Covering: A Multitude of Sins

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 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.

When I first started submitting to poetry journals about six years ago, I agonised inordinately about what to put in the covering letter. At that point, I did not know any published poets, either in real life or on social media, and I was terrified of making a terrible faux pas. If the editor was called Jane Smith, would opening my letter “Dear Jane” make me seem so presumptuous and overfamiliar that she would instantly disregard my submission? Would opening it “Dear Ms Smith” seem so stuffy and old-fashioned and provincial that she’d bin my poems without reading them? Or piss her off, as she preferred “Miss” or “Mrs” or “Mx”? Would “Dear Jane Smith” sound too bald or tone-deaf or too much like I’d just used Mail Merge?

It didn’t stop with the salutatory greeting, either. What should you put next? Would “I enclose five poems for your consideration. Thank you very much for taking the time to read them” sound too bland and generic and make them think I don’t give a shit about them and their journal – I’m just sending out the same letter to everyone? Would “I particularly admired Joe Bloggs’s poem in the last issue of your journal ” (even if true) sound too sycophantic? Would including information about myself make the letter more personal and human or just make me sound like a tedious attention-seeking egomaniac with a delusional view of my own importance?

Now that I know a lot of poets I have realised I am not alone in having been really, really worried about this. Most new poets, but especially those from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds who have never met anyone working in the arts, those from the provinces, and older poets who took up writing in later life, are very anxious about getting it wrong and giving a bad impression of themselves from the off.

I felt very reassured a few years ago when several journal editors said in a Facebook discussion that they don’t really give a shit what people put in their covering letter – it’s the poems alone that they’re interested in and, short of outright deliberate rudeness, nothing in the covering letter is going to make them reject good work.

I am, therefore, quite concerned to see an increase in editors boasting on social media about how they bin submissions unread if the submitters do X, Y or Z in the covering letter. To be fair, the bulk of them have entirely laudable intentions and are adopting policies to protect themselves and their staff from sexism, racism or transphobia. A submitter who, when submitting to a journal with three co-editors of equal standing, inexplicably addresses their covering letter to the only one who is a white man, may well be being an arsehole and probably deserves to have their work rejected unread (although, even there, I can think of possible innocent explanations, too). Someone who deadnames a trans or non-binary editor can fuck off.

However, I feel some editors are being way too picky and are putting up needless and indirectly discriminatory barriers to the most vulnerable and underrepresented submitters. I especially dislike the policy of disregarding submissions that begin “Dear Sirs”. (I have seen at least three editors announce this policy on Twitter, so I am not passively-aggressively carping at any particular individual here).

When I was eleven or twelve, we had an English lesson at school devoted to writing formal letters and the teacher was quite emphatic that the only correct opening to a letter when you didn’t know the recipient’s name was “Dear Sirs”. Another girl in the class put her hand up and said, “What about Dear Sir or Madam?” and the teacher barked, “No! That’s not correct!” Admittedly, (a) this was circa 1980 (b) my school was an unusually starched and old-fashioned one, even then, but for some years I clung to that advice religiously, not because I held misogynist views, not because I assumed that the only people who open formal letters are men (I was already an ardent feminist), but because I’d been told that was the standard way of doing things by someone who knew more about these things than I did and I was terrified of looking stupid and uncouth and giving away my working-class origins. My father didn’t write formal letters – they weren’t necessary for applications for labouring jobs – and my mother, who only wrote them to the gas board or to my teachers, also clung religiously to what she’d been told was “correct” (in her case, in the 1940s), so I had noone to tell me that other opinions on this question existed.

Obviously, I know different now and I probably haven’t opened a letter “Dear Sirs” since the 1990s. But as both a student and a teacher of English language I have over the years constantly observed that students of working-class origin are most likely to cling to prescriptive and dated ideas about language, because they are constantly judged on how they write or speak way more than most middle-class people are, but are also far less likely to have got the latest memo. And it’s also unreasonable to expect someone born in the 1920s to use the same kind of language as a 20-year-old. I’m not suggesting we have to tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc because someone is too old to know better, but if you’re turning down a working-class older woman for using a “sexist” term, while accepting a middle-class young man who has jumped through the right “feminist” hoops, I think you’re probably missing the point of what feminism is for.

