Thursday, 9 February 2017

The commercial debate rumbles on...

So, it seems that people on the spoken word scene are still upset about the Nationwide adverts, and the Jeep advert, and presumably the jeans advert and the cheese adverts and the MacDonalds adverts all using poetry/ spoken word to sell product. This seems to be this season’s visit to Buckingham Palace*.

Just now pitching in: Luke Wright with a poem-to-camera in his car on the subject.

There appear to be two viewpoints contending for people’s hearts and minds here.

On the one hand: the notion that using art to promote commercialism is anathema and offensively soulless. The strong feeling that doing this diminishes the form and not only the individual artists involved but all practitioners of the artform.

On the other: the notion that most advertising (and ALL TV advertising) uses art in some way or other (from the music to the animations to the cinematography to the acting to the you-name-it). That art is intrinsically bound up in the commercial, because we live in a capitalist society and people need food to eat, clothe themselves, enjoy permanent shelter. Some selling-out or other is inevitable. There is always compromise.

So where do you draw the line? And that’s a genuine question, artists and non-artists alike: where should we be drawing the line to retain enough dignity (if that’s the word I want) and still pay the bills? Because there’s always someone paying for the art you produce, whether it’s you, your partner(s), your parent(s), your school, your workplace, direct individual customers, or the taxpayers whose money goes into national arts funding, or commercial organisations giving a fee.

Every time I write a poem for #PoetryToGo, I compromise my taste and vision for the requirements of the person holding the fiver (or whatever), whether it’s to rhyme, talk about fluffy bunnies, or turn it around in the timescale they’ve requested. On the other hand, I’d never write a poem for BP, or the Tories. About, yes; on their behalf, no.

What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything, is that there are financial realities and status frailties that drive people (some with more inner conflict than others) to produce art for corporate entities, but them doing so does not - in my opinion - diminish that artform’s ability to enlighten, transform, communicate, be an extraordinary mirror for the human condition. And it does not automatically diminish their previous work or the work they may choose to do in the future.

Luke has said that he hasn’t seen “much of a discussion around this on the live poetry scene” and that he wants to “spark a debate”. By contrast, this is something people seem to be talking about a LOT, in my experience - spoken word artists and their enablers alike. Let’s keep this going - is there a solution, a way of resolving this conflict at the heart of the scene, or are we always going to be divided on this (or merely strung out along the spectrum of NEVER to OF COURSE with a bunch of us in between, and most of us longing for the opportunity to at least be asked, because that might well mean we’ve “made it”)?


* A few years ago, a bunch of spoken word artists were invited to visit Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen. Most who were asked went, as far as I know. Some refused. EVERYONE - invited or otherwise - had an opinion.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Poetry Sells…?

So, someone opened the debate again today about performance poets “doing” adverts for large organisations. I suspect that this is what they were talking about: At the time when the adverts in question came out, I was very ill, so let a whole bunch of people fulminating about artists “selling out” slide past my eyes without saying anything. But now I’m feeling better...

I have an opinion about this (of course I do). It goes something like this:

Poetry, as an artform, especially performance poetry, is one that is still low-profile and with a real lack of opportunities to make a career in, full-time. Have talent, work hard, get to the stage where people are willing to pay you, promote you, and tell everyone else that you’re excellent, and you’re faced with dilemmas at several turns. These dilemmas apply, I suspect, to pretty much every artform.

Do any job other than your artform and you’re at risk of being accused (even if only tacitly/ in your own head) of not being a “proper” artist, of diluting, of compromising. So how do you follow your creative path, and make enough money to feed, house, clothe, and transport yourself and your dependents, let alone develop yourself as a human?

If someone is willing to offer decent money for your work in a way that will raise your profile and that of your artform, where you’re not asked to compromise yourself by directly advertising the product at hand, I think that’s a good thing, personally. (It’s also worth bearing in mind: Nationwide are not Barclays, or HSBC, or Lloyds (or Monsanto, or Proctor & Gamble, or Nestlé, etc.). They’re not even a bank. On the Evil Corporations Scale, they’re pretty darned low...)

