I worship no church but the Church of Book, which is how this sinner found herself awaiting a Friday night sermon in Leith St Andrews church last weekend. Neu! Reekie! Suilven’s Ascent promised a bawdy night of sex and poetry, booze and beats. A night for popping cherries.
A first-timer at this curious blend of poetry-film-music, my 17-year-old heart would have quickened for such a promise. My 27-year-old soul worried I just wasn’t enough for Scotland’s avante-garde noisemakers. I should have known better. Neu! Reekie!’s co-founders Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson are fighting the battle for poetry; Suilven’s Ascent was their cry that art is for everyone, whatever form it takes.
Have you ever seen a gang of “Leithers” bathed in red and purple lights, cutting shapes to sweet electronic beats from Woodleigh Research Facility and Fini Tribe? All watched over by a stark crucifixion. If you haven’t, you should. It was a glorious, sweaty mess of bodies, a sight to behold.
From beats to Bojangles. We found a spirit animal in Jenni Fagan, who used her spot to talk love in all its guises. Her quiet lament to nights in a tenement close with a best friend silenced a church of dancers and drinkers. When she implored, “what happened to the first man I ever loved with a beard”, I felt the collective sigh of many broken and mended hearts. My own man with a beard sat heavy in my thoughts with her rumination. The rawness in her voice reminded me that I am not alone in my sadness.
That’s what I loved most about the whole thing – the permission to feel. We were not told to sit and listen. We were not told to nod and applaud. Neu! Reekie! is art pushed “down and in, till it is blood of our blood and bone of our bone.” We need more of that, so much more.
But what I really came for was Sabrina Mahfouz. And I was not disappointed. First on the bill, the electric British-Egyptian poet and playwright treated us to the Scottish launch of her new collection, How You Might Know Me. Equal measures warm and wry, outraged and melancholy, How You Might Know Me shines an unrelenting light on the UK sex industry. For fifteen minutes, Mahfouz gave a voice to women thrown into the gutter every day. Sharifa, a Middle Eastern sex-worker who knows that even revolutionaries get horny. (As do the revolutionaries of Leith who greeted this observation with gusto.) Her favourite, born-and-bred London pensioner Sylvia who knows that safekeeping will not keep women safe. And my favourite, Tarly. Who, in between serving sausage rolls and dreading the knowing gaze of unknown men, grazes a stranger’s hand and imagines a whole life growing from that touch. Mahfouz’s performance was perfection. It could so easily have been cowed by the daunting architecture of a sacred space. Instead, raw words became living, breathing women. Don’t listen to her critics. When she graces the Edinburgh Fringe again, get yourself a seat in the front row.
Never again will I hear a firebrand wordsmith talk about the stickiness of semen in the shadow of a pulpit. And I am sorry for it. But I will be crying in the pews, whooping in aisles and dancing on the altar of Pilrig St Paul’s on 26 November. And you should too.
Neu! Reekie! present the Emelle Album Launch & Special Guests on Friday 26 November. Tickets can be obtained here.
All photos by Ryan McDoverne