And, yes, I do take the points that (a) someone who insists on addressing you as “Dear Sirs” when your names, which are clearly displayed on your website, are Shivaani Patel, Jane Smith and Latoya Brown, is guilty of a lack of basic research which suggests that their understanding of the kind of poetry your journal publishes is likely to be equally deficient and (b) if someone’s knowledge of covering letter etiquette is fifty years out of date, it doesn’t bode well for their knowledge of contemporary poetry. I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes and fully expecting their poetry to be shit.

But don’t publicly shame them on social media and don’t try to mindread and assume deliberately sexist intentions. And at least give their poems a chance. Being cognisant with contemporary poetry conventions is an essential requirement for a contemporary poet. Being cognisant with contemporary covering letter etiquette is not. And if you’re going to insist on disqualifying submitters who commit one of your pet covering letters peeves, then at the very least, make sure you have given clear guidelines to this effect on the Submissions page of your website and don’t expect them to just psychically know what pisses you off. Otherwise, when you say “I won’t read the poems of someone who begins their covering letter ‘Dear Sirs’ “, just be aware you’re effectively saying “I only want to read poems from woke, young, middle-class university graduates like me.”

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A Laureateload of Poetry

So, Simon Armitage is the new Poet Laureate. Yes, I know everybody except, apparently, Imtiaz Dharker wanted it to be Imtiaz Dharker and it is a shame that a role that has been wall-to-wall white men since its inception, with just a tiny blip from Carol-Ann Duffy, has reverted to being wall-to-wall white men so soon again, but, that aside, Armitage is a decent enough choice. I feel a bit like I do at the end of the Eurovision Song Contest every year – Denmark is catchy enough and I’m not gutted they won, but I’d rather it had been Armenia. But I don’t want to get into the debate about whether or not Armitage was the right choice – I want to get into the debate about whether we should have a Poet Laureate at all.

It’s easy to eye-roll. The Laureateship is notoriously a poisoned chalice. Few Poet Laureates have written much decent work while in post. Some have written truly execrable work while in post – verses trotted out to suck up to the Queen on the occasion of royal births and marriages tend to be high-end versions of Hallmark greetings card poetry, with all the anodyne mediocrity of a local paper obituary notice rhyme. Poems that aim to speak for the whole community are hard to pull off at the best of times and usually only work when they emerge spontaneously, not when you have the pressure of knowing it’s your job to churn this sort of stuff out. There are exceptions – Tennyson produced “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in his role as Laureate – but John Masefield apparently used to enclose a stamped-addressed envelope when he submitted his Laureate poems to The Times, in case they weren’t any good and they wanted to reject them and, while this is a reflection of his modesty, not their quality (Masefield was, as someone on my Facebook page has just reminded me, an extremely fine poet), many people share his lack of confidence in the ability of Britain’s Official Poet to produce the goods.

It’s not true, however, as I frequently see argued on social media, that the Poet Laureate is “the Queen’s private poet” – a lackey of the Establishment who has to write to order. The Poet Laureate has not, since the time of Wordsworth, been obliged to write anything while in post and neither the Queen nor the Government puts in requests.

It’s also probably true, as at most slams, that the best poet never wins. Colley Cibber was widely regarded as a shite poet even in his own time, but somehow got the nod. Nahum Tate, now most famous for having rewritten King Lear to give it a happy ending, wasn’t much better, but also got chosen. Much as I have a soft spot for Betjeman, he will hardly be remembered as a Titan of 20th-century poetry by future generations.

It has never been an uncontroversial role – Browning’s 1845 poem “The Lost Leader” is one long passive-aggressive jibe at the once anti-monarchist radical Wordsworth for selling out by accepting the role – and its associations with monarchy and Empire have made it unpalatable to many. Benjamin Zephaniah recently asserted “I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, they are not worthy” and Seamus Heaney turned it down partly on political grounds in 1999 (although, given his response to being included in an anthology of “British” poets in 1982 was an indignant “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the queen”, it was fairly tone-deaf to offer it to him in the first place).

And there will always be debate over how “academic” or “populist” the choice should be. I recently saw a spoken word poet arguing on social media that Carol-Ann Duffy had been a “terrible choice” as she was “too inaccessible and elitist”, and yet I remember that at the time many were sniffy about her appointment on the grounds that she was too lightweight and populist. You will never be able to please everybody and it is arguable that in trying to, you may end up with a middlebrow, safe choice that pleases nobody (not, I hasten to add, the case with Armitage or Duffy, but that could explain Tate and Cibber).

