Sunday, 25 September 2016

On Not Writing

Regular Soapbox followers will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for some time. The quietness of the Soapbox is symptomatic of my writing life in general this year. I’ve been doing very little creative writing of any kind. A meagre handful of new poems. Some blog articles. A couple of pieces for the community magazine that I contribute to. And occasional forays into the epic fairy-tales that I write for my own pleasure, as a break from the serious business of life.

I know many novelists – published and aspiring – who agonise over the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’. But ‘writer’s block’ presupposes that you actually have the time and space and the desire to write – it’s just that when you sit down to do it, nothing comes. There are whole books of advice about it. But I don’t think I’m in the same situation.

My issue is more that the time to write hasn’t been there. The safe space in which to get the writing done hasn’t been there. Above all, the emotional energy which I believe is a prerequisite for any writing – perhaps poetry most of all – simply hasn’t been there.

I suspect a lot of people who write get periods like this in their lives. And I suspect most don’t like to admit it. The received wisdom – from the tutors, the guidebooks, and the writing magazines – is that we have to be writing. All the time. That somehow we’re not ‘serious’ writers if there are periods when this can’t happen.

All of which is, frankly, bollocks.

I’ve blogged before that you do not have to be a full-time writer to be a writer. JRR Tolkien wasn’t a full-time writer. Philip Larkin wasn’t a full-time writer. They had day jobs which paid the bills, and in Tolkien’s case inspired and preoccupied him every bit as much as the actual writing did. And the thing with day jobs is that they sometimes take over.

My day job, for the last year, has involved giving advice and legal representation to vulnerable households who are homeless or facing homelessness. It’s an amazing privilege to do this kind of work. The people I meet are extraordinary, fascinating, complex individuals. Some have serious health difficulties. Some have escaped abuse or violence. Almost all have been scarred to some extent by the present government’s persecution of the poor, the disabled and those at the margins of society. Every day I am honoured and amazed to be trusted with the stories of the hardships my clients have faced. Every day I am struck by their resilience in the teeth of terrible, sometimes tragic circumstances.

The trouble with a job like this is it’s very difficult to switch off from. I sometimes wake in the mornings realising that I have been dreaming about my clients’ cases, or trying to memorise tracts of law in my sleep. The hours are long, the work is demanding, the intellectual challenge enormous. This is all part of the reason why I love my job. But it’s also the reason that when I get ‘down-time’ from my work, I really do need to relax. To open up some emotional space for me to recover, otherwise I’ll burn out.

Now, to produce poetry requires a certain emotional space in which to be creative. To produce good poetry requires time and intellectual discipline, to work on refining those first drafts and turning them into material worthy of publication. Often, too, it requires time to get to workshops, critique sessions, open mics, to try out the material. All of this can be in short supply in a job like mine.

So that’s the reason I haven’t been writing much poetry.

I’m not beating myself up about this. After all, the work that I do is important. Let’s be honest, it probably makes more of a difference to more people than my poetry ever will. It’s an honour to be able to serve my community in this way. And it is, in many senses, a vocation. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Nonetheless, I find myself feeling I have to apologise to other writers for Not Writing. Every now and then I’m given the distinct impression that “I’m not taking things seriously” or “I’m not a proper writer.” But I don’t think either of these accusations are valid.

For one thing, writers need source material. And the clients I’m working with now are providing me with inspiration in bucketloads. Right now, I can’t write about them – partly because of client confidentiality, but more because I’m simply too close to the people and the events to be able to write about them with any kind of perspective. I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, these experiences of mine are going to generate vast volumes of words. It doesn’t matter that they’re not doing so now.

Many people discover (or rediscover) poetry, and other forms of writing, when they retire. With new-found space in their lives, and some distance from what was their day-to-day work, those nebulous strands of inspiration start to coalesce. Formative past experiences acquire a certain perspective.

I hope I won’t have to wait until retirement to be writing prolifically again. In the meantime, even if the creative spark is dimmed, I doubt it is snuffed out altogether. I still have a small back catalogue of unpublished work that needs to see the light of day at some point. I have fragments of new poems (often cathartic silly stuff, which at least keeps up the poetic discipline, and provides light relief at the local open mics). And I have a huge store of new experiences to tap into, when the time and the space is right.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t despair. And don’t, for goodness’ sake, let anybody tell you you are failing as a writer, just because you can’t do exactly what the textbooks say, all the time.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Power of Birmingham, or: is there poetry in the city?

