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.


On Entitlement

One of the open micers at an event I headlined not that long ago spent most of my set reading something on her phone, without making even a token attempt to conceal it, despite the fact that she was sitting in the front row, inches away from me.

Annoyingly, I was so shocked at the time that I didn’t say anything. The Brechtian side of me still feels it was my fault for not being more engaging and that I should relish the bearpit atmosphere of a rowdy tavern and up my game, not expect the hushed reverence of bourgeois theatre audiences. The side of me that always thinks of a witty comeback a day too late wishes I’d stopped, stared at her for an uncomfortably long period, and then said, “I’m sorry if my insisting on doing poems at a poetry event is interrupting your enjoyment of Snapchat. I’ll just wait until you’ve finished.”

I am encountering this kind of behaviour increasingly on the spoken word circuit. I’m usually pretty tolerant when it’s people who are new to the scene (at music gigs, it’s perfectly acceptable to carry on conversations and check your phone during the songs, so they may genuinely not know) or people who have been dragged there against their will by a friend, partner or family member, but not when it’s a performer – someone who “really, really wants a career in spoken word”, but apparently doesn’t love spoken word enough to actually listen to the other performers.

When I first started doing spoken word, I often got told that Not Being An Arsehole was a basic requirement if you had any ambition to a career in it, that the performance poetry world was very small and that getting a reputation for overrunning your slot, flouncing out of slams because the judges dared give someone else a bigger score than you, behaving disrespectfully during other people’s sets, would be instant career death. These days, it increasingly seems that it’s the most careerist aspirant poets who behave like this – they evidently think they’re so special that the rules don’t apply to them. It’s particularly galling when promoters reward them for it.

I acknowledge I’m no angel. I sometimes find it hard to concentrate on other people’s work if I’m worried about my own upcoming performance and I’ve been guilty of running through my lines in my head during someone else’s set, but I would never dream of getting out my notebook or phone and make it publicly obvious that that’s what I was doing. On one mortifying occasion I drank too much to try to assuage my disappointment at being knocked out of a major slam earlier than I’d expected and behaved appallingly, but I felt headclutchingly remorseful the next day and have endeavoured to ensure it remains a one-off. Many of my friends, being temperamental artists, have also had occasional meltdowns. Being an arsehole on an isolated occasion is forgivable; thinking it’s OK to behave like this all the time, not showing even minimal awareness that it is being an arsehole, is not.

The other kind of entitlement that does my head in, and I get it a lot in both spoken word and page poetry, is when people who have never done any poetry at all say, “Oh, that looks fun. I think I’ll have a go at poetry”, and they expect to start at the point where you are after several years of hard slog – or even higher. They expect to be offered a headline national tour within a few days of taking up spoken word; they expect the first poem they write to be accepted by Poetry Review and to have a collection out with Bloodaxe within about six months. They’re special. Working your way up slowly through the slam/open mic circuit or through the little magazines is apparently just for the mediocre remedial fuckwits….like you.

And, yes, I know poetry doesn’t work like Buggins’ Turn and it’s not all about how long you’ve been doing it – some people are supremely talented and will rise much more meteorically than me, entirely deservedly; other people have been doing poetry for much longer than me and are still shit. I know the adult response to people with somewhat arrogant expectations is to not worry about it:  either they’re as good as they think they are, in which case they have earned the right to be cocky, or they are in for a very rude awakening. There’s nothing wrong with confidence and ambition when it’s not misplaced.

It’s still insulting, though, when they come up to you with their rejection slip and start banging on about how outrageous it is that a magazine that publishes you (after 3 years of trying) hasn’t taken them yet (on the first attempt) – after all, you’re so shit that a journal that will take you ought to take absolutely anyone, eh?