And, as someone who is still not in a position to leave the dayjob (while simultaneously wondering whether not leaving the day job is the thing that is holding me back from just saying “the fuck with it - let’s just go, commit, be awesome!”), and as someone active in promoting the artform more generally, above and beyond my own practice, I’m pleased to see performance poetry given a mainstream platform in a positive way (how many cheesy stereotypes of shit, pretentious performance poetry have we seen portrayed in mainstream media...?), with an admirable diversity of artists, considering they only picked three.

I remember the artsy, talking-heads Barclays adverts made at the turn of the Century, featuring actors who people accused of “selling out” their indie cred, their otherwise edgy images. One of them was Gary Oldman, who openly discussed how he was willing to make the compromise because the money was going to pay for his outreach programme getting children off the street and into community theatre.

Nationwide were going to make money and produce advertising. I’m glad that they decided to produce sensitive, non-exploitative showcases of artists who are ambassadors for my artform. I’m glad they promoted this notion of performance poets as bard, as voices for the nation. I don’t know the other two artists, but one of them is someone whose work (and work ethic, and politics) I admire and support, and I very much hope she got paid well.

Poets used to make their living from patrons, unless they were independently wealthy. Over the years poets have made their living by writing things other than poetry for other people, teaching, or doing other jobs to keep body and awen together. Arts grants are on the decline, commissions aren’t that easy to find, and not everyone has the time, training, or temperament for teaching. I choose to use my non-creative skills to muster a part-time day job to muster stability for the platform under my creative endeavours. I’m still not sure if I want to make 100% of my income from the creative arts, but I won’t denigrate those who sell their poetry to those with the money to pay for it, especially when these modern-day patrons aren’t particularly evil.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, 23 May 2016

Got Angry, Wrote a Poem

It all started so innocently. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, when this popped up, courtesy of Hannah Elwick, who ripped it a new one, displaying maximum sarcasm.

“This” was a glurgy piece of nostalgia porn misogyny masquerading as poetry.  My emotions shifted through ennui to rage to disgust (and not just because of the font used) pretty quickly, briefly eased by Hannah’s magnificent rant against it.

But this is me, and it was lunchtime, so: riposte poem time:

Text version:

A Poem To Which I Can Relate

I remember the corned beef of my Childhood,
And the bread that we cut with a knife,
When the Children helped with the housework,
And the men went to work not the wife.
The cheese never needed a fridge,
And the bread was so crusty and hot,
The Children were seldom unhappy,
And the Wife was content with her lot.

I remember the milk from the bottle,
With the yummy cream on the top,
Our dinner came hot from the oven,
And not from a freezer; or shop.
The kids were a lot more contented,
They didn’t need money for kicks,
Just a game with their friends in the road,
And sometimes the Saturday flicks.
I remember the slap on my backside,
And the taste of soap if I swore
Anorexia and diets weren’t heard of
And we hadn’t much choice what we wore.

Do you think that bruised our ego?
Or our initiative was destroyed?
We ate what was put on the table
And I think life was better enjoyed.

Author Unknown
A Poem To Which WE Can Relate

artwork by Eddie Holly

We remember the old beef of Childhood,
The silence that cut like a knife
Where Children were seen and not heard
And blows clamped down marital strife
The Wife could not claim her possessions,
Worked for nothing in kitchen and bed;
The Children were gifted this vision:
That’s your future until you are dead.

We remember the Childhood diseases
That took all but lucky or strong
Darwinianism in action
And no-one to challenge our wrongs.
We gazed at the chasm dividing
The have-nots from those haves who strode
Over huge tracts of land that were paid for
By theft, tax, and History’s goad.

Those who were beaten learned nothing
Except how to govern by fear
Girls were pressed into corsets and wasted away
You won’t learn if you don’t try to hear

The privileged never do question
From whence comes their food and their board
You whine incognito as we change the world
With your death rattle justly ignored.

Fay Roberts

The beautiful picture of Ruby Rose in the Westinghouse style was created by the ridiculously talented Eddie Holly.

Feel free to share if you like. A surprising number of people already have, which both weirds me out and gratifies me (yay! imposter syndrome!), and the original Facebook version is here.

Saturday, 9 April 2016


We should be asking:
Where's the line
Between what's seen
And what's just mine?

