Scroobius Pip must be one of, if not the most well-known spoken word artist in the country. Words, his first ever Fringe show, unexpectedly beginning with a bang-on karaoke rendition of the theme music from Duck Tales, which instantly endears him to the uninitiated (though on the night that I saw the show these were in a definite minority).
Words blends poetry with on-stage patter which, despite Pip’s insistence to the contrary, was funny enough to match most comedians. There was a spontaneity here which, when mingled with the tight rhythmical construction of the poetry, allowed the performer to consciously strike a perfect balance. Pip tells the audience that he talks a lot between poems in order to inject his show with the requisite amount of humour to counteract the oftengloomy subject matter of his verse, and to allow the individual poems the requisite amount of breathing space to increase their gravitas.
The fact that Pip lets the audience in to his creative process tells us that he feels a level of accountability for his audience’s experience of his work (which is not the case for all spoken word artists). It also illustrates the centrality of honesty to his poetics. Between poems he showed an entertaining predilection for creating humour through bullshitting the audience, but when the poetry actually started it felt like he was levelling with us, and expressing some kind of truth, whether it was lessons learnt from episodes in the poet’s biography, wise commentary on modern social phenomena, or even the attempt to deflate the metaphysical horrors of impending death.
There is an ethic of normalisation behind what Scroobius Pip does with poetry: he specifically chose a venue with a bar so that people could come and go as they pleased. That empowers audiences who may be alienated by the rigid formality of other spoken word shows, and, at this stage in time, is hugely important for the reintroduction of poetry, a form too often considered to be an aloof preserve of the upper classes, into popular consciousness.
Although there is a sense of underlying politics, one suspects that Scroobius Pip couldn’t write an explicitly political poem while maintaining his distinctive voice. Like the ‘Golden Age’ hip-hop artists that he details as influences, he is more preoccupied with describing the extraordinary experiences of normal lives than with diagnosing society’s ills, á la Luke Wright.
It’s all very personal. In fact, all of his less successful poems were written through the voices of invented characters, rather than through the poet’s own voice. These poems weren’t exactly failures; they just didn’t quite reach the highs of others in this set. It was a lovely experience watching the audience react to one strongly autobiographical poem; as a mass they seemed to contract closer together as heads were placed on shoulders and tears started to flow. I think Pip even caught himself out at one point, and nearly started welling up. There was nothing to suspect in this reaction, nothing stilted or masochistic; it was just a consequence of emotive and affecting poetry. Invariably it was followed with some kind of pithy, well-executed joke that brought everyone round again. This flux and reflux of sentiment, then amusement, then appreciation seemed to mess with everyone’s perception of time; the show seemed to end too quickly, like a set by a great non-headlining act at a music festival.
The comparison is apt because Scroobius Pip is the closest thing spoken word has, not to Lady Gaga as he pithily suggests, but to a rock star like Springsteen or Neil Young. Let’s just hope this show isn’t a one-off, because Edinburgh seems like a natural place for a performer of this calibre to inhabit.