Feeling the Pull of the Fringe Magnet

I’m taking my first full-length spoken word show to the Edinburgh Fringe in August (see Forthcoming Events page for details) and I’m going to try to blog about how it’s going, starting from now, when I’m about a month into full-time, serious preparation.

In many senses, my expectations are modest. I know, for instance, that I’m not going to make any money. Edinburgh is always just a very expensive holiday. I’m going with PBH’s Free Fringe, an organisation which doesn’t charge for venue hire, but also doesn’t charge audiences to watch (although a bucket is passed round at the end, so they can pay you if they want to). While this eliminates the single biggest cost of taking a show to the paid Fringe (if you’re paying for venue hire, you can be looking at anything between £300 and £2000 a week), all the other costs involved (accommodation, travel, printing flyers, housesitting/petsitting while you’re away) can tally up to an amount that would buy you a pretty decent Caribbean cruise. I know there’s not going to be enough in that bucket to break even. I’m accepting that the money I’ve laid out has gone down the toilet. Anything I get back will be an unexpected bonus.

I’m also not expecting full houses. Last time I took a theatre show to the paid Fringe, we got an average of about 10 audience members per performance. For a small company, with no famous names in the cast and no big team of flyerers to publicise it, I thought this was pretty decent. I was expecting the free Fringe to draw bigger audiences than that (after all, you don’t even need to persuade the punters to part with any cash. How hard can it be?), but friends who’ve been with the free Fringe have reported audiences you could easily fit into a Ford Fiesta. With their luggage. And their pets. So I’m expecting audiences you can count on the fingers of one hand. If you’re Captain Hook.

Nor am I going expecting to be Discovered. You hear about artists having an A-Star-Is-Born, career-changing, overnight success story at the Fringe, but mostly these tales are lies or exaggerations and most of the true stories happened decades ago, when Fringe was a very different beast.

So, why am I going? Primarily, because I want to try my hand at the one-hour show, as opposed to the 20-minute set, with a view to pitching a show to theatres in 2019, and this is a trial run, to see how far off the pace I am right now. Also, I want to show my work to a wider audience of public and fellow spoken word artists, get my voice heard and the things I have to say off my chest, and maybe get my name and my words a little more widely known, so that if, in two years’ time, a promoter gets asked, “Have you thought about booking Melanie Branton?” they might not say, “Who?”

And, of course, at root, I want what 99% of performers want, whether they admit it or not: I want to be loved. I want audiences to give me enough approval and applause and nice comments afterwards to make up for a lifetime of disappointments and rejections and not being good enough.

I’m both excited and terrified. I desperately want to get press in, because I know from my experience of taking theatre shows to the Fringe that a good review can quadruple your audiences and give you something to use on your publicity forever after, but I’m scared of getting a bad or (even worse) a mediocre review and what that will do to my reputation on the spoken word circuit and to my sense of myself as a performer and as a human being. So scared that part of me wishes I hadn’t sent out press releases and wants to ask for them back.

Even more scared that other spoken word artists and promoters will think I’m shit, or just a reasonably competent amateur, while they’ll be having serious professional conversations with everybody else from my local spoken word scene. At this point, the persona in my head which drives me mad, telling me on a continuous loop in my mother’s voice, “You’ll never amount to anything much”, “Don’t aspire to anything, because you’re bound to be disappointed – nice things never happen to people like you”, is reading this over my shoulder and nodding sagely.

Totally slambolic

Officially, I’m Not Doing Slams Anymore. I made a decision, about a year ago, that I’m Beyond That Now and that I was going to concentrate on getting more 20-minute sets and developing one-hour shows. The high-impact, three-minute attention grab was no longer for me.

Which is odd, because I’ve ended up doing more slams in my first year of Not Doing Slams Anymore than I did in my last year of Still Doing Them. One of these was an accident – I turned up as audience and they were a slammer short, so I agreed to make up the numbers – but the rest I can only ascribe to my penchant for volunteering for mad shit when I’ve had a few drinks.

