I think writing these reflections on a weekly basis should allow me some time to actually pause and think: what have I done this week? Often I make being “productive” a priority and aside from the daily grind and socialising (even if it just video calls and walks in the park for now), I often don’t feel creatively fulfilled. Aside from the importance of certain issues going on in the publishing world right now, I’ve been thinking about the idea of six-figure salaries being made through art, or even salaries close to the mark. It feels so far removed, and as much as I want to shake off the idea of the “struggling artist”, the idea of money and art is something that gets even more messy in my head when you start to combine it with ideologies like feminism, as well as subject matters like grief. Yet, here I am below, promoting my piece Circles for the Living Record Festival, trying to act like I’m talking to someone in the bar. I can be a pretty awkward person sometimes, so maybe it is realistic enough!
Being born into capitalism, valuing ourselves does seem to be linked with monetary value. Even as I’m writing this, I feel like I’m not valuing myself enough. I’ll use self-deprecating humour as a defence mechanism. I worry that I’m not putting the time into my art and creativity partly because of capitalism and chasing after the money (even if it only pays 3p per word), but also because I’m not believing in myself enough. I like my work, and I think it’s also getting better, yet even receiving compliments on it feels surprising.
Circles is new to the world, but for me, it’s something I’ve been holding onto for a long time, and this is part of me letting it go. I want to give myself the time to work on my other creative projects, whether they see the light of day or not. I’m slowly working on a new collection of poems that I feel is pamphlet length, a kind of memoir that even if I published under a different name would still contain too many identifying features, and a spoken word show that has been way too long in the making.
For now, I’m going to try my best to promote this show, as a celebration of what I have created, knowing that however many people it touches, it is important to someone else other than me. I remember reading the piece when I supported Sabrina Benaim at London’s Bush Hall. It was incredible to see the mass of people watching live poetry, but also felt great that audience members also appreciated my work, whether they bought my book or cried during my piece, hopefully allowing them to heal a little. In me letting this piece go, I hope others will be able to let go some of their own pain, whether from grief or lost love.
I was at primary school when I first learnt what the word ‘hypocrite’ meant. I remember because I recall shouting it at other players during after-school netball games. I say shouting, but I’m quite softly spoken and so maybe I wasn’t all that loud. But I remember one friend laughing at me as I said it. Those who get close to me will learn this strange mix of vehement-quiet-girl still exists within me (why I’m so excited for the Shy Radicals book).
It was when I was a teenager, that I began to see my parents – and adults in general – as human beings. With flaws. One of those flaws being that they were massive hypocrites. As a child who had school reports detailing my strong sense of right and wrong, it was only natural that I developed this idea that being a hypocrite was not something I wanted to be, and with that I found it hard not to be overly righteous in defending my views. I never believed that I would become a hypocrite.
But maybe I was wrong. If I am to analyse the details of everything I do, I regularly go against what I believe in. I can do a lot better. And although I’m taking steps towards doing better, there will always be things I do that don’t live up to my ideal version of myself, especially when it comes to making money. For example, my current day job is teaching English as a foreign language. It can be a very rewarding job, yet, a big part of me is also uncomfortable about the fact that there is so much demand to learn English. It reminds me of how privileged I am to have been born where I was. Such a small country, such a widespread language, such a horrible history of colonialism.
And here I am, post-Brexit, living in Spain, not able to speak the language – because if you know English, why bother with any other language? Even the one of your heritage. My plan, to return to the UK, hopefully better acquainted with Spanish, and focus on my career as a writer. I feel I haven’t given myself the chance to properly try to live my dream. For a dream, I know it will seem less of that in reality, that it will be a struggle. But then so is working full-time and trying to work in the arts as a second job. It’s time that I make it a priority.
And in doing that, it’s likely my morals may be called into question. I might still be a hypocrite, and I might face dilemmas. Except maybe the money will be too much of a temptation, because I already auditioned for an advert for Transport for London because it paid more than my annual wage at the time (I’m now earning about half that annual wage, but my mental health is a lot better and I’m living in my own apartment instead of with my parents). And this dilemma is if I am lucky. Whenever I have seen other poets at Buckingham Palace, or on adverts, I have been excited for them, knowing that (despite the moral implications) I would be honoured to be asked and can’t imagine doing anything other than accept it. Even if I did feel uneasy about it.
