities work. Which loops it back to poetry, of course.

Rally & Broad is going from strength to strength. My favourite things are, as always, being able to provide a platform for some of the most amazing Scottish and international acts out there, to bring new audiences to see them; working with Jenny and the R&B team; and this year, particularly, playing with the idea of the traditional cabaret or poetry revue. Watch this space come January. We have plans.

What do you consider your best work and why?

I find that difficult to answer: I can pick holes in pretty much anything I’ve written. I feel like I’m still figuring it out a lot of the time. But also, that it’s important to never stop trying to figure it out. It might be terrible to actually think you’ve got it!

I did my first solo show this August, ‘Do Not Alight Here Again’ at Summerhall, as part of new spoken word collective SHIFT/. It was 50 odd minutes of standing and speaking in front of an audience, and it felt for the first time like the various bits of what I try to do – write and perform poems that work on page and stage, the storytelling that can link these poems, how to move on a stage, how to play with props, recordings, images – it all came together. I’m excited to develop this further, to see how to play with, and across, different artforms. There is nothing more damaging that things getting stuck in silos ‘this is poetry’, ‘this is storytelling’, ‘this is theatre’. How much more exciting to mix them up, to play with the audience’s expectations? They’re all just tools to tell a story…

What was your first ever job?

A summer working at the first McDonald’s DriveThru in Northern Ireland, in the car park of Bloomfield Shopping Centre, Bangor, Co. Down. I was 14 or 15, and was paid £2.37 an hour (pre minimum wage). I remember what I bought with my first paycheque – a black bias cut skirt with golden sparkles from Topshop, which had just opened in Belfast. I thought I was queen of the world. I also now can’t go into a McDonald’s without feeling a bit ill at the smell.

What was the contact/opportunity/job offer that you feel has made the most difference to your career?

Winning the Callum McDonald award for my first pamphlet ‘The Glassblower Dances’ in 2013. As a result, I went to Greece for two weeks as the Michael Marks Poet in Residence in Nafplion, which led to opportunities to perform in South Africa, in Haiti, with Innu First National poets from Quebec, poets from Palestine, Mexico and Montreal. This all sounds very boastful – I don’t mean it to! Winning the award was a complete shock, to me as much as anyone else. The opportunity to travel with poetry has proven the most important thing to come from it, and to meet poets working in other languages, styles. I’ve become a bit of a fervent internationalist, and I’m working more and more on poetry in translation, and particularly poetry in translation in performance. And on connecting Scottish and Anglophone poets with non-anglophone poets, looking at how poetry can connect, expand, enhance.

What was the opportunity you missed or wish you’d taken?

I feel like it’s pretty full at the moment! I just wish there was more time in the day. I would like to have been able to work more on Stewed Rhubarb Press, the press that I set up with James Harding for pamphlets for spoken word artists. It’s still running, and James has exciting plans for it around filming performance, but it’s had to take a bit of a back burner over the past year.

What’s your favourite piece of performance?

That’s hard! Anything that Chris Thorpe writes and performs is worth seeing. #TORYCORE with Lucy Ellinson and Steve Lawson is phenomenal work. Spoken word wise, Hannah Silva and Ross Sutherland are among my favourites. I saw HUG by Verity Leigh this summer in Edinburgh. It was one of the most beautiful, intense, nurturing experiences in a performance. I wept buckets.

What do you enjoy about working in the spoken word sector?

The independent minds in it. The irregular working hours (really!). Getting to spend my time hearing other people’s stories and words.

What do you like best about being a poet?

The freedom to be honest. Or as honest as you can be. The sheer, unadulterated luxury of being to use words exactly as you mean to.

What advice would you give emerging female practitioners in spoken word today?

Hold your nerves like steel. Call out sexism in terms of promotion, a lack of balance in gender billing, if you are described in any way that you’re not comfortable with. It still exists: it shouldn’t but it does. Jenny and I have a ban on any press releases calling us ‘feisty…’ :). Watch, listen, read to a wide range of poets, find the ones (female and male) who speak to you, study them and work out what they’re doing. Write about what is genuinely important to you, don’t get trapped into writing things that are supposed to be ‘important’. Support one another, don’t compete and don’t undermine. Take risks. Be proud of yourself.

Who would your Stellar Quine of the month be and why?

Jenny Lindsay. Jenny is the longest running promoter of spoken word in Scotland, working on it from the age of 20 on events like The Big Word and Is This Poetry? She is tireless in promoting, performing and building a local scene. That she managed to do this alongside training to be a full time teacher, and campaigning heavily during the Independence Referendum is testament to her drive and stamina. Plus, she’s an excellent drinking companion.

Find out more about Rally & Broad

SQ of the Month