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Friends of Begg x Co - Leyla Josephine

Leyla Josephine is a poet, film and theatre maker based in Ayrshire, Scotland. She was the Hammer and Tongue's UK Slam Champion in 2014. Her solo show Hopeless was the runner up for the Saboteur’s Best Spoken Word Show and her drag show Daddy Drag won the Autopsy Award which celebrates groundbreaking work at The Edinburgh Fringe.

Leyla wrote 'This Place is a Gallus Woman' for Burns Night 2022, and recites it in our film, shot by Alex James-Aylin.

What inspired you to start writing poetry?

I started writing to process some personal stuff that had been happening in my life. Somehow, I found the page and it all poured out of me. I was writing to excavate and understand. I never thought of myself as a poet, always a performer - I come from a theatre background. But in 2014, a friend asked me to read some of my writing at an open mic in Glasgow. From there it just took off and I found myself gigging a lot. My practice and poetry look very different now but that is how it all started.

How do your poems usually develop? What’s your creative process?

There is always four parts to the process: the inspiration, the notes, the edit, and the performance. The inspiration can come from anywhere, it can be like a lightening strike, a sudden jolt that can hit at any time, any place - in the shower, on the motorway, in a dream. Or it can be a slower thing, thoughts that move like syrup, building in your mind, taking up space until eventually you realise it’s an idea.

The notes are the fun part, you just write as much as you can on the idea. You have to be careful not to judge at this stage, it doesn’t matter about grammar or spelling or structure. It should feel you’re just getting everything from your mind down. You have to be a bit childish, it’s about playing and trying different things. Being brave.

The edit is the stage when you have to be an adult. The poem needs to be shaped, structured, worked on, slogged over. You push, pull, rip everything apart and put it back together. You need to pinpoint the essence of the poem then dig into it. You need to consider the audience, what message you want them to get and worst of all, you have to kill your darlings, get rid of anything that doesn’t add to your message. The edit can take years.

The final stage, not for all poets, but for me is the performance. It is when I print out what I have and I practice saying it over and over, and over and over. Embodying the words until my muscles remember them and I feel like the rhythm is engrained into my mouth. There are times I don’t know what the poem is really about until I’ve said it aloud to an audience. And then like magic, it becomes a living thing.

Your poem for Burns Night, This Place Is a Gallus Woman, describes our shared home county of Ayrshire, Scotland. How did you land on this narrative?

I moved from Glasgow to Ayrshire in 2018 and it was a bit of a gallus move. I didn’t know anyone and my peers couldn’t understand why I’d want to live here. But I had this strange calling in me, I needed more sea and more sky. So, I packed up my life and I moved. It’s only 45min drive but it felt like a massive deal. A change of pace.

South Ayrshire is a strange place, I don’t think it’s straight forward. It is a place of contrasts; industrial and picturesque, rich and poor, brick and leaf. I like that it is complicated and doesn’t apologise for that. It is not easily explained. The Scottish woman is the same and that’s why I wanted to draw a parallel.

I’ve been writing about this place since I moved here, collecting images and thoughts, so when Begg x Co contacted me and asked me to write this poem, I felt like it fell out of me. I already had so much to say about the place, but more questions than answers. I feel like I could have written a poem ten pages long.


How has growing up in Scotland and the poetry of Robert Burns informed your own work?

My mum used to recite ‘Tae a Mouse’ to me so maybe that seeped in somewhere. A lot of people know his poetry off by heart from school which is amazing. But to be honest, Robert Burn’s poetry has never been an inspiration of mine. I think that it’s amazing that Scotland’s poetry has worldwide interest because of him but I can’t relate to him, and I think that’s what we look for in the poetry we digest.

How do you see the legacy of Burns’ poetry?

For me, I find it hard to separate Robert Burn’s poetry with his well-known sexual deviancy. It’s a societal conversation that everyone seems to be having at the moment ‘Can we separate the art from the artist?’  I think it’s a personal decision and a personal preference that can change over time, but I was brought up in a home with a very similar man. Even though there was much love, I know how much hurt can be caused.

But saying all of that, I still think Burns Nights are great fun and it’s an opportunity for writing, performance, community, eating, music and dancing and those are all things that I can get on board with. He brings a lot of money into this area, an area that needs the tourism - I wouldn’t want to take away from that. I also wouldn’t want to take away from the fans that have found so much joy in their life because of his poetry. I think there are ways to question the man and celebrate the art and that’s what we should be aiming for.

I hope in the future that the landscape of poetry in Scotland is not monopolised by Robert Burns (especially in Ayrshire). I hope we have new classics and new events that celebrate the wonderful writing we have coming out of our tiny country.


How will you be celebrating Burns Night this year? Do you have any traditions?

I don’t have any traditions but I will be hosting an open mic night at The Alchemy Experiment in Glasgow and performing at Celtic Connections. If I have haggis it is always veggie!


Leyla recites 'This Place is a Gallus Woman' in our film for Burns Night 2022, shot on location at The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, The Brig o'Doon and Ayr town and seafront by Alex James-Aylin. Music by Joe Loughrey. Hair & Make-Up by Molly Sheridan.

Leyla wears the Arran Reversible scarf in Charcoal Mace. Discover more of Leyla's work here.