The Power Of Spoken Word To Claim Our Voices And Truths (A Night At The Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival)

Hey everyone. Last Thursday night I had the honour of appearing at a Words and Music session as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival at Hamishes Hoose. This cosy wee venue was a cracking place to spend a few hours especially when your performing at an event to promote positive mental health and well being.

I was invited to the event by the organiser Theresa Maitland and the theme of the night and indeed the festival, was power. With this in mind I was determined to select the most powerful and empowering set possible and make it appropriate to the evening.

There was a fantastic variety of performers who had come to be part of the evening’s entertainment from as far afield as Johnstone, Falkirk, and the People’s Republic of Baillieston. Those in attendance included rising star of Scottish spoken word scene Kevin P Gilday and Faith and Unbelief Competition Winner Shaun Moore.

On arriving at the venue I chatted with Theresa about what poems would be most suitable for performing and from a not so short list of 10 we eventually decided on the three I would read as part of my set. I was told in no uncertain terms that she wanted to me to focus on poems with a bit of humour as she had heard I was very funny. I don’t know who told her that but I know I can be little miss quick quip as and when the occasion demands but more of me it was now time to focus as it would be soon be time for the first performer to take the stage.

It was a local lass Gemma Millroy who got the evening started and I have to say she did it style. Gemma sang two songs, Warriors, and Footsteps in the Sand. This was my first time hearing Gemma and I must admit to being impressed. I said as much to Kevin Gilday and he agreed saying that she had the kind of voice which wouldn’t be out of place on the X-Factor and believe me he is as bang on the money with his assessment of Gemma’s music as he is with his poetry.

Next to take the stage was Falkirk based poet and storyteller Glen Merriless. Glen’s poem That Night in which he recalls the night which led to his nervous breakdown was an incredibly moving piece in which he pleaded with those in the audience not to be judgemental and reminded them that they could be the next victim of depression.

As Glenn departed the stage his place was taken by Laura Guthrie. Laura read a story and a poem How To Win Over Grown Up’s and Special Ed. I have to say I enjoyed both pieces as they both had strong positive messages. I do however have to say that I was particularly pleased to hear the first of her pieces which was a brilliant piece of prose which has the potential not only be given as advice to children but could also double up as the opening to a story called terrorism for beginners. This had me smiling from beginning to end and I couldn’t help but thinking of my friend Steve Allan who has a three year old daughter and I doubt if she needs any of this advice as she already has her dad safely under control.

In her other piece Laura tackled another topical subject namely segregated education or as she referred to it Special Ed. In a piece which was both humorous and hard hitting she didn’t miss her targets. You know, as liberal and radical as we like to pretend we are in the Scotland of 2014, I am afraid we are only fooling ourselves by perpetuating this delusion. Unfortunately Scotland even in the early years of the third millenium is still a deeply socially conservative nation prone to far too much prejudice and discrimination against those who do not conform to the so-called norms. It seems we still fear the imagined other and don’t value diversity and difference anywhere near as much as we claim. We are and it pains to me say this very reluctant to embrace to change you need look no further than the referendum result for proof of the fact.

The last performer before the break was none other than the golden boy of the new generation Kevin Gilday. In a short but excellent set Kevin performed three poems The Man Who Loved Beer, Hangover Sex, and The Workie. I have to say I particularly enjoyed The Workie in which Kevin rips in to the social snobbery which blights our attitudes to certain people particularly tradesmen who some individuals see fit to look down on. Kevin deals with a difficult topic in a sensitive intelligent manner which shows exactly why he is so highly rated amongst his poetic peers.

After the break Glen was invited back up to perform another poem, and he ended up performing two Barriers and Midgies, both of which were highly entertaining. I have to say I did prefer Barriers and actually thought it was his best poem of the night as it combined powerful imagery with a very strong message of the real problems faced by people with Mental Health Issues.

After Glen there was music from Steven McBride and Higgs a couple of Paisley based buskers who sang a couple of songs for us and whom I hope the good people of Paisley and Greater Renfrewshire will give a listen if they ever heard in or around the town centre.

