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.

For those about to slam…

Some (probably worthless) advice on slams for beginners , from someone who’s watched a lot of them and won a few.

  • Don’t start your set by saying, “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before/my boyfriend has just left me/my dog has just died.”  Audiences are usually prepared to be supportive and generous to a slammer who appears nervous, inexperienced or in some kind of emotional pain, but they aren’t usually impressed by slammers who actively try to cultivate the sympathy vote.
  • If you didn’t know that and actually did start your first slam appearance with “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before”, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did most of us.
  • There’s this thing called “etiquette”. Listen respectfully when the other slammers and any feature acts are performing (if you’re too nervous about your own upcoming slot to really listen, at least try to look like you’re listening). Do not: chat to your friends, check your phone or go outside to buy a drink/have a smoke during other people’s performances, loudly criticise other people’s performances, turn up late and/or leave early so you miss the other acts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (e.g. you’ll miss the last train home if you stay).
  • Do try to chat to the other performers in the breaks and at the end. You’re at least as likely to impress the spoken word community and get offered other opportunities by your offstage conduct as by what you do onstage.
  • Don’t try to chat to them before they’ve performed, though. Many slammers need space to get their head together and run lines before they go on, especially at major slams. And don’t do it in an ultra-ambitious, networky sort of way – just enjoy the experience of getting to know people who share a common interest.
  • Some slams are very eclectic, while others have a marked house style. It’s often (but not always) the case that young, urban audiences prefer intense, confessional and/or political poems about serious topics, like identity politics, while provincial and literary festival slams with a slightly older audience are more likely to favour Pam Ayresey-style light verse. If you can, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what kind of poetry goes down well before you decide whether to enter that slam or not.
  • If you do choose to enter a slam where everyone else is doing a different style of poetry from you, don’t expect them to experience a Road-to-Damascus moment where they realise they’ve been doing poetry wrong all their life and that you are a far superior poet to them. And don’t throw a strop, complaining they’re all Philistine idiots who don’t understand what real poetry is/all cliquey snobs who only vote for their mates, if you don’t win.
  • The biggest difference I’ve found between audience judges and “expert” judges is that audiences often want you to sound exactly like every other spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and if you don’t, it confuses them and they penalise you for it, while “expert” judges want you to sound different from every spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and will reward originality (often to the bemusement and displeasure of the audience).
  • If you do win, don’t think that automatically makes you the new Kate Tempest. If you don’t win, don’t assume you must be shit and there’s no point ever entering a slam again. Judging is always going to be somewhat subjective and on another night, with different judges, it might have gone a very different way.
  • The audience and the organisers will have forgotten who did well and who did badly within approximately 24 hours. They might remember who won, but you can’t even count on that. But slammers never forget – they’ll still be rehearsing their keenly felt grievances about the judging three years later.
  • It’s gutting when you don’t do as well as you think you deserved to do, but try not to be an arsehole about it. Congratulate the winner as sincerely as you can. If you can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, “You were fantastic and deserved to win” at least try to muster a fake smile and a noncommittal “Well done”.
  • Having said that, if you have lost it and thrown all your toys out of the pram, it’s probably not irredeemable – most of us have behaved badly on isolated occasions. Just try not to make a habit of it.
  • Stay off social media if you’re sore, though. A churlish remark made in the heat of the moment, on the night itself, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, is much easier to forgive than one that your opponent has taken the time to type out on Facebook the next day.

In a critiqual condition

I’ve recently been asked to read and give feedback on other poets’ work quite a lot. I love doing this – it is always an honour when someone chooses to share work-in-progress with you, as it’s a very exposing thing to do and means they are trusting you with something very precious. You also learn a lot about poetry from critiquing other people’s poems – you learn from what they’re doing better than you or differently from you, but, as it’s always easier to spot flaws in other people’s work than your own, you can arguably learn the most from their mistakes, because you are almost certainly making them in your own work, as well.

There are some pieces of advice that I find myself giving over and over again, to poets of all levels of experience, writing in a wide range of different traditions. This is what they are:

Make sure you haven’t gone into Poetry Voice

Example: “I do not behold the solar orb in the welkin without thinking on your visage”

We all want to be thought of as poets.The trouble is, sometimes we end up sounding like poets circa 1790. Or, even worse, like a very unconvincing 1790 poet tribute act.

Your poetic voice doesn’t have to sound exactly like your normal voice when you’re down the pub with your mates, but it really shouldn’t sound like you’re nervously doing a telephone interview with Wordsworth, Keats and Christina Rossetti and you’ve put on your Hyacinth Bucket voice in a bid to impress them.

Avoid archaism, unless you have a very, very good reason for using it,and choose words for precision, not for obscurity or difficulty. Does “visage” bring anything to the party that “face” wouldn’t, or “behold” that “see” wouldn’t? If not, use the simpler word.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “Use contractions wherever you can (e.g. say “don’t” instead of “do not” and “we’ve” instead of “we have”) and avoid relative pronouns (“that”, “who” and “which”, e.g. say “The man I love”, not “The man who I love” and “The night we met”, not “The night that we met”).”

