Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Applying Myself

 Bright yellow background with black text. There is a picture of a free-floating balloon with string dangling on the top left and a microphone on a stand on the bottom right.  Text reads, from top to bottom: "Burning Eye Books" with a tagline that looks as though it was spraypainted through a stencil: "Never Knowingly Mainstream", with the year 2022 written underneath. Below this: "10 Years of publishing slam/ stand up/ spoken word/ performance poetry".

Next year sees the tenth anniversary of publishing house Burning Eye Books, who’ve produced the collections of some of my favourite UK performance poets. Their focus has been consistently on platforming the work of word-wranglers who inhabit that interesting place between poetry, theatre, music, and stand-up. The sort of people who used to be traditionally, well, invisible to standard page publishers.

People like me, I suppose.

Imposter Syndrome is a funny thing – it can have you thinking you’re cheating and faking, especially when you do well, especially if it’s taken a while for other people who at least look like arbiters of success, to recognise your achievements and skills. Especially if you’ve ever been given grief for your endeavours. It makes it difficult to put yourself forward for opportunities because, well, they’d never pick me.

Last September someone told me that the next window for submissions to Burning Eye Books would give specific emphasis to welcoming artists inhabiting that interesting place between male and female. The sort of people who used to be traditionally, well, invisible to standard institutions.

People like me, in other words.

So I, high on the adrenalin of an excellent night of slam poetry, vowed (in front of witnesses) that this time, I’d actually apply. And in the new year, having moved into a different phase of my life on several fronts, persistently encouraged by a bunch of lovely people, I made a spreadsheet (obviously) for all the poems I felt folk would want to read, and started cataloguing them. And then I got ill. And then I hurled myself during the final 48 hours before the deadline into writing a proper submission for a grown-up version of the kind of stuff I’d been producing (a sample, a bio, and a proposal for the shape of the book; why will people buy this? who are you? what makes this – and you – special?). And, for once, I wrote that down and told them. (And got friends who know their stuff to check it, and they reminded me about other things I could say, so I said them too.)

Writing poetry is easy. Delineating your literary worth in an online form? Bit more of an ask.

Anyway, you may have seen this on social media already, in much pithier, more confident-seeming formats. But, in short: Clive and Bridget looked at the proposal, and in March, they said yes…

Bright yellow background with black text. There is a greyscale photo in the middle which looks as though it’s been taped onto the page, and a picture of a free-floating balloon with string dangling on the top left and a microphone on a stand on the bottom right.  Text at the top reads: "Fay Roberts ze/zir they/them". The photo below is of a slender, white person with slightly wild, curly hair of an indeterminate colour to their shoulders. There is a bright light behind them and they are looking up and to their right with a slightly tortured expression, mouth open as though speaking. The placement of the balloon means it looks like they’re staring at it. They are wearing a white top with three-quarter sleeves and an open, grey waistcoat over the top. Their left hand is raised, palm open, and they’re wearing a ring on their thumb.  Text at the bottom reads: "Burning Eye Books" with a tagline that looks as though it was spraypainted through a stencil: "Never Knowingly Mainstream". Lastly, there’s the year 2022 written to the right.
(Author image by Matt Widgery at the SHINDIG Storytelling Special.)

The book is currently called Spectral. It’s going to have a very specific concept underpinning its construction, and very beautiful cover art by local Cambridge artist Sa’adiah Khan, and I’ll be producing an audiobook version to match the current release date for the physical book in March 2022. You’ll be able to buy it in bookshops and online and did I mention that I’m still freaking out about this?

Today the knowledge that this is actually happening sinks that bit further into my psyche, and I’m abruptly grateful that the process of publication takes a lot longer with big publishers than with my own platform. (Oddly enough, my label, Allographic Press, has seen other of our writers ’graduate’ to Burning Eye and… I guess I’m one too, now…?)