My literary hero, George Mackay Brown, was once unforgiveably rude about Birmingham. “A poet could not choose a better place to be born than a group of islands, like Orkney,” he wrote in his 1993 essay Enchantment of Islands: A Poet’s Sources. “...If I had been born in Birmingham, for example, I would know that any creativity in me would be impoverished from the start, perhaps fatally.”

Closeness to the natural world, to ancient history and mythology, is a tremendous blessing for a poet, I agree. Most of my own poetry uses nature, myth and fairy tale as its starting point. But surely, surely he’s being unjustifiably harsh?

I have to admit that when I think of ‘city poetry’, the first examples that come to mind are largely negative ones. William Blake’s hymn to London could hardly paint a darker portrait of an urban landscape:

“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

“In every cry of every Man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

“How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening Church appals
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.”

Eliot’s The Waste Land is hardly much kinder with its haunting portrayal of urban desolation. And we all know what John Betjeman thought of Slough.

But hang on a minute. These strong gut reactions are poetry. You don’t have to be in love with a place to be deeply moved by its emotional undercurrents. What Blake and Eliot are trying to capture is the complexity of the urban setting and the effects of human habitation in close, crowded quarters. Both poets are reaching out to make a human connection within the ruins – and isn’t that what poetry is always trying to do?

Mackay Brown points out in his essay that ‘city poets’ such as Keats and Shakespeare were reliant on being able to retreat to the countryside in order to reinvigorate their muse. I’m in the same boat myself: I need open space, coast and sea, landscape and legend, to refresh me and to rekindle the poetic fire. But actually, not all that much of my own poetry is set in open countryside or the distant past. Most of it is in the city because that’s where people are – and it’s people, for me, that make the most fascinating poetry of all. “This is not the countryside, this is the cityside,” declares Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2. “The city is full of people, and people are very complicated.” It may be a throwaway quote from a daft film, but there’s more truth in this line than the script writers realised.

So: does living in Birmingham (or any city for that matter) really kill the creative impulse? I’m not convinced that it does.

Psychogeography – the fundamental connection between place and emotion – is a bit of a buzzword in poetic circles. And I believe the interest in psychogeography is a trend that makes poetry less introspective. It prompts poets to look outward, to understand how their past lives and their current psychological make-up have been informed by the landscapes of their past, as well as the places where they are located now. It prompts them to think about the politics of their environment, and its effects on the people who live there. And because most poets, like most people, have been born and raised in more or less urban environments, this could mean we are on the cusp of a golden age of urban poetry.

As I’ve got older, I have become more interested in tapping into the personal mythology of my childhood to find source material for my poetry. Seen through a child’s eyes, an urban landscape can be a place of wonder, terror and magic, every bit as much as a far-flung island can. My childhood in Merseyside was full of the strange and the mystical: the haunted railway tunnels of Green Lane station, the convent behind the high sandstone wall where we never saw a living soul, the aquarium with every colour of fish imaginable (and. incongruously, an impressive line in Space Invaders machines), the stained-glass hush of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, the treasure trove of Skeleton Records. I’ve lived in many different cities since then, each of which has got under my skin in a different way. Some I’ve loved, such as the 1990s Edinburgh that I commemorated in my first ever prize-winning poem, Joni Melts Wax in a Saucepan. Others have elicited more ambivalent reactions, as attested by the set of poems from my three years’ exile in Milton Keynes which became the heart of my Satires collection. And my ten years in York have mythologised my current home to a certain degree, too. This is a city where the Green Man catches the Number 10 bus home from work, but it’s also a city where couples at the sharp end of Cameron’s Britain are trying to find a new language of love in the teeth of austerity:

“Leaves confetti round,
a dark scarlet tumble. You laugh;

clasp my cold hand, warm it
between yours; pick a thread
that’s trailing down my sleeve. Kiss, and whisper
this is our show – our red carpet –
all these lights, just for us

(from Red Carpet)

I’ve lived in Birmingham, too. In fact, in my writing, the very word ‘Birmingham’ has taken on a whole new meaning:

“We banned the ‘L’ word from conversation
the third time Tainted Love came round on the jukebox.
Decided it was much less bitter, somehow,
slipping in something innocuous. Like ‘Birmingham’.

“We played the game
seven nights in a row.
You give Birmingham a bad name.
I’d do anything for Birmingham (but I won’t do that).
Too much Birmingham will kill you.
Birmingham will tear us apart...