I still feel it’s a worthwhile role to have, though. I admire the way that Carol-Ann Duffy has reimagined the role as poetry’s national cheerleader and put the focus on education work and promoting other poets rather than on her own work. I also admire the way that Andrew Motion before her changed the emphasis from poems for the Royal Family to poems for the nation. This interview with him on the drawbacks and pressures of the role is, I think, rather interesting. The role is evolving into something other than a docile minion of the Establishment and it is in the power of whoever is Laureate at any given time to speed up that process of evolution.

More than anything, though, I think it is worth having a Poet Laureate, because the appointment of a Poet Laureate is usually the only time when an item about poetry gets into the mainstream newspapers or on the telly and even people who have never heard of any other poets have heard of the Poet Laureate. That kind of public platform is useful if you want to bring poetry to the masses.

I remember when I was about ten I told my mum that I liked writing poems at school, she said to me, “Maybe you’ll be the Poet Laureate when you grow up”, and that became a burning ambition for me. My mum didn’t know of any other poets who did poetry as a job – I doubt if she could name more than one or two contemporary poets other than Betjeman – but she’d heard of him because of the Laureateship and was able to give me an aim to encourage me in my new-found interest. It’s easy for people from backgrounds where the arts are taken for granted to mock the idea of a Poet Laureate, but the Laureateship’s public prominence means it’s seen by people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware that a life in poetry is possible.

Redaction

I have taken down my last blogpost, because it obviously came across as if I was having a go at the spoken word community in general and promoters in particular, which was absolutely not my intention, so I clearly must have written it very carelessly without thinking it through enough.

I have a stake in page poetry and a stake in spoken word and I’ve always found both to be, for the most part, full of lovely people, doing their best to create and promote both good art and a just, equal society. I get upset when page poets make lazy, sweeping statements about spoken word artists and vice versa. I do think some spoken word artists have an oversimplistic and outdated view of page poetry and can be blind to the myriad ways that spoken word isn’t 100% perfect, either (because no system is), and to the fact that some of the exact same things they criticise in page poetry are there in spoken word, too. That doesn’t mean I think spoken word is worse than page poetry, much less that I am putting the blame for its flaws on promoters, who do a time-consuming, difficult and thankless job, often for no or little money.

TBH

Trigger warning: references to sexual assault

In spoken word (and, I find, increasingly, in page poetry), honesty is valued. There is some debate about to what extent it is permissible to tell other people’s stories or offer entirely fictional narratives, but I think most people would agree that it’s wrong to tell a first-person story that’s made up or happened to someone else without making it clear that it is fiction, as audiences will otherwise assume that it is autobiography and their response to the poem will be influenced by their sympathy for you as a person for your “ordeal”. Most people are also aware of the need to be hesitant about appropriating other people’s experience – if you’re a white person performing poems about racism, for example, your time might be better spent ensuring that poets of colour in your area have a platform to tell their own stories, instead of assuming they need you to do it for them, and if you’re being paid for your set, you are arguably profiting from the oppression of a minority you’re not part of. I sometimes feel uncomfortable about sections of my set which are honestly autobiographical, though, and worry I am being dishonest at the same time I am being honest.

This is partly because the moment you make a work of art out of a personal experience you, to an extent, artificialise it. No matter how hard you strive to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you usually end up editing to make a clearer story. You change minor details and exaggerate things because they work better artistically or because the literal truth would introduce too many irrelevant digressions. By choosing to tell one particular episode from your life in public at all, you are also artificially foregrounding it and suggesting it has a significance greater than the millions of other things that have happened to you.

For example, I have a poem about being raped. It is true, in the sense that it did actually happen. It happened, however, within a relationship which was emotionally and psychologically abusive from start to finish. Some of that other abuse actually made it into the final version of the poem which is still in my set (in which the rape is the main thing the poem leads up to), some was there in the first draft, which came in at over ten minutes and in which the rape was not the culminating and foregrounded feature, but just one in a long string of things that culminated in something else (so is arguably more “honest” about how I really felt about the experience than the final edited version), and some of the abuse I never mentioned in the poem at all (because if I’d mentioned every single abusive thing this person did, the poem would have been at least a week long).

