Making live events happen: talking to musician, poet and community activist Elaine McGinty
Write Out Loud Woking is moving to a new live venue in Woking at the end of this month. The Fiery Bird community arts and live music venue has opened up in a new ‘temporary’ home in Woking, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Elaine McGinty, her partner Joe Buckley, and a host of volunteers, over many years of false dawns and setbacks that are still continuing. As well as being a community facilitator and activist, Elaine is an artist in her own right. In addition to hosting a weekly local radio show and interviewing both local names and national celebrities, Elaine fronted a band for many years, before more recently switching to poetry. She has spoken about the differences - and similarities - of performing music and poetry, and about the things that motivate her, in an interview with Write Out Loud:
What prompted you to switch from fronting a band to performing spoken word/poetry?
The band’s song lyrics were always poems that I had written, adapted to fit the band. Joe and I didn’t have time to run a band and do all the work with the Phoenix. We enjoyed the band, though found that gigs are mainly genre-led, which felt a bit restricting. The band dynamic was moving towards a heavier set and that meant that lyrics and words that were important to us were getting lost. So that, and the logistics of trying to organise a band and a community project that’s operational when most bands need to play was difficult. We believe though, that the Phoenix/Fiery Bird should be run by gigging practitioners so it is important to us that we continue in some form.
After we finished, I had been talking to another musician, Vera Howard from Jelly, who is also an artist. She asked for some lyrics to illustrate an article she was doing about me. When I sent them she asked why I hadn’t tried to get them published and offered to illustrate a collection. I love Vera’s work so was incredibly flattered. She illustrated several and I sent them off as requested by a publisher but they didn’t pick them up and I haven’t researched any further. Every time I feel I might, there is something to deal with on Phoenix/Fiery Bird.
How would you describe your poetry?
My poetry isn’t well crafted. Often it is immediately present and written down as it comes. I don’t consider myself as a skilled poet or necessarily one at all, though that is the word that will appear to advertise gigs or anything. It feels fraudulent for what is really a behaviour and something I have been doing all my life. Some things that I feel might fit well with spoken word performance are not necessarily so good written down, and vice versa.
I find it odd when people describe my work as political. It is mainly observant of anything that affects anyone in life - grief, family, alienation and sometimes, the systems that can disempower us. It will just as easily be written about trees or how lovely everyday things are, though. I find it odd that anything is considered political, when either everything is or everything is just life, community and our social contract. I am not sure about genres like that - sometimes it is an easy thing to dismiss as just polemic, when it’s really unfairness and lived experience being discussed.
Occasionally, I do commissions for people. One woman asked me to write four poems about pieces of their life together to win her partner back. After the third poem I didn’t hear anything for a while so was worried she hated them. A short while later, she sent me their wedding pictures, then their first baby picture, then his first birthday and now they are having a second child. That was a lovely situation to find that poetry had meaning for them. Lovely of them to tell me the subsequent story too, every few months a delightful message arrives and lifts my day, when dealing with bureaucrats feels like fighting the wind.
Do you get the same buzz from performing spoken word, as you did when you were singing at the mic?
We still do songs, there is a quieter way of doing it as we do now, so there isn’t the physical buzz of singing loudly where all energy can be channelled into it. But there is more of a buzz from connection with audiences and other people performing. It is more of a conversation than a performance.
Your partner Joe Buckley still accompanies you on bass, as he did in the band. Does that extra element help provide a crossover, as it were, from music to spoken word?
Our way of writing in the band was very similar. I would send Joe poems and he would feel a rhythm to the words that would become a bass line, we’d work on it and a melody and take it to the band and they would add their pieces. Sometimes he would send me a piece of music and that would inspire images. That hasn’t changed. We still write in the same way, we still feel and agree on how the work sounds and feels and how it can have a broader feel or influence than those easily fitted in to the band. We always have more poems and tunes than we have time for working on.
What is the difference, in your experience, between a poetry audience, and a music crowd?
I think they are often the same, as most poetry fans love music too. Poetry audiences love something that is different in a line-up of an evening and music fans (because we were at grassroots level, rarely commanding our own following crowd) can be at odds with something that might jar their taste or change the evening from their expectation. Poetry audiences seem to love it.
One of the things I love about poetry nights is to see universal themes dealt with in such a variety of perspectives. I think poetry audiences are more involved with the whole evening, responsive rather than expecting entertainment on tap. Having said that, we often do music nights with our stuff and places where people have said to me ‘I hate poetry’ and then afterwards have said they enjoyed it and will look out for more.
Do you have a favourite poetry venue?
I don’t think I do. The thing I like about the venues is the poetry promoters running them make them so welcoming and use a variety of spaces to work. Each event is so different with the diversity of people reading. I like the nights run locally by Write Out Loud, and by Sharron Green in Guildford, also Pete Cox’s Innerverse, London Poetry Books, Paper Tiger Poetry, New Poetry Shack, Lawrence Blackman’s Multipolyscribble, Hannah Stanislaus’ & Kliche Kingston’s Lost Souls … there’s so many.
For many years, and through many setbacks, you and Joe principally, but supported by a number of volunteers, have devoted so much of your energies to establishing a community arts and live music venue in Woking. First it was called the Phoenix Cultural Centre, but for a number of years now it has been the Fiery Bird. How do you manage to fit in your own creative energy amongst so much administration – or has the music and poetry provided a vital safety valve from time to time?
The music and poetry has definitely provided a safety valve. There hasn’t been much time for us to pursue our own creative practice as something always needs to be done with the venue and the setbacks we continue to fight, the latest an unexpected business rates bill of £432k! It does frustrate us a bit that in order to get a platform for grassroots artists, we have to give up much of our own opportunities to be creative, but we keep trying. One of the things I have changed though, is keeping quiet about these things. We do the proper responses but also we now will speak about these things through our writing and music. What is the point of poetry after all, if it isn’t used in the here and now, in our own voices to speak of this? We just had to put our money where our mouth is and heads above the parapet and speak in the language most easy to us. If we want to have a creative space where people felt more confident to express themselves, we had to lead by example. That is important to us and why we keep doing it, even if it seems another chore on the list.
We at Write Out Loud are very grateful that the Fiery Bird has found room for our own Write Out Loud Woking open mic night at your latest ‘temporary’ venue. Is open-mic poetry just the kind of thing you were hoping to promote from the beginning, as well as live music?
Yes, we have always had a presence of poetry at our open mics and showcase events and have more planned, both run by our local Write Out Loud group who are running a welcoming monthly event, and others as well as our own. Poetry and spoken word performances is having such a resurgence and a very diverse and vibrant scene now that we are really looking forward to even more of it.
Who are your favourite poets and influences?
William Blake, Emily Dickinson, John O’Donohue, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Shelley, Maya Angelou, and lyricists like Paul Weller, Kirsty MacColl, Christy Moore, Sinead O’Connor, and people we share spaces with like you, Greg, are a joy to watch, so many; Pete Cox, Redeeming Features, Rachel Tansy Chadwick, Heather Moulson, Lee Campbell, Lawrence Blackman, Hannah Stanislaus, and so many I couldn’t name them all. I know I have left loads out.
There is also so much influence brought to bear from my cultural upbringing as part of the Irish diaspora here and the attitudes and work for social change over generations from many, including relatives and people from Co Mayo who stood very firm against discrimination and apparent ‘authority’ - it was where the Boycott was invented and Grainnuaile the pirate queen who forced Queen Elizabeth 1 to receive her as an equal monarch, was from.