Too Great Expectations

Imagine a world where a top West End theatre was expected, not only (a) to stage productions featuring internationally renowned big-name stars which set world-beating standards of professional excellence, but simultaneously (b) to include large numbers of local amateurs in its casts, in significant enough roles to stroke their egos and make them feel special, alongside Hollywood stars, so some of their magic would rub off, but in a safe, non-judgemental space, where they would not be undermined by a hostile or lukewarm reaction from the audience (c) to spot new talent and provide it with professional actor training, (d) to provide ongoing professional development and decently paid work to actors in the early stages of their career, (e) to provide dramatherapy for traumatised audience members to  use the art to work out their demons (f) to provide a warm, social club atmosphere, where shy, lonely members of the public who walked through the doors for the first time could expect to be welcomed and chatted to by actors, theatre staff and regular audience members and immediately become their friend. And all of this free of charge (or, at least for a low, low ticket price – maybe less than a fiver?). That would be ridiculous, right? No one theatre or arts organisation could do all that at the same time, at such a low cost?

Well, that’s what we seem to expect of our spoken word nights.

I’d hate to run a night, because the heroes who do it make no money, often end up paying the shortfall out of their own pocket, and in return seem to take unending crap from overdemanding audience members and aspirant performers (yes, probably including me – I’m no angel) who want a spoken word night to do EVERYTHING for EVERYBODY, all at the same time.

Bristol has an array of wonderful spoken word events – I have honestly never been to a bad night in the city – but I don’t think it is reasonable to expect any one night to provide all we require of them. It’s OK for a night to say to people, “I appreciate that that’s what you need, but that’s not what we’re for. Our main focus is X. If you want Y, you’re still welcome to come here, but there’s another night down the road that focuses more on Y and may meet your needs better.”


Engendering debate

Do men and women have different taste in poetry? Obviously, I don’t expect that every single woman on earth (or every man) will like exactly the same things, but I have been wondering lately if gender has a bit of an influence on a poet’s choice of writing and performance style.

In a spoken word forum I am part of, someone recently asked members to nominate their five favourite poets and I was staggered by how many people chose mainly artists of their own gender. There have also been a couple of times when women have come up to me at the end of a slam and said, “I thought the women in that slam were all much better than the men. I don’t understand why the male poets did so well.” (I didn’t completely agree). Conversely, when my male slamming friends get upset at being knocked out of a slam by someone they don’t think was anywhere near as good as them (I’m not judging them for throwing their toys out of the pram, btw – we’ve all done it, me probably more than most), it seems to me to be disproportionately often when they’ve been  knocked out by a woman (and usually I totally disagree with their low estimation of their opponent). And these men aren’t sexists – they’re very vocal, both in their verse and in their everyday conversation, about their passionate support for women’s rights and the need for more female voices on the local spoken word scene – so I know they don’t have a downer on these women for being women per se. It increasingly seems to me that men often just don’t get women’s poetry, and vice versa.

Part of it is, I think, a matter of performance style. On the whole, men have greater physical bulk and louder, deeper voices than women and will often harness that to adopt a more shouty, in-your-face performance style – they pace around a lot, they flail their arms around, they pump up the volume. Women have more of a tendency to stand still and use a quieter, more reflective delivery. Obviously that is a crass generalisation – I can think of plenty of shouty women and plenty of quiet, reflective men – but I think there’s a broad, overall trend. I also don’t think either style is better: they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Shouters are often more arresting (particularly if, like me, you don’t have an aural brain and find it hard to concentrate on purely auditory stimuli for long periods), but can lack subtlety and shading and sometimes overrely on the power of the delivery to carry weaker material.

However, I think there’s also a difference in the typical subject matter and writing style of male and female spoken word artists. It seems to me that male performers often value rhyme, rhythm and wordplay, while female performers are often more drawn by free verse and metaphorical language, that men tend to be more overtly socio-political and talk about principles in the abstract, while women are more often lyrical and personal. Again, not always, but I’ve seen enough men scratch their heads in incomprehension when a poem wins a slam despite not having any multis or puns in it and not carrying a social message to know there’s a grain of truth in this.

And the third thing is (and I wrote a long Facebook post on this the other day, so I’ll try not to repeat everything I said there), I think self-promotion often comes more naturally to men, especially middle-class men, who are often put under intolerable pressure from childhood up to view every conversation as a networking opportunity/audition and to feel they have to constantly prove themselves. Women (and working-class men) often face the opposite pressure – to hide their light under a bushel, not be boastful, not push themselves forward or impose on people. Consequently, women will often unfairly view superficially confident men as arrogant, overhyped and mansplaining, while men will sometimes assume women are less competent or important because they’re not thrusting themselves forward all the time.

Not everybody can be categorised like this. I don’t think I fit comfortably into this categorisation – in the forum discussion, I bucked the trend by nominating mostly male artists and I think both my writing and performance style tend more towards the “masculine” features I noted above than many female poets’, so I don’t think it affects me too much. But I do think we have a local scene which is possibly a little bit skewed towards the “masculine” style in a way that makes it  harder for quieter, more reflective, more metaphorical poets to get taken as seriously at slams and open mics. And I think that possibly the next level up, the level of national success, is perhaps a little bit biased in the other direction.