Hold me to this

I don’t much like the #amwriting hashtag on social media. The obvious response to it is always, “No, you aren’t. You’re wasting time on social media, while simultaneously smugly virtue-signalling and pretentiously letting the world know that you are An Artist.”

Nonetheless, I suppose in this post I’m doing something similar. My New Year’s resolution for 2017, inasmuch as I had one, was to write more this year and to care less about what people thought about what I wrote. I’ve never been terribly prolific and the small wisps of success I have gleaned over the past three years have tended to reinforce that flaw, in that the fear of disappointing those who have previously liked my work has, at times, stopped me from writing anything new.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of weak-willed chokers everywhere, I’m posting my New Year’s resolution here, in the hope that Telling People About It will actually shame me into doing it.

Joy

I’ve just spent (I was about to say “wasted”, but that’s exactly what it wasn’t) an hour browsing back copies of The Frogmore Papers on the Poetry Library’s wonderful online database of poetry magazines, bingeing on poetry like it’s a tin of Quality Street I should be eking out sensibly over several months, but just can’t resist. And I’ve had a wonderful week, watching Thommie Gillow, Tim Vosper and Hannah Teasdale perform stunning sets at Hammer and Tongue, Bristol and Tim King rock an equally brilliant headline slot at WordMustard, Weston-super-Mare, feeling like a child watching the magician at a birthday party, delighted by their imagery and wordplay and rhythms and performance skills.

I love it when I feel like this: when it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m writing or not, whether the work I have written is being accepted or not, I just feel privileged and elated to be alive in a world where poetry exists and I can’t get enough of it.

I don’t always feel like this. Sometimes, poetry can feel like a tough exam I have to pass in order to be considered a worthwhile member of the human race. What have you achieved in life? Er, not very much, but I do write some poetry…. Well, in that case, you have to get more poems accepted by better journals, you have to win every slam you enter, you have to get offered more and better feature slots than the next guy, or else you’re not good enough. While it’s good to have goals to aim for, taking it too far sucks all the joy out of poetry and you start to forget why you began writing it in the first place.

When I no longer feel joy in what I read and hear, when it purely becomes a yardstick by which I measure my own work or a fellow runner I need to try to overtake by the end of this lap, I know I’ve lost the plot and it’s time to step back.

The more I submit to journals and e-zines, the more I realise that it’s a two-way process. There are some journals which publish work I just don’t like and I’ve come to realise that, no matter how prestigious they are, there’s no point submitting to them: they’re unlikely to ever accept me, anyway, and it’s artistically dishonest trying. There are other journals where the work makes me feel so warm in places I didn’t even know I had that it doesn’t matter if they ever accept my stuff or not – I’m just grateful for the delicious work of other people they share with me.

There will be many days when I don’t feel like this, when I feel jealous and embittered or cocky and complacent or inferior and depressed. But I’m glad I feel like this today and it reinforces the undeniable facts that it’s more important to be a reader and listener than it is to be a writer and that if you don’t make being a reader and listener your top priority, you will never be a writer.

Taking stock

Time for an annual stocktake.

This time three years ago, I had never taken part in a slam or other spoken word event. This time two and a half years ago, I was so despondent after my first few months of doing atrociously at slams that I thought I was probably too congenitally untalented to carry on and that if I did, I would always be viewed as an incompetent amateur who was just humiliating herself by forcing audiences to listen to her drivel. Yet, this year I competed in the Hammer and Tongue National Final at the Royal Albert Hall and was asked to perform feature sets at spoken word nights all across the south west.

This time four years ago, I had never had a poem published in a credible literary journal. Although I had dreams of putting out a collection one day, at best it seemed like something that would only happen many decades down the line, at worst it seemed like an unrealistic fantasy that could never come true. Yet, this year, I have had poems published and/or accepted by journals including Prole, The Interpreter’s House, Obsessed With Pipework, Ink Sweat and Tears, Clear Poetry, Amaryllis and Algebra of Owls and had my first collection accepted by Oversteps Books to be published (hopefully) next year.

