A poetic power-station, Jem Rolls radiates energy. Gripping a whacking load of flyers in his left, pumping my hand with his right: “How’s it going? Coffee?” My buzz at an interview with this pioneer of performance poetry was already sky-high, but hell yes – a dash of caffeine to spiral the festival’s mid-afternoon frenzy.
We’re meeting in the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe; Jem is midway through a run of gigs in the underground of The Banshee Labyrinth. A chamber etched with character, its intensity befits such immersive poetry performances. For Jem’s heady blitz of words intoxicates audiences, as I found out after tunnelling down to the venue on one of my first nights. This supreme juggler of syllables held absolute command over his listeners with vocal acrobatics and pace like nothing I have ever experienced (and it is an experience, a five-star one at that). From then on, Spoken Word seeped into every snippet of space in my schedule.
Jem is a man of few material needs. He’s due another shirt or two, he tells me, the one on his back is wearing thin. What use are ‘things’ when they just have to be carted around? Jem’s a nomad, seven years strong. Performance poetry is his compass, fringe festivals his main port of call. His face animates as he describes a Canadian night that saw him reciting as he walked backwards with his entire audience in tow. He wound up his poem on a bridge just as a wickerman was set alight across the waters. Luck o’th’ lyrics.
Ethereal moments like these make the rougher patches worthwhile. And, yes, the going is not always so good. Jem’s first appearance at the Fringe antedated Spoken Word’s rise to its current in-demand status. An island of performance poetry, Jem hosted Big Word Performance Poetry when it was a lone item on the menu of Spoken Word. Then it all took off, and this “Godfather of Scottish Performance Poetry” (as The Scotsman dubbed him) was Canada-bound for a lucrative decade working their fringe festivals.
Now Jem is back in Edinburgh “for a break”, but somewhat unimpressed. Not that the poetry itself is to blame: “there’s massively less bad poetry around”, he salutes. But he’s skeptical: “the big names are the only ones making it” and earnest bards are losing cash. No names named, he warns, but a guy with two big five-star reviews is set to lose £15 000. And, he says, it’s all a bit offensive. On the plus side, “it’s a handy place to be famous for three weeks”.
I gasp when Jem tells me that it took him three decades to come out of the closet and admit himself a poet. Coming from “a very innocuous shrink-out-of-the-light kind of family”, it must have been quite a reinvention. But rock’n’roll lyrics were a stepping stone, as well as a weighty bibliography. We spend a lot of time talking about books, all kinds of books. As we’re wrapping up, Jem puts me – a (slipshod) classicist – to shame in a discussion of ancient literature. So it comes as quite a shock when he reveals a hatred of published poetry…
Instead Jem mentions clowns as one inspiration for his work. He names four integral elements of his success: text, voice, face, body. With such zealous theatricality in performances, sure – I guess his evolution would stem more from clowns than anthologies. But in no way does this curb his word-wise talents. As our chat turns to the writing itself, Jem lets on that some poems are decades in the making. Lines and lines and lines, he says, evolve until he eventually stitches them together to conjure up a poem. I comment on his elephantine vocabulary, and he explains: “lines can come out quite clunky. I have to rejig them, reword them. There’s a need to find synonyms; one word for everything just won’t do.” There’s method in the madness.
Indeed, the Edinburgh Fringe is a blizzard of cultural mania; you can never second-guess the next twenty-four hours. As the veteran he is, Jem knows this better than most. He makes no secret of his reservations about the endemic financial ruin. But when it comes to the Fringe, “you just don’t know what will come out of it”. A performance by Jem Rolls is a spectacle, a whirlwind, an inspiration. And the Fringe is like a magnifying glass to one of these gigs. Come August, there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.
Jem’s performing in the Free Fringe in Edinburgh until 24 August.