If I’m honest, for me the rape was far from being the worst thing that happened in that relationship. This is partly because at the time I emotionally disengaged from it and pretended it didn’t happen, but partly because sustained emotional and psychological abuse over time has a cumulative impact that you probably can’t begin to understand unless you’ve been the victim of it. Other people tend to think the other stuff that happened doesn’t sound so bad, because they weren’t there.

In a sense, both at the time when I tried to seek support from the church and now when I do that poem to audiences, I’ve put most of the stress on the rape, not the other stuff, because I know that’s the bit that will get their attention and that they will take seriously (except the church didn’t, which is one of the reasons for the poem. Although, to be fair, in retrospect I can see that people who are good at grooming and manipulating their victims are also good at grooming and manipulating those around them, so maybe I should be less harsh on the people in the church), but it’s the other stuff I’m angrier about and more damaged by. Is that manipulative and exploitative? To use something which 100% did actually happen to me to try to get sympathy and/or justice for something else which also happened that bothered me more, but which nobody else seems to give a shit about? One of the few people who heard the first draft version when I did it at an open mic not long after I wrote it told me that the final version works much better and is a much more powerful version and I suppose that does encapsulate the dilemma – a slightly artificial, crafted version of the truth is always more powerful and meets audiences’ emotional needs much better than the messy, unedited truth.

I am also aware that how I perceived the events at the time was, and perhaps still is, excessively lenient to the abuser. I am still plagued by the guilt that it wasn’t “rape-rape” because he wasn’t a stranger and he didn’t drag me into a dark alley and so perhaps it doesn’t count and I should shut up about it. Until I wrote the poem, it had never occurred to me that his repeated refusal to use contraception and then to blame and guilt trip me when I feared I might be (or actually was) pregnant was abuse. Also, every time I perform the poem I go back to that time in my head and it still takes a massive emotional toll on me, more than twenty years after the event. So logically I know that my fears that maybe my version isn’t “honest” enough and makes the rape a bigger deal than it was are probably groundless and any alterations would make it less honest and paint the abuser as less bad than he was.

Also, sometimes the audience gap-fill in a way you didn’t intend. Many people assume that the events in the poem happened when I was a child or teenager and the abuser was a priest or other church worker. I can see why they think this (I reference a children’s song at the beginning and present myself as very vulnerable and naive – because I was!), but I never meant people to think it was about a child. In fact, it happened when I was an adult and the abuser was a fellow parishioner with no authority in the church and younger than me. I must admit, when people assume I was an abused child, I don’t correct them, because I don’t want them to like the poem less (partly because general artistic vanity, but, in fairness, when you’ve been psychologically scarred for life by something, you don’t want people telling you they’re disappointed and don’t care as much, because you turned out to be the wrong kind of victim or you weren’t abused enough).

Other issues have been raised about a series of poems I wrote for my recent collection, Can You See Where I’m Coming From?, about my childhood and my family background. I worried myself when I was writing the collection whether I was overegging the working-classness and other people have since made suggestions that I am a hypocritical twonk shamelessly pretending to be something I am not, appropriating an identity I am not entitled to, and totally blind to my own massive privilege.

My background is complex and I have never really felt I fitted in anywhere. That is really what I wanted the book to be about. My father was a labourer and I grew up in a mainly working-class community, but my wider family is overall probably more lower middle class, with some very solidly middle-class branches. My parents were aspirational and (to be frank) snobbish and tended to look down on the people they lived amongst, but also felt awkward, embarrassed by what they perceived as their lack of sophistication and out of their depth amongst middle-class people (including their own relatives). When I was eleven, I won a scholarship to a public school. It was a fairly rubbish public school and I underachieved there in comparison to my sink state primary and my public-funded university, and most of the other students there were also there on scholarships from working- or lower middle-class homes, so it wasn’t the sea of poshness and high-octane networking you probably imagine it was, but both in the book and in life generally I have tried to be completely upfront about the education I received, because I don’t want people to think I am passing myself off as more working-class than I am. I have also never tried to hide the fact that I currently work as a lecturer in FE and I want to punch people who claim that teachers are “badly paid” and count as “working class” on points, as I know I earned more in my first teaching job out of college than my dad had ever earned in his life.

