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.”

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.

A Defining Moment

“So how is that different from prose?” a poetry friend of mine often whispers to me at readings, with a mixture of bafflement and indignation. Although appreciative of both rhymed and unrhymed verse, he laments the decline of set rhythm and formal structures in poetry. For him, the rhythmic quality of poetry is its defining feature: remove that, and you might as well call anything – a short story, your diary entry, your shopping list – a “poem”.

I don’t always entirely agree with him, either about the particular poem we have just heard lacking rhythm (I often quote T.S. Eliot’s dictum about the importance of writing “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”, but he doesn’t like Eliot much, either, so that doesn’t help) or about rhythm in general being the touchstone of poetry, but I do think he’s got a point. In both spoken word and “literary” poetry, while the removal of the straitjacket of established form has enabled a pioneering of new structures and an unfettered creativity in the best poets, it has also ushered in a certain amount of laziness and self-indulgence among their less talented peers (including, probably, me). I admire people who regularly submit to the discipline of a set formal structure and do it well, as I think it’s a lot harder than let-it-all-hang-out, anything-goes vers libre. I also value his contribution to that age-old debate: how do you define poetry?

When asked how I define it, I usually go for a fuzzy cop-out, along the lines of “a form of writing where how it has been said matters even more than the subject matter or where the language choices and devices form an integral part of the work’s meaning. If you can paraphrase it without losing something, it’s not a poem.” Mind you, even by that, you would have thought, catch-all standard, a lot of “poems” fall through the net. My two pet peeves at the moment are (1) piss-poor spoken word “poems” which are actually prosaic sociopolitical speeches or personal misery memoirs in disguise and which seem to attract an unmeritedly enthusiastic response from audiences because they sympathise with the subject matter, not because of the way it has been said, which isn’t interesting, at all. (2) “poems” in literary journals which are actually flash fiction pieces, randomly broken into short lines. There seems to be a craze at present in some quarters for pieces which have a strong narrative, told very concisely, with a surprising twisty-twist at the end. And those, apparently, are the only requirements. You can use the most banal, clicheed, tediously monoguous language you like, because it doesn’t matter – certain editors will still be all over your piece.

And, yes, I know I’m probably missing something in both these cases – possibly the primacy of performance skills, emotional impact and forging a relationship with your audience, in the former, and the narrative control and skill involved in what is not said in the latter.

People frequently tell me I am too wordy, that I work the language too much and that I stuff my poems to the seams with extravagant puns and (often mixed) metaphors like an embargo is about to come in and I have to create a stash while I can (see what I mean?). The watchwords for a lot of modern poetry are concision and precision. People who have been on proper creative writing courses keep telling me to “distil” or “condense”, “cut it right back”. Or, as that poem by Gösta Ågren (or perhaps it’s Tomas Transtromer???) that I can’t quite remember sort of says, scour off everything that’s extraneous, then the poem is finished. And I do see the value in that – a lot of modern poetry has the clean, minimalist elegance of sushi or expensive Scandinavian furniture and I can definitely admire that. I just can’t write it myself. And it makes me feel like I’m 15 again, back in my ‘O’ level English class, being made to do a boring precis, when I’d rather be doing “creative writing” or reading a book. I embroider, rather than whittle down. Does that make me a bad poet? Or is there room for fussy Victorian puddings, as well as sushi, on the poetic dinner table? Overstuffed fauteuils, as well as Carl Hansen chairs, in poetry’s front room?

I think, though, that we all have our own favourite Spice Girls in the poetic devices pop group. Hip-hop poets admire clever puns, ingenious multiple rhymes and fast rhythms; Craig Raine’s thing always used to be defamiliarisation (before he started writing embarrassing poems about how not being allowed to grope airline staff anymore is political correctness gone mad).

I have a particular weakness for ambiguity and I must admit, when I hear or read a poem which says one thing and one thing only, in utterly opaque language, without even the merest whiff of double entendre, subtext or symbolic alternative reading, I do sometimes think, “How is that different from prose?”