This is for the same reason that I accepted my first job offer after I finished my MA and stayed there for 4 years. Because I have been taught that things are so bad that I should be grateful for whatever I can get. But right now, I have taken a risk and applied for Edinburgh Fringe Festival and booked to stay at a hostel for a month. It’s nearly double my current rent. I’m trying to save, but I am worried about being able to afford it. I thought about applying for some extra work that would ease these worries – £1000 for a month’s work online – but in the end, I wasn’t sure I would be able to commit to it on top of my full-time job teaching.
So, to imagine the fee that comes with doing adverts, such as the Nationwide ones, knowing that it could enable me to live my dream. It would be too good to refuse. And as another poet pointed out, it is the system that is the problem, and most of the time we are just trying to live. I’ve worked for minimum wage for WHSmith, JD Wetherspoons and Sainsbury’s. It doesn’t mean I agree with what they stand for, so if I was asked to pen a poem for those same companies, would it be any different? Perhaps it would, being that you are publicly associating your own brand as a poet with their brand, therefore it is a kind of endorsement that isn’t as true being a sales/bar assistant, which carries with it an element of anonymity, of being part of a uniformed mass.
In the midst of debate around the Nationwide adverts, although admitting he respects the poets in the ads, poet Luke Wright sparked debate with his poem Renegade Poets, which I think is what was intended. It is not so much the poets in the ads being targeted, but rather opening up a discussion about what it means when we accept these opportunities, especially for those of us who write political pieces and are vocal about things like Feminism and Capitalism. ‘McGough is doing Waitrose, and Clarkey’s doing chips…’ Wright says, while acknowledging it’s not about one specific case, and that it’s not new.
He laments about the art that is lost, the compromise you have to have, when selling your work in this way. One line that struck me was: ‘if nobody wants to see your show, it’s probably not good enough’, because part of me thinks there’s more to it than that. For example, with She Grrrowls, the audience can vary widely in numbers, and sadly I think being a feminist night, featuring women, this makes it more niche. Then again, there’s also music and comedy, which are arguably less niche than poetry. I have also had a promotor basically tell me that I don’t bring enough audience to the show. Whilst that may be true, I would never say that to one of my acts. It’s rude and patronising.
Nevertheless, the sentiment harks back to that line in Wright’s poem. If you are familiar with Wright’s work, you’ll see that at least in this sense, he practises what he preaches. How do you make something good enough? You work hard at it. At the night Homework, as well as in his solo shows, you can see the effort that goes into creating quality pieces, and the poem Renegade Poets is a great poem too, with an ending that really drives the point home.
The point being to think more about making these decisions, instead of doing what I imagine I might do – just see the money and and say yes. So, yes it’s important to think about this topic, but at the moment, I don’t think I’m able to make a decision. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong in all contexts, but something that comes down to an individual company and what they stand for, and the person making that choice.
When I did my MA in Creative Entrepreneurship five years ago, part of me thought that if I had the right tools I could be successful in the arts. I grew up with two teachers as parents and they worked hard in their field and have been able to provide me with a good life. I have become slightly disillusioned since graduating and working, that although we were taught that the “struggling artist” cliche is a myth that doesn’t have to be fulfilled, I still fear know that by taking a risk later this year, I will living on the “cabbage budget” and may never see the “champagne budget”.
Disillusioned, but only slightly. I still hold on to my dream, and feel I have to give myself that chance. On another related note, Roxane Gay recently pulled publication of her next book How to Be Heard after ‘alt-right’ Milo Yiannopoulos received a $250,000 advance from Simon & Schuster. It is an act of protest. She has been able to stand by her morals and principles, but she has also been quoted by The Guardian as saying ‘I can afford to take this stand. Not everyone can. Remember that.’ Whether these moral choices are something we can do from the start of our career, or whether it is something success enables us to do so is still up for debate. I may be a hypocrite now, but I will try to push myself and do better.
Today has been a good day. I reflected on how I’d appreciate my job more if I wasn’t so focused on things outside it (making it in the poetry biz). In this moment, I realised that I can enjoy my job a lot more by adjusting how I’m looking at it. Sometimes I see it as something preventing me from doing things I want to do. I’m sure we all do from time to time. Actually, there’s room to be quite creative in my role as an Academic Mentor for English, and it’s given me a lot of experience that is sure to benefit me in my future career.
Today I also took the opportunity to read some of my poetry on the theme of adventure to some visiting primary school students as part of World Book Day/Week. They were in Year 6 and were adorable, and so hardworking and talented. It was a real pleasure to work with them to produce their own adventure poems! I saw only a handful, but I was really impressed by the imagination and creativity of their work, and how enthusiastically they scribbled away.