Pet peeves about promoters

The gist of my last blog entry was that people who run spoken word nights usually work harder than the artists who perform in their feature slots and that the principle that you shouldn’t have to work for free should be as true for them as for the people they book. I still stand by that – people who run spoken word nights are unsung heroes who don’t get enough love (apart from when people are insincerely sucking up to them to try to get a slot) or money. In the interests of balance, however, here are some of my pet peeves about spoken word promoters:

Promoters who give wildly inaccurate finishing times on their publicity. We all know that in poetry and spoken word the published starting time is a work of fiction and accept that an open mic advertised as starting at 7 probably won’t really get going until 9, but if it says it ends at 10.30 and it doesn’t actually end until 12, I’ve missed my last bus.

Promoters not saying if the venue offers food or not. This may seem trivial, but, as someone who frequently goes straight from work to venue, half the time, I end up performing on a dinner of a packet of crisps and a pint of cider; the other half of the time, I stuff down a horrid supermarket sandwich en route, only to discover the venue serves mouthwatering food when I get there.

Promoters who try to emotionally blackmail you into coming to their night, by implying you’re a bad friend or (even worse) aren’t doing enough to support poetry if you don’t attend. Oddly enough, all the worst offenders amongst my circle of acquaintances run nights that I cannot physically get to, as I don’t drive and their venue is inaccessible on public transport.

Promoters who expect you to bring lots of your family and personal friends with you as audience when they offer you a slot.

Promoters who aren’t honest with you. I once sent my CV to a guy setting up a new night who immediately started raising all sorts of bizarre concerns about why I might find the venue difficult to get to. It was obvious he just didn’t want to book me, maybe because he didn’t like my poetry (which is fine – chacun a son gout, and all that), maybe because of my age (which is also fine in some circumstances – if I were starting a night aimed at 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t book me, either), but I wish he’d said so, rather than making obviously fake excuses.

Promoters who assume that if you don’t live in a city, you must be amateurish and crap. I’ve encountered this one a couple of times lately (and it may also have been the problem with the guy above – but, obviously, I don’t know, as he wouldn’t tell me). Oddly, it’s always provincial promoters who have this bias. I’ve never known an urban promoter give a shit where you live, but promoters in small towns sometimes have this starry-eyed view that anyone with a London, Bristol or Manchester postcode must be exciting and cutting edge and anyone without one must be the bastard child of William McGonagall and Patience Strong.

Promoters who offer me a slot at the bottom of the bill below some kid who’s only been doing spoken word a few weeks. And, yes, I know that the fact I care about this makes me only one step away from demanding baskets of kittens in my dressing room and squawking “Don’t you know who I am?” at waiters, but it’s really started to bug me.

Promoters who seem to be operating a policy of booking every other spoken word artist within a 100-mile radius for a feature slot except me. Especially when they insist on telling me they’ve booked a mutual friend every time they see me. (This sounds like it’s a passive-aggressive comment aimed at one person, but, sadly, it isn’t).

But most promoters are not like this (apart from the food thing – they all do that). Most spoken word promoters are lovely. And compared to the grief that they often get from artists, these complaints are very small.

Pounds, pence and poetry

‘There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either,’ Robert Graves once famously said. With spoken word often now hailed as the new rock’n’roll, though, is it still the case that poetry is never going to be a moneyspinner? I frequently meet shiny-eyed young people who are attracted by the glamour of performance poetry and who seem to think that it’s going to be a fast-track route to fame and fortune.

But, then again, I am also surrounded by poets and promoters who grumble a lot about how hard it is to keep going, about how every day is a struggle to juggle their art with their day job, about how in the YouTube, Spotify, Pirate Bay economy everyone wants something for nothing and about how it’s harder and harder to convince people that poetry is a product worth paying for. Plus, poetry has long been notorious as the ultimate self-expressive art form that has more practitioners than punters –  poetry “audiences” are often more attracted by events that give them a chance to get onstage and have their work heard than they are by the chance to listen to someone else.

This question is of particular topical importance to me, as I’ve just resigned from my day job, because I want to concentrate more on my poetry. There is no question of my not getting another day job, alas – I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t have a partner or a family to support me – but the idea is to get one that is closer to an urban centre where the action is and/or leaves me more time to produce, perform and promote my poetry. I may be deluded in taking this step (several friends and family have already told me I am, in no uncertain terms), but I am sick of being pulled in too many directions and if I am going to continue to feel underrated and overlooked, I at least want to feel I have done everything in my power to change the situation. Also, I have a book coming out later this year, which has also made the question of “How easy is it to get punters to part with cash for poetry?” pertinent for me.

