Lingo | A Spoken Word Festival
Lingo, Ireland’s first spoken word festival, kicks off today in Dublin city centre at long last. The three-day festival is spread across three venues, namely the Workman’s Club, the Liquor Rooms and Smock Alley Theatre, and features an astoundingly varied list of home-grown and international poets. The festival is a long time coming, with the Irish spoken word scene having spread faster in the last few years than a cat video on Facebook. On its evolution, surely each member of its six-person committee will tell a different tale but for space’s sake we’re hearing one: that of artistic director, Erin Fornoff.
It’s incredibly fitting that when Erin moved to Ireland five years ago her personal life resembled a slam poem waiting to be gesticulated into life. Freshly unemployed after working on the Obama campaign trail and recently heartbroken, Erin was in that peculiar position of seeking a community. It’s here that she trots out the oft-repeated line that she “fell into” spoken word, as if by accident or chance. Indeed, it was the same experience with me – you don’t choose the poetry life, the poetry life chooses you.
Entering the scene at a pivotal time in Dublin spoken word, Erin recalls being at the first ever Brownbread Mixtape session, a poetry and music night that would soon come to be regarded as one of the best in Dublin. Despite having not even the slightest experience in spoken word, and crippled with nerves at the very thought of performing, Erin racked up enough of a name to be a performer at Glastonbury. It was at that hallowed mecca of culture, energy and urine-soaked tents that she came to a realisation that was fast weaving through the Irish spoken word community: “Irish talent is as good as this, in some cases better.”
The problem was that Irish spoken word was still an insular and interbred community. The majority of events were held in café basements or the top floors of bars where rhyme and metre couldn’t disturb the Guinness-fuelled ruminations of the regulars, and while spreading like wildfire there was little representation online to rival that of UK or US spoken word. It was with this in mind that Erin, along with Kalle Ryan, Stephen J. Smith, Colm Keegan, Phil Lynch and Linda Devlin, came together to plan Ireland’s first spoken word festival.
A year later and Lingo is making its debut, aiming to showcase some of Ireland’s most unique and distinguished poetic voices. Erin says that one of the things that Irish spoken word has going for it is how “varied and different” it is. She acknowledges that most poets have to “start somewhere” and that it’s usually with the “stereotypical strident and angry tone of US spoken word”. The Irish poetry scene seems like the uncorrupted mountain spring of spoken word, what with our naturally musical cadence and colourful idioms passed down through families and Father Ted reruns. As Erin herself says, “Poets are Ireland’s natural resource” and it was time to make Ballygowan out of this mountain spring.
It was while performing at Glastonbury that Erin also saw how commercial spoken word could be. She recalled how “developed and professional [it was] in a way that allowed poets be working artists more so than in Ireland”. While the majority of Irish poets were happily performing at the odd gig or event, UK and US poets were utilising their talents as one would any other craft. They wrote poems for commercials, worked on TV, ran workshops funded by the Arts Council. There were publishers and grant programs specifically for spoken word artists and if a poet demanded payment for their work, the likelihood was they would get it. The committee behind Lingo wanted to bring this sense of legitimacy to the Irish spoken word scene, and it is for this reason that they pay their performers although Erin insists that it’s not enough. She believes that payment, while in no way essential, can be important to a poet as “it says your work is valid and valuable. There’s this attitude that we should be grateful that we’re let do our work. But this is our work and medium”.
With this in mind, obtaining funding was of keen focus in the organisation of Lingo. While they did not receive funding from the Arts Council, much of it came from organisations like the Dublin City Council, UNESCO and Poetry Ireland. The committee were opposed to setting up an online fundraising account because, as Erin says, “it felt like cannibalising your own people”. Showing the heart of the community, various event organisers rallied around the cause to fundraise through nights such as the Monday Echo and Brownbread Mixtape.
Even though the scene bubbles over with potential performers for such a festival, the committee were intent on selecting the performers through open submission. “One critique people had about a lot of the nights was that they were closed to non-connected people,” Erin says. “We wanted something that was truly open.” They sourced head-liners, such as poet laureate John Cummins and international act Polar Bear, through established connections in the committee but otherwise the selection process was as fair as you could want it. This method of sourcing performers allowed the committee to include poets from outside the confines of Dublin such as Fergal Costello, Sarah Clancy and Elaine Feeny. It can be tempting to think of spoken word as the type of thing cosmopolitan Dubliners do between drinking stupidly expensive coffee and looking for the perfect table top to Instagram a picture of aforementioned coffee on. The truth is there are people who are in love with words living in the suburbs of Offaly and Derry and Limerick writing down their feelings, too, and we will hear them roar.
For the coming years, Lingo plan to expand the festival enormously by increasing funding, booking more international performers and essentially making it more established in the cultural scene. There will of course be those who lament how mainstream spoken word will become, and certainly there is an attraction in being part of a community of outsiders but as Erin says “we’ve been the outsider thing for 60 years so maybe it’s time for a change”.
It is hard to believe that in a country so proud of its literary heritage it’s taken so long to launch a spoken word festival, but we have one now so we shouldn’t complain too much. Erin says she doesn’t believe that three years ago there would have been the momentum for such an event but that now it’s “in the hands of the public” and it is there that it’ll take flight. Indeed the most seductive aspect of this community is the sense of being where that infectious energy is, and right now it truly feels like the festival of outsiders will change the spoken word and literary scene entirely.
Lingo Spoken Word Festival:
Powerhouse Poets – Workman’s Club, 7pm
Everything is Political – Workman’s Club, 9pm
John Cummins – Workman’s Club, 10.15pm
The Monday Echo – Smock Alley Theatre, 4pm
The Hero Hour – Smock Alley Theatre, 7-8.30pm
Polarbear and Abby Oliveira – Smock Alley Theatre, 8.45-10.30pm
Lingo Bingo: Open Mic – Workman’s Club, 1.30-3pm
Pettycash – Workman’s Club, 3.30pm
The Lingo Poetry Slam – Workman’s Club, 7-10.30pm
- Words: Charlotte Ryan
- Photos: Courtesy of Lingo