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?