Friday, 19 December 2014

I Can't Believe It's Not Utter!

The final London "Utter!" went out in the Amersham Arms in New Cross on Tuesday night, finishing - thank God - on a bang rather than a whimper, with eighty witnesses in attendance on a soaking wet late December night. The epic slam format did an enormous amount to showcase the strengths of the evening, highlighting the sheer diversity of styles the evening promoted, from experimental to unashamedly populist back to oddball outsider again. Rather than catering for one style or demographic, "Utter!" at its best always illuminated the broad scope of the poetry circuit.

There's a write-up on "Write Out Loud" which pretty accurately describes the goings-on that night, as well as deservedly praising Richard Tyrone Jones's hosting techniques - he had an enthusiasm and a glint in his eyes I hadn't noticed for many months, as if he was absolutely delighted to be butchering his Arts Council funded event after ten years. Perhaps he was. Scratch that - he definitely was.

As we approach the end of the year and pick on the bones of 2014, it's going to be tempting for people to assume that the termination of both "Utter!" and "Poejazzi" mark the demise of a certain post-performance poetry way of doing things, both of these events being big-name nights in the confused hinterland of the mid-noughties. That, I think, would be a horrible mistake. "Poejazzi" remained  successful until the end, the line being drawn under its existence having rather more to do with the increasingly busy lives of the people who ran it than disappointing ticket sales. The audience levels at "Utter!", on the other hand, were usually not to be sniffed at for a mid-week poetry night out; the rooms just weren't as packed as they had been in its heyday. The days of the "Green Note" events in Camden where the room was so heaving it was sometimes impossible to get to the bar had disappeared (the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes puppet show remains fondly remembered by the many people who saw it).

The London Poetry circuit is, as I've stated before, run largely on favours, love and sometimes a tiny bit of a helping hand from the Arts Council. Most promoters fail in their ambitions to build a popular, branded poetry night, instead running an event for two or three years before exhausting themselves and dropping their plans after feeling the sting of a few ill-attended and perhaps marginally disorganised nights. A handful of promoters manage to develop a strong events team and take things a lot further, creating a night which captures the imagination of punters and generates both acclaim and funding - but, as yet, incredibly few of these nights have enjoyed more than four or five years of consistent high level popularity. There's a peak in media attention and audience attendance before a slow downwards trajectory occurs.

The reason for this is rarely that people tire of a format or a host, but rather that the host and the team behind the event just get a lot older and more exhausted. Promoting and maintaining high standards at a poetry night is thankless, almost always financially and sometimes on a personal level too. Amidst the occasional prima-donna and awkward artist they can also often find themselves dealing with poorly paid and inexperienced venue staff, difficult drunken punters and unreliable pub sound systems. And amidst all this, they're expected to effervescently host live poetry, an art form which, while it may be "on the up", is still not front page news and still requires hard work just to get more than a handful of people through the door. Without distributing flyers, tirelessly promoting the evening online and having a reliable team behind you, you can forget about a good attendance even if your evening is a "brand name".

This is why there's so much regular wastage on the London Poetry circuit, and why I feel as if I've watched so many brilliant, well-run nights disappear over the last fifteen years I've been a gig-goer here. Keen, confident poetry-lovers in their mid-twenties soon turn into thirty-somethings with children to feed and increasingly demanding day jobs to attend to. The post-room clerk with big ideas and a love of literature in 2003 becomes the team manager and father-of-two in 2013. The night becomes a chore rather than a joy. It gets promoted less. The bookings go into 'roster' mode. Attendances drop. The ghost gets given up on. So it goes.

Of course, while this is sad and it does feel as if the expertise of a lot of event organisers is being ditched (surely there should be somewhere else these people can take their knowledge and talents?), so long as other people are passionate enough - and stupid enough - to step into the fray to take their place, London will still have an envious array of poetry nights. And that also brings me on to my main point. If anyone is tempted to see the demise of "Utter!" as being significant, believing that there's no longer a place on the circuit for innovative, broad-reaching poetry nights, I'd urge them not to worry. Stick all your energy, belief and naive enthusiasm into it, and the people will come. Yes, there may be events on the circuit that attract younger, more photogenic audiences, but live poetry has an easy cross-generational appeal and if there are obvious gaps anywhere in the London market right now, it's for nights that offer a bit of what "Utter!" always did. Well hosted events with a diverse booking policy, a magazine show of all the best that live poetry has to offer, imaginatively themed and promoted. Take the baton and run with it, friends.

Farewell "Utter!" I'll miss you. It's been a brilliant ten years. But I look forward to seeing what the rest of you have to offer.

(Don't try to create a one-off evening that's anything like "Utter Shit!", though. That was a harsh lesson for Richard as a host and me as a DJ. People seemingly aren't keen on novelty themed nights of plastic poetry and poetry about shite things combined with novelty techno, glam rock and brass band versions of Beatles songs. Who'd have thought it? It remains the only time in my life I've ever managed to clear an entire venue as everyone fled to the front bar at the end.…) 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The last ever London "Utter!"

