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” (in case you can’t see it via the link above) 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.

UPDATE: Bloody hell - there's a longer version. Turns out the ... bit in the one to which I responded is to indicate where there were more lines, but the perpetrator pinched them out in order to be able to fit the meat of the “poem” on a single side of A4.

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.