Co-producer of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Babble On series, Becky Fincham, opens this showcase of performance poets by harking back to the Women’s Marches that protested Donald Trump’s presidency. There is a feeling that the women speaking today, Sophia Walker, Iona Lee, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Jemima Foxtrot, are being shown off in an act of defiance against today’s increasingly rampant sexism. This is also a celebration of the diversity, both in background and in artistic style, of women working in the spoken word scene.
From the moment that she takes the stage, Walker shows herself to be a true force of nature. Her poems are full of power, rage, and indignation, with no need for a preamble as she launches from one piece to the next. Her poetry covers tough topics like war in Uganda and the effects of pornography on teenage relationships with an impressively unabashed candour. One image that sticks out is the juxtaposition of “beach” and “beached bodies”, which attacks the shallowness of focussing on Western standards of beauty whilst ignoring the refugee crisis.
Lee’s performance is by comparison more personal. By putting her experiences as a young woman centre stage she suggests that girls, like their elders, are worth taking seriously too. Her poem about a teen romance at a party gives her fourteen-year-old protagonist, who punctuates her bodily insecurities with the world-weary sigh “Never mind”, a depth that we often forget to attribute to adolescent girls. Lee, once Scotland’s 2014 Slam Champion, is unhurried, methodic, and deliberate as she speaks, reminding us of the deliciousness of language by lingering on different sounds.
Mahfouz treats us to a reading from her latest collection of poetry, How You Might Know Me, which explores the sex industry from the perspective of four different women. You could describe the piece as Dickensian, given the strength of characterisation and wit in each woman’s voice. Mahfouz inhabits each woman with a clear sense of their personalities, delighting us with a torrent of words in a heavy London accent before slowing into a sweeter and more hesitant voice for her youngest character. We get a real sense of her prowess as a performer as well as a writer.
Foxtrot has translated some of her writing into songs, which her stripped back structure and use of consonance lends itself to well. The resulting melody almost sounds like a children’s lullaby, which gives an especial joy to her closing poem. Foxtrot adapts Jonathan Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room to talk about the private lives of women’s bodies. Lines like “Celia coughs, Celia vomits, Celia sneezes and pisses and shits” are delivered in a sing-song voice that takes delight in its scatalogical nature. Foxtrot’s depiction of women feels at once cheeky and true.