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Prize-winning poet Pedersen brings the Neus to the north

By Kyle Walker

Michael Pedersen (right) with Oyster collaborator Scott Hutchison.
Michael Pedersen (right) with Oyster collaborator Scott Hutchison.

EDIT: RIP Scott Hutchison. Please don't suffer in silence:

Michael Pedersen has developed a knack for bringing disparate elements together.

Over the last several years, the award-winning Edinburgh poet has been at the forefront of Scotland’s independent arts scene, as the Neu! Reekie! nights he co-curates with Kevin Williamson fold poets, musicians and animation together into each eclectic showcase.

And as for himself, his latest poetry collection Oyster – out at the tail end of last year – brings him together with long-time friend Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, whose illustrations bring Michael’s verse to visual life.

Both sides are going to be on display next week, as the poet brings Neu! Reekie! back to Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler on Thursday for a new showcase – titled, wonderfully, Neu! Elgin! – followed by bringing the Oyster live show with Scott up to Ullapool Book Festival two days later.

But then, Michael – and Neu! Reekie! – has always had an eye for the small venues, ever since the collective’s 2015 tour Anywhere but the Cities.

“It was about seeing if the Neu! Reekie! format worked outside Edinburgh and Glasgow and Dundee and Stirling,” Michael explained. “And the one place that we missed off that tour was Elgin – so we were pretty gutted about that.”

Managing to get there eventually, the collective struck up a good rapport with the Cobbler’s booker Ross Archibald. “He was really receptive to it, and I guess we forged a cultural link with him. Rather than just bring the show to town this time, we’ve consulted Ross with the acts that we’d like to bring, and asked him for a little bit of local input as well for a couple of local artists that he thinks are making nice waves up in Elgin.”

That approach means that Scottish Album of the Year winner Kathryn Joseph and spoken word/hip hop artist Solareye – the solo pseudonym of Stanley Odd frontman Dave Hook – are joined on the night by Moray talents in the form of singer-songwriter Calum Mackenzie Jones and poet Cameron Campbell.

Michael Pedersen (right) with Oyster collaborator Scott Hutchison.
Michael Pedersen (right) with Oyster collaborator Scott Hutchison.

“We’re not running a show into town and running it out of town,” Michael said. “We’re bringing some of the sort of vanguard of Scottish music and literature, but we’re also looking to integrate what Elgin has to offer into that. So this is sort of a co-parented evening of artistic lustre.”

Laying down roots and working with these communities to bring out their best is something of a Neu! Reekie! tradition. The collective have created shows everywhere from old bath houses to dilapidated theatres.

Michael and the collective have even been willing to fight to save the places they love – standing alongside the Save Leith Walk campaign as the independent area within Edinburgh finds itself under threat of redevelopment.

“There’s now a Starbucks and a Costa in Leith, which has never been the case – apart from the big supermarkets it was independent buildings,” he said.

“It’s a gentrification story, isn’t it? Everybody wants to live there, the house prices come up, it then becomes a desirable student location, chains move in for the first time and everybody that gave it this sort of original spark can no longer afford to live there and moves out.

“There’ll be no sort of freelancers or visual artists or young artistic practitioners, they aren’t making enough that they can rival a corporate salary.”

It’s keeping these communities thriving that matters. And the Neu! Elgin! showcase is all about that.

Michael will be co-hosting the evening with Neu! Reekie! co-conspirator Kevin Williamson, and a few poems are on the agenda.

The front cover for Michael Pedersen's new collection of poetry, Oyster.
The front cover for Michael Pedersen's new collection of poetry, Oyster.

As for the full experience, that will be unleashed on Ullapool book festival on Saturday, May 12 when he and Scott Hutchison bring the live show Oyster.

“My poems are very autobiographical,” he said. “A lot of them are social narratives about people I know, about experiences I’ve underwent – I sort of tackle head-on a lot of the more gnarly issues around urban life, about sex and drug use.

“I don’t hide away from a lot of things that happened to me in the past – having a hard time working as a lawyer down in London, things like heroin use, having friends who are really engaged in alcoholism, being surrounded by sometimes put in difficult circumstances where people employ quite racist or misogynistic language...

“It’s just sort of I guess the issues we all tackle day to day, but dealing with them up-front in poetry where it gives me more time to think.”

And the show that he and Scott will be bringing to Ullapool is more than an average poetry show. A mixture of music and song, the two bounce off each other throughout. “We have a sort of ongoing dialogue between the two of us and I’ll read a poem and Scott will spin off that and play a song, and we sort of curate and dictate each other’s setlist in a way.”

Oyster has already visited literary crowds at Edinburgh and Glasgow, London and South Africa.

They’ve even brought the show to places that you might not expect to find poetry – performing Scottish music festival Electric Fields and opening for Idlewild at their 15th anniversary gigs – but then, after all, Michael has always had a knack for bringing disparate elements together.

“You’re really having to work hard to win these audiences – 12-to-1500 people who are there to see a rock band,” the poet said, “but so far they’ve all went pretty well.”

Michael Pedersen co-hosts the Neu! Elgin! showcase at the Drouthy Cobbler on Thursday. He then brings his poetry collection Oyster to Ullapool Book Festival for a live show at the Village Hall on Saturday, May 12. Follow @ScribePedersen/@NeuReekie on Twitter.

Watch Michael Pedersen perform Oyster at the O2 ABC supporting Idlewild (WARNING one bit of NSFW language before the poem):

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