The tenth anniversary publications list for BE looks like a grand mixture between some of my favourite poets (including people I’ve acted with, which is an interesting bit of world-collision!), people I’ve only heard of, and others I’m really looking forward to getting to know:

Bright yellow background with black text. There are a list of names down the middle, and a picture of a free-floating balloon with string dangling on the top left and a microphone on a stand on the bottom right. At the bottom is the year 2022.  Names list top to bottom: "Ash Dickinson, Sally Jenkinson, Panya Banjoko, Katie (Tom) Walters, Vera Chok, Pascal Vine, Inizo Lami, Ross McFarlane, Leena Norms, Jemima Foxtrot, Leyla Josephine, Jack Juno, Maz Hedgehog, Fay Roberts, Bibi June, Louise Fazakerley, Mark ’Mr T’ Thompson, Nora Gomringer"

So I’ll be keeping you up-to-date with progress as it goes, in between small bouts of freaking out and rushing to complete deadlines at the last minute because really… that’s not going to change any time soon, let’s face it… Expect to see at least hints of art and contents pages, and possibly the occasional flail about audiobook production and other such fun stuff. I’ll be posting on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and possibly Soundcloud about All This, but expect the longer rambles to turn up here. And yes, this may be the final impetus I need to actually update my website for the first time in… okay, I’m not going to work out how long it’s been, just crack my knuckles and get on with it!

To everyone who’s encouraged, proofread, witnessed vows, made space for me to write in, squeaked with glee, and/ or shown absolutely no surprise whatsoever when I’ve told them this news… thanks! And if you’ve read this far, thank you too!

See, it’s important to have good friends around you. Folk who’ll gently (or not-so-gently) nudge you toward the things that make your life brighter, remind you that there’s space in which you can make and grow and thrive. That there are chances for those who might have considered themselves invisible to standards they think unattainable.

People like you. And me.


Saturday, 27 March 2021

Showcase Your Words at the #VFreeFringe

 Hi Folks,

I’m writing this with my PBH’s Free Fringe Spoken Word Artistic Director (try saying that seven times quickly!) hat on:

This year, we’ll be putting on a digital version of the Fringe. Yes, things may change for the better and there may well be possibilities of socially distanced shows in the actual city of Edinburgh, but we also want to broaden out what we do, making it more accessible and more innovative, while still remaining free to both performers and audience, emphasising the role of a creative community in supporting each other, especially in these still-weird times.

We realise that a fair number of people find the idea of running/ creating digital shows unfamiliar and disorienting/ disconcerting, but we will also be providing a plethora of advice, guidance, tips and tricks (to audience as well as creators!), and face-to-face (online) training, as well as putting together a catalogue of useful resources from equipment and venue hire to filmmakers and audio specialists to marketing and social media integration. And we want to emphasise that you don’t need fancy equipment to make digital shows – one of our experts has been waxing lyrical about the sheer amount of high-quality content you can create with a smartphone (and will be putting together mini how-to instruction videos with that in mind, among other things).

And the difference between this and the in-person Fringe is that the only limit is your imagination. You can give us 10-minute videos to platform or 24-hour recitation marathons. You can pre-record, do live Zoom shows, give us a Facebook Livestreaming link, or give us the means to platform your audio-only podcasts, interviews, etc. If it belongs online, we want to help you broaden your audiences during August. We’ll also help with social media tie-ins now we have experts on board to help with that.

And we’re looking at clever ways to include the social aspects of getting together during Fringe as much as possible. Not only by including open mics, slams, and other cabaret events, but also virtual social spaces for people to drop into and chat with each other.

If you’ve always wanted to give the Edinburgh Fringe a go and have been limited by budget, time, energy, etc., this could be your opportunity to not only get involved for the first time, but be part of the inaugural Digital Fringe. And if you’ve been missing the Fringe, we’ve been missing you too – it would be great to see you!

