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.…) 

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