Sunday, 1 December 2013

People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young poets

Well... they don't, actually.  Let me give you a bit of background here.  Once upon a long ago when my profile was a bit stronger than it is at the moment, I scribbled a few words down as advice I'd give if I met a new poet on the live circuit and they asked me what pitfalls they should bear in mind.  I was going to place this on my MySpace blog (I told you this was a long time ago) but ultimately chickened out.  Who was I to be dispensing this information, after all?  Who did I think I was?  Luke Wright? Scroobius Pip?

But to hell with it.  My opinions on this aren't necessarily more or less valid than anyone else's, and whilst I genuinely don't expect a newcomer to turn to my blog for advice, it's always at least halfway interesting (and usually bizarrely controversial) to read somebody's angle on the mechanics of the London poetry circuit.  So here are some points...

1. If you compete in slams, for God's sake have some fun at them.

Away from the major competitions such as Farrago where the results can carry some weight, slams are primarily supposed to be fun, an entertaining alternative to open mics, so enjoy them as a night out.  Do your best, but don't be surprised if the novelty act or the cocky 16 year old with ideas above his/her station wins - audiences at slams are often illogical and just as likely to vote for some random eccentric who'll never be heard from again as they are somebody with exceptional delivery and ideas.  Therefore, whichever way the coin falls, accept the outcome.

There are also few slam events I've been to where somebody hasn't complained of "fixes".  "But it's not fair! The audience cheered far louder for me than they did for Roger the Rude, Nude Ranting Poet!" Doing this is proof in itself that you've forgotten to have fun at the event.  (And anyway, how could a poet like Roger fail to win, you liar?  That's everything you need, right there, all bases covered. I'm almost tempted to go out and create that act myself.  It's even better than my idea to create a novelty act called Gravy Davy, the rhyming poet who primarily writes about traditional roast dinners).

2. And slams shouldn't be your only training ground, anyway.

All too often serial slammers make the mistake of developing entire live sets based on their greatest hits.  Sets should arc effectively and shift and change mood to keep the audience interested - blast out very samey, high-energy ideas, and you're going to lose their interest quickly (or indeed vice versa).

So use the open mic opportunities open to you to experiment and develop other work as well.  For one thing, an open mic audience is going to respond to your work in a much more typical way than a rowdy  slam audience.  Get a feel for all the circuit, not just one corner of it.

3. Ten minutes slots should be carefully planned.

It's common for new poets to be given ten minute slots at events rather than twenty minute ones, and it's not a lot of time to play with at all.  You essentially have the amount of time it takes to listen to two modern hit singles to establish a rapport with the audience, give them your best poems, and get out of there having given them (and any promoters lurking) the impression that you'll be worth seeing again.  A lot of established poets would struggle with those limits, and it's a lot to ask of a developing artist, but  it's also something we've all had to do.

Given the above, the first question you should ask yourself is whether you're planning to include that 3-5 minute epic poem you're in love with.  The answer all too commonly seems to be "Yes", and it's often a waste of precious time.  Firstly, are you absolutely sure it needs to be that long?  If you strike a red biro through some of the lines or even whole stanzas, does it lose its overall message or impact?  If the workshops I've attended are anything to go by, the answer here is usually "Yes" once again, so I'll repeat my question... Are you sure?  Is the work actually not incredibly repetitious, and are you not finding lots of new ways to express the same idea or image over and over again?  Ten minutes would usually be better spent giving the audience a wide idea of the scope of the work you can do, and far apart from that, if half the room dislike the long poem, they may spend 3-5 minutes more time  disliking your work than they otherwise might.  With time limits like these, clock-watching becomes really important.

Above all else, don't be afraid of using the red pen.  Even if there are lines in the poem you think are too wonderful to lose, you can farm them out to other pieces of work.  I have a notebook filled with stray lines that are waiting to be placed somewhere new or written around, and I usually either end up completely going off them (meaning they were obviously never all that wonderful in the first place) or finding them a place in a new piece of work within a couple of years.  Either way, it's no loss.

