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.

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2018 Smug Overshare

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.

On social media, it often seems as though I can’t win: if I try to stay positive and post about my successes, people complain I’m “smug”, “arrogant”, “self-obsessed”, “showing off”, “rubbing everyone else’s noses in it”, but if I give into negativity and am honest about my failures, disappointments and fears, I’m being “whiny”, “unprofessional”, “not counting my blessings” and “oversharing”.

So, this review of my year will probably piss everyone off.

First, the smug bit. In 2018, I…

– had a collection published by Burning Eye Books, which has been my dream since I took up spoken word five years ago. It also has the best book cover I have ever seen and I can say that, as I had nothing to do with it (Liv Torc did the stunning design and Robert Garnham came up with the idea)

– did gigs all over England (Newcastle, York, Wigan, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Glastonbury, Exeter, Torquay, Taunton, amongst other places)

– some of those gigs were particularly splendiferous. The Sharp Teeth gig in the header picture was one of my highlights (partly because I was on the bill with the excellent Stumbletrip Theatre, whom everyone ought to see, because they’re incredible). My My Cloth-Eared Heart launch at RTB Spotlight Bath in January was a magical night, where I got so much love back from a totally packed-out Komedia I felt as though I could swim in it, as though my tide was finally coming in. Supporting the rapper Lowkey at the Arnolfini for RTB in June was another high with a very responsive and generous audience and a spoken word A-lister who didn’t know me personally got in touch unsolicitedly afterwards to say how much she’d enjoyed my set. Two events I did with Oversteps – one at Way With Words, Dartington, and one at the Free Verse Book Fair at Senate House, London (coincidentally, the building where I took my university finals twenty-eight years ago) – also stand out in my memory as particularly nice gigs.

– made my first serious ventures into children’s poetry, something I very much want to go further with in 2019. I had poems published in fab Irish literary magazine for children The Caterpillar and in the Emma Press children’s anthology The Head That Wears A Crown. I also had the time of my life doing a children’s set wearing my knickers on my head at Valleyfest.

– Apples and Snakes agreed to pay for me to be mentored by Anna Freeman, one of my absolute spoken word heroes

– my writing about poetry started to take off. My blogpost here about the controversial Rebecca Watts article in PN Review went viral, my review of Kitty Coles’s amazing collection Seal Wife was published in The High Window, and I was booked to blog and livetweet the Hip Yak tent at WOMAD

– won the Hammer and Tongue Cheltenham All Stars slam (thereby qualifying for the 2019 National Final – yay!)

– although it wasn’t really a notable year for journal submissions, I was thrilled to get poems published in The Frogmore Papers, Bare Fiction and Atrium, all journals who have never published me before. I also had two poems published in Eithon Bridge’s anthology All A Cat Can Be, in aid of New Start Cat Rescue, Gloucestershire.

Now, the whiny overshare. In 2018, I also…

– had gigs that went so badly I literally curled into the foetal position and wept for a week solid afterwards

– sent several submissions off into a black void

– there was seemingly no end to the awards I wasn’t nominated for and the teatowels I wasn’t on

– generally felt that, despite all the good stuff, I am failing to make the impact I want or rising above the Mediocre Provincial Amateur barrier in most people’s estimation and, worse, I don’t really understand why

– and what I laughingly call my personal life hasn’t got any better, either. I have spent most of this year, as I have of most years of my adult life, drinking way too much, procrastinating, and being hopelessly and very painfully in love with someone who is totally uninterested in me. And I say I’m not going to do any of those things next year, but I already know I will.

Anything I have achieved has come after literally years of hard work and knockbacks and I could not have done it without the unswerving support and love of my friends, fans and colleagues, whom I cannot thank enough. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re one of them, so thank YOU. I love you all.

Melanie xxx

20181127_202311My new spoken word collection out with Burning Eye. I’m very proud of it. It’s sort of got the theme of identity (because that’s not a spoken word cliche. Honest!) and is darker and more introspective than some of my previous work (although it has got a lot of the greatest hits in there, too, like “Like”, “Slam-Winning Poem”, “My Christmas Tree Was Manufactured In The People’s Republic of China”). It’s ten quid and you can get it direct from Burning Eye on the interweb, or from me.

