Interview with Katie Ailes

Katie Ailes is a poet and PhD candidate currently based in Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the performance of authentic selfhood in contemporary U.K. spoken word poetry. Katie placed second in the 2015 Scottish National Poetry Slam and has performed across the U.K., including at the StAnza and Wickerman festivals, Rally & Broad, and St. Mungo’s Mirrorball. She organises, composes, and performs with the spoken word collective Loud Poets, including touring with them to the Brighton, Prague, and Edinburgh festivals. She released her first collection, Homing, in 2015, and was published in the House of Three anthology series in 2016.

Jess Orr is a PhD student in contemporary Scottish literature and co-organiser of the Audacious Women Festival, which invites women everywhere to “Do What You Always Wish You Dared”. With 40 events taking place in Edinburgh from the 18th – 26th February, this is your chance to break down personal, political or institutional barriers, and to celebrate audacious women everywhere.

Jess Orr interviews Katie Ailes of the Loud Poets to discuss what it means to be a dangerous woman in spoken word. Her upcoming workshop at the Audacious Women festival is on the 25th February at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

There seems to be a good number of women involved in spoken word in Scotland. Has your experience been one of equal representation?

We are lucky to have such a rich scene in this country with so many events taking place and performers constantly innovating at the edges of the form. In Scotland women have often been at the forefront of organising sustainable events and providing opportunities for other artists to make a living and develop their practise. Folks like Jenny Lindsay, Anita Govan, and Rachel McCrum have pioneered this path through organising nights like Big Word, Rally & Broad, and Flint & Pitch. I think it’s due in large part to their work and the work of others like them that I’ve felt comfortable as a female events organiser and performer in the spoken word scene here – they trailblazed a path for us to follow and build upon.

As rich as the scene is, though, there are always concerns about equal access and representation. Loud Poets, the night I help to organise, has always booked artists with an equal gender split, although this hasn’t always been easy to achieve. In my experience, it’s been more challenging to get women to sign up for open mics and slams, as they can sometimes feel that the mic isn’t for them. Society dictates that we are not supposed to be enthusiastically loud or share our stories in this public way, so the whole concept of spoken word can feel off limits to some women. I know that it took me a long time to accept that I was ‘allowed’ to yell into a mic, that my presence onstage was not only tolerated but welcomed.

Do you think spoken word creates space for women to be more dangerous?

Yes, I think there are elements of spoken word which are inherently radical, although like any other art form it depends on what you use the form to say. Spoken word has a tradition of making space for marginalised voices to take the mic and seek the representation that has previously been denied them. It has served as a confessional space; many poems performed are first person, assumed autobiographical works and for me that opens up powerful possibilities. You look at Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and you have these bold female poets who are writing about subjects that weren’t considered worthy of poetry at that time, such as motherhood and failed marriages. Their work radically altered the options for female writers who wanted to express their lived experiences through their art. For me there are echoes of these women’s voices in spoken word with its focus on taboo topics; I’ve written about my experience of taking birth control, for example, and my mother’s challenges with fertility.

For me spoken word is the perfect art form because it combines multiple disciplines into an innovative format. Growing up I trained as a ballet dancer, and I thrilled in the exhilaration of live performance with its risks and immediate rewards. However, I also was an avid writer growing up, and at university I I started a practice of memorising poems and bringing them into the studio to ‘dance them out,’ to physically embody them and make interdisciplinary pieces I called ‘kinetic poems.’ I realised at this point my dances didn’t have to be silent and my poems didn’t have to be fixed.

The first time I properly experienced spoken word was when I first came to Edinburgh to study abroad and found an open mic called Soapbox (which is still running). I was amazed by the poets I saw and felt that I’d found what I had been waiting for: an art form which allowed me to express myself through language in front of a live audience, to reclaim the riskiness of dance but through performing poetry. I began furiously writing and rehearsing, testing out my material on my friends and at every open mic I could find. I lost my first poetry slam, won my second, and from there I was hooked.