Make your voice sound natural and conversational, not stilted and tryhard.

Don’t provide a simultaneous translation with your imagery

Example: “The ground was covered with a soft white blanket. It had been snowing.”

We know it had been snowing. Your metaphor already made that perfectly clear. You don’t need to explain it again for the hard of thinking. Trust your own imagery. Trust your audience.

And if your simile or metaphor doesn’t make clear whatever point it is you’re trying to make without further exegesis, then you need to ditch the simile or metaphor and find a better one.

Go easy on the imagery

Example: “My heart is a balloon, a shaken-up pop bottle, an overstuffed pillow
and my heartbeat is a dripping tap, my breaths now coming as fast as a jaguar”

Yeah, yeah, we get the point – your heart is full to bursting point – but did you really have to tell us three times? And pillows, taps and jaguars are just too disparate ideas to pile up together – they send the reader’s brain off down too many lines of inquiry simultaneously. They introduce fuzziness and imprecision where poetry should be about clarity.

This is, I admit, a case of “Physician, heal thyself.” Do as I say, not as I do, okay?

Don’t use mixed metaphors

Example: “My heart is a balloon which died when you shattered it with a hammer”

A balloon can’t “die”, as it’s inanimate, and it “bursts” or “pops”, it doesn’t “shatter”.
If you start off comparing your heart to a balloon, don’t change it midsentence into an animal and then into a sheet of glass. Finish off one metaphor before starting the next.

Or, as a metaphor mixer would say: don’t change horses until your chickens have hatched.

Even better, only use one metaphor in the first place.

Yes, the example I gave was truly terrible poetry, whereas some of the mixed metaphors I see when critiquing sound very beautiful until you start trying to think them through. And, as with all “rules” in poetry, this one isn’t unbreakable – there are some greater poets than I who mix metaphors and do it with style. But 99% of the time, mixed metaphors don’t work.

Know why you are placing the line breaks where you are, especially where enjambement is involved

Some poets say you should always begin and end a line with a significant word, preferably a noun or a verb, and that beginning or ending a line with a function word (e.g. the, on, and) is a no-no. I once tried adhering to this rule and I lasted about 20 minutes – it was impossible to construct poetry that made any sense if I was always avoiding function words in inconvenient places and a cursory glance at the work of almost any significant poet I could think of revealed that they often began or ended lines with “and” and “the”, too. It’s not a rule you have to follow. It is, however, a useful thing to think about, in my experience.

Enjambement (starting a new poetic line in the middle of a sentence) can be used for the following reasons:

to throw emphasis on the word placed at the beginning or end of a line
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling,
clinging to the handrail.

If I had started a new line after “on”, not as much emphasis would have been thrown on “trembling”.

to create a cliffhanger
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling, clinging to
the handrail

Here, the enjambement has been used to keep the reader guessing what you’re clinging to

to create a sense of unstoppable excitement or momentum
e.g. The bus hurtled round
corners and slalomed
its way down Strawberry
Hill.

Here, the enjambement, the way that the poetic line cannot contain the flow of the sentence, reflects the way that bus is moving with unstoppable speed.

to create ambiguity
e.g. I bought her a gift. Roses
were growing in the garden
where I gave it to her.

Here, the enjambement has been used to trick you into thinking the gift is roses.

Remember that any feedback given is an optional suggestion – it’s not a law which you have to follow, nor is it a terrible insult, about which you should feel aggrieved

I’ve been very bossy in this blog entry, but that’s not because I think I’m a world expert who has all the answers. This is just a subjective opinion. You don’t have to follow it. It’s entirely possible (indeed, very probable) that I’m talking through my arse here or teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. And, even if my advice is helpful to some poets, it may not be the right advice for you.

It’s difficult, when critiquing, to know how honest or how detailed to be, because you worry about offending people. Generally, though, I try to be as honest, but as constructive and as detailed, as I can, unless the poet has specifically instructed me otherwise, but always stress that it is an opinion only and they are free to ignore it. It is annoying, though, when people ask for advice and then get offended when you give it.

When the boot’s on the other foot, I always try to listen to and consider advice, but I don’t feel obliged to accept it. Sometimes I agree with what they’ve said entirely; sometimes I think about it, but disagree at the time, then six months later realise that they were right; sometimes I respect what they’ve said, but feel strongly that I had a reason for putting it like I did and it’s non-negotiable.

If I ever start thinking, “The cheek! How dare they say that? Who do they think they are? It’s not like they’re the greatest poet in the world,” then I try to check myself. If I don’t rate them as a poet, I shouldn’t have asked for their opinion in the first place – the fault is mine, not theirs. Don’t ever show people your work in the expectation that they will say, “Oh! But that’s wonderful! You’re so good!” Feedback can be painful and I don’t always like it, but it does me good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hold me to this

I don’t much like the #amwriting hashtag on social media. The obvious response to it is always, “No, you aren’t. You’re wasting time on social media, while simultaneously smugly virtue-signalling and pretentiously letting the world know that you are An Artist.”

