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A chance meeting led to Canadian poets appearing at Edinburgh Fringe


The Shaken and Stirred Poets: Steven Heighton, Jeanette Lynes, Catherine Graham, Ian Burgham (photo: Ginger Pharand)

It began, in one respect, because a poet was in need of a pen.

Though based in Kingston, Ontario, poet Ian Burgham is no stranger to Scotland, having done post-graduate work at the University of Edinburgh and worked part-time in the late 1970s at Canongate, the Edinburgh-based publishing house. “It’s a small literary world,” Burgham says. “Pretty much everyone in Scotland is literary.” In 2014, Burgham found himself travelling by train from Manchester to London and was struck by the urge to write, but without anything to write with. He asked a stranger for a pen, mentioning that he was a poet. The stranger asked Burgham who his favourite U.K. poets were, and Burgham named Simon Armitage: “He said, What poem do you like most of Simon’s? I said, ‘The Shout.’ He then recited it to me on the spot – and beautifully.”

The stranger with the pen turned out to be Mike Garry, a spoken-word poet who has collaborated with Philip Glass and New Order (the poet and the band appeared onstage together at Carnegie Hall), and has been called “the voice of Manchester United” football team by the Irish Examiner. “He’s a rock star,” says Canadian poet Jeanette Lynes.

The chance train meeting turned out to be, in Burgham’s words, a “game changer.” Last October, Garry facilitated a mini-tour of U.K. readings and appearances for a Canadian quartet known as the Shaken and Stirred Poets, a group comprising Burgham and Lynes, along with Catherine Graham and Steven Heighton. The fall 2015 tour included stops at Manchester’s Chorlton Library, the University of Westminster, and the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh.

That trip led to an invitation for the group to appear at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world. The Shaken and Stirred Poets – the name, says Burgham, is a tip of the hat to the lack of support for writers and artists under former prime minister Stephen Harper – will perform on the Fringe roster at the Scottish Arts Club from Aug. 15–23. In addition, they will appear, alongside jazz musicians Ron Davis and Daniela Nardi, at two launches for Gutter, a well-regarded Scottish literary quarterly that has featured work by Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Don Patterson, and John Glenday. “This is their summer edition and they’re including us in it, and profiling us, and asking us to participate in launches in Edinburgh and Glasgow,” Burgham says. On top of that, the group has been invited to give workshops at the University of Glasgow and to participate in events with the Glasgow poetry network St. Mungo’s Mirrorball, which Burgham says “has the largest active poetry group in Scotland, if not the U.K.”

The quartet’s composition came about serendipitously. “We were probably in a pub in Kingston, or something,” says Lynes. “A lot of ideas are hatched, when it comes to poets, over a few pints.” But, Lynes adds, the driving force behind securing the U.K. gigs was Burgham: “Ian needs to be credited for spearheading all of this. He has many networks in the U.K., so we’re travelling on his coattails. At least, I am.”

And the chance meeting on the train helped make it a reality. Garry “kind of gave us an entrée into that world,” says Lynes. “That’s probably a little different than if we’d just shown up and said, ‘Hey, we’re from Canada. Love us.’”

Heighton also credits Garry with providing the opportunity to appear in Scotland, and pushing him to give a better reading once there. “Being around Mike Garry made me a better performer. He sets the bar so high. And speaking of bars, it also helped that one of our readings was integrated with a lengthy whisky tasting.”

As was the case in the fall, the poets are largely self-funding their travel to the Fringe. They were turned down for a travel grant from the Ontario Arts Council, due at least in part, says Burgham, to the council’s budget limitations. “The OAC told us they simply ran out of money. I have great sympathy for that, because there’s a lot of competition, a lot of good things to be supported. I wish they had more money.” Elsewhere, there is partial funding from the Kingston-based Centre for Creative Learning, which is kicking in $5,000 to support the trip. And, as of mid-July, an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign had raised another $12,000. Otherwise, says Graham, “We’re doing this all on our own.”

The endeavour has already paid off: in an ad hoc poetry exchange, the Centre for Creative Learning is bringing Garry to Canada this fall to read and run workshops; musicians Davis and Nardi have been invited to perform on BBC Radio 3 while in the U.K.; and the Fringe affords the Canadian poetry quartet an opportunity to break our domestic verse out in front of a large international audience. “You don’t know these things as you go,” Graham says. “You’re just hoping for a nice response. And the responses have been really positive. It’s exciting.”