Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How To Be A Poet And Not Damage Your Dignity

Hello. My name's Paul. We've probably not met before, because I've only been trying out my poems on 'the scene' (waves hand airily) for a year or so now, just feeling my way around, you know. Have you been doing this for longer? Oh. I thought you were new as well. Sorry. Are you sure you've been doing this for twenty years? Christ. I really, really thought you were a new poet, same as me. (Tries to suppress sneer). 

Anyway, have you been to "Bang Said The Gun" yet? BASTARDS. I asked them to book me and they said they wouldn't unless I won their slam, the fucking bastards. Have you sent your poems off to "Poetry London"? Bunch of pisswhistles. They just sent me a rejection slip back. Like, if I'm going to go to the trouble of sending you a poem, I at least want one side of A4 in return explaining why it's not publishable, don't you? That's my reward for all that effort and work. I expect respect. The problem with this circuit is that it's a giant cabal of cocksucking bastards. In the entire year I've been doing this, not one person has realised how great I am. (Continues at some length as the room slowly empties).

Sometimes when I speak to promoters and publishers and even literary critics, I get the distinct impression that absolutely every relatively inexperienced writer and performer talks like this, but I know that's not actually true. If everyone starting out in poetry happened to be an unreasonable egomaniac with more bitterness than talent and more mouth than charm, everyone would simply pack up their belongings and go home. Even the established practitioners at The Poetry Society and Apples and Snakes would quit and go off to get better paid jobs among more reasonable people at the House of Commons.

What is true is that there are quite a few people who end up getting remembered for their attitudes rather than their work, and unfortunately the circuit is so close-knit that this never ends well. The reason so many people have an unreasonable approach at first seems to boil down to their lack of realistic ideas about how the circuit is run. So, here's a few pointers for newbies, not necessarily meant to be taken literally in each case, nor treated as a wholly serious guide to success (Success? What's that?)

1. Promoters do not, at the end of every gig, head off backstage, roar with evil laughter, then have a money fight with all the bank notes they've accumulated.

You sometimes hear two very extreme viewpoints about poetry promoters. One is that they are wonderful, purely altruistic humans who are doing what they do solely for the good of poetry, for absolutely no personal gain or reward, and should be loved unconditionally. The other is that they're sociopaths and evil gatekeepers who are only interested in furthering their own name, gaining a career in the arts and creaming as much money off everyone else as possible on the way. Oh, and yeah, they only ever book their mates and people they want to impress, anyway.

As with most things in life, I very rarely - if ever - believe these two binary viewpoints are true of any promoter. There are many reasons to get involved. Some promoters start out because they see a stylistic gap in the circuit they want filled, and realise nobody else is going to cover that ground. Others feel that they understand how to attract bigger audiences to poetry and nobody else does, others need to have arts events experience on their CVs, others actually just think it's fun, the chance to throw a big literary party. I've met many different promoters with numerous motivations over the years.

I have, however, never met a poetry promoter who went into it for the money, and nor have I met a poetry promoter who doesn't actually appreciate poetry and doesn't feel that they're approaching the craft of curating and running a night in the best possible way. They may be horrendously misguided, they may not enjoy the same poetry you do, you may never be booked by them even if you frequent their evening every week from now until 2019, and you may think that's appallingly unfair… but if they're doing their jobs properly, they're also working hard under quite stressful and financially pressed conditions, and I can guarantee that if you aggressively argue with them for not booking you, that's it - you'll never get a gig at their night, and chances are you'll piss off their other promoter contacts into the bargain. Word gets around. But anyway…

2. Stop thinking that your entire career in poetry will explode as soon as you get a gig at that big name poetry night.

I was like you once. I'd never even performed a full-length slot in a small pub back-room, but I wanted Apples and Snakes to book me for a Big Gig. I wrote them a letter, filled the rest of the envelope with two quite good poems and about eight substandard ones (though I didn't appreciate how bad they were at the time) and waited. They didn't jump on me as the hot new talent in town, and they had no good reason to.

Back in those days, I had more of an excuse in that there were very few regular poetry gigs in London. Now, though, you can hone your craft at a cornucopia of open mics and slams, get better and better, and build your audience at the same time. The "right" people might not be in attendance, but every small gig, every seemingly unsuitable slot supporting a band or a cabaret act, will teach you to get good enough so that the big promoters will actually start to come to you. Expecting to get a plum gig within a year of starting to write and perform is a bit like expecting Universal to sign you on the back of a demo tape alone - it happens to some people, but the only reason these stories get told is because they're such bizarre anomalies. It's a horrible cliche, but there are usually no quick fixes to success, just a lot of hard work.

And even when you finally get that "big gig", that personal milestone, it probably won't break you. You'll usually need to do more and more to actually attain enough success to even consider quitting your day job. It's a long road ahead.