Rotten State

It seems that slagging off modern poetry is rapidly becoming one of the UK’s leading spectator sports, far outstripping actual poetry in the amount of media coverage it attracts. Hot on the heels of Rebecca Watts, with her hatchet job on “honest” young women, Rose Tremain now appears to be setting herself up as poetry’s pantomime villain du jour, telling the TLS this week,  “Let’s dare to say it out loud: contemporary poetry is in a rotten state. Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do”, and predictably sending social media into meltdown.

There are, of course, plenty of holes for the picking in Tremain’s argument. I’m loving, for instance, the passive-aggressive “Let’s dare to say it out loud”, constructing the guardians of the old craft as a victimised minority, bullied into silence by a strident politically correct poetry establishment who will brook no dissent, when, in fact, people who don’t like the direction in which poetry is travelling have been daring to say it out loud for years – they never shut up. From Auberon Waugh’s setting up the Grand Poetry Prize as the first blast of the trumpet against “modern rubbish” and advocating a return to poetry that “rhymes, scans and makes sense”, to Stephen Fry calling modern poetry “arse-dribble”, to Jeremy Paxman declaring “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole”, everybody and his dog seems to have had a pop at modern verse.

Furthermore, as Sandeep Parmar points out in The Guardian, the “craftless” modern poetry being attacked has a craft and tradition – it’s just not the same as that which its detractors follow. And notions of craft have been in flux for centuries – even the crustiest conservative doesn’t suggest we should all write in unrhymed alliterative half-lines, like Beowulf.

Parmar ponders whether Tremain et al are trying to protect their white middle-class privilege by pulling up the drawbridge against innovators: “Is it coincidental that the so-called rotten state of poetry has recently begun admitting increasing numbers of diverse poets as prized citizens, rather than treating them as interlopers?” Ilya Kaminsky on Twitter asked, in a similar vein, “why so many people in power always complain about ‘the state of art’ when folks from underrepresented groups get recognition?”

God knows, there is enough racism and classism and misogyny in poetry, but I still feel that it is over-simplifying things to characterise those who squawk about “a lack of craft” as guardians of the pale, stale status quo trying to keep the oiks out, and the radical innovators as egalitarian and diverse. Much as I disagreed with most of what Rebecca Watts said and deplored her spiteful tone, what most of her detractors (including, initially, me) seemed to miss in their rush to denounce her as a snobbish toff jealously guarding her unfair privilege was that she is from a working-class background and none of the people she was attacking were. I have seen working-class poets who write traditional, formal poetry sneered at for being “dated”, “unsophisticated” and “naive” by university-educated, middle-class poets who pride themselves on how “unpretentious” and “street” their own work is too often to believe that those who are inventing new forms and “binning the old rules” are always on the side of the angels.

The Naming of Nights

Header photo by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018 (and Sharp Teeth is a cool name, too!)

I have never set up a spoken word night, but if I did, I should have to give some thought to what to call it, for the naming of spoken word nights, like the naming of cats, is a difficult matter. There are various approaches one can take and many of these names are poems in themselves.

Puns, particularly ones which involve parts of the mouth, words for speech or speaking, poetic forms, and microphones, are perennially popular, with the nationwide franchise Hammer and Tongue being perhaps the most famous example. Some of my favourite punning names include Manchester’s One Mic Stand, Swindon’s Ooh, Beehive! (which takes place in The Beehive pub and if you don’t get it, try putting “matron” after it) and Paignton’s Speaky Blinders. ETA: And I have just been reminded of Plymouth’s superb Pucker Poets, a night with a particularly clever pun, as it’s not only a pun on “pukka”, but is also a reference to the fact that it used to be held at Cafe Kiss.

Some people like to go for a metaphor. Milk, one of Bristol’s best and most successful nights, is a case in point: that one monosyllabic word connotes so much about the night’s ethos and, indeed, about the nature of poetry itself. It is warm and nourishing, maternal and nurturing, pure and natural. When listening to poetry at Milk, we are like babies, secure on their mothers’ breasts, being fed a substance that keeps us alive. And Malaika Kegode, who runs Milk, while programming some of the biggest and most arresting figures in spoken word, has always also been passionate about supporting and developing young artists and is a particular champion of the subtler, gentler kind of poetry that often gets trampled on in a shouty, slam environment, so the name is even more apt. Weston-super-Mare’s WordMustard also goes with a food metaphor, but a very different one: here, poetry is constructed as a condiment that makes life palatable, and we can expect hot, spicy poems that will surprise our tastebuds (it is also, though, a reference to the homemade maracas made of old mustard bottles, filled with dried beans, which the audience is encouraged to shake to show their enthusiasm for the open micers). Lincoln has a night called Crash Course In Brain Surgery which I know nothing about, but I already want to go to, as it’s a fun, in-your-face name which also hints at poetry’s medicinal properties for mental health.