So, I am emphatically NOT claiming to be working class now, but I did want to explore my background (whatever it is), the impact it still has on my life now, and my feelings about it (including some perhaps overcandid admissions about my feelings about my parents, who are both now dead). I also do try to point out and protest class bias , both in life generally and in spoken word/poetry circles in particular, when I think I perceive it and it does generally make me furious that classism often isn’t viewed as being a problem anymore, when it blatantly is – this does NOT mean I think I am a victim of it.

To an extent, I can understand why some people think I am appropriating working-class experience and playing a class card I am not entitled to, and also those who think I have oversentimentalised it and/or hammered it over the head with the subtlety of a mallet, but if I’m not allowed to write about my own family and my own past, then what the fuck am I allowed to write about? What do people want me to do? Make up a middle-class childhood I didn’t have? Not write about my past at all if it doesn’t fit into the neat boxes they think it should?

All I can say is that I have always tried to be 100% honest in my writing , but it sometimes seem to me that the harder I try to be honest, the more I am accused of blurring the truth. Honesty also often confuses audiences, who have a tendency to want everything to be kept very simple and black-and-white and who also want everything to be dramatic and emotionally cathartic at the same time as they want it to be “honest”. Also, is there even such a thing as 100% honesty? One of the things I tried to look at in my most recent collection (and which I hope to bring out even more in the stage version) is, however honest we try to be, to an extent the identities we construct for ourselves are always partly fictional.

High Five

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 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.

Last month was the fifth anniversary of my taking up spoken word. I didn’t say anything at the time, partly because I was too busy with my day job to write a blogpost, partly because, to be honest, it didn’t seem like anything worth celebrating.

I was in a very bad place when I wandered into a local spoken word night in March 2014, more or less on a whim. My mother had recently died, my father was dying a slow and horrible death of Lewy Body Dementia ( a disease with elements of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), I had just taken seven years out of paid work to care for them full-time, which had wiped me out financially, taken its toll on my mental health and left me with a massive hole in my CV which wasn’t making it easy to find a job and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever work again. I felt about as crap about myself as it is possible to feel when I took the bus up to Bristol and crept into a slam poetry night, not knowing what to expect and feeling terrified – not just about doing my poem, but about not having a clue what the whole etiquette was and worrying about looking a nob.

Fortunately, the person running the slam was someone I had briefly met at a job interview a few months previously and she couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. Also, I somehow managed to come joint first in the slam. In retrospect, I can see this was a bit of a fluke – my poem wasn’t very good, my delivery was nervous and halting – but in one of those random slam moments of scorecreep I got a decent score and at the time I felt like I was champion of the world and spoken word seemed like my destiny. That night gave me hope. Although, objectively speaking, I was at rock bottom, anything seemed possible. And, also, being at rock bottom was kind of good, because anything, anything at all, felt like massive progress.

Three months later, when I returned for the regional finals, certain that I was on a fast-track trajectory to spoken word superstardom and going to conquer all in my way, I was brought down to earth with a sharp bump – I not only came last in the regional final, I came last with a really shit score. But by that stage, I had been bitten by the bug and giving up was no longer an option.

Five years on, a lot has happened – I have had two collections published, performed as a feature or a headline poet at numerous spoken word nights and festivals and I have qualified for three national slam finals. All of this would have seemed like a remote dream five years ago.

In other respects, though, it feels like I haven’t moved on much and in some ways it feels like I’ve actually gone backwards since then. Although on paper I know I’m doing much better than I was in 2014, I had a string of disappointments last year in both my spoken word career and my personal life, none of which individually was anything much (certainly, to the outside world, nothing to compare with the deaths of two parents and an interminable stretch of long-term unemployment), but which cumulatively hit me really hard and made me feel that no kind of success or hope was possible for me, that I am doomed to failure in anything I aspire to, that I had fallen off the one rung I had managed to clamber onto and that everyone and his dog was trampling over me to reach a far higher rung on the ladder.

I hope I am starting to climb out of that pit of hopelessness now. I am feeling a bit more positive and just trying to enjoy poetry and spoken word on a day-to-day level and trying not to think too hard about where I am on the “ladder” or if I’m doing “well enough”.

I still kind of wish I was back five years ago, though, because, although in retrospect I now acknowledge that many of my hopes and beliefs I had about myself back then were totally and utterly delusional, it was a nice feeling. How I’m actually doing is irrelevant – what makes me happy is how I think I’m doing or what I think the possibilities are.

