Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, Feburary 2018. It depicts me onstage with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides an excellent view of the scuzzy tissue I have stuffed up my bra strap.
Regular readers may know that, in a rather rock’n’roll fashion, I gave up my day job last July to concentrate on poetry and spoken word. As it transpired, I didn’t give it up quite as much as I thought I had, as a few months later they asked me to come back on a very part-time basis (six and a half hours a week) and I accepted, but at the time it was a total leap of faith and even with the hours I eventually agreed to do it’s been a radical lifestyle shift. So how’s it all panning out?
Well, I’ve learned a lot. Performing more regularly to a wide ranges of audiences has made the sheer diversity of those audiences and their very different needs and expectations much clearer to me. My own performance skills have grown exponentially. I have got much better at asking for things and selling myself. On a more practical level, I have discovered Air B’n’B and Megabus. I have rediscovered backpackers’ hostels after a couple of decades’ hiatus. I have eaten more porridge oats and lentils than I have since I was a student.
Amazingly, I have just about been making it work financially, although not in a way that is sustainable in the long term and I am going to have to either come up with viable alternative income streams within poetry/spoken word very soon or go back to full-time (or near full-time) work.
It’s not all been shiny, fabulous and special. There are days when the months since I returned from Edinburgh appear to have constituted just one long list of crushing disappointments, both personal and professional. There has been no massive career move forward so far and I sometimes feel as though I am going to be stuck at Vaguely Promising Local Amateur Level for the rest of my life. I know I’m an exceptionally good writer and a reasonably good performer, but I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be enough and I sometimes wonder if I simply lack the innate charisma, stage presence and/or the content that resonates with audiences that makes the difference between a competent also-ran and a spoken word star.
There have been other downsides. I used to feel bemused when friends said they set two days of the week aside for admin, but now I understand why – it is so much harder to keep track of what you are supposed to send to whom by when when you are doing two or three gigs a week than it was when I only used to do two or three gigs a year, and I really worry I am going to seriously fuck up one day soon and get blacklisted by promoters . Also, for a mixture of financial reasons and the fact that I am often performing elsewhere, I have missed a lot of my friends’ and colleagues’ gigs locally and I feel less a functional part of my local scene than I have done for years. And it’s been way too easy to procrastinate, without a structured timetable to fill my days, as is testified by the fact that I have now reached Level 24 at Duolingo.
But there have been many, many upsides. I have benefited from amazing support and patronage from my incredible friends and colleagues on the scene and have been offered some wonderful performance opportunities for which I am extremely grateful. There have been a few gigs (e.g. my book launch with Raise The Bar Spotlight in Bath in January, Sharp Teeth in February) where I’ve come offstage feeling like a rock star and it’s felt like my moment has nearly come. The sheer buzz of performing on a weekly basis has been worth it. When people ask me what my job is, I can almost truthfully say, “I’m a performance artist”. My first book has been selling steadily and my second one is coming out soon. And I’m enjoying my day job more than I’ve ever done, now that it’s a manageably small part of my life, not something that is always looming over me.
I remember the first spoken word event I nervously attended just over four years ago, where I felt so cowed by the impossibly trendy, confident and glamorous-looking people around me that I could barely speak, and it didn’t seem possible I would ever be one of their circle – now, when I go to spoken word events, normally an army of people come up and hug me and in the last few weeks I’ve had several delightful, unexpected, friendship-deepening social moments with poets I vaguely know after a gig or slam together.
Earlier this week, as I was enjoying a midweek Megabus ride through the spectacular scenery of the Yorkshire Moors in glorious spring sunshine after a gig I’d hugely enjoyed, and where I’d met some amazing poets, I thought, “This is the life I want to be living.”