It’s hard to keep away, because I LOVE slams. Yes, I know all about their shortcomings (the scorecreep, the tendency for judges to penalise material which is subtle or which provokes or challenges the audience in any way, the danger of being viewed as an eternal amateur if slams remain your principal focus), but I’m basically the most competitive person in the whole world and when those scorecards flip over and there’s a 10 on them, I feel like Nadia Comaneci competing in the 1976 Olympics. I have always been epically crap at sport. My PE teachers had to entirely redefine the parameters of what “being crap at sport” meant when they met me, because I was ten times crapper at sport than the crappest student they’d ever taught previously. I never learnt to swim properly. I never learnt to ride a bike, at all. I couldn’t do a handstand or a cartwheel. It was only in about Year 9 that I finally managed to do a forward roll. My body just didn’t do what I told it to. Poetry slams are the closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it feels like to be good at PE.

When I first started doing them, in my naivety (but I suspect I’m not alone in this), I assumed that slams were the spoken word equivalent of the Civil Service Entrance Exams: that you couldn’t have a career in that field if you didn’t do well in them and if you did very well indeed in them, you were guaranteed a fast-track career trajectory. There then followed an agonising couple of years, during which I won almost all the slams I entered, but still couldn’t get booked for a 20-minute set anywhere, while all the people I’d beaten were being given feature slots all over the place, and I realised I was wrong. Fact is, some of the best poets I know are rubbish slammers and how you do in slams is pretty much irrelevant to anything, at all (unless, possibly, if you win the Roundhouse or the Hammer and Tongue National Final). I know people who have managed to use regional slam wins as a springboard to success, but it has generally been in combination with a ruthlessly efficient promotional campaign and world-class networking skills.

That’s not to say I haven’t done well out of slams. They can be a great way to get your work seen. I have recently been offered two fantastic opportunities by people who saw me compete in a slam and were impressed enough to want to book me. The thing is, though, it didn’t happen in a hurry – one of them had seen me in a slam a year previously, the other one had seen me in a slam THREE years previously. And in neither case had I actually won the slam. I’ve got no complaints.

I do think there’s a lot of double-think around slams, though. Yes, yes, we all know “it’s not about the winning, it’s about the poetry”, “the best poet never wins” and every other saccharine cliché that is trotted out by the hosts on a regular basis. But if it really all is totally arbitrary and a bit of meaningless fun, why do some slams offer big performance opportunities as prizes? And why do poets regularly describe themselves as multi-slam-winning in their biogs? Either it means something, or it doesn’t.

Many spoken word nights and literary festivals want to include a slam because they get bums on seats – they are popular with audiences and they attract a lot of wannabe performers, most of whom bring a vast entourage of friends and family along to support them.  Organisers usually do very well out of it. In return, though, I think they owe it to entrants (especially ones who are new to spoken word, naïve and/or impressionable and who may have unrealistic expectations) to give them an honest idea of what, if anything, a win will lead to, and, possibly, also help and advice on what they can do next to move forward in spoken word, beyond slams.

Down With The Kids

Not that long ago, a lady I know slightly, the mother of a poet I occasionally perform with at open mics, gave me what she clearly thought was a helpful suggestion: “Why don’t you contact Women’s Institutes around the country and see if they would pay you to perform your poetry there? You’re probably much better suited to that kind of audience than a young, urban open mic.” And I nearly hit her.

Really, though, I don’t know why I perceive it as such an insult when people tell me to go and perform to people my own age. As one of my friends often points out, from a financial perspective, older people are the best audience: they have more disposable income and are more likely to buy books. Often they get literary and cultural references that are lost on the student crowd. And, most of all, if I treat middle-aged people as though they are a less desirable, less valuable audience than young people, surely that means I am effectively oppressing myself?

