Today the SPL bids the fondest of farewells to one of our own. Jennifer Williams – a.k.a the poet J.L. Williams – is moving onto another position with the University of Edinburgh and we wish her all the best. For the past four years, she has programmed the SPL’s Spring and Autumn events seasons and she has produced a monthly podcast. In that time she has transformed the SPL.
Before Jennifer joined, there was a danger the SPL might become detached from what was happening in the poetry community. The Scottish spoken word scene in 2012 was revving up, transforming itself through a series of spoken word nights that were starting to gain a serious following: Neu Reekie, Rally & Broad, Inky Fingers – I could go on. The connections between these nights and the SPL, however, were, to begin with, distant. Our demographic then, it’s fair to say, was a little older.
It took Jennifer and her adventurous programming to secure an alliance between the SPL and a new generation. She was insistent that her first season of events recognise what was taking place – way before the media and publishers cottoned on – and so booked a night that brought together players from all of the major spoken word nights. Rachel McCrum, Jenny Lindsay, and Michael Pedersen were present, the world’s fastest slam poetry competition was held, and Neu Reekie showed a very rude cartoon. Good times.
I could spend the rest of what would become a very long blog listing the great, often daring events Jennifer put on; let me instead content myself by mentioning a few of the highlights. In her first season she staged a debate where Liz Lochhead, playwright David Greig and journalist Alan Taylor shared what they didn’t like about poetry. Through the Walking With Poets project, she placed poets in each of Scotland’s major botanical gardens. She staged one fantastic symposium in which the community was invited to eat, drink and debate poetry’s relevance in our everyday lives and helped host two others; one in partnership with the University of Edinburgh on Contemporary Women’s Poetry in Scotland and another devoted to Thomas A Clark (Jennifer also played a role in getting John Lewis to feature Clark’s words in a window display).A personal favourite of mine was a joint reading with John Burnside and Robert Wrigley, who she also recorded a fantastic podcast with, worth listening to for Wrigley’s voice, its smooth tone and Beat-like cadences.
Her passion for perfume led to another one-of-its-kind event at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, which saw parfumier Alex Musgrave pair poems and scents. Lugs Tae Arthur Seat saw a group of intrepid poetry lovers climb Arthur Seat where they heard verse by Andrew Sclater and were serenaded by Wounded Knee. She hosted online poetry readings with Robert Peake for Transatlantic Poetry on Air.
Jennifer has also brought to Scotland poets from countries outside the Anglosphere, and that commitment to widening the cultures Scots are exposed to has only assumed more importance of late as Britain grows inward-looking in the wake of Brexit. She was responsible for our first International Poet in Residence, the Polish poet Maciek Wozniak. We held a series of events during his residency including a well-attended and much appreciated Translation Workshop. She also programmed a night of sign language poetry, part of the SPL’s ongoing efforts to broaden our offerings to communities we haven’t served in the past.
Lest we forget, Jennifer has also hosted a monthly podcast these past four years, interviewing an incredible range of poets including Marie Howe, Fiona Sampson, Kate Tempest, Sarah Howe, Jacob Polley, Brian Turner and many more. She also interviewed the great Kay Ryan, spending the day with her and introducing her to Irn Bru. Job done!
Just last week an event she co-conceived, our ‘The Library is Open! Drag Queen Poems,’ was recognised with a Creative Edinburgh award. Everyone who was there that night – and it was a sell-out event – will recall it with fondness for some time to come.
So, the SPL flag is running at half-mast today. We’re going to miss Jennifer – her sunny temperament, her wisdom and her drive to bring more poetry to more people. Farewell, Jennifer. We wish you well.
The brochure for Jennifer's first season of events.
Kay Ryan enjoying Scotland's finest.
Thomas A Clark's window display at John Lewis
The Perfume and Poetry event at the RBGE.
The Library is Open! Drag Queen Poems – one of our most popular events and an award-winner.
Kate Tempest performing at a show the SPL co-hosted with Rally & Broad. Jennifer also interviewed Tempest for the SPL podcast series.