Some go for a pun-metaphor combo. Jawdance, Apples and Snakes’ night in London, has a name that leads you to expect astonishing verbal dexterity – the poets’ mouths will be moving so fast and with such rhythm that their jaws will appear to be dancing. And it will make your jaw drop! But it is also (and it literally took me about four years to pick up on this) a pun on “war dance”, hinting at spoken word’s capacity to wage war on social injustice and corrupt institutions – this is language as a weapon. Tongue Fu, one of the UK’s biggest spoken word collectives, also goes for a pun that implies you can defend yourself with words (or, at least, that poetry can give you a surprise kicking). Raise The Bar, another high-profile Bristol night, has a name which is a triple pun which brings in multiple overlapping connotations – [1] The idiom, meaning continually up your game or take the quality up to another level. And how apt that is for this ambitious, audacious night, which continually strives for (and usually gets) bigger audiences and bigger international headline acts. [2] Bars, in the hip-hop sense. Craft-D (Danny Pandolfi), who runs the night, is a rapper and hip-hop poet and is inviting open micers to show us their bars. [3] When it first started, Raise The Bar took place in the bar at Bristol University Student Union. Although it long moved on from this venue, the name, to me, still retains connotations of “raise the roof in the bar” or “shake up the joint”.

A rhyming name is another option, e.g. Torquay’s Stanza Extravaganza, London’s Chill Pill. Or you can just go for the downright surreal, e.g. Exeter’s Spork, Guildford’s The 1000 Monkeys.

Finally, there’s the what-it-says-on-the-tin approach, as exemplified by The Berkeley Square Poetry Revue (Bristol), Newcastle Literary Salon (Newcastle), Stand Up and Slam (London), Poetry is Dead Good (Nottingham). Some of these are also alliterative (e.g. the Bath nights Poetry Plus and Poetry and a Pint). There’s a lot to be said for the stop-wanking-around-and-just-call-it-what-it-is approach – if all the other nights in your area have gone peak hairdresser with the puns, calling yourself The Poetry Night is a transgressive and attention-grabbing move. And if your punning/metaphorical name is too clever-clever, you run the risk of alienating potential audience members, either because they fail to realise your night is a poetry night at all or because, if they’re timid or worried that poetry isn’t for the likes of them, they could be intimidated by clever in-jokes and  worry they won’t fit in with overeducated wags like you.

But I can’t resist a pun, so, in case anyone’s looking for a painful pun name, I don’t believe any of the following are taken:
Emergency Word 10
A Fit of Speak
Gob Seeker’s Allowance
Gobstoppers (although perhaps a bit too much like the Newcastle night Babblegum?)
Kissing with Tongues
Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation
Ode or Eaters (maybe for a night in a restaurant?)
Speech Melba
Tongue Sandwich

Unbelievably, all of the following, which I also came up with, are already taken by arts groups or companies of some description: Bubble and Speak, Key Rhyme Pie, Speak and Span, Speaksavers, Speaky Clean, Speeches and Cream.

Versifying and Diversifying

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018

This is a blog I wrote a few months back and can’t for the life of em think why i didn’t post at the time:

Diversity (or lack thereof) in page poetry has been in the news quite a lot lately. First, Dave Coates’s study of the gender and ethnicity of poets and critics in a selection of British and Irish “prestige” journals was covered by The Guardian. Then came the shitstorm that followed Lionel Shriver’s criticism in The Spectator of Penguin Random House’s decision to take active steps to make its staff and list more diverse.

Coming from a spoken word background, where the importance of diversity is almost universally recognised and most promoters, as a matter of routine, ensure a mix of genders, sexualities and ethnicities in their programming, I was taken aback by how controversial Coates’s conclusions and Mslexia‘s decision to sack Shriver as a competition judge were with the wider public. The majority of comments following The Guardian article were extremely hostile to the idea of diversity targets, viewing them as unfairly discriminating against talented white writers, patronising talented BAME writers by suggesting that lower standards be applied to them, and compromising artistic freedom, diversity and excellence by enforcing a narrow selection of right-on subject matter and prioritising this over quality. Some of the comments that got through The Guardian filter seemed to me to be overtly racist (“Multicultural poetry is crap”), while others made the (in my view, not entirely invalid) point that focusing exclusively on gender and ethnic diversity ignores the fact that middle-class bias is often the underlying problem and that if a diversity drive results in posts being filled with public school and Oxbridge-educated black and Asian women, the poetry world may end up superficially looking more diverse, but will still be excluding the working classes, a marginalised group with includes a disproportionate number of BAME writers.

The two arguments that seem most commonly marshalled against diversity targets are Shriver’s: (a) that diversity targets unfairly “privilege” black and Asian writers, while ignoring the wealth of diversity within the broad category of “white”, and (b) that an obsession with diversity will compromise quality, which, it is argued, can only be assured by a blind selection process. A third argument was popular amongst Guardian commenters: that perhaps BAME and female writers are just less interested in writing poetry than white men are and that it is “unfair” to insist on an acceptance rate for them which might be vastly in excess of their submission rate.

Shriver’s first argument seems to me to be nonsensical. Most diversity drives seek to ensure that the percentage of writers published which are BAME mirrors the percentage of British society which is BAME (12.9% – admittedly Coates argues that the percentage of BAME writers should actually be higher to compensate for centuries of systemic exclusion, but in my experience that is not a widespread view). Surely only the most paranoid writer, blind to their own privilege, could perceive a scheme which aims to ensure that 87.1% of writers published are white as discriminating against, let alone threatening to entirely exclude, white writers.  And ensuring 12.9% of writers published are of BAME origin and ensuring that the white writers published are a diverse mix are surely not mutually exclusive aims.

The second argument seems to take for granted that “quality” is an objectively definable thing, which it patently isn’t. Supporters of the status quo often angrily assert that editors often don’t even know the race or gender of the poet submitting, that “A. Smith”, for example, could be any gender or race, and that to accuse them of judging submissions on anything other than literary merit is an unjust slur. I do not seriously believe that any journal editors are deliberately racist, but I reject the idea that any journal editor judges entirely on a transparent and universally agreed criterion of “literary merit”, because anyone who has ever submitted to literary journals on a large-scale basis will know that individual editors all have their own little preferences and quirks as regards style and subject matter, that Editor X has a weakness for left-wing political poetry and that you’re much more likely to be accepted if you submit a piece attacking the Tories than if you submit an equally well-written piece about, say, bluebells, and that Editor Y can’t stand “confessional” poetry, so there’s probably no point submitting to them if you write in the style of Melissa Lee-Houghton or Kim Addonizio, no matter how well you write in that style. If they judged purely on merit in the abstract, then why do almost all journals advise would-be submitters to read past issues to “see the kind of thing we like”? In many cases, editors’ pet preferences won’t, even unconsciously, stack the odds against a particular cultural group, but sometimes they will. I have also heard, “It won’t resonate with our readership/audience” cited by both poetry journals and spoken word nights, as a reason for rejection of work – a valid concern, but if your audience is predominantly male, white and upper-middle class then the experience of anyone who doesn’t fit into that category may well “not resonate”.

As to the third argument, while failure to ascertain what proportion of submissions were by BAME writers may be considered a major methodological flaw of Coates’s study, the readiness of many Guardian commenters to assume as fact, on the basis of no evidence, that BAME writers simply can’t submit as much as white writers is even worse methodology. I also reject the idea that if hardly any BAME writers are submitting to the journal, then it isn’t a problem – if I were a journal editor receiving hardly any submissions from writers of colour, I would be thinking long and hard about which unconscious barriers I had erected which might be deterring a significant pocket of the community from engaging with my publication.