Keeping A Safe Distance

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.

A couple of years back, a promoter came up to me after a gig and offered to book me for his night in another part of the country. It was a good night in a part of the country where I was desperate to get better known, so I probably should have jumped at it, but I immediately said no.

Why? Well, I told him the money wasn’t good enough, and it was partly that – I was skint and really couldn’t afford to do many more gigs where the fee wouldn’t even cover the travel. But another reason was I didn’t know the guy, didn’t know what his domestic arrangements were, didn’t know if he could be trusted, and when he seemed a little too keen to assure me it would be OK to stay the night in his house after the gig, it made me panic.

Turned out I was worrying about nothing – he was happily married, I would have been staying in a house with his wife and children, and the offer really was all he said it was. He knew I was short of cash and couldn’t afford to shell out for a B and B and was just being kind. But I didn’t know that.

I know I overreacted. He wasn’t demanding an answer straight away and I could easily have checked out his background with friends in his manor and then got back to him. Maybe that’s what I would have done if there hadn’t been the money issue, as well. But in a scene where it’s common practice for performers to stay in hosts’ homes to save money, an awful lot relies on trust and I wonder if I’m the only poet to turn down a gig needlessly or fork out for hotel accommodation that would wipe out their profits because they were worried whether a stranger’s home would be safe.

A particular problem with me is that I have an anxiety disorder which includes having irrational thoughts about my relationships with other people. For example, an idea will pop into my head that some random guy I slightly know and am not remotely attracted to fancies me and that God/fate wants me to be with him. This makes it extremely hard for me to have even normal civil social interaction with this person without getting very stressed. Sometimes the gremlins in my head will tell me that if I say “Hello” to him or have a polite conversation with him, I will be committing myself to him for life and end up marrying him. If that sounds amusing, it’s not – it is absolutely terrifying. This (as well as my general shyness) can be hard in a scene where being seen as friendly, accessible and sociable is important, because on occasions where I’ve obviously been avoiding talking to a perfectly well-meaning guy, I have probably come across to bystanders as a stuck-up, judgemental bitch who would be a nightmare to work with.

My extreme fear of men who get a bit too close manifests itself on social media, as well as in real life. I have defriended a number of men on Facebook because the amount or nature of their comments on my posts made me feel so uncomfortable that I was literally losing sleep over it. In some cases, I can see in retrospect that I was absolutely right to feel uncomfortable (the friend of a friend I didn’t know from Adam who told me I was wearing too much make up in my profile pic and it made me look like a tart, the guy I’d met once in real life who seemed perfectly OK, but then started negging aggressively). In some cases, though (like a couple of guys who never said anything inappropriate, but just seemed to be liking and commenting on my posts a bit too much considering how little I knew them and it made me feel spooked), I possibly was a little too trigger happy with the defriend button. I have since refriended some of the people I blocked and they’ve been fine since, so it probably was just me being overly anxious the first time. But I strongly feel I have a right to feel safe in my own online space and to take a break from anyone I don’t feel comfortable with, no matter if that seems irrational or unjust to them. And I never feel seriously aggrieved if someone defriends me without explanation, unless they were a *really* close friend.

It can be an issue with audience members, as well. It’s awkward when a male audience member is friendly in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know how to deal with it. Nine times out of ten I am probably reading things into his behaviour that aren’t there, because I am paranoid about this shit, and I probably should just ignore my heeby-jeebies because I know what I’m like and I really can’t afford to alienate potential fans, as, God knows, I need more people liking and spreading the word about my poetry. But sometimes my alarm bells are there for a reason – I once got an extremely inappropriate fan letter from a man who had seen one of my shows (inappropriate in that he mentioned his penis. Several times). In an industry where everybody knows everybody and a reputation for being unfriendly really isn’t good, is it ever OK to say, just because of a vague gut instinct, “I don’t have to be nice to this person, just because he says he likes my poetry”?