Should spoken word audiences pay to see poetry? Well, why not? Most spoken word nights with internationally known headliners charge between 5 and 10 quid, which I know is still going to put it beyond the reach of some people on benefits and low incomes (I was long-term unemployed when I took up spoken word, so I REALLY know), but is a tiny fraction of what you’d pay to see a world-class musician or actor, and not even the most vehement class warrior argues that gigs and cinema tickets should be free. Also, promoters have to cover their costs some way and if they don’t charge, they won’t have money to pay their featured artists. If no-one can earn a living from it, it will become a hobby career open only to affluent middle-class dilettantes funded by the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Should performers always be paid? I still accept unpaid gigs occasionally and frequently accept bookings where my travel/accommodation expenses exceed the fee I’m paid. That’s largely because I am a childish, approval-craving attention whore, but it tends to be mostly when I know the promoter is struggling to break even themselves. Does it make me look like an amateur who doesn’t value her art? Am I allowing myself to be exploited by fatcat promoters? Am I making spoken word look unprofessional? Is it one of the reasons why I am not taken as seriously as poets who issue “I won’t get out of bed for less than 50 quid” declarations almost from the day they take up spoken word, when they’ve barely got together enough poems for a set?

Because let’s not forget the promoter in this equation. Yes, some do take the piss, but many are working unpaid themselves or even find themselves out of pocket, once the overheads have been paid. Sometimes it’s because they have no business skills and aren’t running their night in a professional enough fashion, but often it’s because they are the meat in the sandwich between audiences who are reluctant to stump up cash, artists who sometimes see a paid set as a chance to test out unrehearsed, weak first drafts of new material, and venues who charge to be used, gazump them at the last minute in favour of a more lucrative music booking and/or constantly hassle them to get their audiences to spend more at the bar. At one gig I headlined a while back, the promoter split the door takings 50:50 with me. He hesitated, “Of course, I could give it all to you….but, to be honest, I probably put more work into tonight than you did.” And he’s probably right.

For those about to slam…

Some (probably worthless) advice on slams for beginners , from someone who’s watched a lot of them and won a few.

  • Don’t start your set by saying, “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before/my boyfriend has just left me/my dog has just died.”  Audiences are usually prepared to be supportive and generous to a slammer who appears nervous, inexperienced or in some kind of emotional pain, but they aren’t usually impressed by slammers who actively try to cultivate the sympathy vote.
  • If you didn’t know that and actually did start your first slam appearance with “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before”, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did most of us.
  • There’s this thing called “etiquette”. Listen respectfully when the other slammers and any feature acts are performing (if you’re too nervous about your own upcoming slot to really listen, at least try to look like you’re listening). Do not: chat to your friends, check your phone or go outside to buy a drink/have a smoke during other people’s performances, loudly criticise other people’s performances, turn up late and/or leave early so you miss the other acts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (e.g. you’ll miss the last train home if you stay).
  • Do try to chat to the other performers in the breaks and at the end. You’re at least as likely to impress the spoken word community and get offered other opportunities by your offstage conduct as by what you do onstage.
  • Don’t try to chat to them before they’ve performed, though. Many slammers need space to get their head together and run lines before they go on, especially at major slams. And don’t do it in an ultra-ambitious, networky sort of way – just enjoy the experience of getting to know people who share a common interest.
  • Some slams are very eclectic, while others have a marked house style. It’s often (but not always) the case that young, urban audiences prefer intense, confessional and/or political poems about serious topics, like identity politics, while provincial and literary festival slams with a slightly older audience are more likely to favour Pam Ayresey-style light verse. If you can, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what kind of poetry goes down well before you decide whether to enter that slam or not.
  • If you do choose to enter a slam where everyone else is doing a different style of poetry from you, don’t expect them to experience a Road-to-Damascus moment where they realise they’ve been doing poetry wrong all their life and that you are a far superior poet to them. And don’t throw a strop, complaining they’re all Philistine idiots who don’t understand what real poetry is/all cliquey snobs who only vote for their mates, if you don’t win.
  • The biggest difference I’ve found between audience judges and “expert” judges is that audiences often want you to sound exactly like every other spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and if you don’t, it confuses them and they penalise you for it, while “expert” judges want you to sound different from every spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and will reward originality (often to the bemusement and displeasure of the audience).
  • If you do win, don’t think that automatically makes you the new Kate Tempest. If you don’t win, don’t assume you must be shit and there’s no point ever entering a slam again. Judging is always going to be somewhat subjective and on another night, with different judges, it might have gone a very different way.
  • The audience and the organisers will have forgotten who did well and who did badly within approximately 24 hours. They might remember who won, but you can’t even count on that. But slammers never forget – they’ll still be rehearsing their keenly felt grievances about the judging three years later.
  • It’s gutting when you don’t do as well as you think you deserved to do, but try not to be an arsehole about it. Congratulate the winner as sincerely as you can. If you can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, “You were fantastic and deserved to win” at least try to muster a fake smile and a noncommittal “Well done”.
  • Having said that, if you have lost it and thrown all your toys out of the pram, it’s probably not irredeemable – most of us have behaved badly on isolated occasions. Just try not to make a habit of it.
  • Stay off social media if you’re sore, though. A churlish remark made in the heat of the moment, on the night itself, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, is much easier to forgive than one that your opponent has taken the time to type out on Facebook the next day.