I left work having read an Irish myth with some Year 11s, and having written some sonnets with my Creative Writing Club. I was feeling pretty chuffed, and looking forward to writing a different blog post and hoping to revive the novel I started a couple of years ago now. I then passed a man who, mid-crossover, held out his hand to me. There was a wad of cash and a piece of paper, and he was gesturing to me to take it. He told me, “you’ve had a good day, you deserve it.”
I was really taken aback, and for some reason, I said “that’s alright” and refused the money. It was about £20-60. I didn’t look at it long, and soon enough the moment was over. But it got me thinking. I was so curious as to why someone would do that. And why me? Pure chance, luck of the draw? It also made me think about my reaction – why did I reject it?
Well, my first thought after rejecting it was that I could have given it to someone who needed it more than me; if this was a random act of kindness, I could have accepted it and passed it on. Remember the film, Pay it Forward? I thought of the woman who is regularly on the streets outside Bethnal Green tube station, about the poets coming to perform at my place of work for very little money, and the friends and loved ones who are struggling to earn who I could treat with it.
If my first reaction was that I’m not deserving of it, why was this? I’m on relatively low pay for the job I’m in, for my qualifications, and still live with my parents due to this. Plus, with my artistic ambitions, saving every penny should be important. Maybe because it was near payday, and maybe because I had been reflecting on how lucky I was already that day, I felt like I should reject it, that I didn’t deserve it.
This idea of what one deserves is interesting, especially as I tend to make a lot of assumptions about what I deserve. However, as I’m writing now I realise that these assumptions are bound up in exchanges. Perhaps it felt bad for me to accept the money because I’d feel guilty: no exchange took place. However, by rejecting it, I may be denying him the good feeling of this random act of kindness, if that was his intention. There are two strands of thought to which this is then tied. Firstly, this idea of exchange, I’m guessing, must stem from living in a capitalist society. I hadn’t done anything to earn that money, so why should I have it?
Secondly, my mind jumped from thinking about what I could have possibly done to earn the money. That maybe I didn’t do anything, maybe I just was. I began to wonder of the intention in a way that may not make sense, but I wondered about the gendered aspect of this situation. Would he have offered the money to a man? I questioned this, and when I told my dad, he not only said that he would have taken the money, but that he imagined if he was a woman he would be wondering about the intention of this.
I’m not saying there is anything gendered in terms of taking the money or not (yet) as my mum also said she would take it. But I have to admit that these years of walking as a woman have made me defensive when it comes to men talking to me in the street due to the amount of negative, intimidating situations I’ve encountered. A random act of kindness did provoke some suspicion. I felt the same way when a man offered me a seat on the train once: do I look pregnant? I panicked.
I wondered what was written on the note, probably a nice message about having a nice day and doing something nice with the money. The guy that approached me was just a normal guy, nothing stood out to me as unusual. And he did seem genuine and nice. Perhaps it links back to experiences as a teenager with what strangers were to me. They threw water balloons at you. They slapped you in parks. They called you to their van to ask directions. They kissed you at drunken parties. They called you and threatened to “shank” you. What is sad is that I’ve internalised these experiences, so that when a stranger does something we can probably safely assume was kind, I question these motives – and my deservingness – so automatically that it is simply a reflex to reject the money.
I’m really interested to know what others would do, so please comment below to let me know how you think you might react to this situation. I’m also really curious to find out why this man offered me this money, so if he ends up reading this, please let me know! I wish I had stopped to ask why. For now, I’ll override my initial concerns and put it down to a random act of kindness. And maybe next time I’ll be more aware of it happening.
Changing Families and Feminist Blind Spots: Have female-friendly policies been captured by middle class feminists?
When giving up an evening to go to a talk on with the title above, you would probably be fair in making the assumption that this would be a discussion amongst identifying Feminists, with a focus on intersectionality, touching on issues of class and race. Or at least that is the assumption I made, when invited by a colleague. It is only now that I read it another way; ‘feminists’ here are The Other, separated from everyone else.
It began with a presentation by Professor Baroness Alison Wolf, yet throughout the evening, it seemed that she was most concerned with promoting her book ‘The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society’. If Wolf was meant to be the spokesperson for Feminism, her voice was not strong enough, and she often put her foot in her mouth. For example, when making the assumption that the room is full of middle class people, what are you then saying about working class people? By making a sweeping generalisation on the audience appearance, Wolf was unable to address the complexities of class as it is now. She talked about 15-20% percentage of women being highly educated, and the rest being ignored by Feminism, which may be true of certain strands of mainstream Feminism, but within that she ignored the gap between herself and a lot of women who would be deemed middle class. The middle class is a wider demographic that Wolf presented.