There is  definitely a bit of a cult of youth in poetry (although I do take the point that young people sometimes feel patronised and/or excluded by the “literary” end of the spectrum and it’s one reason why spoken word appeals to them so much). Every page poetry circle I have ever been a member of has been obsessed with attracting Young People TM, as if you’re not a worthwhile group unless you have young members, and it’s always irritated me.  I don’t believe in excluding or deterring young people, but I don’t believe in treating them like they’re the Messiah, either. Most of the students and 20-somethings I know through spoken word are lovely and have always been very, very welcoming to me, but I have never once heard them say, “We really need more old people. What strategies can we put in place to get middle-aged people through the door?” so why does it happen the other way round?

Then there’s another of my pet peeves: schemes for “emergent artists”  which, when you read the small print, turn out not to be schemes for emergent artists, at all, but schemes for young artists. I’m not sure if the people who run them think that everybody who takes up the arts later in life is a moneyed middle-class professional who can afford to take a five-year unpaid career break while they set themselves up or whether they just don’t want us to emerge.

I also get annoyed when very young poets – those still in their teens – get held to lower standards than other people, whether that be standards of behaviour or standards of poetic quality. It’s partly because it draws on the bullshit yet widespread assumption that Young People Need It More, regardless of any other circumstances, as if an upper middle-class 16-year-old whose parents work for a publisher and who has the advantages of public school needs encouragement and extra favours to help them get on the ladder, but a working-class 60-year-old with mental health problems and/or literacy problems doesn’t. But mostly it’s because I think it’s insulting and unhelpful to younger poets themselves to treat them like they can’t cope with realistic criticism, and it’s going to cause far more upset further down the line if you give them false expectations now, for fear of “discouraging” them. So I’m by no means of the “Young people are better than old people” mindset.

But I still don’t want to be stuck in poetic apartheid, where I’m only allowed to perform for or talk to other people over 35. I don’t want to be confined by my age. And I am especially irritated by the assumption that, as a middle-aged person, I must write cosy, fluffy, Radio 2 stuff that isn’t going to challenge or offend anyone.

Plus I’m aware that I’m badly fucked up, a total failure as an adult, and I’ve never progressed past the emotional age of about 15. It’s why I’ve worked with teenagers most of my so-called adult life – it’s not because I’m any good at it; it’s not because I bond with teenagers or they relate to me, because they don’t – it’s because I’m totally incapable of relating to people who actually understand mortgages and pension plans and serious relationships and parenting, and at least teenagers don’t think it’s odd that I don’t fit in with them.

Let’s Go Pro!

Since in a week’s time I will theoretically (if somewhat misleadingly – I do intend to get another day job when I’m back from Edinburgh) be a full-time poet, I think ‘d better set myself some ground rules for behaving like one.

1. Stop accepting unpaid slots, unless they are for charity or repaying a favour to a very old mate.

2. Factor in the costs of travel and accommodation when deciding whether to accept gigs. Up until now, I’ve been treating invitations to perform in distant parts as a pleasant, unexpected holiday: yes, I’m going to end up at a significant loss, but I can stay at a nice B & B, have the full vegetarian breakfast, see sheep from the train…. As long as I remain on the lower rungs of the career ladder, there will still be occasions when it is strategically necessary to perform at a loss to get my work known outside the Bristol area or may be worth it to sell books (when I eventually have a book to sell – hurrah!), but I can’t keep doing it just because I’ve never been to [insert name of town] before and I’m flattered that somebody asked me. Or because I’ll use any excuse to have a cooked breakfast.

3. Stop being shy about asking for things. There have been too many times when I’ve booked an expensive B & B because I’ve been too shy to ask the host if I can sleep on his/her couch. There have been way too many times when I’ve not wanted to ask for a slot somewhere because it looks “pushy”, and then got huffy and resentful when a friend who did ask got offered one.

4. Work out arrangements before I commit to something, not on the night itself. There have been two occasions in the past 12 months where I’ve ended up throwing myself on the mercy of a fellow performer, at huge inconvenience to them and their family, because I only discovered when I got to the event that it was impossible for me to get home. I’m educated to Master’s level. I should be able to read a train timetable. (And if Nick and/or David is reading this, I will buy you drinks for life.)