In a critiqual condition

I’ve recently been asked to read and give feedback on other poets’ work quite a lot. I love doing this – it is always an honour when someone chooses to share work-in-progress with you, as it’s a very exposing thing to do and means they are trusting you with something very precious. You also learn a lot about poetry from critiquing other people’s poems – you learn from what they’re doing better than you or differently from you, but, as it’s always easier to spot flaws in other people’s work than your own, you can arguably learn the most from their mistakes, because you are almost certainly making them in your own work, as well.

There are some pieces of advice that I find myself giving over and over again, to poets of all levels of experience, writing in a wide range of different traditions. This is what they are:

Make sure you haven’t gone into Poetry Voice

Example: “I do not behold the solar orb in the welkin without thinking on your visage”

We all want to be thought of as poets.The trouble is, sometimes we end up sounding like poets circa 1790. Or, even worse, like a very unconvincing 1790 poet tribute act.

Your poetic voice doesn’t have to sound exactly like your normal voice when you’re down the pub with your mates, but it really shouldn’t sound like you’re nervously doing a telephone interview with Wordsworth, Keats and Christina Rossetti and you’ve put on your Hyacinth Bucket voice in a bid to impress them.

Avoid archaism, unless you have a very, very good reason for using it,and choose words for precision, not for obscurity or difficulty. Does “visage” bring anything to the party that “face” wouldn’t, or “behold” that “see” wouldn’t? If not, use the simpler word.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “Use contractions wherever you can (e.g. say “don’t” instead of “do not” and “we’ve” instead of “we have”) and avoid relative pronouns (“that”, “who” and “which”, e.g. say “The man I love”, not “The man who I love” and “The night we met”, not “The night that we met”).”

Make your voice sound natural and conversational, not stilted and tryhard.

Don’t provide a simultaneous translation with your imagery

Example: “The ground was covered with a soft white blanket. It had been snowing.”

We know it had been snowing. Your metaphor already made that perfectly clear. You don’t need to explain it again for the hard of thinking. Trust your own imagery. Trust your audience.

And if your simile or metaphor doesn’t make clear whatever point it is you’re trying to make without further exegesis, then you need to ditch the simile or metaphor and find a better one.

Go easy on the imagery

Example: “My heart is a balloon, a shaken-up pop bottle, an overstuffed pillow
and my heartbeat is a dripping tap, my breaths now coming as fast as a jaguar”

Yeah, yeah, we get the point – your heart is full to bursting point – but did you really have to tell us three times? And pillows, taps and jaguars are just too disparate ideas to pile up together – they send the reader’s brain off down too many lines of inquiry simultaneously. They introduce fuzziness and imprecision where poetry should be about clarity.