I’ll be running online discussion sessions on Zoom specifically for people who want to bring spoken word shows to the Free Fringe during April and May 2021 (every Saturday, 12:30-13:30 GMT) and want to talk about the possibilities in person, as well as running training sessions on running good Zoom performance events. If you’re interested in finding out more, there’s a Facebook group for all interested parties: https://www.facebook.com/groups/vswpbhff21 and you can sign up for discussions by going to https://discussvswpbhff21.eventbrite.co.uk to reserve a place. (You need to have an authenticated Zoom account to join.) Watch this space for news about the training sessions, coming soon.

In the meantime, any queries, please comment here or email pbhspokenword @ gmail dot com

Friday, 21 August 2020

Talking About Talking About Thinking About Change

I’m heading back to “real work” soon – or at least that part represented by an office job (which will see absolutely no geographical shift away from my study/io for the moment, so adaptation will be… challenging on that front) – and, as I ease back into morning meetings (unnatural!) and people with different priorities and vocabulary to those with whom I’ve been interacting of late, they’ve already been asking how my year of Sabbatical has gone, what I’ve got up to, all that. Unlike those who use Sabbaticals to travel the world, I don’t have a ready store of photos and maps to demonstrate, and the last 5-6 months of this have been… less than ideal, let’s say… What I will say about residencies and commissions and adaptation to extreme conditions and writing fanfic to keep myself sane (hyperfixation on research has been a great tool of denial) and finally being able to pick up the voice work again will – I suspect – sound super-vague, though I should really give these clever, sociable, professionally good communicators the benefit of the doubt! Besides: in some ways we’ve faced more of the same challenges this year than might have been anticipated…

And so, ironically, it’s the most recent work I’m engaged in that might resonate most with people whose job is managing business change, and the psychological stages that go with it. I’ve been creating a poem commissioned by someone who needs to use it to talk about death and grief in a non-religious way. (So obviously it’s one enormous metaphor and, being me, I’ve snuck in references to the four elements, water being somewhat dominant here.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of this process has been writing something that needs to fit someone else’s voice, to a certain extent, because this poem is to be a tool that will doubtless get reshaped by use. Today’s discussion included not only hearing which bits they felt they could use and others… less so… but having the client read it aloud, while I tweaked a couple of lines to fit that, noting what stumbled and what flew, making further notes for more deep-seated transformations later. This is something I do on an almost unconscious level when writing something for my own voice, but doing it for another feels almost like brand-new process for me, and luckily the client’s ability to self-reflect is both skilled and generously shared.

I’m pretty sure this process could not have worked without that trust.

It now occurs to me that this is (new analogy alert) like creating a garment for someone else to use - not only do you take detailed measurements at the beginning, but you have to get them to try it on so you can make some parts tighter, others looser, and ensure that yet others can stretch as necessary, depending on circumstances. Sometimes you have to unstitch an entire panel and do it again.

And the knowledge that the creation will shape the user as well as the consumer is a heady one.

This poem is going to be released publicly as well, at some point in the future, for other people to use if appropriate, and I find myself quietly excited by that prospect, again in a different way from usual. It feels good to make something for people to use, when art is so often seen as a decoration, a luxury, a nice to have, when it actually underpins so much of what it means to be human, connecting our present to past and future, communicating so many things and used everywhere. That this is to be, far more explicitly than usual, a tool, gives me a very calm kind of satisfaction.

And if that’s all I ended up having to show for this year, it would be a mighty thing indeed.

Photograph of the River Cam on a sunny, summer day, from one of the many bridges. There are rainbowed lens flare strands coming from above, but the sun is only seen reflected almost painfully brightly in the broad, tranquil river, on which there are swans (white scribbles on the water that might also be other stuff!). Large trees in full leaf frame the river and rowing club buildings are visible on the left-hand side, with canal boats moored on the opposite bank. The patch of common land seen on the right is a brilliant green, and there are a few fluffy clouds in the light blue sky.
River Cam, August 2010

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

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


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