Sunday, 5 May 2019

Out, Damned Spot! (Or: some people have trouble letting go, an exercise in catharsis.)

I’ve been bottling this for a couple of days. It is, however, time to get this poison out of my system so I can get on with some of the many awesome things my life contains at the moment. Last Friday (3-May-19), I hosted a Hammer & Tongue Cambridge as usual. It was a fine night in many respects – excellent performers, including last-minute support act the divine Rebecca Cooney; pretty lovely slam; one of my favourite local performers won; I got to see one of my closest friends after a few months apart; we got decent numbers in the audience; and the headliner, Jah-Mir Early, did his usual breath-stealing, improvisational spoken word magic. Why am I needing to vent about it?

Well. Glad you asked. I’ve been running Hammer & Tongue Cambridge as the host since January 2012. Before that it was run for just over two years by another host, who I won’t name. If you know who it is, you know who it is. I started “helping out” in April 2010, which meant: doing front of house, scoring the slam, and latterly doing a great deal (if not most) of the publicity work. In that time, HTC has moved from tiny, dingy pub venues (which I would also have to set up much of the time, and for which I bought lighting, basic sound equipment, etc.), through a much nicer bar venue, to a local arts centre which is wheelchair accessible, clean, and pleasant to be in. Where I no longer have to set up the box office myself, hoick the sound and light equipment up two flights of stairs, and fight my way out with them at the end of the night through lairy drunks (and that was in the nicer venue). Where forty people in the audience was considered the giddy zenith, that’s our baseline now. Our regional final sells out. We have a decent social media following on multiple platforms. We’re proudly part of a larger spoken word scene in the city which is burgeoning all the time. We run on time, break even/ turn a small profit on occasion, and can afford to pay headliner and support act small but reasonable fees without any external funding. The audience and performers are as safe as we can make them from insults and threats of violence.

None of those latter sentences should be remarkable, really, but they’re stated in strong contrast to how things were before I took on the mantle after the previous host stropped off because virtually no-one was turning up to the events, and no-one offered him the requisite “respect”. The penultimate two events under his aegis were totally paid for by me alone (headliner fees, publicity, etc.), and I had to absorb a great deal of aggression and posturing from this stale breadstick before we could all move on.

So far so okay, Fay, what’s your point? At the last event, one of the Old Guard, one who used to come and slam/ watch on the regular under the previous regime turned up. He stood out from the rest of the crowd because he got increasingly intoxicated (I use this word carefully) and lairy, having to be repeatedly asked to shush while other people were talking. Afterwards, having been sought out to be praised/ thanked by various members of the audience and other performers for my crowd control skills (which really shouldn’t have to happen!), I made the error of talking to this chap outside the venue as I waited for the headliner to get back. I warned myself against the desire to mollify aggressive men, but there you go – part of me wants as many members of my audience to walk away happy as possible.

Among other jabberings, he took the time to faintly praise me for “carrying the torch” (sic) of Hammer & Tongue Cambridge. It took me until I got home to work out quite why I was so annoyed by that particular phrase (probably because it was drowned out by what happened next). When I wryly thanked him, saying we’d carried it but changed its shape somewhat, he took the opportunity to complain about how he’d felt tense and repressed (at least, I think that’s what the crouching body language and bouncing, palms-down hands implied) throughout. Maybe I’d noticed, he confided, that he wasn’t entirely sober by the end. Yeah, I had. He theorised about my hosting style being responsible for this tension. This tension that, as far as I could tell, only he felt. He then appeared to do an impression of me speaking, murmuring: “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr.” Then, as I barely responded past a side-eye from under my hat, repeated it: “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr,” complete with smirk and crouching little dance to complement his “feeling repressed” gestures of earlier. Yeah, I got it, dude – you think I’m a less than dynamic presenter.

I was able to pay the headliner and leave shortly after that. By the time I’d got home, after lengthy catch-ups with said beloved headliner and my other too-long-unseen friend, it turns out I’d let this fucknugget get in my head. “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr.” – the sound of a softly-spoken, female-presenting person doing their job. “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr.” – the sound of a mean schoolteacher oppressing the God-given rights of naughty men to be as loud as they want while someone else is talking. “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr.” – the sound of someone who’ll never measure up to the shouty posturings of a third-rate poet and tenth-rate event host who used to drunkenly insult me from the stage and, I discovered years later, buy/ sell drugs in the carpark during the tediously extended intervals, taking up disproportionate swathes of time on the stage with his own repetitive work. My nights aren’t perfect. I could work harder at getting more people in, do more publicity, make more of a spectacle of it, but I’m never going to get loud just to suit other people – I decided long ago that that course of action gets you nowhere – they’re just going to have to lean in to hear better.

Last year a headliner calmly told the audience that he wanted to stalk me, and they seemed to lap it up. Certainly no-one told him off or offered me support afterwards. One of the audience, in fact, told me afterwards that I loved the headliner for it. I didn’t remonstrate with either of directly (too many years’ training of “mollify the man, soothe him in case he hurts you”?), but I’ve written a poem about it, so that’s all right. {eyeroll} It’s still a tough world as a female-presenting performer and MC. For every ten people or so who think I’m doing a good job, and loves what I’m doing as an artist and a host, there seems to be one who thinks I’m fair game for stalking, pervy comments about my voice, claims that my voice is “fake”, off-stage racist diatribes they think I’ll support, or jittery banter about my unshouty hosting style. “Mehr, mehr, mehr-mehr-mehr.”

