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How I started writing: Jenny Lindsay

Follow Jenny's unconventional route to poet and spoken word performer

Audience: Writers

Last updated: 21 May 2021

Several things led me to write and promote spoken word poetry, none of them planned, one of them at the time pretty devastating, all of them a delicious mix of coincidence and timing.

I am 17 years old. I am sitting on my single bed in Prestwick, looking at the boxes and bags around me, waiting to leave to move into Queen Margaret University College halls of residence in Edinburgh, a city I have dreamed of moving to for as long as I can remember. Amongst my belongings is a novel I finished that summer, a fictional work that was quite obviously autobiographical, and which also contained several ‘chapters’ that were actually poems.

I’d been writing poetry a long time, but I didn’t want to be a poet. I wanted to be a rock star/ novelist who also worked in theatre. Poetry was for old dead dudes, wasn’t it? (Forgive me, reader, the internet had only just been invented and school put me off poetry very effectively.)

I think of myself more as a lyricist. I don’t know it yet, but I am going to last only one year of university due to having far too much fun and passion for other things, including reading my poems to my good pals in my bedroom and having actual money for once by working as a waitress and then a door-to-door salesperson.

I am 18. I have just escaped getting drenched by August’s torrential rain and am with some friends in Princes Street gardens watching a tall man with a London brogue performing on the Ross Bandstand stage. His name, he says, is Jem Rolls and he is brandishing a copy of a book called ‘Oral: Poems, Sonnets, Lyrics and the Like’, which he recommends.

My friends aren’t keen but I am transfixed by this way of ‘reciting’ poetry. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing, I note, to think on later. As soon as I can I order the book from Waterstones and devour it instantly. Stand outs for me are Francesca Beard, Steve Tasane, Sandie Craigie.

I don’t know it yet, but in a few short years I’ll be performing my own poetry with these folks and more. I also don’t know that I will end up working with Jem Rolls and Anita Govan in a few years’ time, working to improve the popularity and build audiences for this art-form that my pals are saying “… doesn’t really make sense? It’s not quite poetry, but it’s not really theatre either, is it?” This is kind of the appeal to me. But I want to be a rock star novelist.

I am 19. I’ve moved to Glasgow for the music scene and trek my electric piano down to Nice n Sleazy’s open mic night every Monday while working as a street fundraiser for Oxfam, back in the days when that wasn’t such a common occupation. I am working on another novel. It isn’t going well and keeps becoming poems instead. This annoys me.

I have written tons of songs too but am struggling with my stage fright and despite some gigs it’s not really going anywhere and I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this to myself. However, I want to keep trying. Because I want to be a rock star novelist who also works in theatre.

I recently went to see Suzanne Vega at The Liquid Rooms and it is the best gig I’ve ever been to. I went on my own as none of my pals knew who she was. The show featured, amongst other things, her stopping halfway through to read us a children’s story she had written for her daughter. She also did poetry. It was beautiful. There should be more events where poetry, stories, music all feature. That was amazing, I said to myself.

I am 20. I am standing in a wrecked bedroom with weeping flatmates. Our flat has been robbed and the thieves have stolen my electric piano, along with loads of other things. Our flat is above a 24-hour convenience store that plays techno music 24 hours a day. It is in Finnieston, back when that did not conjure up images of flat whites and hipsters.

Obviously, we have no insurance. I earn a crappy wage and can’t afford another instrument. I am also recovering from a serious bout of ill mental health, which I don’t know at the time will become a regular feature of both my life and my work. Dejectedly, I take myself down to Nice n Sleazy’s and defiantly perform some new lyrics. I do this several times over the next month or so. I…. really enjoy it. Much more than trying to be a rock star novelist. People say nice things. Someone calls me a poet. A performance poet. It seems to fit.

Fast forward 16 years (oh lordy) and spoken word poetry is now a staple at venues, festivals and events all over the UK, and has found a flourishing audience online, something that wasn’t even imaginable back when I was starting out. But this blog is less about spoken word than it is about finding the right form, the right medium for whatever it is you are trying to say.

I always knew I wanted to work with words but it took a bit of a journey to finally find the perfect way for me to express what I was wanting to, with a live audience being the crucial part of the mix. I’ve never quite got rid of the desire to write a novel and have been writing one for years now, though being a rock star now looks like far too much hard work and energy.

I didn’t realise it 16 years ago, but the constant writing of lyrics and a desire to perform too has meant that spoken word poetry really is the art-form I was looking for all along. I’d like to thank the thieves who nicked my keys for helping me work that out.