Your poem ‘For My Daughter’ seems to me to be a manifesto of what it means to be a dangerous woman. I was particularly struck by the visceral imagery of the poem, as the experience of being a woman is communicated through a very physical experience of bodily constraint or liberation. And that reminds me of what you’ve already said about spoken word requiring the physical, often vulnerable, presence of its performer.

That is one of the defining characteristics of spoken word in contrast to page poetry – there is no distance between the speaker and listener. You don’t get to ship off a book to a reader and be blissfully unaware of their reaction to your work – you get to witness it in real time while you’re performing, watching them watching you. This can be a bit terrifying, particularly for those who struggle with self-consciousness or body image issues. Although this isn’t uniquely a female issue by a long shot, I do think that it can disproportionately affect women – we’re so often socialised to be shrinking violets.

Performing spoken word—for me at least—has been a way of overcoming some of this societally-induced anxiety at being a large and loud presence. It’s taught me to carry myself with pride and to share my stories confidently: to do my art unapologetically. It’s a lesson that didn’t come naturally and is still a struggle at times, but it’s vastly improved my ability to communicate with others on and offstage without diminishing myself or otherwise underselling what I’m bringing to the table.

There’s a poem by Vanessa Kisuule called ‘Take Up Space’ which inspired me while writing ‘For My Daughter,’ in which Kisuule encourages women to reclaim pride in their physical and oral presences – to be loud and proud. I hope my poem can serve as a similar manifesto to a future generation of women, encouraging them not to shy away from their own physical presence, on stage or off.

Another thing that interests me about this poem in particular is the relationship it creates between the imagined daughter of the poem and the idea of feminist politics. Your line ‘I will not bequeath you my rage, although I will teach you why I needed it’ suggests a desire for young women to be aware of women’s historical struggle for equality but not burdened by it.

The poem was written on commission from the YWCA Scotland for its Envision 2035 campaign, and in it I take the optimistic attitude that by that date these issues will be irrelevant, that my daughter won’t be harmfully socialised in the same way as I was, as my mother was. However, I’m also conscious that such blind optimism is unwise: that there will always be an element of struggle for gender equality, as much as the nature of that struggle may evolve. I think it’s important to take into account the differences in women’s experiences, the ways in which gender crosses lines with class, race and disability for example. Nevertheless, lines such as the one you quoted were also motivated by my concern at women nowadays who claim that feminism is no longer a useful movement (the “I don’t need feminism because …” crowd), who seem to be wilfully ignorant of the struggle of those who paved the way for us to enjoy the privileges we now can. So I think it’s extremely important not to disavow the feminist movement and to remain conscious of what has passed as well as what is still to be gained in the future.

Yes, and I suppose, as we’ve already touched on, spoken word is a form which encourages active interaction between speaker and listener, so the idea of giving advice or passing on stories between generations is an important part of that. What do you think it looks like for young women to be dangerous today?

With recent political developments we’re looking ahead to what feels like an increasingly threatening and unstable future. I think that for my generation, it can be easy to despair at our sense of stymied progress: our fear of history repeating itself. However, now more than ever it is the time to speak out against perceived injustice, to make art in the face of any system that feels immovable.

For me, spoken word has been a powerful vehicle for that rebellion, not only because it allows me to articulate my position on our current situation but also because it reminds me of my inherent power to speak and be heard. One of my favourite moments as a performer happened last year on tour with Loud Poets in Brighton – we competed in a rap battle against a huge (male-dominated) crew in a sold-out 250-seat theatre. I was doubting myself beforehand, thinking: I’m just a silly girl from suburban Pennsylvania – what am I doing here? Why would anyone want to listen to me, especially after these real artists! They’ll boo me offstage! Instead, during my performance I received the rapt attention of every person in that building: listening to my poem about my complicated sense of patriotism, my evolving accent, my relationship with the messy behemoth that is America. I finished the piece to thunderous applause and we went on to win the battle. The experience proved to me the power of my voice and the responsibility that comes with using it. I hope that sense of empowerment is something I can pass along to others by encouraging them to also speak out, loudly.

Katie will be running a spoken word workshop on Saturday 25th February as part of the Audacious Women festival in Scottish Storytelling Centre at 2pm. Buy tickets here: