In the Exclusion Zone?

Spoken word, in its modern form, was arguably born out of a drive for inclusiveness. It has frequently given a voice to the excluded and dispossessed: gay and BAME voices have long been especially welcomed and valued at poetry events; spoken word thrives in prisons; poets with little formal education or who are functionally illiterate have found self-expression and built careers through the medium of oral poetry. From ranting poetry to hip-hop poetry, spoken word has provided an egalitarian alternative to the conventional literary establishment, accessible in form and often voicing radical politics. Yet I have heard complaints from a few people that spoken word, especially locally, has become very “exclusive”. Is there any truth in this?

It is undeniable that spoken word in Bristol/Bath at the moment is very middle-class. This really hit me a while back, when I went to an event where 3 of the 4 featured poets happened to do poems about their childhood and I realised that many of the traditions and rites of passages that they were unthinkingly presenting as universal were totally alien to me. I’ve also found on a couple of occasions that the unrelenting wash of uninterrupted RP has actually begun to hurt my eardrums. I’m not saying middle-class poets with RP accents should be denied a voice (I’m an RP speaker myself and, although I’m from a working-class family originally, having gone to public school and two Russell Group universities and spent most of my adult life working as a teacher, I make no claim to be anything other than middle-class now, so if I were saying that, I’d be denying myself a voice). But I think maybe we should be asking more hard questions about why more working-class poets are not also being heard. Many promoters in the city are asking these questions and trying to do something about it. However, I’d like to see all promoters be as concerned to avoid an all middle-class line-up as they would be to avoid an all-male or all-white line-up and all promoters, poets and audience members to actually acknowledge that the overwhelming middle-class dominance of poetry locally is deeply concerning.

Other things that piss me off:

Middle-class poets presuming to speak on behalf of working-class people
Yes, I know your intentions are usually good, but if you’re having to raise issues of poverty and exclusion in your poetry because poor people and excluded people aren’t at the event to raise them themselves, maybe your first priority should be working to get these people into the event, rather than writing patronising, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” poems about them. Ditto white poets writing about BAME issues and male poets writing about women’s issues.

Middle-class poets publicly “calling out” working-class poets for minor crimes against political correctness
Who asked you to be policeman? Is your intervention really motivated by concern about social injustice or are you just virtue-signalling because it makes you feel good? Or (even worse) motivated by an officer-class mentality which makes you think it’s your job to instruct the uncouth oiks in how they ought to behave? Is expecting someone who left school at 16 to show an academic understanding of gender studies or express themselves in the politically correct jargon you learnt at university reasonable? And, if you really, really do feel you need to intervene, is there any reason why you can’t do it privately and non-confrontationally, rather than flaming and humiliating them in a public forum?

-Middle-class poets automatically assuming that all middle-class newbies to the scene are nascent professionals and giving them critical feedback on their poetry to help them improve and careers development advice, while assuming that all working-class newbies are amateurs who are just there for poetry’s self-expressive and therapeutic benefits, so not doing the same for them

I think the overwhelming middle-classness of the local scene partly reflects the fact that Bristol and Baths are university cities and have a very studenty performance poetry scene. Two of the biggest nights in the area started out as student union events (Rhyme and Reason still is, while Raise The Bar has fledged into a totally independent event since its founder graduated, but still markets itself to and attracts a largely studenty audience, although, from the very beginning, both nights have been very welcoming to non-students of all ages) and the styles of poetry which are popular here tend to be those that appeal to students (although, having said that, RTB has hosted more headliners of working-class origin than many non-student-oriented nights). This can be a real problem for cultural balance in terms of what kind of performers are emerging from the open mics locally right now, but this is absolutely not the fault of people who run these nights: it’s the fault of an education system which is culturally stacked against the working class and means they are massively less likely to enter higher education. That is the real scandal that we should be protesting.

Moreover, I remember what the local scene was like before these nights started, and it wasn’t awash with working-class people and benefit claimants who have been cruelly displaced by the influx of students – it was simply a much, much smaller (and still almost wholly middle-class) scene. Danny noticed that there were large numbers of students in the area who wrote and enjoyed poetry, but who were not currently attending live poetry events, and made it his mission to bring this huge, hitherto untapped market into the scene. He was massively successful in that and totally galvanised and enriched spoken word locally for everyone. What we really need now is someone else with Danny’s extraordinary drive and vision to start up a night of the same kind of stature that targets other untapped markets in the area. That would get more working-class and BAME people into poetry – tearing down existing nights wouldn’t.

Some people have suggested that the fact that some poetry events in the city are not free is a significant barrier to working-class participation. With respect, I disagree:

(a) There are many, many events which are free, so it is not the case that those who cannot afford to go to an event with an entrance fee have no opportunities to have their voice heard.

(b) The nights which do charge a fee all charge in the region of £3 to £12 (and most are in the £3-£8 bracket). While I acknowledge that this is going to make them difficult or impossible for people on low incomes (I was long-term unemployed when I first started attending Bristol spoken word events, so I really know), this is still a low price compared to what you would have to pay to attend almost any other kind of arts, sports or entertainment event. Nobody complains that football matches and rock concerts are “exclusive”.

(c) The nights which charge in Bristol are mostly the nights which host leading national and international headliners (who charge 3- or 4-figure sums to appear and incur eye-watering travel expenses) at central Bristol venues (which often come with high rental costs, especially for venues which can accommodate crowds of 200+, which is what RTB regularly attracts). If they did not charge a door fee, they would not be able to do that. Spoken word would be pushed out into the suburbs, which would make it much less accessible to those without their own transport, and local audiences, including working-class audiences, would be denied the chance to see the very top performers in the field, because Jean Binta Breeze and Shane Koyczan are not going to fly in from Jamaica or Canada to perform for a whipround in a bucket. Who, exactly, would that benefit?

(d) If spoken word is not to be a hobby career for rich dilettantes, it must be possible for the best practitioners in the field to earn a living from it. I think it is in working-class poets’ and promoters’ interests, as much as anyone, that artists be paid. And by “paid”, I mean that the very best and most established poets should be paid enough that they can survive from their poetry alone. It is just not possible to pay a living wage from the means by which free nights are funded (usually out of an extraordinarily kind promoter’s pocket or by means of a bucket whipround or a small payment from the venue for bringing in crowds on a quiet night).

Free nights are doing a fantastic job and are not ripping anyone off (to the contrary, the heroes that run them are often operating at a substantial personal loss out of their love of poetry and their philanthropic desire to bring it to a wider audience) – most pay their headliners standard industry rates or higher for the level of poet they book (usually semi-professionals who do their poetry on top of a day job). It’s usually in the region of £25-50, which will normally cover travel and possibly give the artists a little bit of profit if they are local. Free nights are the backbone of the spoken word scene and there would not be a scene without them. They often do the hard work of discovering and nurturing emergent artists, giving them a step up into paid performance and sustaining good, established artists who will never be in the position of giving up the day job.

But if they were the only kind of poetry night, there would be nowhere for those artists to move onto if they ever did want to make it their full-time career. The artists this would exclude the most are working-class artists, who cannot afford to fund a hobby career through the Bank of Mum and Dad or a rich partner or a well-paid day job.

What is frustrating me most about the spoken word community at the moment is I often feel it polarises into two unreasonable extremes: entitlement and amateurism. The former is often (but not exclusively) coming from middle-class poets and the latter is often (but not exclusively) coming from working-class poets and promoters.

I am disturbed by how many (often young, middle-class) people I meet at spoken word events whose first question, sometimes even before they’ve written any poetry, is “How do I get a paid feature slot?” They expect to be paid before they’ve produced anything that merits payment, they hijack the “All artists should be paid” mantra to try to shut down small, non-profit, community events who are doing good work for the sheer love of poetry and simply can’t afford to pay anyone, and because they are so demanding, they are often given the totally unreasonable things they ask for.

And I’m upset by the fact that so many poets (often the ones who can least afford it) go to the opposite extreme and seem to take a masochistic pride in how much of their own money they have thrown into travelling round the country at their own expense to build a career and accuse anyone who’s not prepared to do the same of “not paying their dues”. These are often the same people who want to shut down the nights which charge an entry fee for being “elitist”, even though they’re the only nights which are obviating the need for performers to fund themselves, and accuse artists and promoters who are earning any kind of a profit of “greed” or “exclusivity”.