Carrying the torch? Fuck you, buddy. How about ditching a toxic legacy? How about transforming the event into something welcoming and professional? How about feeding and transporting that guttering flame and building a hearthfire? How about soldiering the fuck through with no support from my predecessor’s Old Guard? How about nearly four times the length of service in this event alone compared to his? How about the fact that I run a stage at Strawberry Fair that’s dedicated to spoken word and brings people in from fifty miles around? How about my five-star shows at Edinburgh Fringe? How about my BBC and other commissions? How about my national reputation as someone who works to raise and safeguard the spoken word scene? How about my national reputation as professional, hardworking, and talented? How about my well-known propensity to make every performer and audience member feel welcome unless they’re a hate-mongering douchecanoe? How about my small press, my open-hearted open mics, my fund- and awareness-raising for local charities, my groups set up to encourage and foster peer support among the spoken word community?

(Do you know how hard it is to write all the above without the likes of these Mehr-mehr-mehr arseholes’ voices chiming in my head telling me off for showing off? The lifelong legacy of making myself smaller that I have to actively resist every time I leave the house, let alone this?)

For some people you’ll never be other than the last (or first) time they saw you. For some people I’ll never be other than the victim of bullying at school, whichever part of that experience they were part of. For some people I’ll never be other than that administrator who was always late to work. For some people I’ll never be other than a certain person’s pathetic ex. For some people I’ll never be other than the quiet one who lost so spectacularly at whichever slam they saw me lose spectacularly at. For some people I’ll never be other than the nerdy sidekick of a misogynistic poseur. For some people I’ll never be other than a classical singer and choir conductor. For some people, I’ll never be other than Melody Starchild. For some people, I’ll never be other than the person who encouraged them to get into spoken word. For some people, I’ll never be other than the person who wrote that poem for their anniversary that made them cry. For some people, I’ll never be other than the first person who taught them about clerihews. For some people, I’ll never be other than the first person to publish them. And for some people, presumably, I’ll never be other than the Glastonbury Festival blogger 2019.

Tough breaks. You’ll forge your own destiny and some people will want to keep you down, cling onto the old version of what you were. Oddly enough, that was the subject of one of the first performance poems I ever wrote, way back in 2007, striving to survive on a scene that depended on the goodwill of the people still labelling me that person’s ex, the interloper, the Welsh one, the “failed lesbian” (true story). The crab bucket will always want to cling onto you, keep you chained, call you by your deadname, keep you from the light. The best thing for these remnants is to let them go with love, knowing that the shit you went through was one of the things that forged the stronger person you are now, but that you owe it – and these nostalgia hounds – absolutely nothing for the joy of finding your own path, your true name, the clothes that fit you far better. Let them go, and use your energy to cherish the people who’ll expand their first image of you into something complex and spectacular, and will help you find that joy. And let one of those people be yourself.

Photo of Fay Roberts hosting Hammer & Tongue Cambridge - (c) Nikki Marrone

Monday, 11 March 2019

So, That Happened...

(If you want to skip the build up via a history lesson and go straight to the announcement, click here.)

The first time I went to Glastonbury Festival was with my recently-ex-girlfriend – her dad had already bought the tickets for her birthday and we were trying hard to be friends at that point. We ended up camping on a slope above the Pyramid stage with my ex-boyfriend and his sporty mates. It was 2000, the year the Festival was massively invaded by ticketless rebels, and it’s a good job I’m not made panicky by crowds, that’s all I can say. It was, however, a year of record high pollen count, which saw me necking antihistamines and being barely able to breathe except at night. Add that to me being sensitive (and sometimes wildly allergic) to many of the various forms of weed in evidence, the sheer weirdness of spending time with my ex-partners, and it being less than a year after my mum had died; to say I experienced mixed emotions over the course of the long weekend would be stretching the phrase somewhat.

The next time I went to Glastonbury Festival was in 2003. I’d not long moved to Milton Keynes to live with my then-boyfriend. His disabilities meant that we didn’t camp (much to my not-so-secret relief), but stayed in a B&B nearby and drove in every day (that is to say: I drove in and out every day). A failure to communicate meant that we had to drive back to Milton Keynes the morning after we’d arrived to fetch the tickets, which we’d each assumed the other was bringing. I also developed some excellently hench upper body strength pushing a 14 stone sailor around fields in a manual wheelchair. We watched a lot of bands that he had only ever admired from afar, and I discovered reserves in myself that I might not have considered otherwise, as well as how much Lucozade can save your life when you’re driving that many miles sleep-deprived. And that Glastonbury-the-town was both beautiful and weirdly familiar.

The next time I went to Glastonbury Festival was in 2005 with my housemate, and our mutual friend from Milton Keynes. We camped quite far away from the main part of the festival on a well-found, gentle rise of ground, surrounded by many absolutely brilliant hippies. This turned out advantageous when the average rainfall for the whole of June came down overnight on the Thursday (lightning striking at least one of the stages during this time). I was inclined to blame the rain-summoning wooden frog I’d purchased the previous night which made a deliciously realistic croaking sound when I rubbed its wooden rod over the ridges of its back (which I demonstrated to everyone I met). I had a curiously restful night, all things considered; I’d finally worked out, after several painful years of camping at festivals, that I could wear earplugs overnight and sleep better, so ignored the thunder and rain (I grew up in Wales, after all) and had slept significantly better than my housemate, who was significantly less inured to thunderstorms. The main part of the festival was flooded, water running down from the higher ground like bona fide rivers in full spate.

A wee bit wet
Can you see the woman in the background floating serenely on a purple blow-up chair?!