3. Nobody owes you a return favour.

It's a harsh truth, this, and it makes the poetry circuit - and indeed live performance in general - sound nastier than it actually is. But the fact is that what you as a newbie see at live events is normally held together with strings, scissors, glue and plenty of favours. It may appear slick and professionally run, but there are normally people chipping in their time and effort for incredibly little, if any, reward. Really, it's nothing short of miraculous that some nights keep going at all. The point is, the poetry circuit is overflowing with a community of people who do endless favours. Favours are the poetry circuit's equivalent of petrol. People struggle to keep track of them all.

You sometimes hear poets bitching that they helped someone out distributing leaflets for an hour at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010, and yet they haven't booked them at their night yet or published them in their magazine, or even praised their work on Facebook or Twitter.

Or they booked a poet at their small pub night, yet haven't been booked back at their big, well-known theatre event, and surely it would only be fair to expect a return invite? Isn't this how things work?

No, it's not. If you've offered someone a hand in any way, without being specifically asked, your name does not go to the top of a list of saints whose wishes must eternally be respected. If you do someone a favour, make it because you like them, like their work (or both) and let it rest at that. Have no expectations of anyone.

4. If you're a literary rebel, be prepared to work ten times as hard to get somewhere.

There are two types of literary rebels - the ones who are actually incredibly innovative, hard-hitting, experimental and exciting. I like these and wish they were supported by the circuit more. Then there are the really dreary "mavericks" who lean towards "delightfully politically incorrect" material or poetry incorporated with mime, slides of twee cartoons or Tai Chi or other such avenues which have remained largely unexplored for obvious reasons.

So, if you go against the grain I'll either love you or hate you. My personal feelings aside, however, you're always going to have a huge fight on your hands. Not everyone on the existing circuit is necessarily going to be generous enough to take risks placing your work amongst a much more conventional live bill, so you may find yourself in the position of having to build your own audience, your own networks of known sympathisers, and possibly even promote some of your own nights. Just like your heroes, you're going to have to accept that you're taking the path least trodden and it's going to take you a lot longer to get as much work as a highly entertaining comedy poet who can be booked at schools, comedy nights, cabaret nights and local festivals without fear. The unfortunate truth is that the more mainstream the work, the easier it is to find an appropriate place for it - but if you want to write for mass audiences, why don't you just go and get a job in advertising? There. You remembered.

A lot of literary rebels end up making the horrible mistake of turning into divas, arguing endlessly with anyone who won't book or publish them and drawing battle lines in the earth with their feet, even rejecting everyone else's work as "false", "part of a bourgeois system" and "single-handedly responsible for the death of poetry". And my good man, I know you're frustrated, but seriously… have you any idea how silly you sound to passers-by? You're making a spectacle of yourself.

5. If you don't like what other people do, they probably won't like your work either.

Seriously. This one simple rule has probably saved me years of wasted time in magazine submissions or approaches to promoters. If you don't like their style, they probably won't like yours. This is by no means universally true, but it's a hunch I've personally had confirmed so often that it now dictates my general approach to self-promotion (such as it is).

And anyway, submitting work to a magazine you privately (or otherwise) believe to be shit shows a complete lack of dignity.

6. You are not The Godfather.

When some people finally climb to the first little ridge on poetry's great cliff-face, they think they've arrived. By this point they've probably had a book out and it's had some favourable reviews (but poor sales). They've been invited to do a slot at a respected literary festival. They've been interviewed on BBC Radio Kent at 10pm on a Monday. Yes, the plan is all coming together at last.

Of course, they haven't got to the top. They've only just begun - and this would be the worst possible time to throw all that hard work down the drain by parading around demanding a slot at "Poetry Unplugged" long after the reading list has been settled "because I'm a PROPER poet", turning up to a reading and chatting loudly to people at the bar while someone is on stage nearby because you'd rather treat the gig as a networking exercise, or completely ignoring fellow poets when they try to talk to you at an event, waving them away with your hand as if to say "I'm busy" or just blanking them. And yes, I have pulled all these examples from real-life incidents I've witnessed.

A hint - very few people manage to read the reviews. Nobody heard you on BBC Radio Kent. You were on at 10pm, you vain pillock. And nobody is going to buy your bloody book at a live event if you've alienated them all (never mind the fact it's available in all good bookstores, most of the sales will still be at live events).

7. You are not going to become famous or become a generally respected figure in society.

This is poetry. People have been predicting an upturn in poetry and its absorption into the mainstream for as long as I can remember, and it never actually happens. Every decade seems to bring with it a few poets who will become reasonably familiar media names, but that's as far as it goes. You may be luckier in your timing than me, but I'll still be willing to bet hard money that you'll never be as well known as Jedward. Deal with it.

