Interview: Jenny Niven & Salena Godden on new Edinburgh Poetry Festival, Push the Boat Out

Push the Boat Out is a new, multidisciplinary festival that focuses on poetry, hip hop, visual art, and the spoken word scene across the UK and Ireland. The festival will hit Edinburgh’s Summerhall from Friday 15th – Sunday 17th October.

SNACK spoke with Director/Programmer Jenny Niven and acclaimed novelist and poet Salena Godden, who will be appearing at the festival.

Push the Boat Out is a new festival for Scotland’s literature scene. Jenny, can you tell us more? What can we expect in October?

JN: Push the Boat Out is a festival that encompasses poetry, spoken word and hip hop. But there is lots of other textural stuff in there – there’s installations, artist talks, there’s a strange experience we have developed called Poetry Mile, there’s takeovers with other literature organisations, there’s film, there’s audio. So we have kind of brought together all these interesting disciplines that people are working in, in poetry and language at the moment, and have squished them all together for a weekend of fun, inspiration and interrogation of what poetry is doing right now.
Salena, what compelled you to get involved and take a punt on this new and boldly programmed festival?

SG: The people organising it are people that I’ve worked with in the past, and my friends and poets I really love are doing it, so it just looked like a jolly good idea. And Kevin Williamson is amazing – he always puts together a good programme, of course, with Neu! Reekie! And I’ve always done lots of amazing gigs and events with them. So I imagine it will be that kind of energy and good vibe that’s made such powerful events over the years.

Edinburgh is always such an exciting city and a great place to perform in. So I am happy to be returning there in a slightly different format, not doing the Book Festival, but doing something a bit different.



Salena, what can we expect from your event?

SG: It’s gonna be really high energy; it’s gonna be great fun. I really love the venue and I love all the people that are on the bill with me. The whole line-up, the whole festival is extraordinary. I am really looking forward to seeing some people that I’ve missed, and writers and poets I admire and look up to. There’s a lot of heroes that are gonna be there for this festival; there’ll be a bit of a get-together as well as we haven’t seen each other for a long time. I’m really excited and I can’t wait.


There’s a real mix of Scottish and UK-wide artists and poets on the bill. What were your criteria when you were putting that programme together?

JN: There’s a real interesting dynamic. There’s a lot of urgency about the writing that’s really interesting, and we very much started with the poets that we read and like and listen to, as most programmers do.

But I think when we started it still wasn’t exactly clear what we would be able to do performance-wise, so we started to make these tiny little podcasts trying to show, curatorially, what we are interested in. And that was really nice because it allowed us from the very beginning to reach out to poets whose work we admire and say, ‘Do you like the sound of the project – would you want to be involved?’ And as we built the model over the last year we were able to begin those conversations with different writers and artists that we wanted to work with, holding off knowing what the actual expression of that would be like because of the COVID situation.

I think it means that when you get to the programme, you’re seeing a bunch of writers that across our team we all admire and are really excited by their work, and I think that constitutes the programme.

Salena, with your event on the Saturday night, will we be hearing from Mrs Death or will we get to hear a mix of old and new poetry from you?

SG: I’ve got some new poems that I want to try out that are unpublished, some new work, but I’m also going to be reading from Mrs Death Misses Death. So much of that book is rooted in Edinburgh, and I just know it will go down a bomb there.



It’s a bold and brilliant programme of poets and musicians, with some more unusual events on there too. Which events are your personal highlights and those that you would recommend people check out?

JN: I think the first one, Poems from a Dangerous Year. Within that we’ve got a wee dash of internationalism: we’ve got the former Poet Laureate of Jamaica, Lorna Goodison, who will be joining us from Jamaica via live link up. And then we have Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe, Nick Makoha, Caroline Bird and Roseanne Watt, who are all amazing poets from the UK and Ireland and who are doing really interesting things. And we have asked all of them to read a couple of poems that they have written over lockdown, or poems that have really spoken to them, because we’re trying to think about what the role of poetry has been and is throughout these weird and turbulent times.

Throughout all these different historical shifts and periods of drama and crisis, poetry has had a place, and I am really interested in what poetry is doing right now. There’s a lot of stuff in the programme that is quite political or it comments on society or the environment, because that is the sort of work that I find really inspiring. And I think that’s what we’re asking people to do on that opening night: to use poetry as a lens to look at what we’ve been through.



There are four themes in the programme that aren’t totally explicit, but they’ve been kind of the guiding principle as we’ve put it together. They are: social justice and representation; healing and recovery (such a big area for poetry for the last wee while); climate change and eco-poetics; and virtual and other realities, which gives you a bit of a sweep across what we are interested in. But that Friday night, the opener, I hope, will set the scene.

We are also going to be joined by the cellist Esther Swift, who has taken some of Edwin Morgan’s poems and set them to music. The centenary of Edwin Morgan was last year, and his poetry is the inspiration for the festival’s title. That will be a really nice event.

SG: I think it’s all one massive highlight!

Most of the festival is in real life, from what I can gather, but is there going to be an online component to it as well for those folks out of Edinburgh?

JN: The full online line-up will be on our website. We will definitely be doing lots of stuff online – we’re going to stream things live during the festival, package some stuff up and show it afterwards. And also there will be quite a few of the sessions, the more kind of discursive discussion-based ones, that we’ll turn into podcasts.

And it’s mostly happening in Edinburgh’s Summerhall, which has been a key component of the festival since you began to develop it. Any particular reason for choosing Summerhall?

JN: Yeah, that was actually Kevin’s idea. He really envisaged that this was the best venue for this type of thing because what we were wanting to do from the start was to bring people together in one space where they will be able to take it over for the period of the festival. Hopefully people will be inspired to experiment, because I think poetry sometimes feels like it’s quite sectiona,l in a way, in that people might like some bits of it but are not often exposed to other bits. So the idea we are trying to put forward is that if you like language, you might also like this other thing.

Also, the venue was quite important for making people feel that they can roam around between different spaces and spend time there. That’s why we’ve got artistic installations as well, and the lovely folks from Lighthouse Books who are going to be doing our sales for us. They are going to have a little bespoke Push the Boat Out bookshop within Summerhall. So the venue gives us that rough and punky experimental sort of feel, but it also allows us to provide a home for our guests over the three days of the festival.

In other times, we would like to do a festival that is similar to the music festival model where you just buy one ticket for the whole thing. That just wasn’t possible with COVID, but it might be something we attempt to do in the future.

Push the Boat Out runs 15th till 17th October at Edinburgh’s Summerhall


shows.pushtheboatout.org


summerhall.co.uk


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