When Wolf began her presentation, she was aware that it may be seen a controversial. At first I wondered if what she was saying was deliberately done to make us feel uncomfortable. That would have been a great tactic. However, as she went on, what she said seemed more illogical and simply not that well informed. She may know her economics, but she doesn’t know her Feminism. I’ve followed the work of The Crunk Feminist Collective for some time, but there are plenty of examples of intersectional Feminism and no mention of this aspect of Feminism today at the event. There are also writers such as Bridget Minamore and Chimene Suleyman writing for Poejazzi who touch on these topics. Here you can read articles such as ‘The “Fierce” Black Woman Inside You Desont’ Exist” (Minamore) and ‘Fighting against the fetishisation of women, doesn’t work if you fetishise women’ (Suleyman), which are Feminist, and offer a valuable critique of the type of Feminism Wolf was attempting to address.
Wolf’s point about working class women was lost by ignoring the women she claimed to be speaking for. But why was she speaking for them at all? Would it not have been better to actually bring women who identified as working class and allowed them the space to get their voice heard? Instead, Wolf presented a case of topics that mainstream Feminists were concerned about and put them up against what was happening elsewhere in the world. However, there was only one example that actually included a gendered news story, and if we are talking on Feminism, this should have been the focus. What was also concerning was the way Wolf talked about rape, which was extremely dismissive. She even went on to say that people are interested in rape because society is obsessed with sex and violence. She seemed not to realise that rape is not about an obsession with sex, but more about power.
Furthermore, women are arguably more vulnerable to rape if they are from a lower economic background or if they are not white, with these factors also being an influence on what happens in the courtroom, should it be taken there. But there was no mention of this, no mention of rape as a weapon of war in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I’m not sure there was even mention of the 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped in April 2014. Four girls who escaped said they had been held in a camp in Cameroon and raped every day. And she claims that our concern about rape is so we can “feel victimised and superior at the same time.” . The media may have their own agenda, but to imply that we don’t care about these issues just doesn’t make sense.
Mainstream Feminism needs to take notice of how gender, class and race intersect, but this didn’t seem to be exactly what Wolf was saying. She didn’t engage with the role of the superrich 1%. She seemed to want to show that women’s progress has damaged women, and a lot of her argument was based around the idea that a childless woman is a “problem”. Whilst I agreed that more collectivist methods are needed in order to benefit working class women, she spoke of an “individualistic and career-orientated elite” and didn’t really consider who the elite actually are. She made the mistake of criticising others, whilst not looking at her own faults, and including herself in the problems of Feminism, and showing ways in which we all can listen to the voices of working class women.
In the audience, there were stifled noises of exasperation. But if we thought that was bad, we hadn’t seen anything yet! Belinda Brown was next to speak, and she certainly didn’t offer the critique we may have imagined. She spoke about gender trumping class, and didn’t seem to understand the point of intersectionality, that Wolf had touched on by stating that in terms of the pay gap, gender only becomes an issue for those who are from a lower economic background. Whilst this in itself is debatable, this widening gap is a concern; it is a Feminist issue. Brown spoke about women at the top damaging men’s jobs, but it was when she made a joke about women spending money shopping that I was sure that I wouldn’t agree with a word she said.
To be fair, she touched on one point of common ground. Women who have children are obviously biologically forced to take some time out of work to have children. We shared the view that part of the problem is that, where women are the main caregivers, this work is not valued as work. Because society doesn’t value a lot of the work women do, both at home and the type of positions women tend to take, this means that they also face the brunt of financial problems. Yet, because Brown was clearly anti-Feminism, she was also unable to see that men are also the fathers of their children. She repeatedly failed to acknowledge this, and therefore didn’t see a way of this changing. She didn’t see that a more equal distribution of childcare was needed. She didn’t see that this is an issue that runs deeper than class, that middle class families are also struggling to afford childcare, that this is a massive societal problem. Brown became flustered when confronted with the slightly bit of opposition (and believe me, a lot of people held back saying anything), and she brought her personal life as a carer for her partner. Whilst I couldn’t fail to feel sympathy for her situation, I also wanted to (metaphorically) shake her. It didn’t make sense that she could see how the value of her carework is seen as lower than her academic work, and yet couldn’t see that this view is due to the patriarchal structure of society. She couldn’t see that this also links to other power structures such as Capitalism and historic white supremacy.
The whole evening was such a mess that even the chair, Emma Barnett, had to step in to confront what was being said. Frankly, I would have rather listened to what Barnett had to say than either of the actual speakers.