I used to think that it was mainly female poets that had these worries and it was one of the invisible ways that the odds are stacked against them, but maybe not. Thinking about it, I know I have been guilty of not respecting male poets’ boundaries on numerous occasions (I’ve felt hurt when a poet didn’t want the hug I was offering, and once had a childish meltdown when a male colleague refused to share a room with me when we were both staying over with a promoter at the same time. In retrospect, I realise they were both being entirely reasonable and I was the one being the arse. I felt paranoid that the reason they didn’t want me that near them was they didn’t like me as a person or that they were publicly accusing me of being a lech, and I felt hurt by this – but I now accept that their right to feel comfortable and safe was way more important than my right not to have slightly hurt feelings.) Men can be victims of assault and unwanted advances from both men and women and their complaints about this can sometimes be taken even less seriously than women’s. I feel really ashamed of myself that I have often been too slow to accept that men have every right to decline offers and refuse physical proximity without giving a reason, when I’ve been so adamant about my own right to do these things.

It’s very easy, in an industry where your success as an artist is often directly linked to how personally popular you are, to feel that someone turning you down or asking you to keep your distance is insulting you, rejecting you as a person and an artist, and/or being a precious diva. But you don’t know what that person’s reasons are, what they have experienced, what is going through their head, what they are fearing, what they have in the past had good reason to fear. All of us, but especially me, have to be more tolerant and understanding of people’s right to do whatever they have to do to feel comfortable and safe.

 

A Host of Difficult Skills

I have never got involved in running a spoken word night. I don’t think this is just me being lazy and selfish (although it’s possibly that, as well); I’m not sure I have any of the requisite skills and, in any case, Bristol/Bath is pretty much at saturation point with spoken word nights at the moment and, unless I feel a burning mission to reach a potential audience that noone else is reaching or meet a need none of the other nights in the area is meeting, there isn’t really any point in adding to what’s already there.

Others have suggested that getting involved with running a spoken word night might help my career and, yes, I have known people start up nights because they think that it will get their name better known in the spoken word community, give them more opportunities to meet and network with the A-listers they book, and that poets who run other spoken word nights might start offering them gigs, in the hope of being booked in return. However, it seems to me that the reverse is actually often the case – most of the really, really good promoters and hosts I know have seen their own careers take a hit, because running a night well takes a colossal amount of time and energy – time and energy that they then don’t have to promote themselves. Generally, when a poet starts a night for all the wrong reasons – as a vehicle for promoting themselves – the night rarely enjoys sustained success, because either its shallow roots soon see it wither or the poet quickly loses interest and moves onto something else. The nights that have become runaway successes tend to be those where the promoting/hosting/managing team is motivated by sheer love of poetry and a desire to serve their potential audience.

Hosting, in particular, requires a very specific set of skills and is often a delicate balancing act. When you say the word “host”, many people immediately think of an uber-confident, charismatic, loud, bubbly person, but many of the best hosts I know are quiet, self-effacing people. Yes, the host has to be charismatic and interesting enough to engage the audience and on occasions has to be able to tell jokes and/or perform their own work, to warm the audience up, put them at ease, and fill any awkward gaps, but they’ve also got to remember that the night isn’t all about them and that they are there to facilitate the other performers (both the featured acts and any slammers/open micers), not to upstage them. I sometimes think that a sign of a perfect host is that you didn’t really notice them, in either a good or a bad way, but came away buoyed by the experience you had and by the performers’ work.

The most obvious thing that the host has to do is introduce the acts and this can make a huge difference, both to how the performer feels about themselves and how the audience receives them. Hosts will often whip the audience up into a frenzy of applause before the performer takes the stage which makes the performer feel like a rock star and makes the audience view them as one. At three different events this week I was lucky enough to be given really touching, personal intros that made me feel that the hosts knew and genuinely loved my work, that they weren’t just reading out my biog verbatim. It made me perform better, both because I knew they had disposed the audience to expect me to be good, but also because I felt more valued and worthwhile as a performer and as a human being. But even more important than how the host makes the performers feel is how they make the audience feel about themselves.

Hosting can take different forms. I’ve been to nights where there has been a lot of audience participation and there has been more going on in the auditorium than on the stage (for example, audience are encouraged to shake maracas or join in with refrains or actions or shout things out or write their own poems which will be read out onstage and there is a lot of banter between host and audience. I have been to delightful shows where play dough and bendy pipe cleaners and magic painting sets were left on the seats or tables, so audience members with low concentration spans had something to fiddle with during the show). This model can work especially well for nights trying to build an audience from people who might previously have thought poetry wasn’t for them and can be crucial in providing an inclusive and fun experience for the audience that will make them want to go back. But not everyone wants a night like that: when I first started going to spoken word nights, as a very shy person who was on her own, I just wanted to slip in at the back unnoticed, enjoy the poetry, and then go home and would have been mortified if a spotlight had been shone on me or I’d been forced to speak to people around me. Poetry nights catering to an established poetry audience, in particular, may legitimately prefer to take a more sedate, less high-energy, “fourth wall” approach, to curate, rather than cheerlead.  Even there, though, the host has a duty to ensure that the audience has a good time, that everyone feels they are welcome and are part of a community and to demonstrate what the night’s brand is about. It’s a case of finding a style that suits your personality and your audience’s needs.