Nonetheless, while I support the drive for diversity, I think there are definitely dangers of diversity initiatives being implemented badly. I cautiously welcome Penguin’s commitment to opening up jobs to applicants who haven’t been to university, as when applied well, this policy could benefit talented working-class candidates with all the requisite skills who faced numerous barriers to accessing higher education. However, if applied badly, it could mean that the exceptionally bright working-class candidate who earned a place at Cambridge from a state school or as a mature student via an Access course through his/her own merits is passed over in favour of an exceptionally stupid upper-middle class candidate who managed to fail their ‘A’ levels, in spite of an expensive public school education and/or being private tutored within an inch of their life. The devil, as always, will be in the detail. In particular, it is important that ethnic diversity initiatives are not focused on meeting white audiences’ desire for “exoticism” or to feel right on. An Asian poet once complained to me about the pressure he feels in a predominantly white spoken word scene to write about his race all the time. “I don’t particularly want to write about being Asian,” he said. “I have lots of other things I want to say.”

Moreover, as someone who both submits to literary journals and actively participates in the spoken word scene, I get irritated by the complacency and virtue-signalling about diversity I often see in the latter scene, where it’s often assumed that it’s “elitist” page poetry that has all the problems and “we” are getting it all right. While spoken word talks the right talk on gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, sometimes it fails in practice – my subjective sense is that I am judged on my age and gender far more in spoken word than I am in the “bad old” world of page poetry, there are too many occasions when I have had feminism mansplained to me from the stage by earnest men who are seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are hardly any women present, and the success of BAME poets in winning major slams like Hammer and Tongue can sometimes make it seem like they are more present than they are – many years, the proportion of BAME poets at the national finals is considerably less than 12.9%.  Also, it seems to me that there is not the same drive to ensure working-class and disabled representation in spoken word as there rightly is to ensure female, LGBT and BAME representation. Let’s get our own house in order, too.

Nonetheless, the need to avoid doing diversity initiatives badly is not a reason for not doing them at all and the lack of perfection in spoken word doesn’t exempt page poetry from scrutiny.

Any Resemblance To Actual Persons, Living or Dead…

As a teenager, I used to daydream that one day someone would write a poem about me. This was around the time I got into schmaltzy love songs and Mills and Boon novels. When it actually happened, however, it turned out to be less romantic than I thought.

In the mid-90s, I spent four years teaching at a Polish university, mostly acting as a glorified language assistant, but I did do a little bit of academic teaching, as well. This was a long, long time before I started writing poetry, but some of my colleagues (both Polish and foreign) were published poets. Colleagues who were permanent staff and were studying for, or had completed, a PhD had a tendency to treat those of us who were there on a temporary basis, helping out the students with their English, as if we were a bit thick, especially if we were women. In fairness, many of us didn’t behave like we were proper lecturers, spending more time going drinking with the students than having serious academic discussions with our colleagues, but their patronising dismissal of us still grated and to an extent it became a vicious circle – the more they treated us like airheads and left us out of serious conversations, the more we found other, nonacademic things to do with our time. As a result, they didn’t get to know us very well.

One day, after some kind of conference or event (I don’t even remember what it was), I shared a taxi home with two of the non-Polish academic staff. I asked one of them, who, incidentally, was an up-and-coming poet, if he would mind giving my address to the driver, as “they never understand it when I say it.” The reason for this is that I have problems saying the letter ‘r’, even in English, and Polish is a rhotic language (the kind of language where everyone pronounces their ‘r’s like it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day). This wasn’t usually a problem when I was speaking Polish, as it would normally be clear from the surrounding dialogue which word I was trying to say, but it was a problem in very short exchanges, like saying my address (ulica Czarnieckiego), when there was no context to help. I suppose a rough equivalent in English would be if somebody lived in Charity Street, but pronounced it Chatty Street. He agreed to do this willingly enough, the tax driver dropped me off at my home and I thought no more about it.

Some months later, the colleague with whom I’d shared a taxi published a poem in English about Anglophone people with a superior, colonial attitude who go abroad and make no attempt to integrate. It contained one very cutting line about a woman who “has lived in Poland for three years and still can’t say the name of the street where she lives.” The minute I saw it, I knew he was referring to me and felt angry, hurt and humiliated. Above all, I was struck by the unfairness of it – this man who was making broad, derogatory statements about me didn’t know me, had never made any effort to get to know me. If he had, he would have known that my Polish, while not brilliant and probably far less good than it should have been considering how long I’d lived in Poland, was really not that bad – I could read books and newspapers, I could have extended conversations and I continually worked at improving my grasp of the language. I really wasn’t the lazy, complacent ignoramus he’d painted me as and I had many foreign colleagues who had been there the same amount of time of me or longer whose Polish was far worse. Why had he singled me out?

