Heavenly voices | Miriam Nash grew up on the Isle of Erraid (made famous by the lighthouse Stevensons) and voices of the island echo through All the Prayers in the House. Fans of popular poet and performer Rachel McCrum (formerly one half of spoken word duo Rally & Broad) will relish her bitingly satirical The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we meet two debut poets, chaired by Kirsty Logan.
“I found [Gigi Hadid’s left elbow] so defiant and effective.”
Rachel McCrum begins the evening by reading a selection of her poems including Broad and Problems to Sharpen the Young, #1. The cover of her book is a ham, but she notes that Miriam originally thought it was a mooncup. “I’ve always wanted to say mooncup at the Edinburgh Book Festival,” laughs Rachel.
Rachel is known as a performance poet, having spent years in the spoken word circuit – why was now the right time to do a collection? “Someone said ‘do you want to publish a book?’!” She notes that an English Lit degree kicked the interest in writing out of her, but she started writing properly again when she returned to Edinburgh and immersed herself in performance – that’s six years of writing, most of which was used to work out what she was talking about. She was lucky to be writing and performing full time.
“You can be both,” she continues, on the idea of paper vs. performance poets. “But there is a difference between poems written to be performed, and poems written on the page.” Robyn Marsack, former Director of the Scottish Poetry Library, edited her book and they found an interesting difference: Robyn reads with her eye, Rachel with her ear. She plays it in her head until she performs it, “the final edit in a way”.
On a particular poem, I Am Gigi Hadid’s Left Elbow, it turns out to be a reference to when Gigi was picked up by a random guy and she without hesitation elbowed him to get him to put her down. “I found it so defiant and effective.” There you have it.
“Poetry is happening everywhere all the time.”
Miriam takes to the floor to read a selection of her wonderful poetry, including The Mother Tells Her Daughter of a Storm and The Wife’s Apology, which draws on the selkie mythology, “though like many apologies, it’s not really an apology…”
Many of Miriam’s poems draw on Robert Louis Stevenson hold a strong theme of communicating with the dead, or the past talking to the present. “I don’t know if I thought about it intentionally,” says Miriam, “but it speaks to the past, my own past, my imagined past. My memories of growing up are not necessarily true – they’re embellished by me!”
And why is she drawn to selkies? “The fact that they live between two worlds,” she says. “We as humans are interested in the space between worlds.” Selkies can be male or female, they can be land or sea. They can be both, and that in itself is fascinating.
As for the craft of writing, they think that the role of writers shouldn’t be mythologised – it is work. In a way it’s a job like any other. Miriam also travels to schools, museums and prisons to work with people on poetry – rather than taking her poetry out into the world, she views it differently. “I get to experience poetry by others,” she notes, whether it’s ten year olds, or women in prison in New York. “Poetry is happening everywhere all the time. They don’t all end up in books. All sorts of people, all sorts of forms of poetry are happening, and it’s by people who may or may not call themselves poets.” These experiences are so eye-opening and inspiring to her.
They continue to talk about the ideas of home, feminism and a really bloody intriguing Ladies Dictionary from 1694 that defines plumpers, before closing the event with one final reading each. They said it best: poetry is happening everywhere all the time, and attendees got a glimpse into the worlds of two excellent poets with debuts that you simply must read.