This is, I admit, a case of “Physician, heal thyself.” Do as I say, not as I do, okay?

Don’t use mixed metaphors

Example: “My heart is a balloon which died when you shattered it with a hammer”

A balloon can’t “die”, as it’s inanimate, and it “bursts” or “pops”, it doesn’t “shatter”.
If you start off comparing your heart to a balloon, don’t change it midsentence into an animal and then into a sheet of glass. Finish off one metaphor before starting the next.

Or, as a metaphor mixer would say: don’t change horses until your chickens have hatched.

Even better, only use one metaphor in the first place.

Yes, the example I gave was truly terrible poetry, whereas some of the mixed metaphors I see when critiquing sound very beautiful until you start trying to think them through. And, as with all “rules” in poetry, this one isn’t unbreakable – there are some greater poets than I who mix metaphors and do it with style. But 99% of the time, mixed metaphors don’t work.

Know why you are placing the line breaks where you are, especially where enjambement is involved

Some poets say you should always begin and end a line with a significant word, preferably a noun or a verb, and that beginning or ending a line with a function word (e.g. the, on, and) is a no-no. I once tried adhering to this rule and I lasted about 20 minutes – it was impossible to construct poetry that made any sense if I was always avoiding function words in inconvenient places and a cursory glance at the work of almost any significant poet I could think of revealed that they often began or ended lines with “and” and “the”, too. It’s not a rule you have to follow. It is, however, a useful thing to think about, in my experience.

Enjambement (starting a new poetic line in the middle of a sentence) can be used for the following reasons:

to throw emphasis on the word placed at the beginning or end of a line
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling,
clinging to the handrail.

If I had started a new line after “on”, not as much emphasis would have been thrown on “trembling”.

to create a cliffhanger
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling, clinging to
the handrail

Here, the enjambement has been used to keep the reader guessing what you’re clinging to

to create a sense of unstoppable excitement or momentum
e.g. The bus hurtled round
corners and slalomed
its way down Strawberry

Here, the enjambement, the way that the poetic line cannot contain the flow of the sentence, reflects the way that bus is moving with unstoppable speed.

to create ambiguity
e.g. I bought her a gift. Roses
were growing in the garden
where I gave it to her.

Here, the enjambement has been used to trick you into thinking the gift is roses.

Remember that any feedback given is an optional suggestion – it’s not a law which you have to follow, nor is it a terrible insult, about which you should feel aggrieved

I’ve been very bossy in this blog entry, but that’s not because I think I’m a world expert who has all the answers. This is just a subjective opinion. You don’t have to follow it. It’s entirely possible (indeed, very probable) that I’m talking through my arse here or teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. And, even if my advice is helpful to some poets, it may not be the right advice for you.

It’s difficult, when critiquing, to know how honest or how detailed to be, because you worry about offending people. Generally, though, I try to be as honest, but as constructive and as detailed, as I can, unless the poet has specifically instructed me otherwise, but always stress that it is an opinion only and they are free to ignore it. It is annoying, though, when people ask for advice and then get offended when you give it.

When the boot’s on the other foot, I always try to listen to and consider advice, but I don’t feel obliged to accept it. Sometimes I agree with what they’ve said entirely; sometimes I think about it, but disagree at the time, then six months later realise that they were right; sometimes I respect what they’ve said, but feel strongly that I had a reason for putting it like I did and it’s non-negotiable.

If I ever start thinking, “The cheek! How dare they say that? Who do they think they are? It’s not like they’re the greatest poet in the world,” then I try to check myself. If I don’t rate them as a poet, I shouldn’t have asked for their opinion in the first place – the fault is mine, not theirs. Don’t ever show people your work in the expectation that they will say, “Oh! But that’s wonderful! You’re so good!” Feedback can be painful and I don’t always like it, but it does me good.









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.