We put pedal bin liners over our socks and waded into action, buying cheap wellies on site that we still have today (as well as me buying myself a massive stick with a dragon’s head on it – it seemed like a great idea at the time, and subsequently proved useful in both mud and moshpits). We had more regrets about the 2am hog roast, which left us in a very bad way later, and my OCD was tested to its creaking limit by the mud and ankle-deep slurry from the flooded toilets, but survived sufficiently to want to go again. It was also the first time I’d been to an outdoor festival while menstruating. I don’t recommend it. We watched the sun come up over the stone circle on the Sunday and accidentally took part in a hand-fasting ceremony (as witnesses; the gentleman who officiated turned out, many years later, to be someone I now know in Cambridge as one of the other organisers at Strawberry Fair…). When we told people about it after we got back to our tents for a disco nap, one person said “Oh! Cool! I didn’t see that on the programme…!” Hmm.

The last time I went to Glastonbury Festival was in 2007 with my former-housemate-now-girlfriend, and the same mutual friend as before (who didn’t know that we were going out). In order to get the tickets, we’d had to inveigle internet use from the owner of the hotel we were staying in for a hen do in Brighton (this involved flattery, late-night listening, and an early morning shoulder massage) the night before tickets went on sale. I honestly don’t know how our luck held so well to get tickets, but get them we did. Once there, we spent a far greater deal of time in the more alternative parts of the Festival (green fields, cabaret, etc.), as the main parts seemed to have changed their atmosphere significantly from the first time I’d been. I wrote, somewhat meanly, about being "… fed up with the shiny Sloanes/ Uncomfily dressed-down with all/ Their moans about the bogs and bands,/ Who sign African petitions/ Yet refuse to bin their cans…" Because by that point I was writing poetry, but was too chicken to sign up for the open mic/ slam (I think there was a slam?) at the difficult-to-find, tiny poetry tent (though, thanks to my partner dragging me along, I did get to see Sophia Blackwell for the first time, resplendent in what my memory insists on picturing as a froofy cocktail dress and red wellies, along with Danny Chivers, performing poetry and hooking me even further into the notion that this was something I could be doing). This time, instead of bucketing it down for four hours, then being gloriously sunny, it was persistently wet in a phenomenon known technically as a monsoon (no, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a British monsoon either). I left the farm feeling very old, somehow, and coughing my lungs up for a couple of weeks afterwards.

(I look back at what I blogged about the experience and I shudder at some of the language I use, that now looks incredibly snobbish and horribly like internalised misogyny to me.)

I applied several times after that to perform at the Poetry & Words stage. It’s hard to say whether it was including footage of the aforementioned poem which did for my chances, but I strongly suspect it was purely because I didn’t have the experience, and similarly didn’t have high enough quality footage (or poetry, arguably) to be persuasive. A few years of failed applications (and failed attempts to get tickets the normal way) later, I decided that I was never going to get to play in those kinds of leagues, and resolved to be happy with my spoken word scene tier. (Or, to put it another way: I decided that the pain of rejection was too much and played it safe for a few years.)

So to say I was shocked when I received the email a couple of months ago asking me if I’d like to be part of it would be putting it mildly. I rushed to my girlfriend (same one as shared the last two Glastonbury Experiences) to check whether I was reading it right. I was. Instead of sitting on the opportunity for weeks until they gave it to someone else, as I’m so magnificently good at doing, I wrote back with alacrity and said “Yes please.” So now, somehow, twelve years later, I’m going to Glastonbury again – this time as official chronicler of the event from the perspective of the Poetry & Words stage. I’ll be writing, and the brilliant Scott Tyrrell will be making art of it all, and between us you’ll be as good as there while reading the blog.



(No, I have no say in the poets chosen, and no, I can’t get a plus-one for you. If I could, I’d be bringing my partner, oddly enough…)

I am still equal parts terrified and delighted, and I suspect that this state of affairs will continue for the next few months (during which I’ll be telling you about the line-up as it’s released, so please do follow the blog!).

Monday, 4 March 2019

#Multicultural #Cambridge (or: I've only just realised that #Brexit's nearly here)

I’ve been living in Cambridge for nearly ten years now (come July) and – much as I rail at its many structural inequities, and the inaccessibility of many of the wonderful things it does, there are some major things (and people!) I properly love. Among all the art, history, culture, and technology (and things which span all of these categories!), there’s an attitude of proper liberalism and a truly international spirit here. The first time I visited with a view to “we’re going to live here shortly” I heard about five languages spoken on the streets in the first hour or so, and it immediately felt more home-like than Milton Keynes, where I was living at the time.

Without Milton Keynes I may never have been pushed to write poetry (take that as you like!), but I grew up in Cardiff, a massively multicultural place, raised by polyglottal people who considered themselves Europeans, and raised me and my brother to think likewise. The idea that I can no longer call myself European is... painful to me. The idea that wonderful people (some of whom I work and make art and memories with) in this city I now call home would feel unwelcome here after the end of March is abhorrent.

So while I’m applying for an Irish passport (born in Belfast in the 70s, I’m entitled to one), and resolving to learn and use more languages, and signing any petition that comes my way, none of that feels like a celebration of what we are and can be together, culturally, artistically, and linguistically.

This morning, it finally, finally hit home for me how close Brexit is, and that I really wanted to do something to commemorate how amazingly international Cambridge (and the UK in general) is. Within about 90 seconds, the following Crazy Project blossomed in my brain: I’d like to put together an Allographic anthology of creativity in all sorts of languages by the end of the month.

It would be in the mould of the long-overdue-for-resurrection publication “Small Words” – small (A6), environmentally sourced, physically pleasant to hold, short run, and a mix of poetry, stories, photography, artwork, (and I think essays this time too, given the subject matter). We’d launch at the next Allographic open mic (Sunday 31st March).

From concept to Proper Project in a couple of hours – this is how I do. So, if you would like to submit poetry, short fiction, essays, artwork, or photography to the Allographic Small Words Brexit Special celebrating multiculturalism and international cooperation in Cambridge and the UK, go here: http://bit.ly/smallwordsbrexit. The deadline is Thu 21-Mar-19 8pm GMT.

Pieces should reflect the themes (however loosely) of multiculturalism, international cooperation, Cambridge(shire)/ Britain and its international links, and the power of peaceful protest.

There’s no money to be offered for your work (this will be a short run, aimed at breaking even), but no entry fee either, and you will receive a free copy of the anthology. We especially encourage multilingual pieces (i.e. those incorporating more than one language), though monolingual pieces in any language are also welcome.

The anthology will be published in hard form (A6, recycled materials), and electronically.

Please feel free to share this wherever you think it would be welcome. ☺

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

“Can I Perform At Your Show?”

Want to know my answer? Read on; there are headings and links and everything

Introduction
Hammer & Tongue
Allographic Open Mic
Wild Strawberries
Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret at Edinburgh Festival
Allographic Presents
Queries


Introduction


This is a question that, as I’m sure you can imagine, I get asked a lot. If you don’t know why I’d get asked that, let me elucidate: I run two spoken word shows a month, ten months of the year in Cambridge (Hammer & Tongue Cambridge and Allographic Open Mic). I run a dedicated spoken word stage all day at Strawberry Fair, Europe’s largest open-air free festival called Wild Strawberries, also in Cambridge. I also run six spoken word cabaret shows a week, every week of the Edinburgh Fringe most years. (I also run the occasional visiting artist/ one-off thing in Cambridge. That’s different – I’ll come on to that later.) They’re all a mix of featured artists and open mic/ slam slots.

I help to programme the Spoken Word element of PBH’s Free Fringe, and to look after and promote the artists we programme. I have been involved in the BBC Edinburgh Fringe Slam in a non-competing role most years it’s been running. I used to run a calendar promoting spoken word events in south-east England and the Midlands. I used to run a combined featured artists-open mic-slam event in Milton Keynes. I’m part of the Bardic Council for Cambridge (though that needs a thorough reviving right now), which I set up, along with the In Other Words Festival (ditto).

And I’m also a performance poet. But it’s probably fair to say that more people know me as an host/ administrator of other people’s performance than as a performer in my own right.

I had a wee whinge yesterday on Facebook about the particular teeth-gritting phenomenon which is people asking me if I can recommend female spoken word artists for their programme. Since most people think of me as female, this is galling, but I consider it an application in humility and thence character-building to recommend other people. (It’s easier when they ask for people who are of a different demographic or geographic location from me but yeah – character-building.) And I do it, because, at the end of the day, I do like talking up the artists that get me excited, and everyone loves being asked their opinion…! ☺

Back to that other question I get asked – “Can I headline/ perform at your show?” I get asked this so many times, that I thought it might be neater to put all the criteria down in one post, and then I can point people at it in future. It’s a question of spoons, you understand… ↑ Top

Hammer & Tongue Cambridge


Not many people seem to realise that all the various H&T franchises are just that – semi-autonomous facets of the whole. The way it works is that we are sent the month’s headliner (October-December, February-June inclusive), who will tour through all the (currently) six locations: Cambridge, Brighton, Hackney, Bristol, Southampton, and Oxford (order depending on how the month falls, day-wise). Once a year or so, we’re asked to a) provide our own list of spoken word artists we’d like to see headline on the H&T circuit, and b) vote on the full list between all of us. Steve Larkin (H&T Boss/ Director/ Founder/ Capo) then books and sends us the gen about each one as they confirm.

Short version: I don’t have any control of who’ll be headlining when.

We programme support acts, and for Cambridge they tend to be local artists/ artists with a strong local connection. (They’re often, but not always, H&T Cambridge slam winners.) There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it’s part of showing how engaging with the event can see you rise as an artist in terms of platform and respect (that clear path of audience ➔ slammer ➔ support act ➔ headliner – especially as many of our headliners are former/ current slam champions of some kind). Secondly, it’s good to support local talent, for a variety of hopefully obvious reasons (especially if you’re intent on building the local arts scene, as I am). Thirdly, in an utterly mercenary philosophy: local artists are more likely to bring friends/ relatives/ colleagues with them, and we need the money to pay the artists. And I do pay my artists.

Short version: unless you have a local connection and I’ve seen you perform before, I’m excessively unlikely to book you as a support act.

Apart from those two acts, all the other people on stage during H&T Cambridge are slammers and me, and I rarely perform anything other than my usual hosting schtick. (My job here is to keep the audience motivated and excited about the performers.) During the Regional Final, it’s just three rounds of slam – we just don’t have time for anything else!

