last year’s girl at the festivals: words per minute;
When Words Per Minute, the monthly spoken word and performance event that ran in various Glasgow venues between 2010 and earlier this year, called time on the regular events a couple of months ago I was disproportionately gutted – in the same way, I suppose, as when Woolworth’s went out of business. In all the time it ran I think I only made it down about twice – but the loss was, I think, particularly heavy as despite the thriving arts scene we have in this city nothing really replicated what it did.
All is not lost, however, as WPM cofounder Kirstin Innes has always said that the event will continue to pop up whenever it can, on special occasions or as part of various festivals. And that’s exactly when will happen tomorrow night as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s “Unbound” evening strand – WPM’s “Big Time Sensuality” show promises, for free, slots from Booker-nominated Sarah Hall; Scottish Writer of the Year Alan Bissett; short story writers Hannah McGill and Kirsty Logan; Jenni Fagan, author of The Panopticon (on the Kindle in preparation for my upcoming trip to Boston); and music from Wounded Knee and Emma Pollock. I managed to grab Kirstin, who is generally even busier than me, for a quick chat via email.
Welcome back! That was a pretty short hiatus – whose idea was it to bring WPM out of retirement and how did the festival slot come about?
We never really went away: we’d had the EIBF slot lined up before our retirement. It got too much, programming seven or eight acts, plus all the promotion, every month for two years – WPM is now a streamlined guerilla operation (!), popping up at festivals on occasion. We ran an enormously successful show at EIBF’s Unbound strand (the new, free, late-night programmes at the Book Festival) last year, with about 500 people turning up. It was a bit scary, actually – really was not expecting that many. Anyway, they asked us back because of that, I think.
Your work in arts journalism means you are no stranger to the Festivals – what is your favourite thing about August in Edinburgh?
Ach, I’ve grown very cynical about Edinburgh in August. I’m taking a break from reviewing shows this year (my review total was 63 last year: I ended up weeping on my mum’s couch) and am hoping to rediscover the good stuff as a paying punter. I’m not a fan of the profiteering that goes on at the four big venues, but I do really love the smaller, independent places. My favourite venue for years was Zoo, because they put on some great dance, and Summerhall, the new venue at the old Dick Vet, has a brilliant programme. Just turn up and experience it.
Because I am a terrible person who never properly featured the regular events – tell us briefly about WPM. How did the event come about, and what can attendees expect from the evening?
I started WPM with Anneliese Mackintosh, another writer who also performs, in early 2010. We’d both performed at a number of spoken word nights, and I think we felt they could benefit from varied lineups and shorter slots, so we decided to do it ourselves! Two other writers, Kirsty Logan and Helen Sedgwick, helped me with programming for most of the time we were at the Arches. WPM runs live music and film together with writers, which means that our performers get exposure in front of a crowd who might not be familiar with their style of work, and no performer, no matter how famous, gets more than ten minutes, so the audience know they’ll be treated to lots of short, excellent bursts of work, with something else along in a minute.
How do you pick the acts to perform at your events? Are they chosen to fit around a theme – or do the acts come first, and the theme later?
I started programming themed events round about November last year, basically to spice things up (we started with a sex special), and I think it works both ways. I’ve always had a wish list of people who I’d like to perform (so, SO excited to have novelist Sarah Hall, one of my favourite writers, on at our Book Fest gig), and I always try and keep the quality really high, too. People began applying to perform as the events got more popular, so most of the regular lineups were about 50% people we’d asked to appear and 50% people who’d applied and whose work we’d loved. There’s no point putting someone on if you don’t think they’re great.
What’s been your proudest moment running the event? Have you ‘discovered’ anybody?
Not every event goes smoothly, but sometimes, when magic happens and each act is great, and the audience are having a great time: that’s a pretty good feeling. And I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for him, but I like to think we gave Michael Cassidy a wee bit of a leg up: Kirsty (Logan) had heard him play and asked him along, and our film-maker, Sean loved his work so much he recommended him to pals who run Glasgow Podcart and the Peenko blog: he’s gone on to big things from there.
The theme of Monday night’s show is “sensuality” – what does sensuality mean to you?
Well, I wanted to do an all-out sex special again, to be honest! WPM Sex 2: Electric Boogaloo or something. But the Book Festival were looking for something a bit more subtle than that. When I discussed the idea of the Big Time Sensuality Show with them, what we were looking for was writing and music that engages the audience on a physical level as well as an intellectual level. So, whether that’s writers like Jenni Fagan or Sarah Hall, who use language to make you feel something, or the shivers you can get from Wounded Knee’s sounds or the timbres of Emma Pollock’s voice. It doesn’t have to mean straight-up sexy; not saying there won’t be any sexy stuff, likes…
Are there any future WPM events in the pipeline? What have you been up to since the curtain came down – and is there anything you’d like to tell us about while we have you?
I’m working a WPM for November with the Scottish Book Trust and Refugee Week, and that’s all I can say just now. One of the main reasons for calling a stop to the monthly WPMs was to have a bit more time for my own writing: Kirsty and I have both been on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour this week, reading newly-commissioned short stories, and I’m also part of the Scottish Book Trust’s EIBF Unbound event, which is on the 27th August (same time and place as WPM).
And finally: can you recommend us anything else at the Festivals?
YES. Right. Three of my favourite WPM performers have got EXCELLENT solo shows on. Ryan Van Winkle doing Red Like Our Room Used to Be at Summerhall; Kieran Hurley’s show, Beats, a techno odessey round small-town Scotland in the 90s, is at the Traverse. And Alan Bissett (who, full disclosure, is also my fella) is putting on The Red Hourglass at the National Library of Scotland: he plays six characters, all spiders. It’s great. Weird, obviously, but GREAT.
The Big Time Sensuality Show is on tomorrow (Monday 13th) night at the Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square, from 9pm. It’s FREE, and you’re encouraged to drop-in, but you might want to do so early if you fancy getting a table.