I feel we have a dysfunctional situation where middle-class poets often expect (and are sometimes given) things too easily and working-class poets often expect the career process to be unnecessarily long, expensive and difficult (and, unfortunately, for them it often is). There has to be a middle ground – where the best artists and promoters can make a reasonable living from their talents without being accused of being greedy or exploitative; where you can’t expect to demand payment before you’ve proved yourself or expect to be given professional openings within days of taking up spoken word, but if you are genuinely good, you shouldn’t have to expect to fork out vast amounts of your own money over a long period in order to prove yourself, either; where free nights and paid nights can coexist in a mutually beneficial poetry ecosystem without anyone feeling that they have to take potshots at one to show support for the other.



More Edinburgh

Last post, I told you about my experience of performing and promoting a spoken word show in Edinburgh, but, of course, I was also there as a spectator, and what a varied and intriguing experience that was!

The show that has most stayed with me is the young Irish comedian Laura Byrne’s show, End of Daze, which was on at Black Market Room 2. Although billed as comedy, she warned at the start that there weren’t any jokes in it and, although that was a bit of an exaggeration, what followed was less a stand-up routine and more an exquisitely written and bravely unflinching account of being a young carer for a mother with multiple sclerosis and coping (or, more to the point, failing to cope) with the mother’s death from cancer. Honest, grimly funny, acknowledging her own self-absorption and immaturity and entirely stripped of any hyperbole, melodrama or self-pity, it was unbearably moving, the kind of show that you leave feeling chastened and changed.

One thing that became very clear to me this Fringe, from this show and others, was that the borders between spoken word, stand-up, theatre and music are increasingly permeable. Other good stand-up shows I saw also dealt with weighty personal issues in a way that made them seem not a million miles away from storytelling, confessional spoken word poetry or dramatic monologues, e.g. John Aggasild’s Welcome culminated with a courageous and very funny section on his experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act; Martin Pilgrim’s Sadulthood mused on the sense of inadequacy felt if you’re well in your twenties, but have failed to attain any of the traditional markers of adulthood (which struck a chord with me, except for “well in your twenties” read “pushing fifty”), but also riffed interestingly on his Jewish identity. Aine Gallagher’s Making Sense was less confessional, but very funny and, structured as a lecture on the Irish language with Gallagher as teacher and the audience as students, it also flirted with the generic boundaries between stand-up, theatre and the educational talk.

The spoken word solo shows I saw presented an excitingly diverse range of examples of what a spoken word show can be.

Many of them also fell into the mostly-prose, non-fiction talk/storytelling/dramatic monologue camp: Jimmy Hogg’s A Brief History of Petty Crime was an autobiographical comic prose monologue about minor illegal acts committed in his youth, Rowan McCabe’s Door-to-Door Poet was a highly affecting true account of McCabe’s project knocking on strangers’ doors in various parts of the North East – from affluent areas to no-go estates, and offering to write poems for them. It did have poems in it, but very, very few, and the bulk of it was autobiographical prose that told a strong, true-life story and posed challenging questions about class, poverty, what art is for and to what degree McCabe’s own project was community-benefiting benevolence, self-aggrandising virtue-signalling or exploitation.  Both shows had well-directed, very theatrical staging.

Luke Wright’s Frankie Vah was a one-character play about a fictional performance poet, which allowed Wright to showcase plenty of his ostentatiously witty, firecracker verse periodically within the dramatic monologue, but was definitely theatre – and, indeed, was billed as such, not spoken word. In a similar vein (although it had less of a story arc) was Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists, a play by Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger and Dave Pitt, using the self-referential framing device of a narrative about three poets meeting up to plan a poetry show to showcase a variety of political poems. The staging was very much in the tradition of John Godber – larger-than-life, physical, Brechtian, and a world away from the 20-minute set spoken word of a static performer reading a poem off his phone.

Continuing the vein of poetry-as-theatre, David Lee Morgan’s After The Flood used spoken word to stage a one-man musical: it told an ambitious multi-character dystopian fantasy story through a mixture of dialogue and highly rhythmic poetry, sung or chanted over a recorded musical backing.