Nonetheless, I suppose in this post I’m doing something similar. My New Year’s resolution for 2017, inasmuch as I had one, was to write more this year and to care less about what people thought about what I wrote. I’ve never been terribly prolific and the small wisps of success I have gleaned over the past three years have tended to reinforce that flaw, in that the fear of disappointing those who have previously liked my work has, at times, stopped me from writing anything new.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of weak-willed chokers everywhere, I’m posting my New Year’s resolution here, in the hope that Telling People About It will actually shame me into doing it.

Joy

I’ve just spent (I was about to say “wasted”, but that’s exactly what it wasn’t) an hour browsing back copies of The Frogmore Papers on the Poetry Library’s wonderful online database of poetry magazines, bingeing on poetry like it’s a tin of Quality Street I should be eking out sensibly over several months, but just can’t resist. And I’ve had a wonderful week, watching Thommie Gillow, Tim Vosper and Hannah Teasdale perform stunning sets at Hammer and Tongue, Bristol and Tim King rock an equally brilliant headline slot at WordMustard, Weston-super-Mare, feeling like a child watching the magician at a birthday party, delighted by their imagery and wordplay and rhythms and performance skills.

I love it when I feel like this: when it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m writing or not, whether the work I have written is being accepted or not, I just feel privileged and elated to be alive in a world where poetry exists and I can’t get enough of it.

I don’t always feel like this. Sometimes, poetry can feel like a tough exam I have to pass in order to be considered a worthwhile member of the human race. What have you achieved in life? Er, not very much, but I do write some poetry…. Well, in that case, you have to get more poems accepted by better journals, you have to win every slam you enter, you have to get offered more and better feature slots than the next guy, or else you’re not good enough. While it’s good to have goals to aim for, taking it too far sucks all the joy out of poetry and you start to forget why you began writing it in the first place.

When I no longer feel joy in what I read and hear, when it purely becomes a yardstick by which I measure my own work or a fellow runner I need to try to overtake by the end of this lap, I know I’ve lost the plot and it’s time to step back.

The more I submit to journals and e-zines, the more I realise that it’s a two-way process. There are some journals which publish work I just don’t like and I’ve come to realise that, no matter how prestigious they are, there’s no point submitting to them: they’re unlikely to ever accept me, anyway, and it’s artistically dishonest trying. There are other journals where the work makes me feel so warm in places I didn’t even know I had that it doesn’t matter if they ever accept my stuff or not – I’m just grateful for the delicious work of other people they share with me.

There will be many days when I don’t feel like this, when I feel jealous and embittered or cocky and complacent or inferior and depressed. But I’m glad I feel like this today and it reinforces the undeniable facts that it’s more important to be a reader and listener than it is to be a writer and that if you don’t make being a reader and listener your top priority, you will never be a writer.

Taking stock

Time for an annual stocktake.

This time three years ago, I had never taken part in a slam or other spoken word event. This time two and a half years ago, I was so despondent after my first few months of doing atrociously at slams that I thought I was probably too congenitally untalented to carry on and that if I did, I would always be viewed as an incompetent amateur who was just humiliating herself by forcing audiences to listen to her drivel. Yet, this year I competed in the Hammer and Tongue National Final at the Royal Albert Hall and was asked to perform feature sets at spoken word nights all across the south west.

This time four years ago, I had never had a poem published in a credible literary journal. Although I had dreams of putting out a collection one day, at best it seemed like something that would only happen many decades down the line, at worst it seemed like an unrealistic fantasy that could never come true. Yet, this year, I have had poems published and/or accepted by journals including Prole, The Interpreter’s House, Obsessed With Pipework, Ink Sweat and Tears, Clear Poetry, Amaryllis and Algebra of Owls and had my first collection accepted by Oversteps Books to be published (hopefully) next year.

This time 10 years ago, I hadn’t written much poetry since I left school twenty years previously and didn’t think of myself as a poet, at all. Now I write and/or perform poetry most weeks, read and/or listen to poetry almost every day and it’s a core part of my identity. I have made so many precious friends through the durable social adhesive of poetry.

I’m not just showing off here. Truth is, I remain deeply frustrated and unhappy with much in my poetry life (the poems I’m not happy with, the prestigious journals that have serially rejected me, the gigs I haven’t been offered or have fucked up, the audiences that didn’t like me or, even worse, were vaguely lukewarm, the poets who have defriended me on social media or snubbed my friend request in the first place…) and with almost everything in every other aspect of my life, and I’m cheering myself up because I don’t think I’m good enough, rather than bragging because I think I’m so wonderful.

But I’m also posting this to let other people who have a fragile, unconfident ambition know, and to remind myself, that success comes one small step at a time and if you keep plugging away at it, you will see results. Change can happen.

Happy Christmas, everyone.