Curator Interviews: Spoken Word with Alyson Kissner

We caught up with one of our Spoken Word curators, Alyson Kissner, to hear more about the process of selecting this year’s spoken word and poetry programme.

Alyson Kissner is a writer and poet based in Edinburgh, who is currently undertaking a PhD in Poetry at the University of Edinburgh and is a reader at PANK Magazine.

Tell us a little bit about your process when selecting this year’s program – how did you go about narrowing down the applications?

We actually had more Spoken Word applications sent in this year for Hidden Door than in any year prior, which was really exciting but, of course, more of a task to pick who we were going to go with!

The curation team is just a small group including myself and two readers, Alycia Pirmohamed and Mae Diansangu, who are both wonderful poets in their own right. We started by looking at the applications separately, making our notes and figuring out who excited us and what ideas caught and kept our attention.

Afterwards, we came together at a series of meetings to compare our notes. It was really nice to find that most of our instincts completely overlapped, so we didn’t have so much of a back and forth. That’s not to say that there weren’t some tough cuts. There were a number of really high quality applications from well-known performers and newer artists alike, that we unfortunately didn’t end up going with. But we were quickly able to see the way that themes and performances complimented and contrasted each other. It was fun to go through that process with Alycia and Mae, and to imagine how the performances could make each other stronger.

Did you approach the curation process explicitly looking to explore certain themes, or did it come up organically?

No, we didn’t go into the process searching for a specific theme. We definitely wanted to platform new voices alongside seasoned professionals to give multiple people the opportunity to perform at an amazing festival like Hidden Door. But, the themes themselves emerged along the way. As we were reading, we noticed so many concepts of myth-making, of people coming in with imagined realities, alternate futures and even those just taking the present and blowing it open in metaphor, in these fantastical worlds.

There was a sense of transience to those performances, with artists conveying their own realities, with a sense of impermeability between the borders of stories and the stage. It made us feel like you could go to one performance, and it would be its own show and its own world, and you could slip into another and it would be the same – but with the extra sense that you could move through the program like water, moving from one side of the world to the next.

So that was, again, I think one of the most exciting things to see, the ways that our performances complement one another, despite their differences and individual impacts.

The performances will take place in the Pianodrome, a unique and intimate seated space built from recycled pianos. How much did you factor in the space in making your curation choices? 

Well, we were considering the applications first and foremost, because the curation process has been almost a collaboration with the artists. We started with the artists that impressed us the most, and that were feasible – for example, there were some people that we couldn’t use because they needed more outdoor space or props than we were able to provide. After we had made those selections we came back to them with a series of surveys, to explore whether they could adapt their performance ideas to suit the unique space of the Pianodrome or the High School.

I think what’s been really cool about this process – I’ve spoken with certain artists who have done their performances before, or are planning to perform them at other venues or festivals such as the upcoming Fringe, and they’re adapting it specifically for the Pianodrome, to best use the acoustics and environment of that space. So if you come to Hidden Door and see a show that you will end up seeing again a few months later, you’re going to get a different experience influenced by how the poets choose to use that venue.

A lot of performances go beyond pure spoken word, incorporating different forms and mediums such as music or mixed media (or bread making, which I think a lot of people are curious about!). Can you tell us a bit more about the decision to explore these more experimental approaches?

I would say there were a lot of applications that were using these experimental approaches, but we didn’t pick them just because they were experimental. I think when you’re experiencing poetry that’s on a page, you have the relationship between the reader, the blank space, and the transmission of ideas takes place in that one particular zone. Wherever you’re reading and whatever you’re doing influences your reading, which the author can’t control. Whereas, when you’re dealing with spoken word, obviously the artist is participating directly with the audience in the room. They control the pace, the tone. I think it was interesting to see the way that Hidden Door artists were taking their voices or bodies and expanding them, or adding in other elements, or textures, or senses to that show, and really considering what they could do with the audience.

So, to use Sean Wai Keung’s performance as an example, bread making can be a part of poetry, and a way of augmenting the themes of the stories being told. You might have seen that we’ll have Natalie Jayne Clark and Nicole Tait incorporating pole dancing into their spoken word, or artists playing with light – having things done in darkness, or having spotlights narrowing things down, as with Sarah Boulton. It’s been really rewarding to see the different ways our poets are engaging with these elements.

Coming back to the pole dancing performance you just mentioned – I noticed that quite a few of the works seem politically focused, such as Natalie Jayne Clark and Nicole Tait’s pole dancing work which has a focus on feminist issues, and Gray Crosbie’s which explores trans issues. Was it important to you to platform these kinds of artists with political messages?

I don’t think those themes, for me at least, are necessarily explicitly political. I think art reflects what’s exterior or outside of us, as well as our internal or interior experiences, bringing light to what lives. It can elucidate what we’ve been through by blowing that outwards, or take the lens outside and bring that into focus instead, whether it’s socioeconomic or cultural or anything else. We picked the artists that we did for their talent, for the sharpness with which they approached the craft, and the power of their voices and depth of their insights.

Issues of equity are important to me, so I’m glad the performances that we are platforming are broad ranging, tender and moving – and that Hidden Door is a safe space for these issues – but it wasn’t simply to fill any sort of political bent. This is some of the best poetic talent the UK has to offer.

Although there’s a range of nationalities represented, many of the performers are either Scottish or based in Scotland, and their work explores ideas of place and culture. Did you make an effort to include work which touches on local issues, or did it sort of come up naturally?

I think we just got quite lucky really, because we’re a festival in Scotland and I think a lot of local artists were really happy to play in their own backyards, or to connect with that aspect of their personhood. And again, just with the talent and the quality of what they were doing and saying, it was natural and inevitable that there would be some complex and impactful explorations of Scottish topics that would show up. 

Finally, to help any readers navigate what they might want to see – what are some performances across the Spoken Word program that you’re most excited to see come together and why?

You know, I find that so hard! Maybe this is me skipping the question, but I’m going to name a few. We’re delighted to have groups of individual performers coming together for the festival, different artists who may have done performances separately but will now be building creativity together. For example, there’s the show with Jennifer Wong, Jinhao Xie, Tim Tim Cheng, L Kiew called Gran’s! A Poetry Party, a sort of celebration of our elders, and they’re encouraging people to dress up like their grandparents if they want to, which I think will be really fun as an audience member.

It’s also amazing that we have artists who are well established, like Victoria McNulty who has done tons of amazing shows, alongside people like Texture who haven’t performed for a while and are making a new debut, and then we have new poets that have never done their shows before that are using Hidden Doors as a jumping off point, like Gray Crosbie who we’ve mentioned. I think it’s thrilling, to me, that you can go and move between those different levels of experience and see people engaging in their art at different stages of their careers.