People from the page poetry side of my life often ask me, “Is there a lot of ageism in spoken word?” and my honest answer to that question is, “I don’t know.”
If there is, it certainly hasn’t stopped me winning slams. And if there are people in spoken word who resent older people per se and would like to bar them from the scene, then they must be a very small and quiet minority, as I’ve never heard anyone voicing those views. People have overwhelmingly been friendly and supportive to me – at least to my face.
And yet pretty much everyone I know over the age of 30 who participates in spoken word (including me) has a nagging sense they’ve been discriminated against on occasions. We’re probably just paranoid whiners, though – it is a fact of slamming that from time to time you lose to someone you don’t think you should have lost to and it’s all too easy (and ugly) to reach for the nearest -ism to explain it. On most occasions when a fellow slammer complains to me that they’ve been the victim of ageism/misogyny/misandry/racism/”reverse racism”/whatever, it is all too clear to me that the real reason for their disappointing score was either (a) they weren’t as good as they thought they were (b) the judges’ taste on that occasion was for a different style of poetry from that they were offering. And the same reasons almost certainly apply on the (extremely rare) occasions when I’ve thought I’ve been scored down for my age.
I think age can have an indirect impact on your chances, though, in a variety of ways.
Firstly, older poets sometimes pick subject matter and/or poetic forms and/or performance styles which just don’t connect with a younger audience. If you do a poem about, say, allotment gardening or the menopause, written in a traditional Pam Ayres-style rhythm and rhyme scheme, with the best will in the world, no matter how good you are, an audience of 18-25-year-old hip-hop enthusiasts probably aren’t going to find it that interesting. As with any other form of writing/performing, to an extent, you have to adapt to audience and purpose, and complaining about that makes as much sense as complaining that Motorhead have never been asked to perform at the Proms or that Countdown isn’t broadcast in the Saturday night post-pub slot.
Secondly, people sometimes make entirely reasonable but wrong assumptions about older performers. In a scene which is dominated by the under-30s, it is perhaps not surprising that people sometimes assume you’re not there to perform, at all – I have been asked which one of the performers is my son. The other two assumptions that I feel dog me are:
1. that I must have been doing spoken word for much longer than I have been. I think sometimes people don’t offer me opportunities or help that they offer to younger performers, simply because they wrongly assume I must already know everything about the scene and have a formidable list of contacts of my own
2. that at my age I must only be doing it as a casual hobby and that I can’t possibly have the same aspirations to a career in spoken word that a 25-year-old has. I may be wildly wrong here, as no-one has ever actually said it, but when I’ve done well I’ve thought I might have detected a bit of an unspoken attitude of “That was a waste of an important opportunity that could have gone to a young person who really needed it”.
Thirdly, understandably, not many 20-somethings want to hang out with me socially or ask me to their parties. I wouldn’t expect them to, I wouldn’t want to, and it doesn’t offend me. But if that’s where a lot of the networking gets done or where the latest opportunities are shared, then I will miss out.
It’s probably no secret (because I never shut up about it) that I have got progressively more angry and upset over the past 12 months because I feel I am not taken as seriously or offered as many opportunities as almost anyone else I know who has won the same kind of level slams as I have. To be honest, there are so many other factors which are likely to be the cause of this (not least of all, my own piss-poor social and self-promotional skills), that age probably isn’t much of a factor. Is it a factor at all? I don’t know.