When I wrote this poem, I was aiming at something more than a frivolous bit of word-play. The Power of Birmingham is an urban love poem, full of the tensions and uncertainties that are the heartbeat of a city:

“I walked you to the station
Sunday night at twilight,
the sky exploding violet.
You giggled, kissed my cheek
and said Birmingham is a wonderful colour.

“I waved you goodbye
and promised I’d text
and I shuffled my feet
on the concrete grey platform
and wondered when I’d see you again...”

Its sequel (which ended up being called Ever Fallen in Birmingham with Someone you Shouldn’t have Fallen in Birmingham With?) inhabits that disconnected space that I’m often aware of in a city environment, where the rapid changes that take place in the physical space mirror a shift in the emotional landscape too:

“I stop at the railway station corner
by the boarded-up letterbox.
Remember envelopes
sneaked through the slot,
jokes scrawled across the flap.
Birmingham really hurts without you.
Might as well face it, you’re addicted to Birmingham.
I don’t know who you are but you’re a real dead ringer for...

I wonder
about the ones that never got delivered,
the kisses and wishes
shut behind peeling flakes of fly-posters
for bands long since broken up. Silenced.”

Is there poetry in the city? Of course there is. It might not be the poetry of dramatic landscape and timeless mythology. But it’s there alright – in the cafes, the alleyways, the roar of traffic and trains; in the pulses of the people that are a city’s lifeblood, a poet’s stock in trade. You may have to dig a little to find the poetry, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

And you may really Birmingham the results!

(The Power of Birmingham appears in my collection A Long Way to Fall (Lapwing, 2013). Red Carpet, Joni Melts Wax in a Saucepan and Ever Fallen in Birmingham...? appear in my collection Satires (Stairwell Books, 2015)).

Monday, 18 April 2016

Testing times, hard choices

I don’t often write on the Soapbox about my day job. I spend so much time and energy talking about it offline that my readers who know me in the non-cyberspace context are probably fed up of hearing me bang on about it.

But every now and then, the day job overlaps with the concerns of the Soapbox, and sometimes I have stuff to say that is very uncomfortable indeed.

This is a story about Bradford Metropolitan District Council, who have just approved a programme to slash A MILLION POUNDS from the budget they provide for advice services across their district. That’s 27% of their advice budget axed in one fell swoop.

It may not be a very ‘poety’ subject to blog about, but I REALLY believe in advice services. I have a legal qualification, and during the day I work as an adviser with some of the most complex, most vulnerable households in Yorkshire. These are the people who are going to suffer the most from a cut like this. People who don’t have the resources to hire solicitors to represent them when trouble comes in their lives. People who very often don’t have the level of education necessary to represent themselves in court, or pick their way through the maze of the benefits system. People who lack the confidence (or the bloody-mindedness) to stand up to mistreatment at work. People with disabilities. With learning difficulties. People at the end of their tether. People, in short, who would get Royally Shafted By The System if it wasn’t for the fact that there are advice agencies that they can go to, for free, to access help with getting their lives on track, and legal representation to help them fight for their rights.

Advice agencies have had a hard time of it in recent years, thanks to the Tory-driven austerity agenda. The Legal Aid cuts which took effect in 2013 have decimated the services which used to provide advice to the vulnerable. Many agencies (including big national agencies like Citizens’ Advice Bureaux) have relied on local authority funding to keep afloat in the face of government cuts. Others have had to make large-scale redundancies, or even close altogether.

The massive cuts to the advice service budget in Bradford are inevitably going to be a hammer blow to a region which is one of the most deprived in the UK, with a high proportion of residents who do not have English as their first language and so face even bigger difficulties accessing help when they need it. Organisations will close. Committed and experienced advisers will be made redundant. The chances are that because of it, there will be families who lose their homes. Employers who will get away with discrimination and bullying. Victims of crime who will never get redress for what they have suffered.

What has this got to do with poetry, I hear you ask?

Well – leaving aside the obvious answer that poetry is born out of the stuff of human misfortune – I bet quite a few of my readers are followers of the Ilkley Literature Festival. A number of you will have been to events there. Some of you may even have performed there. A year ago you will have got the same string of emails as I did, warning the Festival’s supporters that Bradford Metropolitan District Council were proposing to end their regular block grant to the Festival, and urging all its supporters to sign their petition asking the Council to protect the Festival’s funding.

The petition succeeded. Ilkley Literature Festival kept its Council grant. But when that is set alongside a 27% cut to the advice service budget, am I alone in feeling that there may be a case of distorted priorities here?