(Oh, and we also have a “sacrificial slammer” before each new slam round in the heats. They tend to be the winner of the previous heat (again as part of demonstrating that progression thing), and they tend to get free entry (and travel expenses if they’ve come from out of town) and a chance to show off.)↑ Top

Allographic Open Mic


Short bit of background: I started helping out with Hammer & Tongue Cambridge in 2010, having an increasingly central role until February 2012 when I started hosting and programming as well as the other admin. (Frankly, I need to get other people doing the other admin stuff these days – delegating is not my strongest suit.) For a while in late 2010/ early 2011, we were being sent a lot of mostly white, straight, able-bodied, British, cis male performers within a narrow age range as headliners. They were all lovely chaps and very talented, but I found I wanted to be hearing other stories and voices. I’d started suggesting female, queer, of colour, and generally “other” performers as support acts, but that felt wrong too. I wanted to curate my own events that had “other” voices front and centre. I also wanted to run an open mic again. Somewhat haphazardly, I set up Allographic (“nebulous poetry concept” – thanks, Tim Clare) to be a platform for other voices – either as work I published or promoted on stage. It swiftly became an umbrella for all the non-H&T stuff that I do, whether it’s an anthology of local artists, a stage of predominantly female and non-binary performers at a literary festival, a stall of “Poetry To Go” at various festivals and other gatherings, or the “Other Voices” spoken word cabaret at Edinburgh Fringe. Plus other things that crop up from time to time.

Nowadays, the regular open mic (poetry, storytelling, any other spoken word that people want to bring) often (but not always) features guests for short spots who often also lead workshops in the afternoon of the same day. The events are designed to be accessible, in as many different ways as you’d like to use that term, though do we encourage people to bring and perform difficult and challenging work. Allographic open mic is supposed to be a friendly, safe-yet-fierce space for new and/ or difficult work/ performance. The only rules are: don’t kick down, and don’t apologise (unless you’ve kicked down). Part of that accessibility is making it free at the point of entry and encouraging people to donate whatever they can afford/ think the event is worth in order to help with our costs and to at least pay the guest artist’s expenses (travel and subsistence). Any money donated at the workshop goes straight to the workshop leader, and we provide means for them to sell their merchandise, if any.

The “platform for other voices” thing holds true for the guest artists – we want to be deliberately platforming people who are still marginalised: female artists, artists of colour, LGBTQIA+ artists, disabled artists, neurodiverse artists, etc. (We need to be doing better at getting working class voices on the bill to boot, especially those combining the above.) We don’t currently have any external funding, so making this viable for people from outside Cambridgeshire and nearby is… challenging.

Short version: if you want to perform at Allographic open mic as a guest artist (rather than on the open mic – obviously everyone’s welcome to that!), travelling to Cambridge needs to be economically viable for you, and you need to be an “other” voice. If I’ve not seen you perform, I’m relatively easy to persuade with a good bit of footage – audio, or audiovisual for preference. It probably goes without saying, but: I also need to rate your work pretty highly and trust you as an artist.

If you’re up for it, the form is here: http://bit.ly/agoguest ↑ Top

Wild Strawberries


Wild Strawberries is the yearly spoken word (poetry and storytelling) stage at Strawberry Fair in Cambridge. Strawberry Fair is on the first Saturday of every June. A form for expressions of interest for short guest slots and open mic will go out in the next couple of months, and I’ll post the latest here each time it’s ready. If I’ve not seen you perform, I’m easy to persuade with a good bit of footage – audio, or audiovisual for preference. The Fair is free, everyone there is a volunteer, all the payment for what we do pretty much comes out of our own pockets and any fundraisers we’ve done over the months proceeding. We cannot pay anyone. Yes, you can bring merch. No, you can’t have a longer feature set unless you’re either an act that combines poetry/ storytelling and music, you are crazy famous and we’re lucky to have you, or you’re the Bard of Cambridge.

Even shorter version: a ten minute slot at a Cambridge outdoor festival in early June needs to be economically viable for you. ↑ Top

Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret at Edinburgh Festival


We’re part of PBH’s Free Fringe. All cast members and guests are “other voices”, and there is open mic available to everyone. I am excessively unlikely to book you unless I’ve seen you perform/ you have a compelling bit of footage to wave at me. Again: we’re looking to cover our costs, and we can’t pay anyone, but please do bring merch if we’ve booked you. The forms for featuring/ being in the open mic will be made available by May/ June of any year we’re running it. ↑ Top

Allographic Presents…


This one’s a bit different – this is where I use the Allographic banner to promote a spoken word event that’s touring/ wants to come to Cambridge/ needs curation or collaboration from our “stable” of local spoken word artists. We negotiate publicity, payment, etc. between us. I find you a venue and support artist(s) if needs be. While we obviously favour promoting “other” voices, it’s not a central criterion for the “specials”. Again, it probably goes without saying, but: I also need to rate your work highly and trust you as an artist.

If you’re up for it, the form is here: http://bit.ly/agpresents ↑ Top

Th-th-th-that’s All, Folks!


That’s it, really. Any further questions, please comment here so we can create a kind of FAQs section. ☺ If that’s too exposed, email me (remove the gaps if you’re not a robot) on:

cambridge @ hammerandtongue. com for Hammer & Tongue Cambridge

events @ allographic. co. uk for Allographic events

fay @ fayroberts. co. uk if you’d like to book me as a host or performer (hey, you never know!) ↑ Top

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Selkie, Self-Belief, and Asking for Help #theselkie

By the time this gets posted, I will have just started my first full performance of The Selkie in front of Actual People in nearly two years. I think it’s fair to say that I’m nervous. I’m also launching my fundraiser, and that’s pretty scary as well, but for other reasons (namely: I’m crap at asking for help; help!).

