Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Advice from a Poetry Promoter

Originally posted on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/notes/fay-roberts-poet/advice-from-a-poetry-promoter/420621814674393. Note that most of my knowledge of open mics is in the south-east and central England, and that if I listed every open mic I would run out of usable space. So yes, I’ve missed some people out. Don’t hurt me - I was focusing on those that gave further opportunities for professional engagements.

So, someone asked me if I had any advice about getting more performance poetry gigs and getting on the Festival circuit. I thought “No, not really...” then started writing and ended up with this essay:

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

I would recommend going to as many local and further-afield open mics that encourage poetry and spoken word as you can to perform. If you’re getting good responses, start going to the ones that have featured artists and basically show off a bit! :) Look for ones that have competitions/ do lots of evenings. e.g. in London and nearby consider Bang Said The Gun or Utter! where they vote for their favourite quick-round open mic/ paid gig contest entrant to come back for a featured slot, or RRRants who book featured acts for their gigs around the country. MK, Bedford, and Luton poets, you should definitely be going to Ouse Muse and Scribal Gathering regularly. If you’re based in the Midlands or you can travel, I’d also recommend WORD in Leicester, Rhymes in Birmingham and if you’re out further East, of course, my own nights - Allographic in Cambridge! :) A great way to find out about gigs in your area is to check online guides like Write Out Loud Gig Guide and the Poetry Society Landmarks.

Slams can also be a good way of raising your profile and gaining the chance to come back and show off again once you’ve won a round, if you don’t find the idea of slamming off-putting, as many fine performers do. Good contacts for that are Hammer & Tongue (based in Oxford, London, Brighton, Bristol, and Cambridge - yes, this is another slightly self-interested plug), who encourage out-of-town competitors, and the Farrago Slams in London. Other competitions (written or performative) can also prove useful.

Also: go to as many feature-only gigs as you can - it can be immensely inspirational! :) Going to gigs where you don’t perform helps you to keep perspective and focus on the good stuff. Apples & Snakes are a great set of contacts for this, and are arguably the biggest promoter of performance poetry in the UK...

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

If there’s nothing round you way, consider setting up your own event. Dan Holloway suggests (after being inspired by Nikesh Shukla’s advice):

“I think I would encourage anyone outside of London to think about starting a night of their own. I started running shows in 2009/10 when there were slightly fewer, but still, the audience response is incredibly encouraging, both in terms of numbers and enthusiasm. You need though a very thick skin (your fellow performers will see you more as an organiser than a poet, which is a downside), incredible tact (poets are a very sensitive bunch of egos), supreme organisational skills (poets run on ‘poet time’), and extreme patience (you will have last minute drop-outs and late arrivals and venue problems and PA problems however much you plan).”

In my personal experience, it’s a good way to make contacts but a tad harrowing at times! On the other hand, my bar for “disaster” is really, REALLY high these days. :D

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

To move onto the festival circuit, it would appear that you often have the painful issue of being able to prove that you’ve done festivals already...! :) So I guess focus initially on smaller ones. Talk to your local poet laureate or bard (if your town/ a nearby one) has one. In MK, talk to people like Mark Niel (Milton Keynes Poet Laureate) and Richard Frost (Bard of Stony Stratford) about opportunities in your area.

(A quick Google search suggests that, for a start, there are official bards/ laureates in the following areas: Bath, Armagh, Barnsley, Exeter, Glastonbury, Winchester, Avebury, London, Ely, Bristol, Flag Fen, Brighton, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Birmingham, Luton, The Fens, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, and Wantage.)

If there are any festivals nearby (consider how far you’d travel to find a new audience if no-one paid you anything, draw the circle on a map, and start researching! :) ), find out if there’s a spoken word element. If there isn’t, ask if they’d like one and round up some poetry mates to put together a proper “bill” for a festival that doesn’t yet know that it wants poetry.