Yes, the arts are important. I stand by what I said in an earlier Soapbox article about how in a time of recession, the value of communal participation in the arts goes way beyond mere pounds and pence. I’m also all too well aware that certain vested interests are not all that keen on the voices of grassroots arts practitioners, particularly when they use those voices as a vehicle to question, challenge and protest what is being done. And I don’t envy the choices that had to be made by Council officials looking at ever diminishing budgets, and knowing that the axe had to fall somewhere. When we're talking £11,000 versus a million, it’s unlikely this was an “either/or” decision.

But I still can’t help being uncomfortable that Ilkley Literature Festival kept its funding, when advice agencies have lost theirs. When friends and colleagues of mine are being made redundant, and vulnerable households can no longer turn to them for support and advice.

The thing is, Ilkley Literature Festival is massive. It takes place in “the rich bit” of Bradford MDC’s administrative area. It has private funding from trusts, corporate sponsorship, and donations from benefactors. If it had lost its Council funding, the Festival would have survived. Yes, it might have had to tighten its belt, to think about a slightly less ambitious programme for a year or two – but as I’ve argued before, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ilkley Literature Festival should not believe itself entitled to anything. Other festivals don’t – I write relatively fresh from seeing what a great programme the York Literature Festival managed this year without any local authority funding and with no Arts Council grant. It would not have been a disaster had Bradford MDC withdrawn Ilkley Literature Festival’s funding; it would have just meant that its fundraisers had to get a bit cleverer.

But it is a disaster that Bradford’s advice agencies are going to be making people redundant, and withdrawing services that the most vulnerable in the community rely on. If we poets are going to get angry about anything, let’s get cross about that, for heaven’s sake.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Don't Pay the Ferryman, or The Perils of the "Greatest Hit"

As results day for the National Poetry Competition approaches, and the deadline for this year’s Bridport Prize looms, I have no doubt there are many up-and-coming poets dreaming of how one of these prizes could change their lives. If you’re one of them, I don’t blame you. The poetry world is such a thankless one for so much of the time that frankly any kind of recognition from the establishment is cause for celebration. A win in the Bridport or the National could even be career-changing, as the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Colette Bryce can testify.

But a big win like this could be something of a poisoned chalice, in its own way.

I do enter these competitions, from time to time. Well, OK, not Bridport – I’ve blogged before about why not – but I try and use my Poetry Society member’s free entry to the National every year. Yet when I do, there’s still a lurking fear that any dreams of success could mutate all too easily into nightmares. That, in short, a big win could turn me into the poetic equivalent of Chris de Burgh.

For the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to explain. Back when I were a lad, before middle age and cynicism set in, there was a badly dressed troubadour whose songwriting I followed avidly. He lived in a castle. He had eyebrows like two large Tiger Moth caterpillars. And he was the nearest modern equivalent to the travelling minstrels of medieval times, wandering the countryside with his repertoire of fairy tales and murder ballads. They were quirky, subversive, rude and occasionally iconoclastic – and I loved them. I still remember, as an impressionable schoolboy, the shiver that went through me the first time I listened to Spanish Train. A song about God and the Devil playing poker for souls – not the sort of theology I was usually exposed to by the Christian Brothers! I remember singing duets with my brother, staggering half-drunk through the streets of Birkenhead, on the way home from some party or other: oh the leaves are falling and the wind is calling and I must get on the road. I was never all that rebellious in my youth; but somehow blasting out Patricia the Stripper on the sixth-form ghetto blaster when the head of year walked past seemed to make up quite nicely for all the absinthe, marijuana and fornication that I never had the nerve to attempt. To this day, if you catch me at the wrong moment after a beer or two too many, I can treat you to a full rendition.

You see, back in the day, Chris de Burgh was actually rather good. He was like me: a compulsive storyteller. He was fascinated by fairy stories. He sang some of the best peace songs ever written. Occasionally he was really rude, in a naive, Benny Hill, chasing-scantily-clad-women-in-circles-round-the-nearest-tree kind of way. My brother, the metal-head, used to play the Apocalypse Cycle from Into the Light at full volume in his hall of residence, and fellow students really thought it was the next big thing in heavy metal. Chris de Burgh could be all things to all people.

But then it happened. This bard with the razor wit and the rainbow voice went and had a hit. A huge hit.

Yes, with a twitch of one megalithic eyebrow, de Burgh secured his fortune for the rest of his life. And buried his career with it.