Then there were shows that presented poems on a common theme, linked by talk, anecdotes and/or jokes, sometimes with a strong Vaudevillian streak of audience participation, but within a looser structure and without any overarching narrative. Joy France’s Toast and Sweet Lemons was an intimate and joyously bonkers (when I say that it involved magic painting, South American taste-altering berries and a unicorn’s head, you may get a small sense of quite how bonkers) show, where France chatted interactively with the audience on the themes of being different and conformity, of being noticed and invisibility, frequently breaking off into poems and autobiographical stories appropriate to the topic, but also handing round props for the audience to handle and play with and donning costumes and masks. Dominic Berry’s excellent No Tigers and Robert Garnham’s fabulous Juicy also fell into this (no pun intended) camp – both dealt with the issues of gay identity and the experience of homophobia through poems, jokes and anecdotes, but also threw in material on other topics, too, with plenty of showbiz razzmatazz -prop work, song and dance routines, bouncy rhymes and pantomime audience participation.

I came away with the realisation that a poetry show is a very, very different beast from a poetry set, but a poetry show can take many, many different forms and can draw on many other genres.

Then there were the multi-performer poetry cabaret shows, which hosted a range of special guests and an open mic (such as the brilliant feminist night, She Grrrowls, which featured jawdropping performances from poets such as Sara Hirsch, Lisa Luxx and Malaika Kegode, and the more Northern-slanted Twisted Tongue, where I saw amazing sets from Steve Pottinger, Ash Dickinson, Louise Fazackerley and Jimmy Andrex, amongst others).

Finally, there were the high-energy poetry gameshows, such as Raise The Bar’s Poetry Versus, which was honestly the most fun you could have in Edinburgh with your clothes on, pitting spoken word artists against each other in a competition where the vibe was tongue-in-cheek, but the poetry was high quality, combined with banter, silly party games and lots and lots of audience participation.

I saw far, far more good shows than I can fit into a blog post, so apologies if I have missed yours out.


Back from the Fringe

So I’m finally back at home after a three-and-a-half-week sojourn in Edinburgh. I shall probably give a fuller account at some future date, but here are a few disjointed observations:

A three-week Edinburgh run is a gruelling test of endurance and I am still debating whether it has actually achieved anything concrete, but I firmly believe that everyone should do it at least once in their life, if they can afford it. Being there, from the moment that a dry office building was turned into a vibrant and hip pop-up venue, to the moment when it became a dry office building again, was an incredible feeling. The camaraderie amongst the three-weekers was fantastic (we all spent the last week pulling supportive grimaces at each other and mouthing “Nearly there!” encouragingly). And doing a three-week run of your own one-hour show, conjuring an experience for the audience out of nothing for twenty-two days in a row, pushing yourself to your emotional and physical limits, creates an incomparable feeling of achievement.

Will I do three weeks again? Not sure. The main rationale for doing the full run was that I thought I would be more likely to get press in. I failed to get any press in, at all, so clearly I was wrong about that. Admittedly, I was ill in the crucial second week, and so failed to do the follow-up phone calls that I would otherwise have done to try to coax reluctant reviewers out of their shells, so maybe my own laziness is to blame. But I sense that the climate has shifted dramatically since I last did a press campaign – the number of productions at the Fringe has massively increased and the number of publications covering the Fringe has shrunk. Plus both spoken word and Free Fringe seem to be at the bottom of the list for most of the people who do cover the Fringe. Next time, I’d seriously consider billing myself as theatre or comedy, particularly as one thing this Fringe has taught me is that generic boundaries are extremely fluid, anyway. It pisses me off that Free Fringe apparently holds such little cachet with reviewers, but there’s not a lot I can do about that.

In my view, paying the £295 to register with the Fringe Office was worth it. I think I got way more audience than I would just by relying on flyering and the Wee Blue Book. Being on the official Fringe website and sending out about a gazillion press releases at least meant I appeared in just about every Fringe listing there is.

I am also pleased with my flyers. I repeated my tactic from last time I went of not bothering with posters (Does anyone ever look at them?), but getting A5 flyers on the heaviest paper available, on the basis that if the flyer looks weighty, people will subconsciously take it more seriously. I also only ordered a 1000, acknowledging that there are limits to how much flyering one woman can do on her own, and used them all up. I also think my image worked for me, as it was eyecatching and indicated what my show was about. I really don’t understand why so many people’s flyer image is a picture of their own face. Surely that really only works if you’re (a) on the telly (b) staggeringly attractive or (c) are doing something attention-grabbing in the photo?