5. Of course, 2, 3 and 4 could all be solved if I learnt to drive and got a car, but as I (a) have no money and (b) still can’t tell my left from my right, that’s not going to happen.

6. Stop drinking all the profits before I’ve even left the venue. Tricky one, this, as I still maintain it’s good practice to support the venue, but not to the extent I have been doing.

7. Always rehearse. It does make a difference. If I haven’t got time to rehearse, don’t accept the gig.

8. Write more, write constantly, take more risks and have the courage to persist with new material, even if it doesn’t get a good reception on the first outing. (But that doesn’t necessarily mean foisting an entire set of untested new material on a paying audience, unless it’s a scratch.) I don’t want to be clinging for grim death to something I wrote several years ago because I’m too scared to risk the audience not liking what I’ve written since (or, even worse, too scared to write anything new, in case it isn’t as good).   Maybe they’ll love the new material if I give it time to bed in. Maybe they’re the wrong audience for it and I need to find different places to perform. And if I really am incapable of writing anything as good as the stuff I wrote in 2014, it’s time to stop. There are no excuses for not growing.

9. Stop talking myself down.

10. Stop getting angry with audiences, promoters and/or other performers if I’m not as successful as I want to be. It’s my job to make myself better, not their job to stroke my ego.

Much of this is going to be financial necessity, once I’ve left my job. But there’s another thing: I’ve been complaining for years that people don’t take me seriously, that they treat me like a hobby poet, like an amateur. I’ve been blaming this on gender discrimination, age discrimination, shy person discrimination, people’s personal animosity to me, but the following revelation struck me like a thunderbolt the other day: maybe they treat me like an amateur because I’ve been behaving like one.

On Entitlement

One of the open micers at an event I headlined not that long ago spent most of my set reading something on her phone, without making even a token attempt to conceal it, despite the fact that she was sitting in the front row, inches away from me.

Annoyingly, I was so shocked at the time that I didn’t say anything. The Brechtian side of me still feels it was my fault for not being more engaging and that I should relish the bearpit atmosphere of a rowdy tavern and up my game, not expect the hushed reverence of bourgeois theatre audiences. The side of me that always thinks of a witty comeback a day too late wishes I’d stopped, stared at her for an uncomfortably long period, and then said, “I’m sorry if my insisting on doing poems at a poetry event is interrupting your enjoyment of Snapchat. I’ll just wait until you’ve finished.”

I am encountering this kind of behaviour increasingly on the spoken word circuit. I’m usually pretty tolerant when it’s people who are new to the scene (at music gigs, it’s perfectly acceptable to carry on conversations and check your phone during the songs, so they may genuinely not know) or people who have been dragged there against their will by a friend, partner or family member, but not when it’s a performer – someone who “really, really wants a career in spoken word”, but apparently doesn’t love spoken word enough to actually listen to the other performers.

When I first started doing spoken word, I often got told that Not Being An Arsehole was a basic requirement if you had any ambition to a career in it, that the performance poetry world was very small and that getting a reputation for overrunning your slot, flouncing out of slams because the judges dared give someone else a bigger score than you, behaving disrespectfully during other people’s sets, would be instant career death. These days, it increasingly seems that it’s the most careerist aspirant poets who behave like this – they evidently think they’re so special that the rules don’t apply to them. It’s particularly galling when promoters reward them for it.

I acknowledge I’m no angel. I sometimes find it hard to concentrate on other people’s work if I’m worried about my own upcoming performance and I’ve been guilty of running through my lines in my head during someone else’s set, but I would never dream of getting out my notebook or phone and make it publicly obvious that that’s what I was doing. On one mortifying occasion I drank too much to try to assuage my disappointment at being knocked out of a major slam earlier than I’d expected and behaved appallingly, but I felt headclutchingly remorseful the next day and have endeavoured to ensure it remains a one-off. Many of my friends, being temperamental artists, have also had occasional meltdowns. Being an arsehole on an isolated occasion is forgivable; thinking it’s OK to behave like this all the time, not showing even minimal awareness that it is being an arsehole, is not.