Now this is the problem. Ardent follower though I am, I have to confess that nine times out of ten, the reaction I get at the mention of Chris de Burgh (apart from “Who?”), is “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” It doesn’t matter how much I talk about the radical back catalogue: the songs about strippers, or murderers, or celestial poker games. “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” is all I hear. Unless I’m talking to a blue-rinsed Daily Mail reader, at which point I get really hot under the collar, because CHRIS DE BURGH WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE ENJOYED BY BLUE-RINSED DAILY MAIL READERS!

There we have it: the curse of the “greatest hit”. One big success, and you can be pigeon-holed for life. You may spend the remainder of your creative career trying to replicate the magic formula – and kill off your creativity in the process. Think of all the great novelists who produced one successful novel in their lifetimes, and never published anything thereafter because they simply couldn’t come close to recapturing the magic of that first triumph. Or the ones who had a big success and followed it up with dozens of sub-standard re-runs. Or the ones forced into doing something so radically different that their original fans are left baffled and alienated, and who never quite win new ones.

There’s also the risk that even if you do follow up the “greatest hit” with something wonderful, the public just won’t want to know. Another of my favourite hippie troubadours, Ralph McTell, suffers from this more than most. He may have a good 45 years’ worth of wonderful songwriting under his belt but he's still expected to wheel out Streets of London at every opportunity. “Streets of London Syndrome” was brilliantly lampooned by the Big Train team back in the 1990s, but there’s a truth behind the joke. I know one award-winning poet who loathes his “greatest hit” with a passion, but has to perform it at every single gig because this is what the audience demand.

I’ve got to be honest. I can’t really defend The Lady in Red. The best I can do is point out the injustice that plenty of far more “credible” musicians have recorded far worse songs, and somehow kept their reputations intact while de Burgh’s has been ground into the mire. On a sliding scale of awfulness, The Lady in Red might score a full 9 out of 10, but Wonderful Tonight – quite possibly the most nauseating song ever written? – merits at least 30,000: and yet there are still people who claim that Eric Clapton is God! And what about Stevie Wonder? A songwriting genius, it’s true; but why is he allowed to get away with the sentimental bilge that is I Just Called to Say I Love You, while de Burgh gets pilloried for an inconsequential little ditty about his ex-wife’s red dress? It doesn’t matter how much I protest that The Lady in Red was an aberration, that he shouldn’t be judged on the strength of one embarrassing song. Judged he is, and probably always will be.

This is why I dread becoming Chris de Burgh. It’s the lurking fear that, were I to have a big hit sometime in my poetic career, it will be the start of a slippery slope. That I’ll cash in. I’ll sell out. Or else I’ll yearn to do something different, but won’t be able to get gigs unless I keep performing the same old “classic”. I dread that one day I’ll make one concession too many, and everything worthwhile that I’ve ever done and stood for will be lost in a single act of all-consuming mediocrity.

I’m going to go on protesting the greatness of Chris de Burgh. Every few years he’ll create a peace song of epic proportions, and remind me exactly why I used to revere him. The trouble is that for every Up Here in Heaven or The Last Time I Cried there are a dozen unnecessary re-runs of The Lady in Red. And they don’t exactly help my case.

I try not to get too despondent. I still want to believe that in years to come, the reputation of Chris de Burgh will be redeemed – that our children’s children will be able to sing his songs the way I used to sing them, with sparkling eyes. But in the meantime I feel the tug of an expanding waistline. I catch a whiff of that expensive malt whisky I never used to be able to afford. And I know that if I ever wrote the literary equivalent of The Lady in Red, I would probably go the way of Chris de Burgh.

So don’t pay the ferryman, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t even fix a price.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Clap clinic...

Yonks ago, I remember a poet at a performance explaining that you can classify a poem by the kind of onomatopoeia it elicits. There are “ooh” poems. There are “aah” poems. There are “oh!” poems. There are “hmmm...” poems. There are “fffff” poems. There are “ouch” poems. And occasionally there are “ha!” poems too.

Every one of these responses, in its own way, is a sign that a poem has succeeded. In some poetry readings you can gauge the impact of a poem by the volume of the wordless response from around the audience. It’s most obvious with the ‘instant impact’ poems, which tend to be in the “ooh”, “ha!” or “ouch” categories. But sometimes a particularly good poem needs an appreciative silence, to allow the impact of the words to sink in. A “hmmm” poem can become an “oh!” poem as understanding dawns on the listener. A love poem (usually an “aah”) may have a sting in the subtext, turning it into an “oh!” or even a “fffff”. Two of the First Prize poems I’ve chosen from competitions I’ve judged (Kate RhodesThe Movement of Bees and Joanna Ezekiel’s Homecoming, if you’re interested) fall very much into this category – I’ve heard Joanna perform the latter, and heard the audience making exactly those responses. And it’s one of the joys of a good poetry reading, to allow the poems space to take root in the consciousness of the audience, to allow the responses to unfurl in exactly this way.