This time 10 years ago, I hadn’t written much poetry since I left school twenty years previously and didn’t think of myself as a poet, at all. Now I write and/or perform poetry most weeks, read and/or listen to poetry almost every day and it’s a core part of my identity. I have made so many precious friends through the durable social adhesive of poetry.

I’m not just showing off here. Truth is, I remain deeply frustrated and unhappy with much in my poetry life (the poems I’m not happy with, the prestigious journals that have serially rejected me, the gigs I haven’t been offered or have fucked up, the audiences that didn’t like me or, even worse, were vaguely lukewarm, the poets who have defriended me on social media or snubbed my friend request in the first place…) and with almost everything in every other aspect of my life, and I’m cheering myself up because I don’t think I’m good enough, rather than bragging because I think I’m so wonderful.

But I’m also posting this to let other people who have a fragile, unconfident ambition know, and to remind myself, that success comes one small step at a time and if you keep plugging away at it, you will see results. Change can happen.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

I can be relied upon to be consistently inconsistent

People often say that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be buoyed or destroyed by what the audience thought of your poetry, that you should just do your own thing and judge yourself by your own standards, not theirs. Trouble is, I’m very bad at assessing how my own performance is going, except in terms of audience response. And I know I’m a very inconsistent performer. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve performed the same set at two different events, only weeks or even days apart, and I’ve felt like I’ve performed it equally well on both occasions, but at one I get a rapturous reception and at the other the same material has gone down like a lead balloon.

Of course, sometimes this is because of circumstances beyond my control. A middle-aged provincial audience,for example, is probably going to respond differently from a young urban audience, and I can’t control who is in the audience. An audience who prefers comedy isn’t going to respond well to serious poetry, no matter how well it is performed, and vice versa. In theory, this should be less of a problem for me than most poets, as I do both funny and non-funny poems and should be able to adapt, but in practice I seem to have an unerring instinct to do exactly the kind of poetry that an audience doesn’t like, whereas someone who only does comedy is going to get it right at least some of the time.

The running order and who else is in it is also key to how I go down. If I’m headlining, the audience is probably going to be warmer and more receptive than if I’m on first. However, the downside of headlining is that more is expected of a headliner than a bottom-of-the-bill featured artist, and if the person on just before me was absolutely brilliant, then even my best performance will disappoint. Also, if the person on just before me  has just done a harrowing poem about how their best friend died of a long, lingering disease and made the audience cry, then a silly poem about biscuits which might have made the audience laugh on another night will seem trite and wholly inappropriate.

Even taking all that into account, though, I know (because I’ve seen the videos of myself performing shockingly badly on YouTube  or because a very blunt friend who was at both events tells me I wasn’t very good at one) that sometimes the reason for my going down worse was because I did actually perform much worse. The problem is that, at the time, I didn’t actually feel like I was doing anything different from or worse than the successful occasion – the only clue was the audience’s sluggish response.

I’m not quite sure why this happens. I possibly do perform worse when I’m tired (and juggling spoken word with a demanding day job and a thyroid disorder means I often am crushingly tired), but one of my best gigs ever was one where I was so tired I barely even remember being there, so that’s not the only explanation. I definitely need to rehearse more than I do, but I’ve often bombed out on a poem that I did OK a few days earlier when I was even less rehearsed. And we all know that material can be overrehearsed, too – a poem you’ve done too much can go very stale and stop having the effect on an audience it used to have. The effects of (a) nerves and (b) alcohol also play a part. I freely admit I’m heavily reliant on (b) to counteract (a) and it’s a delicate balancing act drinking enough to quell the nerves, but not so much that I start slurring my words or forgetting lines.

But, anyway, I do take the audience’s reaction very much to heart, because I have no intrinsic way of judging how well I did. And I probably should do more work on my performance skills (maybe with the assistance of a director?)

 

Es are good?