More on submissions

I probably have nothing of great value to add to the large number of excellent blog posts on this subject by proper poets, such as this fantastic one by Roy Marshall , but having experienced a few rejections this week, I wanted to record my feelings about poetry journals and their policies for soliciting and responding to submissions.

Firstly, much as rejections can smart, I do recognise that the editor usually has it much harder than the poet: most of them do this in their spare time, around other demanding commitments, for the sheer love of literature and provide an invaluable service to writers and readers for no material reward; most receive so many submissions on a weekly basis that they could probably wallpaper a lifesize model of the Titanic with them; most find rejecting work the most difficult part of their job; most regularly have their kindness abused by poets who submit without having read the journal to ascertain whether their work is at all suitable for it (and, in some cases, without ever having read any modern poetry, at all) or who try to engage in lengthy and disputatious to the point of abusive correspondence about the outcome of their submission.

Nonetheless, some publications do make the process of submission and acceptance or rejection less painful than others.

I do not expect editors to send a personal message to every rejected poet – the standard copy-and-paste job is sufficient and (and I know many will disagree with me here) I don’t even mind not getting a reply, at all, as long as the publication’s website has made clear that if you haven’t heard back by a certain date, you may consider yourself rejected and are free to submit elsewhere. Not letting you know by any means is a big no-no, though. And I have to confess that if editors do send a personalised and/or sensitively worded rejection, I am much more minded to submit to them again than to journals who send impersonal, MailMergey brush-offs. Gold stars go to Patricia Oxley at Acumen, whose enthusiastic, flattering rejection letters are more ego-boosting than some journals’ acceptances, and Michael Mackmin at The Rialto, who always used to add a highly personalised, handwritten note to every rejection, commenting on individual poems (although whether this personal touch has survived the migration to Submittable, I am yet to discover). What is particularly impressive is that these two journals receive huge numbers of submissions, many more than most of the journals who claim that individual responses are impossible.

How long is a reasonable amount of time to wait for a response? I think anything up to six months is entirely reasonable and I am usually prepared to wait up to a year with no response before assuming the poems are free and can be submitted to another journal, but I’m probably more patient than a lot of poets. Much depends on what the submission guidelines say. If  a journal claims they normally get back to you within three months (or that weasel expression, “We AIM TO respond within three months.” WTF does that mean? I aim to be the most successful performance poet in the world and marry a 35-year-old toyboy, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen), I am usually prepared to wait four months before getting antsy.

I think, though, that there ought to be a small circle reserved in hell for editors who give totally misleading time estimates on their websites, or who fail to update their websites when circumstances change. I once chose to submit some poems to one particular journal, rather than others which were, in other respects, much more attractive, because its website boasted an impressive turnaround of six weeks. There then ensued six silent months when I heard not a peep from them and two polite e-mail enquiries went unanswered. Eventually I received a rejection from them, apologising for the delay and blaming it on real life intervening. I don’t think it was unreasonable for them to take that long to reply, but (a) I don’t think they should have posted such a hopelessly unrealistic turnaround estimate in the first place (b) once they knew they were experiencing a backlog, they really should have updated their website, so people already waiting for a reply knew what was going on and new submitters didn’t get sucked in by the totally false “six weeks” claim. I accept they were too busy to read any poems, but how long does it take to add one short sentence to your website, FFS? Unsurprisingly, I have never submitted to them again. I’ve also known journals that have folded not take down their websites or even add a five-word message informing visitors of the fact.

Nonetheless, there is such a thing as replying too fast, in my opinion. I recently had a rejection from a journal within twenty minutes of their opening my submission. While it did, at least, free the poems up to send elsewhere, I couldn’t even console myself with the fiction that they’d been tempted. That quick a decision normally means they think you’re terrible. And, yes, I know that a Submittable file that has been “In Progress” for several weeks is probably languishing unread in a  drawer, but you can at least imagine that they’re feverishly rereading it, wondering if they can possibly find space for it.

And, speaking of Submittable, I wish they wouldn’t display  “Declined” in glaring red font – every time I log into my account, I feel like a naughty schoolgirl who’s just got back some disappointing homework.