My show seemed to appeal particularly to middle-aged women, so fortunately it was marketable to a general audience, not just the spoken word coterie. One of my proudest moments was when a woman I had flyered on the street said to me at the end of the show, “This is the first spoken word show I have ever seen and I definitely want to see more.” To an extent, I feel I have been a good ambassador and/or evangelist for my art form.

I probably should have done more to market myself to a regular spoken word audience, too, though. I didn’t do enough to get feature slots or open mic spaces at other people’s nights and managed to fuck up most of the ones I did get. Even when I did get slots and did well in them, I forgot to promote my show. Exit flyering – handing out your flyers at the end of someone else’s show which is of a similar genre to yours – is one of the best tools at a Fringe producer’s disposal and I didn’t do enough of it. Part of this was my habitual absent-mindedness and social reticence. Part of it was my being ill in that crucial second week. But I was also put off exit flyering by a couple of crushing experiences where I tried to flyer a young, hip audience and they looked at me like I was something nasty on their shoe, while accepting flyers from people who were more young and trendy-looking.  Edinburgh did remind me how tribal spoken word can be, but that’s something for another post.

Artistically, I’m reasonably pleased with how I did. My main purpose in going was to see if a one-hour show is a direction I want to go in and something I have the skills to do competently. The answer to both those questions was a fairly unambiguous “Yes”. I think my show was quite good, rather than amazing, and I don’t want to go back again until I know I have a fucking incredible show, but I feel I can hold my head up high and draw inspiration from the shows I saw to produce something better. Just doing this show has developed my skills in so many ways – I now feel much, much more confident about my ability to engage with an audience, construct a linking narrative, take an audience on an emotional journey. I am a different and better performer than the one I was four weeks ago.

I had some fantastic feedback from audiences, as well. In particular, some audience members stayed behind afterwards to tell me very private, personal things about themselves in response to the stuff about myself I had laid on the line. That felt like such a privilege and such an endorsement and is something I will treasure.

There are things that worry me about the Fringe, too. It is very white. it is very middle-class. Any career benefits it offers are open only to those with the money and the cultural privilege to take advantage of them, although Free Fringe is helping to move a little bit closer to the egalitarian principles on which Fringe was founded.

But, overall, I am very happy to have spent nearly a month at the biggest party on earth. I’ll be back as soon as I can afford it.

Feeling the Pull of the Fringe Magnet

I’m taking my first full-length spoken word show to the Edinburgh Fringe in August (see Forthcoming Events page for details) and I’m going to try to blog about how it’s going, starting from now, when I’m about a month into full-time, serious preparation.

In many senses, my expectations are modest. I know, for instance, that I’m not going to make any money. Edinburgh is always just a very expensive holiday. I’m going with PBH’s Free Fringe, an organisation which doesn’t charge for venue hire, but also doesn’t charge audiences to watch (although a bucket is passed round at the end, so they can pay you if they want to). While this eliminates the single biggest cost of taking a show to the paid Fringe (if you’re paying for venue hire, you can be looking at anything between £300 and £2000 a week), all the other costs involved (accommodation, travel, printing flyers, housesitting/petsitting while you’re away) can tally up to an amount that would buy you a pretty decent Caribbean cruise. I know there’s not going to be enough in that bucket to break even. I’m accepting that the money I’ve laid out has gone down the toilet. Anything I get back will be an unexpected bonus.

I’m also not expecting full houses. Last time I took a theatre show to the paid Fringe, we got an average of about 10 audience members per performance. For a small company, with no famous names in the cast and no big team of flyerers to publicise it, I thought this was pretty decent. I was expecting the free Fringe to draw bigger audiences than that (after all, you don’t even need to persuade the punters to part with any cash. How hard can it be?), but friends who’ve been with the free Fringe have reported audiences you could easily fit into a Ford Fiesta. With their luggage. And their pets. So I’m expecting audiences you can count on the fingers of one hand. If you’re Captain Hook.

Nor am I going expecting to be Discovered. You hear about artists having an A-Star-Is-Born, career-changing, overnight success story at the Fringe, but mostly these tales are lies or exaggerations and most of the true stories happened decades ago, when Fringe was a very different beast.