The web was meant
To make us free;
Instead we're tangled,
Can't you see?

Can't be worth the bill:
No secret shared's
A secret still.


This post is, in itself, a delivery of a #poetrytogo commissioned poem from today. Feel free to ask, but there's only so much I can tell you…

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Selkie - beyond baby steps

On 17-Mar-06 I stepped onto a stage to perform my own poetry in public for the first time. Tonight, just over 10 years later, I’ll be stepping onto a stage to perform my own solo show in public for the first time.

It’s been a while coming. It seems like people have been spending the last three years asking “When are you doing your own solo show?”*  The answer was complex, and to do with a whole imposter syndrome thing, so let’s skate past that, please.  And the fact was: I’d had a great idea for a solo show about six years ago, having developed a 15-minute piece with Apples & Snakes, commissioned by them as a scratch piece for a night of them, to kick-off writing a longer thing.  The only problem was that, every time I approached it (to write, to rewrite, to learn anew for a different outing, etc.), I would have horrendous nightmares.  Like: screaming myself awake nightmares.  Since the premise was about a person who was having repeated nightmares that seemed to be precognitive images of a post-apocalyptic future, based on my own experience of increasingly detailed zombie apocalypse nightmares, I suppose it wasn’t too surprising, but still.

So, for the sake of my mental health (and that of those around me, especially those needing to sleep near me!), that project was reluctantly shoved to the back of my brain (though it would nudge me every so often, especially when people asked that question).

And then, about 18 months ago, out of the line “I was born in soft waters, but hard ones shaped me” (which - as I recall - came to me as I was walking home along the river) was born The Selkie - A Song of Many Waters.  Suddenly, here was a story I wanted to write that energised me and didn’t give me horrible dreams!

The Selkie is, like every first solo show ever written by every spoken word artist ever, I suspect, somewhat autobiographical.  However, everything is couched in the language of myth and fairytale.  The central character is a selkie, her mother is a mermaid, her father a demi-dragon, her friends and lovers various mythological and earthly creatures. They inhabit a landscape which speaks to them, and every adult has their own familiar spirit, a being with which they have as good, bad, and aware/ oblivious a relationship as we variously have with that voice that talks to us out of the dark.

Selkies are, in the folk stories I read so voraciously as a child, the Scottish (particularly Orcadian/ Hebridean) equivalent of merfolk, or the Russian/ Middle Eastern swan maidens and Welsh salmon beings.  They also turned up in one of my favourite young adult novels of all time: Susan Cooper’s Seaward, which I first read at a very impressionable age.  Most of those who do know the legend (and there are fewer people in that category than I’d imagined when I first embarked on this!), tend to only know the tragic version where the woman has her skin stolen by a mortal, who keeps it by him until either: a) everyone dies of bitter old age, but the children continue the line - perhaps unknowing - with webbed toes, etc., or b) the selkie finally finds her stolen, hidden skin, and escapes back to the ocean (sometimes she keeps up a relationship with her children; either way, her husband loses her).

I wanted to explore what it would mean to be a selkie without a skin who doesn’t know explicitly that something is missing - a magical creature who struggles to access their powers in the wrong environment, off-kilter wherever they set their feet - and also how you choose to return to the ocean, and the positive and negative applications of that.  I also ended up exploring the repeated patterns of relationships, and what it takes to change fate (and how what looks like a change can actually just be the old pattern in a different coat). And hiraeth came up too.

And after tentatively performing the 70%-finished 90+ minutes version to dramaturge and storyteller-extraordinaire Red Phoenix in November 2015, her amazing feedback meant that I finally had the impetus to finish the blimmin thing, and then start hacking chunks out of it so that it would fit into the standard slightly-less-than-an-hour that’s required for Fringe shows in general.

I’ve also engaged the services of an extraordinarily talented visual artist, Sa’adiah Khan, who is creating a series of beautiful images to accompany it.

The initial, cover image of The Selkie by Sa’adi

The final version will take several forms:

1. A 57-minute show which comprises poetry, storytelling, music (both live-performed and as a constant soundscape backing track), and projected visuals of Sa’adi’s illustrations.

