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Event review: Discussion on Virtual and Other Realities at Push The Boat Out

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Saturday 30th October 18.37
Updated Sun 7th Nov 15.49

A ‘Discussion on Virtual and Other Realities’ seemed like the perfect event to go to as I tried to wrap my head around some reading on NFTs, and how a cryptopunk now sells for millions of dollars. How is this relevant to reviewing a poetry festival? We'll get to that in a bit.

Last week, Summerhall hosted Push The Boat Out, Edinburgh's International Poetry Festival. This talk certainly went against the more populist themes of the festival, or as they put it: ‘an antidote, perhaps, to the notion that poetry is an endless source of consolation and balm for the soul’. Chaired by Scott J Lawrie, three contemporary writers, Sam Riviere, Nicky Melville and Suzannah Evans, explored the concept of ‘other realities’ in their poetry.

The event started off with some readings of the writers' works, which were dystopian, surreal, and sometimes rather comedic – their writing seemed to be laughing at the hopelessness they feel for the future of the world. The discussion afterwards was about virtual and other realities, though perhaps not what you would expect reading the program review. At least, I went in thinking that the poems and discussion would revolve around virtual reality in a science-fiction-y way, or in an existential ‘is-this-world-real?’ sort of way. But without watering down the nuances of the conversation too much, the discussion focused more on how alternate realities, ‘other realities’, are useful for writers by enabling them to imagine the future (or just a different world). The poets talked about how they each use that tool and how it inspires their creative processes. 

Another thought-provoking topic discussed was the role of poetry in technology – with the rising popularity of poets like Rupi Kaur and the trend of influencer poetesses, it was enlightening to hear their perspective. The consensus onstage seemed to be pessimistic: with evidence that social media platforms themselves are not usually healthy for users, ingraining poetry in them surrounds it with a sense of negativity. The writers also agreed that due to the personal aspect of platforms, there is a sense of self-commodification and making oneself feel like a product. 

The conversation turned to the crypto world, and whether poetry might go in a similar direction to crypto art in the near future. Riviere in particular believes that if someone were to put up an NFT of their poem it would be ‘really depressing’, because to artificially create scarcity is silly. Interestingly enough, there are already many NTF poets, and the first edition of Etherpoems (a series of curated NFT poems on the blockchain) launched earlier this June sold out overnight. I don’t really know how much I agree with Riviere’s views on NFTs and poetry and how much they are evil. Perhaps I will understand what he meant in twenty years’ time when writers are obsolete and all literature is written by artificial intelligence – but perhaps by then the world will end anyway. 

But until all that, I think I’ll continue to read the possible last of the authentic poems. 

Image: Push The Boat Out