There are many ways to show appreciation for a good poem. The evocative onomatopoeia may well be the highest compliment a poem can elicit. An appreciative (or even a shocked) silence can be another. And so can a round of applause.

But here’s the thing. A round of applause may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!" poem, or an “ouch” poem. And let’s face it, performing poets love the adulation. But what may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!” poem may be exactly the wrong response to the more subtle piece of poetry – the “hmmm” poem that needs space, and perhaps needs silence too, to sink in. There may even be a risk that a premature round of applause can shatter a carefully woven atmosphere, detract from the substance of the poem, and rob the audience of the chance to really feel what the poet is getting at.

One of my regular correspondents, poet Angela Topping, puts this bluntly. “I ask for a silence so the poem can do its work,” she blogged in August 2015. “To clap at the end of a one or two minute poem is like drinking tea from a delicate china cup, and then shattering it against the wall.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, to be honest. As the MC of a long-running open mic night, I’m well aware of the value of a good round of applause as a sign of affirmation. It’s particularly important for those who are new to writing poetry, or to performing it in public. It also matters a lot to those visiting a performance night for the first time, who may be seasoned performers but could well be strangers to the rest of the audience. The enthusiasm of an audience response can be the difference between that person coming back, and maybe becoming a regular, and them never darkening your door again.

So I was rather disconcerted when, after a visitation from the good people at Write Out Loud last year, The Speakers’ Corner came in for criticism precisely because not all audience members clapped every single poem that was performed. The majority got applause, or at least that was my impression. But for other poems, the response was more along the lines of the considered “hmmm” or the admiring “oh!”, and the poets for the most part took this as a sign of affirmation of their work just as they would have done had they been met with a round of applause. There was certainly nobody who performed that night who wasn’t roundly applauded at the end of their set, whether or not there were claps between poems.

I didn’t think this was an especially big deal. The audience at Speakers’ Corner is always supportive. We don’t boo. We don’t heckle (unless we know the performer very well, and know they won’t mind). We listen really attentively, especially when newcomers are performing. Saboteur Award winner Steve Nash gave his first public performances of poetry at Speakers’ Corner, and even gave us a word of thanks in an interview to Write Out Loud because of the quality of the welcome and the support he always found from the Speakers’ Corner audience. There have been plenty of others, through the years, who have first performed for us as nervous newcomers, and gone on to write prize winning poetry and perform at slams and spoken word shows.

Our visitors from Write Out Loud saw it differently, however. In fact, in one-to-one feedback after the event, I was told that one or two of the group had been planning to perform for us that night, but had been put off doing so precisely because they didn’t think they would be applauded. They therefore didn’t feel that their poetry would be welcome.

That stung and saddened me. I’d hate to think of anybody coming to Speakers’ Corner and feeling that their poetic offerings are not going to be appreciated (unless they are using their verse to extol the virtues of Nigel Farage, possibly). I’ve been soul-searching for the better part of a year to work out if we were doing anything wrong, and if so, how we can improve. And to be honest, I haven’t come up with any answers.

I don’t want to insist that the audience clap every poem. I’d rather have the appreciative murmur for the “hmmm” poem, the shocked silence when someone performs an especially hard-hitting piece. Should we applaud a poem about a rape? Or about the drowning of a Syrian refugee? My gut tells me that applause for the poem is not the right response (though applause for the poet, in due course, certainly would be). I want the audience to have the freedom to exercise the right not to applaud if that poem about the virtues of Nigel Farage gets an airing. But I don’t want anyone to feel that the possibility of not being applauded means a risk of them not being appreciated for sharing their creativity with us.

(Photo (c)

Sunday, 24 January 2016

To pay, or not to pay...

January 2016 is the tenth anniversary of The Speakers’ Corner, the poetry and spoken word open mic which I have MCed for seven of those years. Over that time we have committed ourselves to providing a platform for up-and-coming local writers, giving them a chance to perform their work on an equal status with the often award winning poets who appear monthly as our guest features. We pride ourselves on being an accessible, non elitist event – both in the types of spoken word that get shared in the open mic (ranging from the unashamedly populist to the at times breathtakingly complex) and in our policy of keeping entry fees as low as possible so that nobody is priced out of coming along.

It was with rather a heavy heart that I began 2016 with an announcement that I was doubling the entry fee for our monthly event.

