Not that long ago, a lady I know slightly, the mother of a poet I occasionally perform with at open mics, gave me what she clearly thought was a helpful suggestion: “Why don’t you contact Women’s Institutes around the country and see if they would pay you to perform your poetry there? You’re probably much better suited to that kind of audience than a young, urban open mic.” And I nearly hit her.
Really, though, I don’t know why I perceive it as such an insult when people tell me to go and perform to people my own age. As one of my friends often points out, from a financial perspective, older people are the best audience: they have more disposable income and are more likely to buy books. Often they get literary and cultural references that are lost on the student crowd. And, most of all, if I treat middle-aged people as though they are a less desirable, less valuable audience than young people, surely that means I am effectively oppressing myself?
There is definitely a bit of a cult of youth in poetry (although I do take the point that young people sometimes feel patronised and/or excluded by the “literary” end of the spectrum and it’s one reason why spoken word appeals to them so much). Every page poetry circle I have ever been a member of has been obsessed with attracting Young People TM, as if you’re not a worthwhile group unless you have young members, and it’s always irritated me. I don’t believe in excluding or deterring young people, but I don’t believe in treating them like they’re the Messiah, either. Most of the students and 20-somethings I know through spoken word are lovely and have always been very, very welcoming to me, but I have never once heard them say, “We really need more old people. What strategies can we put in place to get middle-aged people through the door?” so why does it happen the other way round?
Then there’s another of my pet peeves: schemes for “emergent artists” which, when you read the small print, turn out not to be schemes for emergent artists, at all, but schemes for young artists. I’m not sure if the people who run them think that everybody who takes up the arts later in life is a moneyed middle-class professional who can afford to take a five-year unpaid career break while they set themselves up or whether they just don’t want us to emerge.
I also get annoyed when very young poets – those still in their teens – get held to lower standards than other people, whether that be standards of behaviour or standards of poetic quality. It’s partly because it draws on the bullshit yet widespread assumption that Young People Need It More, regardless of any other circumstances, as if an upper middle-class 16-year-old whose parents work for a publisher and who has the advantages of public school needs encouragement and extra favours to help them get on the ladder, but a working-class 60-year-old with mental health problems and/or literacy problems doesn’t. But mostly it’s because I think it’s insulting and unhelpful to younger poets themselves to treat them like they can’t cope with realistic criticism, and it’s going to cause far more upset further down the line if you give them false expectations now, for fear of “discouraging” them. So I’m by no means of the “Young people are better than old people” mindset.
But I still don’t want to be stuck in poetic apartheid, where I’m only allowed to perform for or talk to other people over 35. I don’t want to be confined by my age. And I am especially irritated by the assumption that, as a middle-aged person, I must write cosy, fluffy, Radio 2 stuff that isn’t going to challenge or offend anyone.
Plus I’m aware that I’m badly fucked up, a total failure as an adult, and I’ve never progressed past the emotional age of about 15. It’s why I’ve worked with teenagers most of my so-called adult life – it’s not because I’m any good at it; it’s not because I bond with teenagers or they relate to me, because they don’t – it’s because I’m totally incapable of relating to people who actually understand mortgages and pension plans and serious relationships and parenting, and at least teenagers don’t think it’s odd that I don’t fit in with them.