Every time I saw him after that, no matter how civil he was to my face, I knew that underneath the affable exterior he hated me and was sneering at me in contempt. A little while after this, I was interviewed on local TV about a drama project I was doing with the students. By this point, I was so obsessed with vindicating myself, that all I could think about while the interview was going on was, “I hope and pray Colleague X is watching this. This is proof I speak Polish adequately!”

Looking back on this more than twenty years later, as a poet myself, I realise it probably wasn’t the targetted personal attack on me that I perceived it as at the time. In my head, the whole poem had been about me and how much he hated me, as an individual, but now I realise that he probably picked on me, not because he thought I was uniquely awful or even the most egregious example in his circle, but because that particular instance was a powerful and economical way of illustrating a general point he wanted to make about foreigners in Poland not integrating. What mattered was that it gave a fair and accurate impression of how too many foreigners behave, not whether it gave a fair and accurate impression of me.

It does make me wonder about the ethics of writing poetry about actual people, though. In particular, I have been criticised for my unrequited love poetry in the light of the #MeToo movement. Isn’t it creepy, stalkerish, objectifying, inappropriate, an invasion of their privacy to write intimate poems about people who’ve made it clear they don’t want to be in a relationship with you?, I’ve been asked. That’s a hard question to answer and I’m not sure how you balance the rights of people who are long-term single to express their feelings and sexuality and the rights of the objects of their affection to not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. I try to avoid publishing unrequited love poems that include details which would allow a third party to identify who it’s about, but I have published poems where the object would probably be able to identify themselves if they ever read it. Is this harassment, as continuing to send love letters to someone who’d rebuffed you would be? Is it better or worse that you’re publishing them for multiple strangers to read, not sending them to their house? Is writing poems about intimate moments you shared with an ex and putting them in the public domain dangerously close to revenge porn? Is it OK to publish a love poem about anyone without their written permission? And should the book be pulped if they ever change their mind? Where do you draw the line?

It’s not just romantic poetry, though. Any poem about a living person has the possibility to cause offence. My colleague’s poem upset me at the time for at least three reasons: (1) he’d stolen something I said or did without asking me, (2) he’d taken it out of context and used it to suggest something about me that was not true (3) he had not given me any opportunity to challenge his account or defend myself. But as a poet myself, I know that (1) he was writing about a conversation he was part of, too. Is it appropriating someone else’s experience to write about your own experience of, and feelings about, things they said or did? (2) Poetry is, by its very nature, crafted and edited, not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I have written “true” poems which have taken events that actually occurred several years apart and made them happen in the same week and written love poems that have conflated relationships with two entirely different people. (3) The nature of most published work is monologic, not dialogic. That’s just the way it is. It’s supposed to be a subjective, filtered account, not a police witness statement.

You’re probably safe writing about the dead – I’m publishing poetry about my parents now that I wouldn’t even have written in a private diary when they were still alive – but I live in fear of ending up on non-speakers with many other friends, acquaintances and family members if they ever realise I’ve put them in a poem. Other times, I’ve binned a really good poem because I just didn’t want to risk the upset it might cause.

It is almost impossible to write good poetry without hurting people’s feelings, appropriating their experience without permission, giving a very subjective, one-sided account of events without giving them a chance to put their side, and/or distorting or changing their words and actions or ripping them out of context because it makes a better story or more clearly makes the point you are trying to make. The only way you can avoid the possibility of offence is by sticking to writing poems about bluebells.

Ultimately, I think the onus is on readers/audiences to be aware that any poem, even one where the poet has been at pains to document the truth as far as they can, is a selective account, filtered through the poet’s subjectivity, and that poetic truth is not the same as truth truth. And it’s probably not personal. At least, in this case, I hope it wasn’t. But if it was, it’s just occurred to me that I have unintentionally just got my revenge, as I’ve just done the same thing to him in this blogpost as he did to me in the poem.