So, why am I going? Primarily, because I want to try my hand at the one-hour show, as opposed to the 20-minute set, with a view to pitching a show to theatres in 2019, and this is a trial run, to see how far off the pace I am right now. Also, I want to show my work to a wider audience of public and fellow spoken word artists, get my voice heard and the things I have to say off my chest, and maybe get my name and my words a little more widely known, so that if, in two years’ time, a promoter gets asked, “Have you thought about booking Melanie Branton?” they might not say, “Who?”

And, of course, at root, I want what 99% of performers want, whether they admit it or not: I want to be loved. I want audiences to give me enough approval and applause and nice comments afterwards to make up for a lifetime of disappointments and rejections and not being good enough.

I’m both excited and terrified. I desperately want to get press in, because I know from my experience of taking theatre shows to the Fringe that a good review can quadruple your audiences and give you something to use on your publicity forever after, but I’m scared of getting a bad or (even worse) a mediocre review and what that will do to my reputation on the spoken word circuit and to my sense of myself as a performer and as a human being. So scared that part of me wishes I hadn’t sent out press releases and wants to ask for them back.

Even more scared that other spoken word artists and promoters will think I’m shit, or just a reasonably competent amateur, while they’ll be having serious professional conversations with everybody else from my local spoken word scene. At this point, the persona in my head which drives me mad, telling me on a continuous loop in my mother’s voice, “You’ll never amount to anything much”, “Don’t aspire to anything, because you’re bound to be disappointed – nice things never happen to people like you”, is reading this over my shoulder and nodding sagely.

Totally slambolic

Officially, I’m Not Doing Slams Anymore. I made a decision, about a year ago, that I’m Beyond That Now and that I was going to concentrate on getting more 20-minute sets and developing one-hour shows. The high-impact, three-minute attention grab was no longer for me.

Which is odd, because I’ve ended up doing more slams in my first year of Not Doing Slams Anymore than I did in my last year of Still Doing Them. One of these was an accident – I turned up as audience and they were a slammer short, so I agreed to make up the numbers – but the rest I can only ascribe to my penchant for volunteering for mad shit when I’ve had a few drinks.

It’s hard to keep away, because I LOVE slams. Yes, I know all about their shortcomings (the scorecreep, the tendency for judges to penalise material which is subtle or which provokes or challenges the audience in any way, the danger of being viewed as an eternal amateur if slams remain your principal focus), but I’m basically the most competitive person in the whole world and when those scorecards flip over and there’s a 10 on them, I feel like Nadia Comaneci competing in the 1976 Olympics. I have always been epically crap at sport. My PE teachers had to entirely redefine the parameters of what “being crap at sport” meant when they met me, because I was ten times crapper at sport than the crappest student they’d ever taught previously. I never learnt to swim properly. I never learnt to ride a bike, at all. I couldn’t do a handstand or a cartwheel. It was only in about Year 9 that I finally managed to do a forward roll. My body just didn’t do what I told it to. Poetry slams are the closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it feels like to be good at PE.

When I first started doing them, in my naivety (but I suspect I’m not alone in this), I assumed that slams were the spoken word equivalent of the Civil Service Entrance Exams: that you couldn’t have a career in that field if you didn’t do well in them and if you did very well indeed in them, you were guaranteed a fast-track career trajectory. There then followed an agonising couple of years, during which I won almost all the slams I entered, but still couldn’t get booked for a 20-minute set anywhere, while all the people I’d beaten were being given feature slots all over the place, and I realised I was wrong. Fact is, some of the best poets I know are rubbish slammers and how you do in slams is pretty much irrelevant to anything, at all (unless, possibly, if you win the Roundhouse or the Hammer and Tongue National Final). I know people who have managed to use regional slam wins as a springboard to success, but it has generally been in combination with a ruthlessly efficient promotional campaign and world-class networking skills.

That’s not to say I haven’t done well out of slams. They can be a great way to get your work seen. I have recently been offered two fantastic opportunities by people who saw me compete in a slam and were impressed enough to want to book me. The thing is, though, it didn’t happen in a hurry – one of them had seen me in a slam a year previously, the other one had seen me in a slam THREE years previously. And in neither case had I actually won the slam. I’ve got no complaints.

