Andrew Sclater on Stewed Rhubarb

Based in Edinburgh, Stewed Rhubarb press was founded in 2012 by James T Harding and Rachel McCrum. Sphinx also hosts an interview with its creators (click on the link).

Stewed rhubarb is good! I already enjoy eating it. Now I can say I like reading it too.  Actually, there’s nothing puddingy about Stewed Rhubarb Press, even if its poems do tickle the senses a little. These pamphlets won’t settle you into the farmhouse kitchens of Ambridge, Argyll or anywhere else; they’ll lead you towards the performance stage.


The energy and daring of the spoken word scene has invigorated the activity of this Press. In its first year to June 2013, it published no fewer than seven titles.  Almost all its poets live and work in SR’s hometown, Edinburgh. They are

  • Katherine McMahon (2012) Treasure in the History of Things
  • R. McCrum (2012) The Glassblower Dances
  • Tracey S. Rosenberg (2012) Lipstick is Always a Plus
  • Jenny Lindsay (2012) The Eejit Pit
  • Harry Giles (2012) Visa Wedding
  • Anne Connolly (2013) Not Entirely Beautiful.

To these they’ve added Lucy Ayrton from England. The editors spotted Lucy at her Edinburgh Fringe show in 2012, with her 2013 pamphlet Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry containing material from that show. Since June 2013, SR has begun its second year of publication with Russell Jones’ Spaces of Their Own and a second pamphlet from Harry Giles Oam (2013). These last two lie outside the scope of this review.

In the line-up, Rachel McCrum and Harry Giles deserve special mention. Harry co-founded Inky Fingers, Edinburgh’s amazing answer to England’s Apples and Snakes. By sheer devotion to the spoken word, Inky Fingers is central to the whole feverish Edinburgh scene.  And Rachel, who’s done loads to help Harry along the way, is now Inky’s Community Project Manager. What’s more, it was Rachel’s pamphlet The Glassblower Dances that won Stewed Rhubarb the prestigious Callum Macdonald Memorial Award. Glassblower was praised as ‘an outstanding example of pamphlet poetry’! No mean achievement for a small press in its first year!

Stewed Rhubarb is (appropriately both in terms of growth and nomenclature) strictly grassroots. The idea of the press planted itself into a gin-soaked conversation between Rachel McCrum and James T. Harding one night in a city tenement. James is the man behind the design, production quality, and the ‘business model.’ All of these are interesting, as is the fact that ginger wine is the publishers’ energy drink of preference, and late nights their preferred office time.

The pamphlet production quality is pleasing, with poems stapled into bold card covers, printed in two colours (sometimes with a supplementary touch of grey). James’ artwork and presentation follows a distinctive house style, flexible enough to allow each publication distinct personality. As a graphic designer, Harding is imaginative and successfully quirky. 

Contents lists appear on the inside front, and a rubric on the inside back cover states ‘The right of the writer to be identified as the writer of this writing has been asserted.’ I loved this send-up of legalese jargon, and its overtones of Groucho and Chico in A Night at the Opera: “The party of the first part shall be known, in this contract, as the party of the first part . . .” and so on and so on. . . .  (go on, Google it). 

There are no biographies in the publications, but each author completes the sentence “Contrary to popular belief . . .” Here’s a selection of these little gems: “spraying an umbrella stem with WD-40 does not help”; “juggling and plate-spinning are not the same”; “while yer enemy’s enemy is rarely a friend, they do often make good drinking partners”; “the author is both dead and not dead”; and “rhubarb is not an Irish aphrodisiac”.

The business model is pragmatic. This has two great advantages: a) little likelihood the press will go bust, and b) the poets can put their sales takings straight in their own pockets.  As far as funding is concerned, the press asks the poet to pay the production costs. Marketing is then shared between the press and the poet (who as a performer will sell direct to audiences).

Vanity publishing? No. Definitely not. Harding and McCrum only accept poets with a good performance track record – poets who they know have a following.  So Stewed Rhubarb is in tune with what the audience wants.

So what more can we say about their poets?

Katherine McMahon is a young slam winner, frequently appearing in and around Edinburgh. She has immense stage charm, and a naturalness in performance that helps her words really reach the audience.  In Shine, she writes

because sharing is the point—
connection despite the blind division
built into the way we live,
into who we talk to
what we give
into who we are.

Katherine’s poetry is generous, as this implies.  It sounds great in performance and its content comes near what might be called modern moral tales. A stick-in-the-mud might say it doesn’t work as great poetry on the page. If Katherine doesn’t bow to some of the old orthodoxies, her freshness and commitment to the spoken version is the real point. Her pamphlet comes with a CD.

Rachel McCrum is known to all Inky Fingers followers, and for being one half of the team that brings Edinburgh the dynamic ‘Rally and Broad’ music and spoken word nights. Her award-winning pamphlet is beautifully designed, and its poems work extremely well both as performance pieces and on the page. More condensed than Katherine’s, they often look back, or out, to something valued and lost. Stewed Rhubarb, after which the press is named, succinctly reflects this

That pink sweet tart
Tongue lashing
Jaw shrinking
Eye watering
Taste of home.

So does the ending of The Glassblower Dances

But people smiled.
And for a moment felt something in their chests had loosened
And wondered about things that did not touch their lives.

And all this happened
Because once upon a time
Someone knew to write upon a wall
‘The glassblower dances.’

