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.