One way that some hosts try to create a fun, high-energy atmosphere and make the audience feel they are joining a family or a club, not just randomly dropping into a venue for a couple of hours, is by making a lot of in-jokes. These can take the form of one of the hosts gently taking the piss out of the other and their supposed well-known foibles, a host sharing personal anecdotes, or hosts making comic references to things which took place at previous performances. This can work well – Harry and Chris’s stage show is a very good example of this approach and audiences are amused and charmed by their self-mockery and by the window we are given into their lives. When done badly, though, it can seem self-indulgent, can hog time and attention that would have been better given to the featured performers and can actually make audience members feel more isolated and unwelcome, if they feel that the inner circle gets the in-references and they don’t.

Sometimes I wish hosts didn’t feel compelled to be amusing all the time. In particular, I get tired of hearing the same old joke borrowed from another venue and trotted out as if it were the host’s own gag. Just because the host at the night where you first discovered spoken word always used to introduce the slam rules or greet the audience back from the interval with the same joke, it doesn’t mean you have to, too. Either think up your own original gags or just give us the information without trying to be funny. In general, I don’t respond well to hosts who I feel aren’t being themselves – they’re trying to copy a template of what they think a host should be. That doesn’t mean that your onstage self should be identical to your offstage self – it’s fine to create a stage persona that’s bolder than you and says things you would never say, but it should be your own alter ego, not someone else’s.

Another way that the attempt to provide wall-to-wall laughs can backfire is if you try to make banter with or about an audience member, open micer or slammer and it comes out wrong or they take it the wrong way. I have seen hosts reduce audience members to tears by making a flippant, off-the-cuff joke about their dress sense, accent or grammar, thinking they had picked someone who would take it in good part and horribly misjudging it.

Another difficult balance that hosts have to strike is keeping discipline without being so inflexible that they come across as as a joyless, jobsworth control freak. Nobody wants to be that guy who sits there with an alarm clock and stops anyone who goes even one second over their allotted time, but then again a host who repeatedly allows performers to overrun by a massive amount (or, even worse, allows the performers on first to overrun hugely, but then takes time off performers later in the evening who have done nothing wrong to ensure the evening ends on time) will create an undisciplined, shapeless, self-indulgent evening where people feel bored, unsafe and/or unappreciated and, in extreme cases, people miss the last bus/train home or the venue pulls the plug on future events because the bar staff were still there two hours after their shift was supposed to have ended.

But it’s very easy for me to carp about this, when I’ve never been a host myself, when the reason I’ve never been a host is because I know I’d be shit at it. Anyone who month in, month out, bravely strides out into the minefield of hosting, usually without any pay or recognition, is doing something I don’t have the guts to do and has my admiration. I know that even the worst host on the circuit is a much, much better host than I would ever be and by sheer virtue of being there deserves applause and credit. And hosts have to deal with the oddest things, at the spur of the moment, with no preparation or planning. I know someone who had to deal with a drunk who had secreted themselves backstage before the show started suddenly leaping out and taking his clothes off in the middle of a spoken word event. How would anyone cope with that?

A good host makes the evening. They are entertaining and confident, but humble enough to arrange everything so that attention is drawn to everyone except themselves. They are talented enough to be able to hold an audience, but self-effacing enough to not hog the stage. They are assertive enough to stop performers and audience from acting up, but calm and relaxed enough to defuse trouble, not escalate it. They are organised enough to keep the evening ticking along at an energetic pace, but not so uptight they suck the joy out of it. They can read a room and always know the right thing to say or do. They make audiences feel valued and involved, without making them feel uncomfortable or  put on the spot. They make everyone who takes to the stage, from the newbie open micer to the world-famous headliner, feel like a world-famous headliner. They are wonderful and worth their weight in gold and don’t get the love they deserve.