I was born in a remote, primitive era of prehistory, millions of years before the evolution of the modern human (well, actually, I was born in 1968, but it often feels like it). When I was growing up, there was no worldwide web, no-one (bar maybe a couple of moneyed tech geeks) had a computer at home, mobile phones were the size of a toaster, too expensive for most people and did nothing other than make phone calls, and counterculture magazines were often produced on hand-cranked Banda machines (ask your nan).

Everything’s changed. We’re now living in a digital landscape and over the last few years there has been an explosion of e-zines and blogs that have brought poetry to a new and broader audience. Exciting times? I think so. With, of course, the caveat that always come with the internet – the democratisation that it brings can also be accompanied by zero quality control.

I am  constantly surprised by the naivety many aspirant poets have about the internet.”I have had poems published!” they say proudly, as if they’re a regular contributor to Poetry London, and it later transpires that what they mean is that they have posted their poems on what is basically an open-access electronic pinboard, with no editor and no filtering, and where all too often nobody goes there to read, they just go there to post.

That said, there are a number of excellent e-zines, edited by respected poets, whose submissions process is as rigorous as the leading print journals and who carry poems of a similar quality to (and often by the same poets as) the print journals. And even if some websites are less exclusive/rigorous than the print journals, that can be a good thing – moving away from poetry as a cosy clique where your face has to fit and opening up the genre to new audiences and new voices. Plus that’s all before you even start on the other fora for our poetry that the internet has provided, e.g. YouTube, our own websites etc.

Being the immature attention-whore that I am, what I love about e-zines is the instant gratification I get on publication. I tweet or Facebook a link and, within seconds, my friends can read my work and post validating messages. Also, (and this is the point where I really should get on the line to Freephone Sad Bastard) I can count up the number of likes, shares and comments my poem got from strangers on the site itself. Contrast that with the print journals, where often I don’t know anyone who is a subscriber, so my friends don’t get to read my poems, and I never really know whether anyone liked or even read it. It’s nice to get my complimentary copy in the post, but thereafter follows an eerie silence, and the ability to put another title on my biog seems little pay-off after the  three-month wait between submission and acceptance and the six-month wait between acceptance and publication.

What I love less about e-zines is their very public nature means that, once it’s out there, you lose all control of your poem: it can be reshared, stolen, misattributed and it is forever lost to other, potentially more lucrative publishing opportunities. As with music, the increasing expectation of audiences that work should be accessible for free on the web is diminishing opportunities to sell the work and threatening to turn art forms from careers that the very tenacious and talented can just about eke a living from to hobbies for privileged dilettantes.

And there’s nothing like the feel of real book, pamphlet or  magazine in your hand. Somehow you feel much more like a real poet when you’re physically holding a  journal with your name in it than when you see your work on a website. That can sometimes feel only one step up from reading your own Facebook posts.

There does not seem to be a great deal of consensus in the poetry world about how the new electronic forms of publishing fit in with the old. I have often been advised not to submit to e-zines and told that publication in the print “little magazines” carries far more gravitas and weight with promoters and publishers. And yet I read an article this week, in which Tom Chivers of Penned In The Margins seemed to be suggesting the diametric opposite: “The readership of some magazines is so low that I wonder, what’s the point? Nowadays we can use different media that are more successful in reaching an audience.”

So is the internet the way forward? Are the “little magazines” the dying gasp of an old order – an order in which the gates to poetry success were controlled by middle-aged men in tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows – that is being swept away by a younger, funkier, more diverse generation with a fairer, more democratic way of doing things? Or are print journals going to remain an important route to getting a collection published for emergent poets for some time to come?

One thing is certain, though: if you care about small magazines and want them to remain relevant, you need to support them. Without subscribers, they can’t compete with the internet.

 

 

All Kinds of Everything

Everyone knows the dictum of the mediaeval poet John Lydgate: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The trouble is, even though it’s impossible, I want to. And sometimes that leads to my ending up pleasing nobody.