2. A 90+ minute album of the whole show but including all the bits I had to hack out (mostly extra, illustrative poems)

3. A book of the longer version, complete with Sa’adi’s illustrations.

The show is already booked to run 21-27 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, and so far only eight other people have heard the finished** version.  Tonight I’ll be performing a “scratch” (i.e. "be kind, you’re seeing a version we haven’t learned, where we occasionally have to stop and say ‘and here’s where there would be music/ costume change/ trapeze - imagining that? Nice...’”) version of the piece in conjunction with extraordinary storyteller-poet-type Hel Robin Gurney at The Poetry Café in That London.  Shockingly, not only will this be the first public performance of The Selkie, but also my first visit to The Poetry Café.

Landmarks all round... :)

See you on the flipside (unless I see you at The Poetry Café later!).

* I’m well-known (for a given value of well-known that is: in the UK spoken word scene) as someone who promotes other people, and is a good show host, and gives other people opportunities, but not as someone who is Doing That Solo Artist Thing on a bigger scale.

** everything is relative - I’ve already tinkered with the thing since they heard it on Sunday, trying to incorporate one particular piece of feedback those lovely people unanimously gave.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

#NaPoWriMo 2015: Some Conclusions

Well. Bloody hell. That's it - I'm done for the year! :) What am I going to do with myself?!

If it plays out like the last couple of years, I'm probably going to spend the next couple of weeks still writing new poems virtually daily, as the momentum and discipline (and reduction of self-doubt and pre-editing) persists but I'll also start going back to edit, trim, and - in the case of the performable pieces - learn what I've written this month.

Since I also had 2½ days of Poetry To Go in the mix, plus a wedding commission piece to write, I will have written more like 45 poems this month, which was an epic achievement, I guess, but did make things a little harder. Turns out creative energy can be quite finite, especially when you're trying to administrate it - poetry admin cramps poetry writing (and possible vice versa).  I'll try to remember that.  (Handling major, seismic shifts in my day job wasn't particularly conducive to mental energy either!)

Some other observations about my output this year:

1. More (end-)rhyming than usual.

Not only the now-traditional triolet, terzanelle, and sonnet from me, but also clerihews, limericks, and other comedic iambic pentameter end-rhyme (one about perennial enemies, another about an imaginary political candidate encounter, and a seasonal one).

2. More comedy

But only in rhyme. It would appear that, when I try to be funny, I feel the urge to go tumpty-tumpty, ABAB.

3. More darkness

There were some seriously dark imagery coming out in places - the aforementioned imaginary right-wing encounter was pretty violent, the other explicitly politically-themed one was sinister, and there was plenty of interpersonal tension depicted - here, here, here, here, and here. Also the plea to a friend who'd been threatening suicide online that I didn't have to send, after all.

4. Resolution

However, there were lots of "Je ne regret rien" and even happy/ practical resolutions. One of them explicitly inspired by the fun of turning forty this year, and others depicting care-free days and the will to live my own life, unjudged by (and unjudging of) other people's preferences.

5. Welsh

Again, as per tradition, poems cropped up that referenced my heritage and upbringing. This time, however, it was in the form of my one concrete poem, and playing a new form (for me).

6. Conforming

I tend to write free verse; it's just a preference, and I have nothing against rhyming and syllable-bound forms at all, it's just that, to me, it's more obvious when it's done wrong. (And yes, you can have rubbish free verse - generally it looks like what Stephen Fry memorably described as "shredded prose".) If you have to force the words into scansion or rhyme at the expense of good meaning, consider free verse. Please. But don't shred prose.

However, during NaPoWriMo, I push myself to more form - and not only were there the aforementioned end-rhymers, but two from my happy place with form (haiku and senryū), a new one - clogyrnachau (ion? pluralising is hard in Welsh), and an accidental following-of-an-earlier-prompt in the form of abecedarian poem.

(I also ended up in a debate about the merits of socks on Facebook, where all our statements were made up of words beginning with the letter 's' - after last year's stab at Nordic-style alliterative poems, that was a breeze!)

