If Chuck Palahniuk did poetry readings they might be like this.
Fifty eight people out of ninety in the queue are allowed into the Demonstration Room at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue. We have been standing with our craft beers in a small car park surrounded by shabby Seventies offices. We look like a rag tag collection of jobbing actors waiting at the back of some Hollywood studio lot to audition as extras for a Seattle coffee shop scene. There is a high grunge factor.
Summerhall is a labyrinth of creative, studio, exhibition and event spaces. It used to be a school of veterinary studies. To find the Demonstration Room you cross the courtyard, head down the alley at the back left and turn right. Or so I’m told by the lady on reception. It doesn’t look like there will be an arts venue down there, and groups of the uncertain and the unconvinced loiter in the area outside the bar, waiting for someone to follow. It is cold and they are chilled, not chilling.
The Demonstration Room is a bleak, claustrophobic amphi-lecture-theatre with steeply banked wooden bench seats, which are arranged in concentric semi-circles. It is thrillingly grim. I can’t begin to imagine what heinous acts of brutality have been enacted on horses in here, using specialised instruments that belong in a museum of Victorian torture, all in the name of education. We have gone through the looking glass to a Dickensian house of horror, or maybe Pinochet’s Santiago.
The MC is a polite, well-spoken boy with a Just William haircut. He looks like he is not long out of flannel shorts and brown leather satchels. Or perhaps he is the man that the boy in The Sound Of Music grew up to be. He is a perfect Aryan specimen, a blonde Boy From Brazil. Just Wilhelm. He obviously likes himself. There is something of the peacock about him. He struts. I don’t warm to him. Fortunately he is low on ado.
We are here to hear original poetry collaborations as part of Edinburgh City Of Literature’s European Literature Night. Ten contintental duos will duet or duel their way through compositions that are being performed in public for the first time.
It turns out to be more riot than recital. The performers are swigging wine from the bottle and diligently working their way through bulging tote bags full of Tennent’s Lager. There is a high edge factor. We are flirting with chaos from the outset.
It is noisy.
The performances are noisy. They use noises. Several of the acts use a Heath Robinson collection of guitar effects pedals and synths to improvise a backing track to the words. They multi-task as poets and roadies.
The noise and sounds will be one of my abiding memories of the evening.
Random noises. And random words in random languages. It is compelling. It is fascinating. It expands my definition of poetry.
The linguistic highlight of the night is Seven Ways To Kill Sophie by Ann Cotten and Esther Strauss. It is clever. It is inventive. It is moving. It is funny in places. It is a genuine collaboration. The parts are great. The whole is greater.
Ann Cotten is clearly enjoying herself. She manages to stifle a fit of giggles. She swigs from a quarter bottle of Famous Grouse and describes an “episode of gaiety” with a Sikh barman. She has a German accent which makes the turn of phrase even funnier.
Calum Rodger, who performed earlier, laughs out loud. He is sitting right in front of me. He can’t sit still and he is drinking heavily and having banter with his burly hipster friend. He is animated. He is a ball of wired, fidgety energy. He has all the mannerisms of Sick Boy from Trainspotting. He is highly amused by Ann’s discussion of racism with the Sikh barman. He is Sikh Boy.
Sikh Boy has it coming.
Just Wilhelm is back, this time as performer. He is Steven (SJ) Fowler and he performs alongside Jorg Piringer. Their collaboration is, apparently, a metaphor for how the labour party catastrophically misjudged the Tory voting intentions of the British electorate a week earlier.
Fowler reads, shouts, screams passages of Shakespeare at the audience. But, despite his volume, he is barley audible over the wall of sound being created by Piringer.
He tears pages from the book from which he is reading. He bites the book and spits the shreds at the audience. He climbs into the audience, a-tearing and a-spitting . He returns to the stage. He is in a lather. He loses it. He launches into Sikh Boy. He rips the jacket and shirt from Sikh Boy’s back. There is beer everywhere. There is beer on me. The girl next to me is clearly shocked. There is a frenzied tussle. A girl behind me shouts “Was that staged Calum?” He says no. He had no idea. He is shaken. He makes like he enjoyed it. Maybe he did. Bawdy ribaldry? I’m not sure. Nobody is sure. It is awkward.
The rest of the show is relatively uneventful, inevitably so. Then it is over. Two hours have passed quickly. Just Wilhelm and Sikh Boy hug and make up. The smell of beer. A slightly stunned audience is slow to leave its seats.
I’m not sure it was poetry but it sure was a trip.