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Review
Bringing poetry to life: introducing Edinburgh’s newest festival
by Molly McCracken, 12/10/21

Molly McCracken speaks to Push The Boat Out’s Julia Sorensen about what we can expect from Edinburgh’s first International Poetry Festival – and why poetry still matters.

Can you tell me about how the festival came to be, given that there’s never been a poetry festival in Edinburgh?

Push The Boat Out is the first Edinburgh poetry festival; we’re the second poetry festival in Scotland, period, which is a little bit crazy to me and which is why we’re doing this. (The other one is StAnza in St Andrews, they’re lovely and we’ve partnered on a number of things, their team is great!) One of our co-founders, Kev Williamson, put it really nicely when he said we’re kind of bookends: we have different offers, we’re at different times of the year – and in a country of almost five million, we can have two festivals, especially in the festival city of Edinburgh.
One of the main things that we intend to do, see, and platform differently [from other festivals] is poetry. There are page-stage divides that are not very useful and are false dichotomies. We really want to break that open a little bit, so our programme is eclectic and eccentric and varied and fresh (and a little bit weird in some places as well…) but we really just want to showcase how multidisciplinary and genre unspecific poetry can be. So of course we have standard page poetry; we’re partnered with Lighthouse Books to sell our poets’ collections. We’re going to have spoken word readings, an open mic, but we also have a lot of other things going on like reading and discussion panels, artists talks, digital art installations, chess games, lots of hip-hop, and there’s a film strand. We really want to expand how people receive poetry.

Do you think that kind of genre mash-up is something that people are really craving – or do you think this is an experiment in itself, that you don’t know how people will react?

At the end of the day we can never really be sure, but we’ve had an unbelievably large amount of really good feedback. Even when we just announced the festival, everyone was like, ‘finally, someone’s doing this’ – and that was really refreshing. All of the team members have really varied backgrounds, so there are lots of different things we can offer and create a really varied bill. We also didn’t want to do the same thing that StAnza’s doing perfectly – we really wanted to take a different approach because there’s no point to having two of the same thing. I’m personally very invested in multidisciplinary arts and looking at how poetry can be something like (and often is) more than words on a page or spoken aloud, so I really like the fact that we’re emphasising that.

The festival’s name ‘Push The Boat Out’ comes from an Edwin Morgan poem – do you think that theme of innovation is something distinct to Scottish poetry, or a modern trend more generally?

Of course Edwin Morgan is, was, the poet that he is at least partially because he’s Scottish. There’s something to be said for that, and for how place interacts with how people write and perceive the world, and how people feel that it’s necessary to articulate their world as well. So we certainly have a really strong Scottish focus, especially this year, in the fact that covid is ongoing and it’s very difficult to include really strong international programming. We are looking at expanding that in future years (we are Edinburgh’s International Poetry Festival) and we certainly do have some international poets as well – we’re going to be streaming some people from all the way across the pond.
Also, there’s a lot of varied poetry that’s happening in Scotland specifically. There are tonnes of different voices and perceptions of what’s important to poetry, and we mostly want to be a platform to be used by poets to say something. We don’t want to limit anybody in that way; we’d like to provide this space and opportunity for poets to do what they want to do, especially if it’s not something really possible to do anywhere else. I would say that the voice of the festival is quite Scottish, it’s certainly Scotland specific, Edinburgh specific in places, but also leaves room for the expanse – like Edwin Morgan’s poem really calls for. The themes of that poem are really key for the festival, especially organising a festival during covid.

Thinking about those ideas of place and the interactive element of the festival, can you tell me about the ‘A Poetry Mile’ project?

I love this project! ‘A Poetry Mile’ is a web app, we released it on Oct 1st, and it will be accessible for an entire year after that. It’s very covid-accessible because it’s outdoors, you can do it by yourself or with your cohort, and you can choose to do it whenever you like; also you can access it fully online, so you don’t necessarily need to be in the spaces to listen to the poems. The idea, though, is that it takes you on a walking tour, and treats you with a bunch of different poems by a bunch of different poets who have written poems to/for/in spaces in Edinburgh that are very specific.
There are Edinburgh spaces that have lots of poems, but there are also poems that are associated with other spaces you might not think of, because what you’re getting through the project are little titbits of ongoing personal history of Edinburgh, of poets that are writing in Edinburgh at the moment. I think that it’s quite important to heritage, because you get this overall view – and it’s cool to introduce or reintroduce people to Edinburgh, who’ve been here for a long time and are very used to their own roots or views. So you can go to Holyrood park, Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, or some random restaurant that a poet really likes – and you might have been in the same place a hundred times, but you can see it differently because of the poems that are associated with those locations.
I find the project very meditative and introspective as well. I find that whenever I go on walks I just end up in my head a lot of the time, but this way, maybe you can end up in somebody else’s head, or have somebody in yours a little bit to help you kind of have a new perspective.

That also leads us into the dialogue cultivated during the pandemic about how much we need the arts – as comfort, entertainment, or solace when everyone’s been so isolated. Is there anything distinct to poetry itself, that explains why it remains relevant and engaging today?

I think that every form has something it can do or facilitate particularly well, which is why they’re really quite universal and endless. But for me specifically, poetry is a form of language, potentially the only form of language, that really gets as close as we can to things we can’t actually articulate with language. There are limits to language and linguistics, we’re always just trying to represent something with words, especially when it comes to feelings: describing feelings, affect, something very difficult to comprehend as an experience. What we’re doing always is trying to interpret that with language, and I think that poetry, because it’s a very precise and concise, but also really expansive form, and you can break lots of rule with it, just really helps you to see those things differently. And that ties in a lot of the time with healing and recovery, which is something that we’re attempting always; it’s a process more than an end point, but poetry can really help us with that. There are lots of other tools, of course, but poetry is a really important part, which is why healing and recovery is one of the festival themes. Especially because it’s a festival that’s been entirely produced and must be oriented around the fact that covid exists, it really gives us an opportunity to consider that and think through it.
I think, especially as a poet, that there’s tonnes and tonnes of different kinds of poetry. There’s the academic, ‘elitist’ poetry and that serves its own role, and there’s really democratic, accessible poetry and that has its role. When we limit our perception of poetry to being one of those things, or any of the other plethora of types of poetry that exists, we’re doing ourselves an injustice, because we’re saying ‘ok, this isn’t for me’, when really poetry, because it’s so expansive in definition, it really can be for everybody. That’s why we’ve got some 30-odd different events!

On that note, is there an event you’re most excited for?

It’s so hard to pick, because we have so many different kinds of events. The first thing that comes to mind are the headliners – those are unbelievably exciting. One of them, which we’ve called ‘Big Saturday Night’, has so many very cool names in hip-hop. Obviously I’m very excited about the big name events, but there’s also a bunch of smaller ones I’m really looking forward to as well. All of the organisational takeovers are going to be very cool, like the Scottish BAME Writers Network event, they’ve just got a really huge lineup of poets who are going to be there. I can’t choose, I’m sorry!

Push The Boat Out will take place from 15-17 October at Summerhall. Tickets are available to buy at pushtheboatout.org; A Poetry Mile can be accessed at walks.pushtheboatout.org.

Image: Push The Boat Out