Two years ago, I finished tinkering with my first solo show, The Selkie: A Song of Many Waters. It’s an hour-long show that celebrates a modern life mythologised, where nearly all the characters are mythological, fairytale, or everyday creatures. I wanted to explore what it meant to be someone who know that they’re different, but not how or why, and the journey they take to discover that. Using the analogy of a selkie – a Celtic sea creature that looks like a seal until it sheds its skin to look human – that didn’t know that its transformative pelt had been taken from it at birth. The Selkie in this tale grows up able to do amazing things with its voice, but also somewhat shunned as an anomaly.

At the end of nearly two years of development I had a show I was proud of – people seemed to enjoy it, using some very complimentary terms (and some technical language that was new to me) to say how much it spoke to them, how much it moved them.

I had created something that dipped and weaved between performance poetry, storytelling, and song, with elements of the traditional weaved with the modern. It made people laugh – for which I wasn’t entirely prepared! – and cry – about which I felt a bit guilty, as well as expressing all sorts of emotions in between.

After some previews, I performed it for a week at Edinburgh Fringe, after two weeks of running other shows, came home, and abruptly got ill. Very ill. I lost my voice for nine months; lost far more weight than I could easily afford, unable to eat much. I couldn’t sleep unless I sat up, and even then only for snatches of time before I stopped breathing. Every night for months.

Frankly: it was a bit rubbish. Also: somewhat frightening, to say the least. And, on top of that, I’d lost – I thought, perhaps, forever – one of the things that informed my identity – made me… me…

The real irony was that this came hot on the heels of performing a show about a creature whose power – and weakness – is bound up in its voice, while watching my career as a vocal artist vanish.
As I started to recover, I got the news that The Selkie had been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for best Spoken Word Show. In case you don’t know: this is a Big Deal in the spoken word world, and I was over the moon!

Luckily, I currently have a better handle on my health, and my voice has recovered somewhat. I’ve decided to bring The Selkie back to life – give her a voice again. I’ll be performing the show at Edinburgh Fringe 4th-11th August at 52 Canoes, Grassmarket, 12:30pm every day except Wednesday 8th, and – for once – I’ve decided to ask for people’s help to make this happen.

I’m going with the Free Fringe, as ever – they make it easy for both artists and audiences to take risks by not charging either a penny. However, as artists, we’re reliant on audience donations to help offset our costs, and getting audiences in costs money.

Publicity, accommodation, transport, props, hiring a technician to provide music cues, insurance, costume – they all cost money. And creating merchandise to sell to try to recoup some of that cash means spending money up-front. In all it costs between one and two thousand pounds to take a show run of eleven days up to The Fringe. And no – there are no official grants available!

I have to work part-time because my health isn’t strong enough, and having chronic health conditions costs money in itself. Yay. But I thought that, instead of owning the bank interest, I’d owe you a reward – far more satisfying! If you donate, you can claim from a range of returns on your investment from a hearty thanks, a badge, the book or CD of the show, prints of the beautiful artwork by Sa’adiah Khan, to a writing or performance coaching session with me, or various other rewards. And you can tell everyone that you’re an official patron of the arts, as well as earning my undying gratitude, and helping to ensure that more people get to enjoy the show!

Thanks for reading, and hopefully see you soon!

Monday, 12 March 2018

Back to the Archives

I talked last month about my foray into writing fanfic. I’d written what was essentially a chunky short story (~7,100+ words) of angsty, explicitly erotic, transformative fiction. I told you that I’d enjoyed it and that it was likely I’d write more.

Boy, was I ever not wrong about that. Even before the first one was finished, I had ideas for another. Spurred on by the enthusiasm of the few people who actually commented, I started writing the follow-up. And it expanded into a gigantic monster thing, 23,976 words long and packed with more angst and more explicitly erotic stuff. And three fight scenes. And a bunch of historical detail*

And then I got ill. I’ve been dodging colds and other bugs like a pro for months now, but when it’s right inside your own house, the options are few, and there’s only so much echinacea and extra Vitamin C a body can take that will make a difference. So I set myself a challenge: be ill. Don’t do poetry admin, don’t run around doing extra stuff, don’t, for the love of Hades, go into work and a) make everyone else ill, b) make yourself more ill (see: stressed person in your house who has likely gifted you these microbes). You’re allowed to sleep and read. Okay, and write.

Oh boy. I polished off the gigantic monster work and decided to see whether I could write another one that I figured would be less popular in a few days, just get it out of my system and into the world.

The new one proved… Well, I enjoyed writing it (and doing the research - yes, I’m a nerd, whevs, as the youth say), but its pairing and its subject matter seemed to get fewer people going. By this point, I had a game plan (that, yes, kept expanding, shhh), but I knew it was only a step on the way to the later episodes. And I’ve tried to be less upset/ weirded out by the new piece’s lack of popularity, but there’s still a vocal part of me that’s been affected by the notion of a reduced audience.

Up until about halfway through the monster piece, I was writing for myself, and pleased that people were along for the ride. But now I’ve become a stats hound and got myself tangled up. Argh.

{Deep breath}

It hasn’t helped that someone started shouting at me in the comments section of Chapter 6, ALL CAPS AND ALL, because I dared suggest that one character might think that the life of female, Renaissance royalty might be a bit constrained. To put it into context: this passionately verbal reader would presumably have already read through five chapters of intimate fantasies, graphic depictions of masturbation, a completely invented play re-imagining Genesis by evoking Lilith, detailed talk of herb-growing, etiquette, and historically accurate chess (because I love to do this stuff to myself is why), and THIS WAS THE HILL THEY WOULD DIE ON, BY GOD. I’ve been sanguine about it and presented myself as wryly amused by this to friends with whom I’ve discussed the issue; I’ve been calm, polite, and assertive in my responses to the commenter (despite receiving more shouting at first, and silence thereafter); I’ve refused to let myself doubt the particular aspect about which they’re shouting rattle my resolve (pretty sure I’m right and they can take a hike). However, their actions have damaged my calm; up until now the comments section was a place of validation and over-excited people (there were fewer of those latterly (again: I knew this one would be less popular), but still…), and now there’s the possibility of people hating what I wrote for the oddest of reasons that I can’t predict and waah, basically: honeymoon’s over.