The spoken word circuit is cruel. You're laughing, but it is. All niche art forms are. Think about it - in the worlds of live poetry (or whatever guise its operating under at any given moment), folk music, jazz, sculpture, and many other fringe art-forms, history is written by the winners. The people who are right at the forefront of the movements will always tell you it's never been better than it is right now, and the past when they didn't have a career was a bit of a shambles. Of course they would - they're at the top of the tree earning a living from it, and they'd hardly be likely to admit that their situation has all been a mistake. Often, of course, they also won't admit whose ideas they're borrowing or whose foundations they're building on to gain success. Artists are often rubbish at that sort of thing. Not you, of course - if you're reading this, I'm sure you're lovely.

I was a bit hacked off to read an interview with Richard Tyrone Jones in "Write Out Loud" where he explicitly mentions the fact that a lot of the people who worked hard to make sure the spoken word circuit developed have since not really reaped any benefits. The next "Utter!" on 16th December will be the last London event - though Lee Nelson will continue to operate Luton-based "Utter!"s - and it's sad that this poetry night should be bowing out after ten years of offering early opportunities to some of today's leading names.

Most performers on the circuit will happily admit that "Utter!" has been a fairer event than most, offering slots to all manner of different styles of poetry, from the experimental to the unashamedly populist. As a gauge of what's really going on in live poetry at any given moment, it's probably been a more honest sampler evening for new audience members than most other events which are increasingly targeting niche audiences. It's easy for uninformed people to kid themselves that there are two types of spoken word at the moment - urban and "serious, reflective" material - and not the wide cornucopia of styles in-between. "Utter!" dealt with that marvellously by offering mixed bills and opportunities for people who might not easily find major slots elsewhere. It also acknowledged history, as with the recent event showcasing performers from different decades of the circuit. At its best, it made the poetry world feel like a varied and colourful place, an arena with a past and present to be proud of.

I've said it before many, many times, but the only hope spoken word has of being taken seriously in the long-term is if develops a stronger sense of its own history, its own influences, and a more developed level of press coverage beyond the extreme, rabid standbys of "Poetry is dead!" and "THIS NEW FIREBRAND IS THE FUTURE OF ALL LITERATURE!" Try looking up live recordings of relatively successful spoken word artists from fifteen years ago online. Then try ten years. Having much luck? Is it an embarrassment of archive footage or just a few measly offerings? We need to both respect the young performers of the present and the people who made it possible for them in the past if we're to avoid having the same ditchwater dull conversations in the media in ten years time. Without a recorded past, without dialogue, we're giving nobody any background for their news stories apart from the shock of the new and the tragic, lonely death of the old as the next fashion change sweeps through. YOUR TURN NEXT. Though thanks is obviously due to sites like "Write Out Loud" who try to create an archive of news stories and interviews, and to the Internet in general for making a recorded history much easier and cheaper to achieve.

I do hope to see a lot of you at Utter! on the 16th. It finishes with a slam of new performers competing for a £300 prize. At least one of them probably will be a name to watch out for in the future. It's a given. And they had better bloody remember "Utter!", or I'll break into the performer's house when they've signed their major publishing deal and de-alphabeticise their spice rack. The Facebook event page is here

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf

Back in February 2013, one of my short stories "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" was published in issue 2 of "The Alarmist" magazine.

I was thrilled to bits. No, really. Not just because I love what "The Alarmist" do, but because while getting poetry published in magazines is a difficult, never-ending chore, compared to getting short stories published - particularly short stories which err a bit too much on the long side - it's a doddle. Not only do short stories take up a lot more space, meaning editors have to put a lot of thought into whether or not you and your possibly dubious concept deserve 10% of their publication's overall page quota, there are also fewer periodicals accepting them these days. To be brief, if anyone reading this is tempted to give up writing poetry to write shorts because they think there's more money in other forms of literature and it might make them famous, forget it. Stick with the poetry while everyone is still saying "Ooh, you do that! I like that Kate Tempest!"

("Short stories?!" spluttered a poet friend of mine. "Why don't you just write a novel? It's easier to get those released").

Anyway, nearly two years on, long after issue 2 of "The Alarmist" disappeared from most (all?) bookstore shelves, here's "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" online. It's the only example of a short story of mine on this site, and this isn't something I plan to make a habit of, but I do have quite a few others sitting around my house waiting for a magazine or publishing house to take them. So it may not be the last one you ever see, if I get my own way.

"Climb that 'if', Dave," says a voice, "and it's so big you can see Croydon from the top".
"Shut up and read the story," I reply.
"You seem to have drifted into Peter Gandalf's tone in this blog entry itself," retorts the voice.
"Yes, I just re-read it a few minutes ago," I confess.