If you want fame, pick another art form or another job. You should be here solely because you want to be. The fact you write poetry is likely to be of little interest to that person you fancy (task - try telling people you're a DJ, then telling people you're a poet, and watch the difference in how brightly their face lights up), and your own parents possibly won't care. But you're here, among us, and… isn't that enough? Pull up a chair. Have a drink. I'll be here for you even if those other bastards aren't. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Being English (Work In Progress and complete)

Very few poets spit out their poems fully formed, and I'm no exception. In fact, I'm probably the worst offender when it comes to writing absolute, complete garbage on the first draft and having to slowly sculpt it into shape in order to get it to read and sound the way I originally meant it to. I'm acquainted with one reasonably well-known poet who claims that he's able to let ideas ferment in his brain for a few days before placing a reasonably tight first draft on paper. That must be the final stage in the poet's evolution, and one I've yet to reach. The preceding stages, drawing solely from personal experience, are:

STAGE ONE: "I have written something! It's mine! And because I've written it, and I am a unique individual on this Planet of Earth, it is unique and therefore good and needs little or no changing, for doing so would interfere with the purity of the art!" - the teenage years (though some people never get past this point).

STAGE TWO: "I've written a poem, and it looks mostly good to me, but obviously it isn't. I know that now, because I've received rejection slips with helpful feedback which tell me where my flaws lie, and also I'm beginning to learn what my cringeworthy cliches usually tend to be, and this has the distinct smell of some of those. But how to make it right? And if I put the red line through large chunks of it, aren't I losing a lot of lines I actually like a great deal? And what the hell do I replace them with?" - this may rest unresolved. It usually does. The work gets scrapped.

STAGE THREE: "This poem is shit (or mediocre if I'm having a particularly good day). Most of the lines need to be struck through, but I can't quite visualise the shape yet, and it's going to need weeks of constant revisiting before I feel even halfway confident about it".

I've been on "Stage Three" for most of my adult life. I was rummaging around on my hard drive a few weeks back when I found some really early drafts of a poem entitled "Being English" which eventually got published in a small magazine. But to prove my point about the way I work, the first draft is absolute drivel which really wouldn't have been touched by anyone - borderline adolescent drivel, in fact, shocking for one so old. But I can remember sitting down in a kitchen in Melbourne and having a very definite idea of the mood and how I wanted to sound, and these initial formless ideas were the best I could get to very roughly expressing that at the time. I knew it wasn't a final piece of work, I just wanted to throw some ideas at the wall. Like this:

Everything is what it is.
I accept that.
I stay out of everyone’s shadow,
unplug the television from the
wall at night and
double lock the door,
treat laughter on the street
with fear and suspicion.
Watch car crashes on
video replay with morbid fascination.
Laugh at bounty-hunting
idiots on TV quiz shows,
pretend I’m above what I’m enjoying.
Turn my flesh mud-coloured,
my pale eyes into jack marbles in
chocolate on the first warm day.
Elevate past one-night stands and
meaningless affairs into
relationships and milestones,
fear the possibility of stalkers
whilst looking up a past
lover on the Internet for the
third time this year.
Live life through lists of lists of
absolute order.
Have a straight faced,
non-frowning coinslot mouth,
feed thrice daily,
weather the delays,
weather life,
do with making do.

It would be rude not to.

Cringeworthy. The final piece, on the other hand - arrived at after a year or so(!) - utilises very little of the first draft, choosing to use the unpromising beginnings as a springboard for other ideas. It's not me at my best, but it's a long way from its hopeless origins.

We no longer speak of these things –

the spiders we swallowed.

What our lines are or
where they came from.

The invisible elastic rope
that ties us to the
bedpost of the past.

The cheap ticking,
plastic toy that remains
descended on cheap
melted glue from our
ribs to our stomachs.

We simply unplug the
television from the
wall at night,
distrust sudden
shouts of cheer from the
cul-de-sac outside, and
tie our shoelaces
neatly and tightly
so the loops do not
catch and drag the
feet of others
rudely along our path.

We are immeasurably,
utterly sorry for
every state of affairs, but
nothing must change.

The army burst into our
houses and told us we
were strong enough not to
deviate from this given path.
Once they’d beaten us
sixty times and we didn’t
weep, we decided
it must be true.

And why am I showing you this? No reason in particular, really, but I suppose it's to remind myself, and maybe a handful of other people as well, that the process is often long-winded and bad ideas in themselves are nothing to be ashamed of. You can wallow in the mood and the feel like a hippo in hot mud (or a pig in shit, whichever you prefer) until as many as 85% of the first lines are struck through and replaced with something workable, then reordered. For this poem, some of the drafts have notes next to them like "Still not there" and "almost there - keep?" as I got to grips with what I wanted to say. The first draft is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to tear up, just as the foundations of a house by themselves make a pretty laughable shelter. I just need to remind myself of this sometimes. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Zone 4

Standing at the point
Where the buses don’t just stop
But finish,
Where their destinations of
Nowhere somewheres
Roll round on displays
Like commandments on
Scrolls of silk,

I try to interpret
Meaning in the sounds of
Swallowed towns,
Like Debden, Sidcup and Ponders End,
Mouth melodies to
Places never mentioned in song,
Where empty, arching
Concrete shelters have been
Waiting since World War II
For their moment, their onslaught,
The time when the city arrives.