And yet here’s the thing. I’m starting into a fourth work (AO3 allows people to post works (multi-chaptered or otherwise), which can in turn form part of larger series), which will draw all the threads of everything I’ve written about (plus some canon stuff), and I already have detailed notes about it (and the two further works to follow). In 25 days I have combined 52,508 cohesive, coherent, reasonably well-researched (do other fanfic writers go on IMDB and other sources to check the heights and freeze-frame shots of actors to get the eye colour right?!) words (not including plot notes, dialogue fragments, and research) and have a bunch more planned.

In other words, I’ve written more than people are supposed to aim for in NaNoWriMo in less than a month, and it all makes sense. And about the getting weird over stats thing; here’s some True Facts for ya:

First piece: 7,135 words in 2 days, 658 hits since 14-Feb-18 and still growing.
Second piece: 23,976 words in 14 days, 1,139 hits since 19-Feb-18 and still growing.
Third piece: 18,670 words in 5 days, 371 hits and still growing.
Fourth piece (unfinished): 2,727 words in 1 day so far, 75 hits already (two of those in the time it took to write this post).

That’s freakin amazing - why am I being such a meanie to myself about this?!

I have, it turns out, made the mistake of going and comparing my stats (comments and kudos included, which I haven’t listed above) with people who have been writing works for this fandom for… years. I haven’t even been doing it a month, I’ve just been a bit… intense about it all. I cannot realistically expect as many people to be invested in this newbie who likes writing extended (apparently very realistic - that’s nice! :) ) dialogue and gathering plot points around the filth.

And yet. And still.

So here's my new challenge: write the thing, enjoy the thing, post the thing. If you don't get many hits or kudos or comments, whatever - you will have written this for yourself and you will have had a blast. Anyone else who enjoys it is a bonus, ffs. And you will have created the equivalent of a medium-sized novel. Now take that information and discipline and apply it to non-fanfic work (like, e.g. your wayward novel).

Okay?

Okay.

_________

*What?

{sigh} Yes, it would appear that I can’t even write naughty fiction about characters for whom I don’t need to do any world-building without Googling the shit out of what would be realistic and appropriate. Everyone’s lucky I didn’t start getting over-intense about weaponry, but I now know a lot more about European Late Renaissance (is that a term? Fuck it…) footwear, headwear, outerwear, and underwear than I did, also lighting (civic and personal), drainage, personal hygiene, coinage, exchange rates, civic building, historical characters around which the original fictional characters would have been based, geography, bed linen, the intersection of church and state, royal regiments, and the creation of post roads. I also know some interesting words for human anatomy that I didn’t before. Let your mind boggle over that unlikely scenario! And then I had to balance it off so that the historical detail just ticked over in the background and grounded the sex in something realistic without turning into Little Miss Exposition.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Here's One For The Archives

For the last couple of days I’ve been doing something I said I’d probably never do, something I long derided, even used as a short-hand for a certain type of moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and right now I can’t see me ever stopping. Chances are very good you’ll never bear witness to it.

Some background: A couple of weeks ago I. Wait. Okay, back in March last year, I. Hmm. No.

Right. Late September 2016 it started to become clear that the bad laryngitis and the terrifying moments of stopping breathing every time I slept wasn’t going away anytime soon and, quite frankly, I could probably have coped with the sleep deprivation, but, as the months went on, not being able to speak, let alone sing, properly started to fray my sanity.

After the HILARIOUS cancer scare (“Oh, that was just a clerical error!” Riiiight...), and a growing understanding of how to manage the underlying problem, my voice started to crawl back. I was underweight, quiet, squeaky, and in a permanent fog of tiredness, like a ultra-depressing throwback to my teenage years, but I was able to walk without having to stop and cough every ten paces, and I’d even got back on the bike by mid-March.

Then I see a casual acquaintance on Facebook on the lookout for voice artists - especially if they’re not male, middle-class, or English. They definitely had a surfeit of those, thanks. One of my burgeoning career paths, the long-dreamt-of step into narration work, had been scythed out from under me in the autumn, so I thought: let’s play them my Audible showreel, and see what they think.

A driech Saturday in March comes and I’m buzzed into a building where I’ll stand in a darkened corridor, walls wrapped in a menacing shade of insulating material, and make a recording of what was supposed to be a one-off character slot for Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives. Just to make things more “interesting” for myself, I decided to go with a flat Cardiff accent, which actually worked out quite well in combination with the laryngitic rasp, for this hard-arsed police detective character (even though I had to channel a combination of my school bullies and my dad to get there). It was fun, it turns out I read the “statement” part well and accurately (and could just about manage the small bit of acting dialogue either side of the storytelling element), and then I went home, curiously uplifted.

After the episode went out I got asked back to reprise the character, who was now to develop a bit of an arc. By this point I’d got enough of a voice back to feel I made a better fist of it, and had to do more Actual Acting, which turns out to be fucking difficult. Who knew. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, a few sessions down the line.