The other kind of entitlement that does my head in, and I get it a lot in both spoken word and page poetry, is when people who have never done any poetry at all say, “Oh, that looks fun. I think I’ll have a go at poetry”, and they expect to start at the point where you are after several years of hard slog – or even higher. They expect to be offered a headline national tour within a few days of taking up spoken word; they expect the first poem they write to be accepted by Poetry Review and to have a collection out with Bloodaxe within about six months. They’re special. Working your way up slowly through the slam/open mic circuit or through the little magazines is apparently just for the mediocre remedial fuckwits….like you.

And, yes, I know poetry doesn’t work like Buggins’ Turn and it’s not all about how long you’ve been doing it – some people are supremely talented and will rise much more meteorically than me, entirely deservedly; other people have been doing poetry for much longer than me and are still shit. I know the adult response to people with somewhat arrogant expectations is to not worry about it:  either they’re as good as they think they are, in which case they have earned the right to be cocky, or they are in for a very rude awakening. There’s nothing wrong with confidence and ambition when it’s not misplaced.

It’s still insulting, though, when they come up to you with their rejection slip and start banging on about how outrageous it is that a magazine that publishes you (after 3 years of trying) hasn’t taken them yet (on the first attempt) – after all, you’re so shit that a journal that will take you ought to take absolutely anyone, eh?



Pet peeves about promoters

The gist of my last blog entry was that people who run spoken word nights usually work harder than the artists who perform in their feature slots and that the principle that you shouldn’t have to work for free should be as true for them as for the people they book. I still stand by that – people who run spoken word nights are unsung heroes who don’t get enough love (apart from when people are insincerely sucking up to them to try to get a slot) or money. In the interests of balance, however, here are some of my pet peeves about spoken word promoters:

Promoters who give wildly inaccurate finishing times on their publicity. We all know that in poetry and spoken word the published starting time is a work of fiction and accept that an open mic advertised as starting at 7 probably won’t really get going until 9, but if it says it ends at 10.30 and it doesn’t actually end until 12, I’ve missed my last bus.

Promoters not saying if the venue offers food or not. This may seem trivial, but, as someone who frequently goes straight from work to venue, half the time, I end up performing on a dinner of a packet of crisps and a pint of cider; the other half of the time, I stuff down a horrid supermarket sandwich en route, only to discover the venue serves mouthwatering food when I get there.

Promoters who try to emotionally blackmail you into coming to their night, by implying you’re a bad friend or (even worse) aren’t doing enough to support poetry if you don’t attend. Oddly enough, all the worst offenders amongst my circle of acquaintances run nights that I cannot physically get to, as I don’t drive and their venue is inaccessible on public transport.

Promoters who expect you to bring lots of your family and personal friends with you as audience when they offer you a slot.

Promoters who aren’t honest with you. I once sent my CV to a guy setting up a new night who immediately started raising all sorts of bizarre concerns about why I might find the venue difficult to get to. It was obvious he just didn’t want to book me, maybe because he didn’t like my poetry (which is fine – chacun a son gout, and all that), maybe because of my age (which is also fine in some circumstances – if I were starting a night aimed at 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t book me, either), but I wish he’d said so, rather than making obviously fake excuses.

Promoters who assume that if you don’t live in a city, you must be amateurish and crap. I’ve encountered this one a couple of times lately (and it may also have been the problem with the guy above – but, obviously, I don’t know, as he wouldn’t tell me). Oddly, it’s always provincial promoters who have this bias. I’ve never known an urban promoter give a shit where you live, but promoters in small towns sometimes have this starry-eyed view that anyone with a London, Bristol or Manchester postcode must be exciting and cutting edge and anyone without one must be the bastard child of William McGonagall and Patience Strong.

Promoters who offer me a slot at the bottom of the bill below some kid who’s only been doing spoken word a few weeks. And, yes, I know that the fact I care about this makes me only one step away from demanding baskets of kittens in my dressing room and squawking “Don’t you know who I am?” at waiters, but it’s really started to bug me.

