On the final night of Edinburgh International Festival’s A Toast to the People series, spoken-word artists Francesca Beard and Joelle Taylor end the week on a celebratory note with pieces on survival, connection, and even a few drinking songs.
First up is Taylor, who takes advantage of the set-up to promote her latest work, C+nto: & Othered Poems, written during the lockdown. The set feels like a sales pitch, and Taylor later reveals that she has copies to sell at the end (she even has a card reader). Despite the obvious grafting, Taylor is an excellent storyteller. Though she brings on a copy of C+nto, it’s clear she doesn’t need it; in fact, she ends up dropping the book – perfectly in time to her own rhythm – allowing her poem to take over.
Introducing herself as a “butch dyke”, Taylor’s work centres around her sexuality and the discrimination she has endured since a young age. Describing C+nto as “part memoir, part conjecture”, the poems read tonight are powerfully intimate as she explores themes including identity, women’s bodies, fear and dismissal of the LGBT community, and living life in protest. Her ‘Toast’ is a celebration of the LGBT+ club scene, which she describes as “holy spaces” for her community. It’s an uplifting end to a set that is as much about survival as it is about suffering.
Also focusing more on the revelry side of the series’ title is Beard, whose set largely comprises adapted drinking songs. Requiring some audience participation, Beard takes her “stolen” chants to address the climate crisis. Both nature’s beauty and fragility are the focus of these songs, including her ‘Toast’ later on. Another key theme of Beard’s set is lying, an interesting parallel with Inua Ellams and Saul Williams’ work earlier in the week. Through an amusing audience Q+A, Beard reveals our innate, collective honesty, which leads to a blunt, tongue-in-cheek short story about the lives told in professional workspaces.
Both performers seem to be so at ease on stage that it’s surprising to hear during the post-show discussion that they were terrified to perform live again. When asked by host Nadine Aisha Jassat about the pandemic’s impact on their work, Taylor talks about how the pandemic brought on a ‘forced period of introspection’ that made her reconsider ‘what words can do by themselves.’ Both highlight the sense of community and kindness that emerged during the lockdown, and the hope that this idea of looking after one another will continue. Beard also notes the importance of hearing different stories from different people; as Jassat points out, A Toast to the People has been incredibly successful this week in giving a platform to such stories.
Finishing with a poem from each performer, A Toast to the People ends the same way it began: showcasing the amazing talent of spoken-word artists both at home and abroad. There is no doubt that this partnership between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival has been a resounding success, and hopefully it’s a format that will return again next year.