Edinburgh’s live literature trailblazers talk competitive poetry, the growth of the spoken word scene in Scotland and representing the UK in Texas.
Founded in 2013, UniSlam is a competitive poetry competition that brings together teams of poets from universities all over the UK. The University of Edinburgh are not just the current reigning champions - having emerged victorious in Leicester in January - but the only winners of the competition to date with victories in Birmingham and Edinburgh.
The team is comprised of Lewis Brown, a final year literature student from Northumberland, Catherine Wilson, a third year philosophy and literature student from Deeside, Douglas Garry, a fourth year history student from Newcastle, and Rachel Rankin, who is in her fourth year of Scandinavian studies and English literature.
Alongside representing the University competitively, the team are also involved in the wider spoken word scene in Edinburgh and beyond.
As well as being the president of the Edinburgh University Literature Society, who run regular poetry slams, Catherine, alongside fellow team member Doug, helps run Loud Poets, a poetry collective who have monthly nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Catherine and Rachel are also part of the team behind Soapbox, the University of Edinburgh’s monthly open mic night held bi-weekly at the Pleasance Cabaret bar.
It is a blossoming and vibrant scene that is currently experiencing a step change in both popularity and visibility. Lewis sees this as natural growth from strong and established foundations citing longstanding poetry nights like 10 Red and Rally & Broad, but recognises that recent years have seen
a great new vitality and enthusiasm.
Lewis attributes some of this to student led events and competitions while Rachel references the wider UK scene.
I can't explain why there has suddenly been a massive leap in popularity for spoken word and performance poetry in Scotland - perhaps it has something to do with the wider UK scene bringing people like Kate Tempest and George the Poet to light, who are reinforcing the fact that poetry isn't just a tool for the mechanical analysis as learned in school.
One of the prizes for winning UniSlam was a place at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) 2016 in Austin, Texas in April.
It is a chance for the team to compete and perform on a much bigger stage and put their competitive poetry skills to the test. It is this environment that Douglas believes is
where performance and writing is refined and tested in the best way.
The team are currently fundraising to raise money for the trip. You can find our more by visiting their Go Fund Me page.
The competitive element is key because it encourages each and every poet to bring their A-game, and helps to engage audiences who otherwise might dismiss a poetry event as boring or too high-flown for them.
The team draw heavily on the here and now for inspiration including, in Doug’s case, American contemporary poets such as his hero Anis Mojgani. Rachel is equally inspired by current performers specifically Ted Hughes Award winning poet and rapper, Kate Tempest and
her very honest and modern matter-of-fact style.
YouTube also provides easy access to a vast repository of contemporary voices and Doug has unearthed a number of artists digitally including Buddy Wakefield, Shane Koyczan, Rives, Jared Singer, Rudy Francisco, and Sarah Kay.
There is still room, however, for voices from the past who can’t impress with their social media presence or live performances but whose work still resonates with our current student poets.
Through studying my degree I’ve fallen in love with poets like T.S. Eliot, Edwin Muir, Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown.