Tell me a bit about your background. Where were you brought up?
I was born in 1982 and grew up in a small town called Maybole on the West Coast, in South Ayrshire. It was a great place until you were about eleven, and then there was nothing to do whatsoever. I was very much a loner kid and I read voraciously from the age of four. I got into books, novels and writing poetry and songs. Before I focused on poetry, I was a songwriter.
Did you write for a band?
I was a solo artist and occasionally played piano for various local rock bands and did backing vocals. But most of the time it was just me.
When you say you read voraciously, what sort of things did you feel an affinity with?
Well, the usual when you’re a kid, I guess: fantasy novels and Enid Blyton.’ I loved The Faraway Tree. I imagine that if the Harry Potter books had existed, I would probably have loved them. But I read anything I could get my hands on, really. I remember becoming a bit obsessed by survivor stories of Jewish children in the Second World War.
What sort of poetry appealed to you when you were a teenager?
I wasn’t hugely into the poetry we got at school, except for Edwin Morgan. I particularly loved his poem about the old man in the café struggling to go to the toilet. We had Burns shoved down our throats, because it was Ayrshire. The way poetry is taught in schools can be really alienating and I didn’t get into any other poets, although I did write poetry myself. I preferred lyricists and songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega. I listened to a lot of music.
You pick up on all sorts of details of everyday life in your poetry.
I guess it is observational poetry. Observational rants, maybe? I write about everyday things, because although I would never want to demean performance poetry by bringing it down to being some kind of ‘performing monkey’. When I’m reading poetry, it often touches me because it relates to things that I’ve thought about before and opens up something new, or just to situations that people find themselves in. I want people to feel something when they’re listening to my poems. I try not to make it all just about me. I try to make it universal.
What I find interesting about performance poetry gigs is the way that some things make for very good performance poetry, but don’t work as something to be read, whilst other things seem to function on both levels.
Yes, I’ve thought a lot about that. I know that a lot of the stuff I used to perform looks absolutely terrible on the page. It has no structure, no exact rhythm. It’s fine when performed, because I can put rhythm in myself, by speeding up a certain sentence or slowing it down. A lot of the rhymes will be the vowel sounds, rather than the actual words. That doesn’t translate well when it’s down on the page and you are reading it. But I was rebellious, perhaps because I hated poetry at school. I was like – ‘No, no. The page, no. I’ll never go there.’ But now I think it is important. This might be a bit contentious, but all the rhyming vowel sounds can make performance poets lazy. You can be an amazing performer but have no substance.
Well, to my mind a lot of your poetry has that dual existence. The way I respond to poetry is different when I read it. It is different, isn’t it?
Yes, definitely. I am a huge fan of the Edinburgh-based poet Richard Medrington. I’m perhaps his biggest fan. I have lots of his little books and have sent them to people around the world. He has really inspired me to think more about the way I write. I take time and effort to make sure that even if somebody has never seen me perform, they will still be able to relate to my poetry. I want people to be able to relate to it, or know how it is supposed to be read, just from the words. That’s my new mission!
In terms of the performance aspect of the poetry, how did you train yourself?
The first performance poet I ever saw was Jem Rolls. I was seventeen and checking out Edinburgh to see what it would be like when I moved there for university. I was walking through Princes Street Gardens with two of my friends and it started pissing down with rain, so we took cover near the stage. This strange looking poet came on stage. I loved what he did, because I had never seen poetry performed and be so energetic. The friends I was with absolutely loathed him. That was the first time I had heard of performance poetry and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m doing; that’s the kind of thing that I’m writing. My poetry is supposed to be read out.’
That’s a lovely feeling – realising that you are not working in isolation, that you are part of a movement.
Yes, but at that point Big Word didn’t exist in Scotland. The next poet I read was Clare Pollard. I think she was nineteen when she got her first collection published by Bloodaxe. That was an inspiration. Again, she was writing about things I could relate to. So those two experiences inspired me to get into it. But I didn’t perform my poetry, because there wasn’t anywhere to do it. I had moved to Glasgow (I was still songwriting) and my flat was broken into and my electric piano stolen. So I started performing my lyrics. Anita Govan, who along with Jem Rolls brought Big Word to Scotland, saw me at an open mic session and gave me a gig. So that was how I got into performance poetry – through thieves stealing my keyboard. I was very sad about it at the time, but these things happen for a reason. I entered a Big Word slam in Glasgow and came second. Because of that, I got a few gigs. Then I did one in Edinburgh and came second again. It is a standing joke that I always come second. I have never won.
My impression is that Big Word created an audience for performance poetry in Scotland.
It did, but performance poetry is universal and comes from so many different genres, there’s scope to appeal to a wide range of people. If you just focus on one area then it can fall apart, especially if a lot of your audience are performers, because they’re fickle. When I started running Big Word, the first thing I did was extend the mailing list. That’s the main way we get audiences now. We do have a core group of regulars, also people will come for certain acts. We also book a lot more music, so we get a different kind of crowd, too. It’s really very exciting. It’s about trying to keep it fresh.
In your poetry there is quite a lot to do with sexual politics. Why do you put that into your poems?
I guess the reason a lot of my sexual politics or feminist statements come out is that my poetry provides a forum where I can get these ideas across and people will listen. I get very frustrated by statements like, ‘Feminism has gone too far’. I was sixteen when the Spice Girls came out and people were calling that ‘feminism’. I was saying, ‘No, no, no. Wearing hotpants and stilettos does not make you a feminist.’ That’s not what feminism is about. It was never about that at all. It has become a dirty word. There’s that great quote from Rebecca West: ‘People call me a feminist when I make a statement that differentiates me from a doormat or a prostitute.’ Feminism has become a dirty word and I would like to reclaim it. A one-woman mission!
It is curious that feminism is identified negatively with being anti-men, whereas it certainly isn’t. Chauvinism is in hiding within people. It’s not really a matter of blame. We are all moving through a process of development, individually and collectively.
That’s it, exactly. I was speaking to this other poet, Rhian Edwards from London. I think she is about twenty-six, and very much like me. When she started performing it was all very male. You try to live up to the macho performance poetry world that you are thrown into. We met at a festival and we were both saying, ‘I want to perform in a different way and not have this pressure to be a comedian or to be dirty, or to be a ‘feisty female’. Sometimes you just want to admit, ‘No, I am vulnerable. There you go.’
What have you had published so far?
I have self-published two collections of my poems, lyrics and artwork – Blistering Mischief and Blistering Mischief Second Edition. I liked the title so much I couldn’t come up with a second one! It was originally in one of my song lyrics. Blistering Mischief summed up what it was about, because a lot of my work is very tongue-in-cheek. I have almost enough work for a new collection; its working title is Cheer Up, Jenny.
© Jennie Renton