Richard Grant advised on the Glastonbury Poetry and Words forum a couple of years ago:

“Glastonbury Poetry and Words sits amongst the best gigs for our artform each year. Selection for Europe’s biggest party always brings adrenalin, expectation and promise. Aiming for the top stages before trawling the smaller festival scenes seems a bit optimistic to me. My advice, check other festivals and start getting your work out there first. Trip Fest, Shambalah, Boomtown, Beautiful Days, Beat Herder, Big Chill, Womad, Green Man, Bearded Theory, Latitude, to mention a few...”
He’s not wrong. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface when you think of the likes of the Cambridge Wordfest, London Word Festival, the Norwich Fringe Festival, Nozstock, the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, the Camden Fringe Festival, the Buxton Fringe Festival, Boxmoor, Rickmansworth Canal Festival, The Wenlock Poetry Festival, and - of course - the big daddy: Edinburgh, to name, again, a pitiful few of the opportunities you could take this year to perform or listen to poetry and other forms of spoken word performance goodness. Go mad on Google, or go one better and check out the UK Literary Festivals site: http://www.literaryfestivals.co.uk/eventcalendar.html

Daunted by the idea of going up to a big festival on your own? Find out who else is going and go together. Form a troupe. Find the open mics at Edinburgh, Buxton, Hay, Wenlock, etc., and crash them.

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

The ability to get featured gigs can also be enhanced by preparing a show reel - YouTube clips can be collected together in “playlists” for this purpose if you don’t have editing technology - of both audio only and video. Consider also your USP (Unique Selling Point) - what makes you stand out from the other performers out there? Think about enhancing or playing on that. Write a CV - exactly as you would for getting a “proper” job - and a standard covering letter. And then? Just send it to people. Go on... But make sure you have the experience and good reviews to back it, and aim reasonably sensibly to start!

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

Get a solid online presence. It’s not mandatory by any means, but a good website will help promoters know exactly what you do, how you do it, and what you look and sound like doing it. If you’re not up for running your own website (and, let’s face it, it can be a right chore!), it’s worthwhile investing in one or more of the following social media/ online-presence-hosted-by-someone-else widgets:

Twitter - people can add you to their feed and will be kept up-to-date on your poetic movements. What you can do with 140 characters can say a lot about your poetic acumen. Haiku rock! :) Consider separating your personal and your poetical online essences out if you want to jabber about your socks or latest stomach complaints to a sympathetic group of friends, but want to keep a wider group of acquaintances and strangers connected to your appearances. Twitter can also be embedded into any website where you have at least minimal control of the HTML coding, and you can add buttons/ links for your Twitter to many other online accounts.

YouTube/ Vimeo - great places to upload/ link to all your video recordings of performance greatness. You can collect together playlists of your and others’ videos of your performances to use as show reels. Yes - you don’t need to record/ upload videos yourself to use YouTube to create a good online presence. Playlists, etc. also be embedded in web pages/ blogs, etc.

SoundCloud/ MixCloud - if you have decent audio recordings of yourself performing (and bear in mind that it’s very easy, nowadays, to record your performances at home on standard equipment), these are great places to put them, and you can also link updates to your Twitter, blog, etc., and can embed in web pages.

Blog - upload your photos, videos, audio and - most importantly - your words of wisdom - onto an online journal. Most of the fun and flexibility of your own website with a lot less coding hassle. Blogs such as Wordpress can even take the hard work out of putting your own website together by basically making it based on your WP blog... Other such as Blogger, Dreamwidth, or even LiveJournal for the old-school among you, can give you the opportunity to direct people somewhere they can see what you’ve been up to, and read and judge (and even comment on) your work.

Profiles on Other Sites - however much you do of the above social media and online presence, it’s really useful to get yourself a profile on specialist places like WriteOutLoud, etc., and less specialist places like making yourself a Facebook “page”, a LinkedIn profile (for the more professional-network-minded of you), and a SkillsPage profile (the latter is useful when looking for poetic opportunities).

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

Lastly: professionalism. If you want to be taken seriously, treat performing/ hosting as a job. Learn how long your poems are with applause - time them, learn them; if you can’t learn them, have them on something that’s nice to look at from the audience perspective (attractive notebook or folder/ Kindle/ tablet, etc.). Don’t make your entire set a “So, which one do you want?” thing - you don’t look professional, work out what you’re doing in advance. And work out what poems will fit (reasonably) with the tone, time limit, etc. Stick to the time-limit. We cannot emphasise this enough! Turn up on time, don’t get drunk/ high - whether you’re fronting or performing - and don’t be an arse. Anything that could get you fired from a “real” job will see you a) not asked back, b) talked about as an arse throughout the circuit. Don’t be That Poet, in short...!

Get Out and About Do It Yourself Festivals Your USP Get Online Professionalism

I’ve revised this considerably in the light of other comments on the Facebook version, and have spent the last couple of weeks trying to take my own advice, especially in terms of online presence and marketing myself. If anyone has any other advice/ links to add, go at it in the comments section and I’ll revisit this as frequently as is useful! :D

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