Following their social media output, I discovered that, not only do they have a large, appropriately obsessive following, but many of the fans write fanfic. Like: a lot of it. The (apparently) least distressing selection lives, again appropriately enough, in Archive of Our Own (aka AO3), a place where I’ve rediscovered my love for well-written transformative fiction, while avoiding the hell out of anything to do with the fandom I’ve somehow found myself a peripheral part of (okay, fine: I read two pieces, neither of them in any way sexual, in which my character threatens/ beats the shit out of/ stabs people; seems legit).

I am, you see, as big a hypocrite as the next person - I’ve enjoyed all sorts of original erotic fiction/ slashfic/ fanfic, the latter mostly based in the Whedonverse, over the years, but have been known to use the word “fanfic” as a shorthand, derogatory term for derivative writing, occasionally wondering why some of the people producing such frankly breathtaking work online, for free, weren’t using their talents to create, you know, original characters.

See, I definitely thought (and think) that there’s a massive place for written erotica - queer erotica helped me come to terms with my sexuality, and it being online means that there was nothing for my mother to find (although that did mean I had to read it all on university computers - I’m old, remember), for example. And it’s a place to channel things that are unethical, illegal, and frankly downright impossible. I’ve heard some fairly compelling anecdotal evidence to say that getting the more dubious stuff off your chest in virtual terms sublimates the need to carry things over into real life. (Of course, it’s quite difficult to find a genetically modified, flying version of your own arse who wants to do you so...)

And yet, from trying to pop off like a Rentaghost as a five-year-old, to the time in my teens I dreamed I was Doctor Watson, through the time I wrote an undying time-traveller into the Trojan War (again in my teens), to every time (arguably), I write a showpoem reimagining mythological/ historical/ fictive characters, I have been engaging in transformative writing. Hell, Shakespeare and Marlowe did it. Matthew Bourne does it. Angela Carter did a lot of it. Patience Agbabi, Kate Tempest, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Alan Moore, Salman Rushdi, Tarrell Alvin McRaney, Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor, Ben Okri, and Margaret Atwood have all made moolah and reputations from it. George Lucas definitely did it. And, of course, if Joseph Campbell is right, we’ve only got a small handful of constantly recycled stories between us anyway.

Enough warm-up, Fay - tell us why you’ve got us here...

Fine. So, I have several writing projects that are currently on hiatus - most notably a commissioned poem that is about five months overdue (I’m so sorry), and a novel that I started last year while near-mute, which keeps growing, shows no signs of stopping, and is still at least 30% shy of completed. I have created nothing new except pieces in workshops and the odd new-poem-made-of-everyone-who’s-performed thing since August. In other words: if it’s planned, it’s not turning up. Argh.

Get on with it.

(Thanks for your patience so far!) Anyway, seemingly out of nowhere, on Wednesday this week, I picked up my laptop and started to write a wildly explicit bit of slashfic featuring characters from a piece of mainstream media. Within two days it had turned into eight short chapters of raw angst and filth which I posted, pretty much as I finished them, with minimal editing, onto AO3.

Within minutes of the first chapter going up, I had people I’d never met before reading and offering “kudos”, the platform’s “like” of choice. 48 hours later, and it has 375 hits (which I have to assume doesn’t translate to 375 people), a handful of kudos, and a scattering of complimentary comments (the person suggesting it needed a government health warning was a particular favourite).

I am, I have to say, feeling a little giddy (and mildly conflicted) about this. But we must analyse new experiences if we’re to learn and grow from them, so, what have I learned?

1. I can churn out what essentially amounts to a long short story (7135 words), with plot, development, structure, action, dialogue, and stuff, in less than two days.

2. When you have pre-created characters and worlds, all you have to do is a wee bit of tweaking, and their story is there. Everyone reading it knows the background, so there’s no mileage in world-building and exposition. (No-one wants to read 43 pages about Hobbit history, do they? Do they...?!)

3. I am a filthy, filthy bastard (mind: I’ve seen some of the tags on a bunch of these works, a set of rather hefty trigger warnings left, right, and centre - turns out I’m a filthy bastard who has strong preferences for consensual, safe(ish), adult, human encounters, and I’m good with that).

4. The dopamine rush from a stranger begging you to add chapters and end their torment is quite extraordinary. And apt, obviously.

5. There is something frankly liberating about being Not Yourself. It’s a long time since I’ve written under a pseudonym, and moving out from under it was liberating then, but this is something else now.

6. My poetry blog posts, and this one, easily garner 100-odd views these days, and I’m happy with that baseline. (Listen: I know where I stand in the poetry rankings of the world.) My most popular entry on any of my blogs ever topped 1400 views, but that was over the course of 20 months and, now I come to think of it, is actually a transformative piece (satire counts, right?). Hah! :D

Contrast this: within 48 hours I had over 300 views of this one work. If I’m after an easy fix on approbation, this has some quality juice to offer. (Yeah, I am aware of how that sounds...)

7. I am now really excited about writing prose again. Like: really excited. And yes: some of it is going to be fan/ slash fiction (see points 2, 3, 4 and 5 above), but I think the characters from the dusty novel can finally stop poking me in the head and making a variety of disappointed faces when I say “maybe later” (sorry, kids).

8. I don’t really write straight prose anymore. This last two days I watched myself changing words because they would sound better, have more rhythm, play with internal rhyme. Thanks, performance poetry - I’m going to be writing on a slant for the rest of my life.


So, that’s it, really. I’ve been dying to tell someone, so I’m glad it could be you. Thanks for listening.

(What’s that? A link to the work? Ah. No. No, I don’t think so, do you? I mean, you know: not yet...)