I try to juggle page poetry and spoken word, and within each art form, I try to juggle comic and non-comic verse (I say “non-comic”, rather than serious, because I agree with something Wendy Cope once said about it being a mistake to divide poetry into funny and serious, as many funny poems are saying something serious beneath the humour). I am by no means unique in this – several spoken word artists, including Sally Jenkinson, John Osborne and Clare Ferguson-Walker, were published in the more prestigious poetry journals before building performance careers; T.S.Eliot (to whom I am not , of course, trying to compare myself in any other sense) wrote both The Waste Land and Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. I am, however, finding it increasingly hard.

My biggest problem is that I am far too prone to viewing any success I might achieve with my poetry as a compensation for numerous failures in my personal life. Put simply, I desperately want audiences to love me, because nobody else does. When they don’t love me, or when they appear to love one or more of the other poets I am appearing with much more, I feel crushed. And, as no amount of love is enough to fill the void, I want ALL AUDIENCES to love me, regardless of their age, background or taste in poetry.

When I first came back to poetry after a twenty-year break, I concentrated mainly on traditional, Pam Ayresy-style comic verse and I immediately had a lot of success with it. I won light verse competitions with very little effort; when I performed to middle-aged, grassroots audiences, I was usually their favourite performer of the event. Even then, a nagging sense of dissatisfaction set in – there was often a lover of “serious” poetry in the audience who visibly turned up their nose at my work, refused to clap or said something cuttingly backhanded to me afterwards and, even though I knew they were a lone voice in a sea of love, even though I thought (and still do think) they were a pretentious snob who failed to appreciate the difficulty and skill involved in producing good light verse, it bothered me that I didn’t have their approval. I was already working on “serious” free verse alongside the rhymed comic poetry, but their distaste pushed me to work harder at it.

And then I thought I’d try a young, urban slam and had the shock of my life when my “populist” poetry was not at all popular with the audience there. They had as little love for highbrow page poetry as the middle-aged grassroots audiences I’d been slaying, but they also found traditional light verse embarrassingly trite, amateurish and so last century. They preferred looser, less regular, more rappy rhythm and rhyme schemes, only liked humorous poems if they were surreal, edgy, deeply personal or dark, and sometimes hated all comic poetry – they wanted intense, serious poems about social issues or psychological torment. I started to change the way I wrote to please them.

I had some success on both fronts: I’ve now had poems published in a raft of reputable poetry journals (but have still not managed to graze the most prestigious, a fact which causes me immense pain, even though I don’t even like any of the poetry that some of them publish and I rate the journals that are publishing me higher) and have also won or been placed in major slams and been booked for feature slots at leading spoken word nights in the South West. I know how lucky I have been and am immensely grateful for what success I have had. And you all know there’s a “but” coming….

…because there is. Although I’ve done creditably in both, I’ve not done as well in either page poetry or spoken word as I’d have liked, but I seem to have lost my popular touch with the I-don’t-know-much-about-poetry-but-I-do-know-what-I-like kinds of audiences I used to have in the palm of my hand. I feel that, in trying to please absolutely everybody on the planet, I’ve ended up not really pleasing anybody.

“A-ha!” you’re all saying (and not in the sense of the Norwegian pop band). “That’s because you’re courting success, rather than putting your art first! Audiences can smell a lack of authenticity. Write the kind of poetry you really WANT to write and forget about what audiences want.”

But I’m not actually being as cold-blooded, formulaic and calculating about this as it may sound. I have never attempted to write in a style I didn’t really, really like. I write eclectically because I read/listen eclectically. And I do put myself in my poems – spoken word has got me to open up about my darkest secrets in my poetry in a way I never had the confidence to do before and has consequently had an immeasurably positive effect on my mental health. It’s honestly not the case that I am producing hollow, inauthentic, fashion-driven husks of poems.

I’m not sure if the problem is that I’m now producing a Frankenstein genre of poetry, with elements of all the styles I like, but not close enough to any of them to please real devotees. Or whether the painful truth I am trying hard to avoid here is that I’m just not that good.

 

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.”