4. Try not to apologise for poems in advance of reading them.

Even established poets do this, but that doesn't (in my opinion) make it right!  Poets tend to lean naturally towards self-deprecation, but if you apologise for a new piece of work or for the subject matter of a long-standing piece of work, audiences will be more likely to judge it critically.  Why should they do otherwise when you've already planted the idea in their minds?  It's OK to announce a poem as being a new piece of work in progress at an open mic if you're soliciting feedback, but I'd be careful about doing so in a live set people have paid to see, and I'd be doubly careful about adding the shrugging disclaimer "so it might be a bit shit, sorry about that".  It makes you seem like a nice, honest person, but it may not flatter your work, which should be the thing you care about most. Would an up-and-coming live band do this before a new song, or a comedian before a new routine?  Not normally, and there's a good reason for that.

5. The page/ stage (spoken word/ published poet) divide is a myth.

Well, it is and it isn't.  It certainly seems to exist in plenty of people's minds.  But here's my tuppence worth - if a non-comic spoken word act can't produce work which stands up on the page, they're not a very good poet and they're depriving themselves of numerous opportunities.  If, on the other hand, a poet's published work is fantastic but he/she mumbles towards his/her feet at a reading, they're still a good poet, but they're also depriving themselves of numerous opportunities (and possibly wasting the time and money of anyone who has actually paid to see them).

So-called spoken word poets and page poets - especially people who deliberately define themselves as such - could learn a lot from each other, and should.  If you're of the divisive "us and them" mindset (as a depressing amount of poets are) and believe that spoken word artists are beneath you, or you're a spoken word artist and feel that anyone with a Picador or Faber and Faber publishing contract is obviously an academic, elitist bore from whom you can learn nothing, your envy is blindingly obvious and is also costing you chances to develop.  As a punter I would love nothing more than to turn up to live events to watch amazing writers completely engage with audiences.  I'm not really interested in watching confident, cocky performers delivering below-par material, or excellent writers underselling their work and making it sound worse than it reads in my own head.  I'm sure this goes for most people.

In short - collaborate with each other more. PLEASE. Divides only exist because you're an insecure bunch of fools who put the barriers up yourselves in the first place.  Oh OK, it's not as simple as that, but that's as much depth as I'm prepared to go into on this debate.

6. The more poetry you read, the better you get.

This cliche is true.  As somebody who is also easily distracted by novels, biographies, music magazines, websites, episodes of "Coronation Street" and BBC documentaries on rock stars, this is also something I need to remind myself more.

7. Be nice to promoters and publishers, even if they're not keen on your work.

Even if you're widely loved, there are going to be promoters out there who won't like your work and aren't likely to consider giving you a gig.  I'm naming no names, but I know of at least one big-name poet who in the last year has struggled to convince a big-fish-in-a-small-pond promoter in a small English city that he's worth the trouble booking.

The best thing to do would be to take the rejection with good grace and accept that you won't be liked by everyone.  The absolute worst thing to do would be to start a fight - either on the Internet or in the real world - thereby drawing attention to yourself as a prima-donna and a difficult person to work with.

Also, a simple rule of thumb which seems horribly obvious on the surface, but still trips a lot of people up – target your work. If you don’t like what they produce or promote much, they probably won’t like your material either. Take it as a compliment if you want, but don’t start a war, or waste your time trying to subvert their particular project like a big poetry radical.  

8. Charm isn't a dirty word, although it is easy to be jealous of charming bastards.  I often am. 

Whatever field you work in or career you have, there are always going to be people who get more attention just because they’re “likeable”, or friends with a lot of the “right” people – sometimes more than they are actually talented.  Get used to it, or your teeth will be ground to dust before you get to the age of forty, whether you carry on writing poetry or not.  Or try to be pleasant yourself, in the hope you can also get work on the basis of your easy charm.  This is the harder option for many.  

9. If you don't want to play the game, don't play the game.

If you want to be as experimental, jarring, awkward, and/or offensive as possible, then don’t be surprised when it doesn’t make you popular, the mainstream doesn't recognise your genius, and you end up on the cultish fringes.  That's usually the nature of going against the grain.  If all you care about is being popular, however… then play the game.  But if it’s popularity you want in your lifetime, why did you choose poetry in the first place?

Ah, the riddles and woes of working in an underpaid artform.  

10. Dave, see point 3. This blog entry needs a lot of red biro lines through it.

Shut up. 

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