Tracey S. Rosenberg is a novelist too, and a former recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award. Lipstick is Always a Plus is varied in its content, and the poems like lipstick seem to conceal something recognisably universal underneath their surfaces.  They explore vulnerable dimensions of the psyche, as in Meeting a Guy off the Internet.  Many of the poems are about displacement or love, and minor or major agonies in both. Those I enjoyed most were sensual, as in this passage from How to Drink on the First Date:

There’s a round table in the front window, big enough for two.
Set down your mug; squeeze it with both hands
and breathe. Let chocolate introduce itself before you dive in.
Don’t rush.
We have plenty of time.

Or joyful as in this, from Miracles:

        You have angelic faith,
and blessed tolerance of a savage grouch
who earns neither salvation nor your grace.
Within my book of saints, merciful boy,
you are inscribed: the miracle of joy.

Jenny Lindsay’s performance reputation is well established. Co-presenter of Rally and Broad, with Rachel McCrum, she’s won many a slam. Her The Eejit Pit has a vigorous feel to it, and a straight joy in language as reflected in the pamphlet’s title poem, made from a Scots fridge magnet poem kit. A ‘grouch’ might find some of these poems a bit untidy on the page, as with Katherine’s. But the energy, breathlessness even, is palpable, for example, in Intimacy:

We love—(this night becomes day)

time does not exist—ignore the clock,

Bury under, coorie sweet nothings nothing                      

nothing exists
but us
Ignore the clock

you need to be nowhere/the world is gone/

We are joyfully tasting sweet and temporary


In I Promise I Will Not Fall In Love With You, Jenny exposes the craziness of those fashionable relationships that eschew commitment, and base themselves instead on ‘casual sex and quick caresses that we pretend mean nothing.’ She goes for the polemic. Listen to her here in Mirrors, an angry poem about the purpose of poetry and its audiences:

—who are we writing for; what am I writing for  . . .

 . . .  this gurning spew? The man, who screams monocle with twitchy,
                          smooshy eye, says nothing I write is

Next up (this is like an open-mic night) is Harry Giles: no introduction needed in Edinburgh.  Born In Orkney of English parents, educated in Scotland, and dividing his time between London and Edinburgh, he’s an important promoter/impresario of the spoken word. Inky Fingers, which incidentally does almost everything for free, is largely his brainchild. This man loves words! Here is more to listen for, the opening stanzas of Visa Wedding #1 (in Giles’ Scots)and #2 (in English):

Listen, hit’s semple:

in Orkney I’m English;
in England I’m Scottish;
in Scotland, Orcadian—

this glib-gabbit, mony-littit tongue
snacks at identity as tho hit wis
a gollach piecie sappit wi
the sweet-n-soor o BELONG                                   (#1)

Listen, it’s simple:

in Orkney I’m English;
in England I’m Scottish;
in Scotland, Orcadian—

this slippery, many-coloured tongue
snaps at identity as though it were
an insect morsel lathered with
the sweet and sour of BELONG                 (#2)

This has to be good for poetry in both traditions – it cocks a snook at pat renderings of nation and identities, pointing at how most of us are hybrids lying outside categories. Harry Giles’ poems really sing along. I’m looking forward to reading his latest SR pamphlet Oam.

Anne Connolly’s Not Entirely Beautiful will please the old sticks most. It is more conventional than the others in the series. But, it is also excellent. The collection contains what I think is the most incisive and witty bee poem I’ve yet read (and there have been a whole load recently, by Borodale, Duffy, Shapcott, etc.) My favourite in this very strong pamphlet, however, is The Boy Who Breaks My Sticks – for its music and quasi-Yeatsian content.  Here is the opening

Here comes the boy
who breaks my sticks
on the lip of the hearth
with an anchor-foot
to hold it firm
for the pech and pull
of his four-year hands
and the tip of his tongue
a determined slit
in his father’s mouth,
my father’s too
at the back of a clock
or a TV set
that wouldn’t tune . . .

Of all the SR poets, Anne has the strongest record of prior publications, with another pamphlet and a collection already in print.  She challenges the distinction between performance and page poetry. Her poems are formally accomplished and tightly wrought, as their shape on the page shows, but they also demand to be heard.  

Finally, to Lucy Ayrton. Her work’s distinctive feature is its storytelling tone. She performs widely in the UK, sometimes to music. The Nightingale has a sung chorus, for which the music is provided.  Here is an extract

There was once a little girl,
not a girl,
a lady,
and when she reached a certain age, she . . .
well. Her father bade her to marry.
And the knight was nice enough, you know,
but not really the kind to make the middle of the night
       bright for her.
Not really right for her,
just okay . . .

This is interesting, wry, socially-aware, myth-and-legend-based work. The pamphlet contains only six poems over 24 pages, plus an introduction and footnotes. I feel a distinction between page and performance emerging – what can be fun in a spoken introduction can become a bit heavy on the page. The last piece, Lucy and the Dragon, even swerves from prose to poetry. This isn’t a criticism, but an observation. And it is evidence of the open-mindedness of Stewed Rhubarb Press, that it gathers in work that strikes its editors as vibrant, regardless of how it might be categorised. The Press is unashamed to embrace work that entertains audiences. The editors select their authors from live performances, and keep an eye on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 

Rheum rhabarbarum isn’t quite as polite as many of its kitchen garden bedfellows. Like its namesake, Stewed Rhubarb gives us the raucous, the irreverent, and a touch of a tang to titillate the senses. Even if some of us have to add sugar, few domestic plants are quite as vigorous as rhubarb . . .  or these pamphlets.

James T Harding and Rachel McCrum