Promoters who seem to be operating a policy of booking every other spoken word artist within a 100-mile radius for a feature slot except me. Especially when they insist on telling me they’ve booked a mutual friend every time they see me. (This sounds like it’s a passive-aggressive comment aimed at one person, but, sadly, it isn’t).

But most promoters are not like this (apart from the food thing – they all do that). Most spoken word promoters are lovely. And compared to the grief that they often get from artists, these complaints are very small.

Pounds, pence and poetry

‘There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either,’ Robert Graves once famously said. With spoken word often now hailed as the new rock’n’roll, though, is it still the case that poetry is never going to be a moneyspinner? I frequently meet shiny-eyed young people who are attracted by the glamour of performance poetry and who seem to think that it’s going to be a fast-track route to fame and fortune.

But, then again, I am also surrounded by poets and promoters who grumble a lot about how hard it is to keep going, about how every day is a struggle to juggle their art with their day job, about how in the YouTube, Spotify, Pirate Bay economy everyone wants something for nothing and about how it’s harder and harder to convince people that poetry is a product worth paying for. Plus, poetry has long been notorious as the ultimate self-expressive art form that has more practitioners than punters –  poetry “audiences” are often more attracted by events that give them a chance to get onstage and have their work heard than they are by the chance to listen to someone else.

This question is of particular topical importance to me, as I’ve just resigned from my day job, because I want to concentrate more on my poetry. There is no question of my not getting another day job, alas – I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t have a partner or a family to support me – but the idea is to get one that is closer to an urban centre where the action is and/or leaves me more time to produce, perform and promote my poetry. I may be deluded in taking this step (several friends and family have already told me I am, in no uncertain terms), but I am sick of being pulled in too many directions and if I am going to continue to feel underrated and overlooked, I at least want to feel I have done everything in my power to change the situation. Also, I have a book coming out later this year, which has also made the question of “How easy is it to get punters to part with cash for poetry?” pertinent for me.

Should spoken word audiences pay to see poetry? Well, why not? Most spoken word nights with internationally known headliners charge between 5 and 10 quid, which I know is still going to put it beyond the reach of some people on benefits and low incomes (I was long-term unemployed when I took up spoken word, so I REALLY know), but is a tiny fraction of what you’d pay to see a world-class musician or actor, and not even the most vehement class warrior argues that gigs and cinema tickets should be free. Also, promoters have to cover their costs some way and if they don’t charge, they won’t have money to pay their featured artists. If no-one can earn a living from it, it will become a hobby career open only to affluent middle-class dilettantes funded by the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Should performers always be paid? I still accept unpaid gigs occasionally and frequently accept bookings where my travel/accommodation expenses exceed the fee I’m paid. That’s largely because I am a childish, approval-craving attention whore, but it tends to be mostly when I know the promoter is struggling to break even themselves. Does it make me look like an amateur who doesn’t value her art? Am I allowing myself to be exploited by fatcat promoters? Am I making spoken word look unprofessional? Is it one of the reasons why I am not taken as seriously as poets who issue “I won’t get out of bed for less than 50 quid” declarations almost from the day they take up spoken word, when they’ve barely got together enough poems for a set?

Because let’s not forget the promoter in this equation. Yes, some do take the piss, but many are working unpaid themselves or even find themselves out of pocket, once the overheads have been paid. Sometimes it’s because they have no business skills and aren’t running their night in a professional enough fashion, but often it’s because they are the meat in the sandwich between audiences who are reluctant to stump up cash, artists who sometimes see a paid set as a chance to test out unrehearsed, weak first drafts of new material, and venues who charge to be used, gazump them at the last minute in favour of a more lucrative music booking and/or constantly hassle them to get their audiences to spend more at the bar. At one gig I headlined a while back, the promoter split the door takings 50:50 with me. He hesitated, “Of course, I could give it all to you….but, to be honest, I probably put more work into tonight than you did.” And he’s probably right.