The next act to the stage was the man who I credit for getting me my invitation to play at this event Shaun Moore. I’ve only got to know Shaun in the past few months as he is a fairly new face on the spoken word scene though he has made an instant impact not only attending regular events such as Words And Music and Last Monday At Rio but winning the first Faith and Unbelief open poetry competition.

In an explosive set Sean looked the dynamics of power within relationships. The first poem tackled the issues of lust and desire as the male of the partnership pursues and wins the heart of the woman proving his reputation as an alpha male. This is so the narrator thinks a man of power and therefore a man a woman can trust.

In the second poem the dynamics begin to get more complex as having won his trophy the man starts to take advantage of the woman neglecting her and showing less of the emotional qualities which had been so important in winning her heart.

In the third poem in his set Sean moves on to the frightening side of power to bully, abuse and manipulate people until the person on the receiving end feels so completely worthless. It is at this point though it is only implied and never stated that we realise that it isn’t the women who is insecure and worthless it is actually the abuser who is riddled with insecurities which he cannot express for fear of exposing the fragile mask of manhood he dare not remove. This was a brilliant set and a tough act to follow and you’ll never guess who had to do it yes that’s right yours truly.

As I took the stage I was mindful of the fact that I had heard some guys who were probably only in for a couple of beers try to heckle Glen. So bearing this in mind I decided to tackle them head on by introducing myself the Glasgow way.

I informed the audience that my name is Gayle Smith and I am a 53 year old transsexual woman and told them that if they had a problem with that they were perfectly free to leave. I also told them that there was two ways they could exercise that choice one was the door and the other was the window but it would be in their interests to take the safer route.

Having given people there health and safety instructions I started my set with a poem with a question in the title. Being a gentle wee soul I informed the men in the gathering that the only acceptable answer to this question if they wanted to keep their bodily parts intact was yes. The poem was Do I Look Good In This? and it seemed to go down very well. This was particularly true with the women in the crowd. Well let’s face it, we’ve all been there and we’ve had someone give us the wrong reply.

I followed this up by reading A Trans Daughter Remembers Her Mother which I wrote on World Transgender Day to commemorate the challenging but rewarding relationship I had with my mother a socially conservative woman who had difficulty accepting my desire to be female let alone embracing it at least in public. That said however, I found her to be far more accommodating of my issue in private and would sometimes help me with my make up and give me what she considered to be essential girlie advice. There would even be times she would call me through to the living room to watch the Chippendales if they were on TV and the house was empty. I know my mum wanted a daughter but as the poem states she just found difficult to accept that I could be that daughter.

I finished my set with a poem about relationships entitled. A Single Girl On Valentine’s Night in which I clearly state that whilst many women feel pressurised to be in a relationship on that particular evening a confident woman knows love is not just about Valentine’s day and it can happen any time of the year.

Duncan Hunter followed me with a rendition of the Paul Simon classic Down By The School Yard before giving way to Theresa to perform her poem Re-Invented then coming back to finish the evening with If I Ever Leave This World Alive and bring the performances to a close on a night when all of the performers demonstrated the true power of words to be used in a positive way.

At the end of the evening I got chatting to a few members of the audience and decided to take a very quick opinion poll as to what was my best poem of the night. I have to say it comes as no surprise that Do I Look Good In This? was the clear winner I think the comedy value worked wonders. There were also a few votes for A Single Girl On Valentine Night but only one for A Trans Daughter Remembers Her Mother. This came from a lovely young lesbian who was in the pub with her girlfriend and it was great to see openly their affection for each other. Believe me these two were more loved up than the vast majority of straight couples I’ve seen. The chatty one told me that people should be more positive about embracing difference and accepting each other for who they are rather than who society wants or expects them to be.

This was the perfect way to end an excellent night and as I made my way back first to Glasgow then on to Baillieston I reflected on Colleen and Becca and the fact that meeting them had unquestionably added to the value and enjoyment of the night as they were the perfect embodiment of the fact that good crops need to be sown before we can reap the harvest of better mental health. You see I believe that when we speak with words of principle, power, and passion they help us to remember that the art of spoken word has an important role to play in empowering us to claim the right to our voices and our truths.

Love And Best Wishes
Gayle X

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