I do think there’s a lot of double-think around slams, though. Yes, yes, we all know “it’s not about the winning, it’s about the poetry”, “the best poet never wins” and every other saccharine cliché that is trotted out by the hosts on a regular basis. But if it really all is totally arbitrary and a bit of meaningless fun, why do some slams offer big performance opportunities as prizes? And why do poets regularly describe themselves as multi-slam-winning in their biogs? Either it means something, or it doesn’t.

Many spoken word nights and literary festivals want to include a slam because they get bums on seats – they are popular with audiences and they attract a lot of wannabe performers, most of whom bring a vast entourage of friends and family along to support them.  Organisers usually do very well out of it. In return, though, I think they owe it to entrants (especially ones who are new to spoken word, naïve and/or impressionable and who may have unrealistic expectations) to give them an honest idea of what, if anything, a win will lead to, and, possibly, also help and advice on what they can do next to move forward in spoken word, beyond slams.

Down With The Kids

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.

Let’s Go Pro!

Since in a week’s time I will theoretically (if somewhat misleadingly – I do intend to get another day job when I’m back from Edinburgh) be a full-time poet, I think ‘d better set myself some ground rules for behaving like one.

1. Stop accepting unpaid slots, unless they are for charity or repaying a favour to a very old mate.

2. Factor in the costs of travel and accommodation when deciding whether to accept gigs. Up until now, I’ve been treating invitations to perform in distant parts as a pleasant, unexpected holiday: yes, I’m going to end up at a significant loss, but I can stay at a nice B & B, have the full vegetarian breakfast, see sheep from the train…. As long as I remain on the lower rungs of the career ladder, there will still be occasions when it is strategically necessary to perform at a loss to get my work known outside the Bristol area or may be worth it to sell books (when I eventually have a book to sell – hurrah!), but I can’t keep doing it just because I’ve never been to [insert name of town] before and I’m flattered that somebody asked me. Or because I’ll use any excuse to have a cooked breakfast.

3. Stop being shy about asking for things. There have been too many times when I’ve booked an expensive B & B because I’ve been too shy to ask the host if I can sleep on his/her couch. There have been way too many times when I’ve not wanted to ask for a slot somewhere because it looks “pushy”, and then got huffy and resentful when a friend who did ask got offered one.

4. Work out arrangements before I commit to something, not on the night itself. There have been two occasions in the past 12 months where I’ve ended up throwing myself on the mercy of a fellow performer, at huge inconvenience to them and their family, because I only discovered when I got to the event that it was impossible for me to get home. I’m educated to Master’s level. I should be able to read a train timetable. (And if Nick and/or David is reading this, I will buy you drinks for life.)

5. Of course, 2, 3 and 4 could all be solved if I learnt to drive and got a car, but as I (a) have no money and (b) still can’t tell my left from my right, that’s not going to happen.

6. Stop drinking all the profits before I’ve even left the venue. Tricky one, this, as I still maintain it’s good practice to support the venue, but not to the extent I have been doing.

7. Always rehearse. It does make a difference. If I haven’t got time to rehearse, don’t accept the gig.

8. Write more, write constantly, take more risks and have the courage to persist with new material, even if it doesn’t get a good reception on the first outing. (But that doesn’t necessarily mean foisting an entire set of untested new material on a paying audience, unless it’s a scratch.) I don’t want to be clinging for grim death to something I wrote several years ago because I’m too scared to risk the audience not liking what I’ve written since (or, even worse, too scared to write anything new, in case it isn’t as good).   Maybe they’ll love the new material if I give it time to bed in. Maybe they’re the wrong audience for it and I need to find different places to perform. And if I really am incapable of writing anything as good as the stuff I wrote in 2014, it’s time to stop. There are no excuses for not growing.

9. Stop talking myself down.

10. Stop getting angry with audiences, promoters and/or other performers if I’m not as successful as I want to be. It’s my job to make myself better, not their job to stroke my ego.

Much of this is going to be financial necessity, once I’ve left my job. But there’s another thing: I’ve been complaining for years that people don’t take me seriously, that they treat me like a hobby poet, like an amateur. I’ve been blaming this on gender discrimination, age discrimination, shy person discrimination, people’s personal animosity to me, but the following revelation struck me like a thunderbolt the other day: maybe they treat me like an amateur because I’ve been behaving like one.