Kevin Williamson: 'The penny dropped that something revolutionary was happening'

Attribution/author:Article by: Becca Inglis

An explosion in experimental writing has led to Push The Boat Out at Edinburgh's Summerhall. We speak to the organisers about their vision for Scotland's newest literary festival and what poetry really means in the 21st century

There are more than 40 book festivals dotted around Scotland, yet until now only StAnza has been specifically devoted to poetry. It's a surprising oversight, argue Jenny Niven (former head of literature at Creative Scotland) and Neu! Reekie! co-producer Kevin Williamson, who launch Scotland's second ever poetry festival, Push The Boat Out. Over three days at Edinburgh's Summerhall, 60 poets will share their work across page poetry, spoken word and hip hop in live performances, installations and workshops. The goal is to blow the lid off what we conventionally consider as poetry, with innovations in written form, film poems and audio brought to the fore.

The idea first emerged in 2019, when Williamson challenged himself to post a different poem to Twitter every day for a year using the hashtag #365Poems365Poets. What he discovered was a boom of experimental writing disrupting the form and format of contemporary poetry. 'The penny dropped that something was happening that was so important and so revolutionary, and was changing the form of verse,' he says. '2021 poetry is very different from the 2000s or the 1990s. Now people are looking at where we're going, where society's going and exploring it through all sorts of media.'

'I think there's been a real renewal of interest in poetry over the last 18 months,' adds Niven. 'Through the pandemic people are looking for meaning. There's something quite vital about that.' At the festival, we'll see recurring themes pertinent to this particular moment in history, like ecopoetics, recovery, social justice, and virtual and other realities (in tribute to Edwin Morgan's collection of the same name). Intergenerational trauma is broached in Edinburgh Makar Hannah Lavery's Blood Salt Spring, a co-production from Push The Boat Out and National Theatre Of Scotland. Pip Thornton determines the economic value of words by feeding George Orwell's 1984 into Google Ads and Harry Josephine Giles reads her new science-fiction verse novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia, written in the Orkney dialect.

There's also an app called Poetry Mile which recalls the connection at a distance that we experienced through lockdown. Like Spotify for poetry, users can select a mood and accompany walks around Edinburgh with one of 50 commissioned poems tied to places in the capital. Central to the festival's ethos is placing hip hop on equal footing with page and performance poetry. 'To me, it's possibly the most popular form of poetry on the planet, just going by books sold versus records,' says Williamson. 'It seems such an obvious thing to incorporate it into a poetry festival, but it's not the norm.' Current conversations within the genre appear in a talk about women in hip hop led by Arusa Qureshi, a provocation on the rapper Rakim by Solareye and Caroline Bird, and a Saturday-night music performance.

'I don't think there is one definition,' says Niven on how the festival defines poetry. 'That's the joy of it, seeking out people who approach this object from all these different perspectives.' Williamson agrees, stating 'I'm really excited about the range of writers that we've got. This is the poetry festival I would like to have gone to in the past.'

Push The Boat Out, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Friday 15–Sunday 17 October; visit here for details of online events.

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