Yes, that’s right. The price of admission to Speakers’ Corner has shot up to a staggering £2 per person.

This wasn’t a decision I took lightly. Speakers’ Corner has always been, and will always be (under my tenure, anyway) a grassroots arts event. Since time immemorial the door money has been fixed at a mere £1. There were good reasons for asking for that £1. Even when an event runs on goodwill, there are expenses that have to be met – the cost of publicity flyers, for instance. We have also been committed to making a payment towards our guests’ travel expenses (and to covering them in full, wherever we can).

This is really important: because Speakers’ Corner has never been able to pay its guest features a fee for coming to perform for us. So the least I can do is ensure that if guests want to share their creative work with us, they are guaranteed not to be out of pocket for doing so.

It is the increasing burden of travel expenses which has forced the 2016 price rise. That, and the habit of a small minority of participants to not pay their statutory £1. Most years, the event breaks even. In 2015, it ran at a loss – it was only the generous decision of a couple of our guests to waive their travel expenses which stopped me from having to shell out my own money to keep the event viable.

I had to take the view that this couldn’t continue. A £2 entry fee will mean we can be a little more generous in our travel expense allowances, and possibly build up reserves to invite guests from slightly further afield. Any surplus will be donated to the charities supported by York’s Arts Against Homelessness initiative – so we remain firmly not for profit, and now have a chance to give something modest back to the community too.

Nonetheless, I am distinctly uncomfortable that we are in this position in the first place. I don’t like being an event that can’t afford to pay its guest features. But such is the reality of trying to support grassroots art. We have never had Arts Council funding, or the backing of an established arts outlet – and we certainly don’t have wealthy patrons! In such circumstances we can only pay out what we take in. Long-time Soapbox followers will know how vehemently opposed I am to the idea that access to the arts should be controlled by people’s ability to pay. My principle has always been to keep Speakers’ Corner running at the lowest possible cost to its loyal punters.

There was a certain irony in reading that a literary event much bigger than mine has just got itself into hot water over the selfsame issue. Philip Pullman’s resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival has set tongues wagging, and rightly so. The worker deserves his wages, and creative people deserve a fair wage for the results of their creativity. But I have a certain sympathy for the Festival, which suffered a barrage of negative publicity over its failure to pay its guest authors. Like us, Oxford Literary Festival has no grant funding and no wealthy patron. It has to be self-sustaining, or it won’t function. And somewhere along the line, the Festival organisers made the decision that it was better to keep a literary event alive by presuming on the goodwill of its headliners, rather than bankrupt itself by undertaking to pay out more in fees than it was going to recoup in takings at the door.

There is, of course, a huge difference between Speakers’ Corner on the one hand, and Oxford Literary Festival on the other. We are a regional event in the back room of a pub, twelve times a year. They have been going 20 years and have over 500 events on their programme.

All of which suggests to me that Oxford Literary Festival’s fatal mistake is one of failing to cut its cloth appropriately. You simply can’t grow to a 500-plus-event festival without a stable financial base. It seems ludicrous to me that they have done so. If the only way they can afford 500-plus events is by not paying the people who are the reason for the Festival even existing, then why aren’t they doing 100 events instead, or 50? All festivals go through lean times. Even the most successful can miss out on Arts Council funding, or lose key sponsors. The correct thing to do is to retrench and plan for something bigger and better when resources allow.

There’s a certain arrogance in Oxford Literary Festival’s assumption that it can carry on as usual simply by presuming on the goodwill (or the vanity) of its authors. I hope this is a mistake we won’t make at Speakers’ Corner. I am thrilled that there are fantastic writers in the region who want to come to York to share their creative work with us, and don’t mind doing it for nothing more than a beer and the chance to sell a few books. But I know that what we do at Speakers’ Corner is only one part of what goes to make a vibrant and varied arts scene. We need the big events, the Arts Council funded ventures, the festivals that do commit themselves to paying a fair rate to those who make things happen. And they need us, too – to generate audience, enthusiasm, to showcase the stars of next year, and to keep the spoken word where it truly belongs. Among the people, from the people, and for the people.

