reviewed by Harry Giles
Jenny Lindsay is one of Scotland's best known performance poets. She ran for many years the flagship event 'Big Word', and her major successes include, just to name the most recent, the BBC's 2012 Edinburgh slam. The Eejit Pit is an attempt to represent part of that impressive body of oral work in a tight poetry pamphlet.
The poems are performative in their writing: central to most of them is relating direct emotional experience to an audience.
Lindsay has stated publicly that she doesn't believe the book should be reviewed by anyone who hasn't seen its poems performed, seeing the texts as a record of the performances rather than something separate, like a book of lyrics to poems. I'm honouring that approach in this review, but that means considering how these two forms are related to each other. Is the pamphlet just a book of lyrics to poems, or does that sell the texts short? What does it mean to render performance as text?
It's true that her voice comes clearly across in the printed words. The poems are performative in their writing: central to most of them is relating direct emotional experience to an audience; second person direct address is common; there are plenty of poetic 'Oh's. Most obviously, there are flights of rhythm and rhyme that, while they could be found in a poem written for the page, feel more native to performance: “Love is for sap sticky hippies disappointed by the lack of certificate” (I Promise I Will Not Fall In Love With You). Whether it's in sarcastically loving odes like Edinburgh or bitter zeitgeist narratives like Tick, the voice that sounds clearly is of 21st century anger, scunnered by self-consciousness and lightened by cautious hope.
It's true also, though, that some of the poems read much weaker without her actual voice ringing in your ear. The Truth reads sweetly on the page, but slightly:
I miss the day we got the cat. And not the day I did. The cat misses you. I miss having so many socks. I miss stealing your socks and the chihuahua look you would get when irritated.
Yet when you can summon one of its performances, when you know each line is delivered with enormous emotional depth and range, the text feels much richer. Each new item in the list adds an extra dimension to the overall human loss; reading the line about the chihuahua makes me laugh and tear up because it brings directly to mind the expression Lindsay makes in performance. The page version of the poem hides those dimensions, but it's hard to imagine a better way of presenting it. This is the printed lyric to a poem, there as a memory aid rather than as a rounded and separate piece of art. The poem does work better in performance than in print, but this isn't to say that performance somehow papers over weaknesses in the poem – more that, as a poem, it has been created for a particular medium, performance, and shouldn't be criticised based on its rendering in another medium, print. Criticising this printed poem for emotional slightness would be something like criticising a film script for lack of visual depth.
With other poems, however, the tricky task of rendering performance in a meaningful way leads to exciting experimentation with form. Intimacy and Mirrors in particular are both a satisfying stramash of brackets, italicisings, boldings indentations and alignments that convey a disorienting richness of texture and rhythm. These poems would not be out of place in an avant garde poetry journal, as much for their self-awareness and alienation as for their textual innovations. What's interesting about this is that these poems have reached that point through being performative, through struggling against the forms of the page to find new ways to convey a huge range of voice and emotion in wee black marks. The most obvious and enjoyable example of this is the use of an emoticon in Mirrors, a desperate smiling face that signals the performer's emotive irony, and both celebrates and ironises the idea of emotional expression in a poem. Its placing is a thesis statement:
He, who screams monocle with twitchy, smooshy eye, says nothing I write is “proper” :-)
In other poems, surprisingly, it feels like the printed text is primary. The short title poem, The Eejit Pit, is assembled from a Scots magnetic poetry kit. It's my favourite of the collection, because it's possible to read into it so much about the development and usage of contemporary Scots. The poem invents Scots neologisms (“braw shoogle” is particularly brilliant) and effectively redeploys Scots words (verbing “Bidie-in”, the word for a live-in-lover) in a way that references the magpie reconstruction of the Scots Renaissance – as does its source in fetishising, appropriative magnetic poetry kits. But the result is also uplifting, evocative and fun, with or without Lindsay's witty performance as a reference point.
Jack, 18 from the sequence The Things You Leave Behind is another complex case, worth quoting in full:
From b&b to b&b to hostel to b&b to hostel to b&b to hostel to hostel to friends' sofas to hostel to b&b to benefits withdrawn to benefits to b&b to belongings in black bin bags more time than in a drawer to sleeping on the street to b&b to benefits withdrawn to b&b to benefits to benefits withdrawn to b&b to b&b to b&b to b&b to b&b...
Linday's performance of this poem is a straight litany, steady in tone and rhythm, given with a sense of relentlessness tailing off more in fade-out than full-stop. The poem on the page has been formatted, I think successfully, to give precisely the same sense: the lower case letters, the running paragraph, the ellipsis. So are the poem in performance and the poem on the page separate entities, or two renderings of the same ur-text, or is one merely the printed lyric to the other? And do all the poems in the book have the same status?
Jack, 18 is one of those poems that works equally well in both forms, while The Eejit Pit feels very different in print than in performance, and much of the rest of the collection wavers between printed lyrics and more impressive renderings. The whole thus offers a dialogue between the poet on the page and the poet in performance, and an argument about their relative statuses – one that comes to a head in Mirrors:
gushes torrents of misplaced words for the loneliness of this world, the loneliness of this world, where fuck would do and in the loneliness of this world he passes a Chinese whisper from the left to the right, powder puff in hand, smushed rouge, scrappy fingernails scribble the words howked out of ice cubes and written for an audience of mirrors.
I believe that the continuing debates between performance poets and page poets characterise much of contemporary British poetry, even as they increasingly cross and blur the lines between the two – take Angry Sam on Poetry By Heart on the one hand, and Scotland's makar Liz Lochhead performing at avant garde poetry, music and film night Neu! Reekie! on the other. Against this background, The Eejit Pit is a rich and complex way marker of our journey through that debate. Most of these poems have begun as independent performances, with some of them finding a rich second life in print; at least one of them has begun with text as a starting point, finding a second life in performance. There's a complex kind of interdependence happening in this pamphlet – I'd argue that it's not purely a book of lyrics to poems, but rather the beginning of a form of poetry that weaves creatively between print and performance.