7. Promptless

Last year I either explicitly or accidentally followed quite a few of the "official" prompts.  This year, I think only two came out (clerihews and abecedarian), but I honestly wasn't bothered enough to check either way. Whether this is cause or symptom of my feeling of disconnection, I'm not sure... (Particular props to Emma for following all the prompts - that's extraordinary dedication right there; and I was so impressed at how well they came out (especially when the prompts were a bit... well... let's say tricksy...)!)

So, how did that all make you feeeel?

Oh, you always ask, dontcha? ;)

It's been interesting - I found it harder than previous years, and felt more detached from the process. I started well, and was ahead of myself, in fact, but then I fell behind far more, and for far longer, than I ever have done before in NaPoWriMo, and felt simultaneously more under pressure to turn out good quality work, and just let go and throw whatever out there, and experiment with form. Of course, this pressure all came from me...

And then, about five days ago, that pressure suddenly dropped off.  I'd bought myself a bit of space by posting a couple of the Poetry To Go poems I felt were suitable to share publicly (i.e. none of the haiku/ senryū, and nothing where I'd've had to explain quite why "hide-and-seek" or "apples" or "elephants" meant so much to the customer), and then, after writing two on that aforementioned care-free day, I steamed away through the backlog (courtesy of giving myself a break in the form of linked haiku/ senryū, a concrete poem, and rambling free verse about a legendary queen, and then a brilliant workshop exercise, which brought me one of my favourite of my pieces this month). I followed other impulses and inspirations, and some lovely stuff came out just this week.  I feel very pleased with them.

I already have some notions for editing and improving these poems.  I know that most "proper" poetry competitions and publishers won't touch 'em as they've already been published by dint of turning up on the blog(s), but - thanks to this successful final week particularly - I'm feeling pretty darned confident about my poetry skills.

Would you recommend other people to take part in NaPoWriMo or similar challenges?

YES. For several reasons:

1. Comparing this year's output with 2014 and 2013, I can see immediately that I've improved a lot. My writing is tighter, and there's a consistent voice (what Leanne calls a Fay poem - all internal rhymes and knight's move images) And writing challenges, commissions, games, and workshops have been a big part of that.

2. You have to write a lot of crap out, like clearing the pumps before the clean water flows. This kind of thing will do that, so you can winnow the good stuff (yay! mixed metaphors!) out afterwards.

3. You'll find you're better than you think you are, especially when under pressure of time.

4. Challenges like this tend to have a community vibe to them - you can celebrate and commiserate with other poets, and even the simple "like"s and "favourite"s from social media, let alone more detailed comments, will help to boost you (I joint blogged this year, as last, with fellow Cambridgeshire(ish) poets).

I was also very privileged to spend writing time with these poets, and it was wonderful to be inspired by (and even, sometimes, inspire!) their writing, conversations, and comments, and to be able to see them explore a form or a topic that might be a jumping-off point for me, and to see them grow in confidence, technique, and flair. :) Knowing people have got your back is pretty precious.

Emma, Mal, Poppy, Nikki, Leanne, Russell, Daisy - thanks for being part of the journey; it was an honour and a privilege. Same time next year?

5. There is something quite energising about completing a challenge - and that confidence and energy can buoy you along for quite a long while. In fact, the idea that I might have my first NaPo not posting my 30th poem on 30th April was what got me pulling my big girl pants on with, funnily enough, the female pharoah poem. I'm so glad I did.

Any resolutions coming out of this?

Yes - doing more Poetry To Go, entering more competitions, seeking more commissions, giving myself more explicit time to write. And give more positive feedback to other people, because it feels very, very good and encouraging to receive (thanks, Leanne, in particular - you rock at that!)

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Bus Stop Sunday 19:39

We are brave,
You are a warpaint screech
Reaching back into our
Corridor battles.

But whilst we have aged
Past landmarks
And recognition
You are strapped

For as we rack
On an inward history
You lift spiked battlements
Of mutual, youthful laughter.

And after all: we are
More than twice your age
And waged,
Engaged in life

And our momentary disquiet
Only highlights
The darker path
We've left behind.

You choose the top deck
And we reckon relief
In loosened breaths,
Ourselves again.


I have been writing a crapload of poems lately but not necessarily letting all of them out into air. Here's one.