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