There’s a separate debate raging off the back of the Philip Pullman issue: and it’s the one that mistakenly equates professional (in the sense of those who can command payment) with good, and amateur (in the sense of those who will work for beer) by some sort of spurious logic as rubbish. I’ve had words to say about this in previous Soapbox posts. I’m sure I will have more before the dust settles.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Bridport Blether, part 2: The perils of the sifting committee

The annual announcement of the Bridport Prize winners always generates a bit of controversy. This year’s judge, Roger McGough, certainly didn’t mince words in his judge’s report. He talked about “feelings of déjà-vu” as he read the 200 poems culled from 7,000-odd entrants to make up the 2015 longlist, and of “emotional overload”. Reading many of the poems, he said, “seemed like an intrusion into a very private grief”. And what was missing, according to McGough? Rhyme, for one, was so scarce that McGough confessed to be “gasping for a villanelle or the whiff of a sestina.” Moreover, the few rhyming poems that did make it into his postbag “offered more in style than content.”

Many poets will also be intrigued by McGough’s lament at how little anger there was in this year’s longlist. “Where was the rage?” he demanded, adding more sarcastically: “our politicians can sleep soundly in their beds, the poets are not assembling in the street outside.”

So what on earth went wrong?

Well as far as the winning and commended poems were concerned, nothing at all. McGough was generous in his praise for these poems and their writers (and I echo his praise, I’ve been a fan of third-prize winner Julia Deakin for some years). But something seems to have gone badly awry somewhere between the submission process and the choosing of the longlist. McGough blamed himself, to a certain extent, noting that his early encouragement to produce “poems that I wish I had written” may have resulted in a glut of poets trying to write in the style of McGough, rather than in their own unique voices and styles. But surely this can only be part of the story?

I don’t believe for a minute that poets are not writing angry poems. My recent blog on political poetry remarked on just how enraged arts practitioners up and down the country are at some of the things done in our name (or not done) by governments and vested interests purporting to act for the benefit of the nation. Nor am I persuaded that poets aren’t working in rhyming verse forms; at open mics, and occasionally at writing workshops, I’m always coming across examples of original, often brilliantly witty rhyme. So I’m sceptical that there were no examples at all in the Bridport postbag.

More likely, the poems arrived, but someone stopped them from ending up in the longlist that was passed to the guest judge.

Roger McGough wasn’t the only person judging the Bridport Prize. Between the arrival of the 7,000-odd entries and the finalising of the 200-strong longlist, a whole committee of ‘sifters’ were at work deciding which poems would get through to McGough, and which wouldn’t. If certain types of poems were conspicuous by their absence from the longlist, it seems to me that the logical explanation for this is that the sifting committee decided they didn’t want those poems in the longlist.

Of course, I have no proof that this is what happened. But my suspicions seem to be borne out by McGough’s own account of what he was told by the head of the sifting committee, one Candy Neubert, who reportedly felt that the standard of submissions this year was “disappointingly low”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the excluded poems weren’t any good. Poetry, after all, is notoriously subjective, and what works for one reader may be a turn-off for another. Was the competition strengthened or weakened by their exclusion? Probably we’ll never know.

Sifting committees are common practice in the bigger competitions. And it’s easy to see why. 7,000-plus entries take time and emotional energy to read. And big-name judges are unlikely to do the work for minimum wage. Even a competition with the resources of Bridport would soon bankrupt itself if it expected the guest judge to consider every entry. And there’s the logistical issue that 90% of those entries will arrive in the last two weeks before the closing date. With a finite window of time until the planned announcement of the winners, reliance on a sole judge can mean some very late nights for the judge – and serious uncertainty for the competition organisers if the judge has to deal with unforeseen problems. A bout of ’flu at the wrong time could mean a missed deadline, a delayed announcement, and considerable expense and embarrassment for the organisers.

The competitions I’ve judged in the past have never had postbags bigger than a couple of hundred poems (and a similar number of short stories, in one case). Even so, the first time I was a judge I quickly discovered that it took considerable forward planning to create the time and space to give each entry the attention it really deserved. The decision as to which of the shortlisted pieces actually got the prizes sometimes had to go down to the wire. And that’s when there are just a couple of hundred pieces of writing. Carole Bromley, who has been sole judge of the YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Competition since its inception (and was on the Bridport shortlist herself this year), had the herculean task of judging 1,736 poems in the space of about 4 weeks earlier in the year. She tells me that this was no easy task.

So perhaps sifting committees are a necessary evil. But in the larger competitions, they surely only add to the nagging sensation that there’s an element of the lottery about whether or not your poem gets picked. I mean no disrespect to the winners. It takes huge skill to craft a Bridport Prize-winning poem – I would never dispute that for an instant. But one wonders how many potentially Bridport Prize-winning poems never make it as far as the guest judge because someone in a sifting committee has already decided that they’re not quite the right thing this year?