Paying Poets: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It’s International Women’s Day! So, on to a topic that impacts on all artists, but arguably more-so women: payment for our labour.

Pioneers for advocating paying poets include Kate Fox, who started up the Poets Network; Paula Varjack, who is currently doing a show called Show Me The Money; and Vanessa Kisuule, who has been whipping up a storm recently with her response to a recent request for her to travel 4 hours for a 50 minute performance and be paid only £30 plus 30% of the door sales. Ridic. If she accepted, it would mean she was paying to work. Would you expect anyone else to do that in any other profession? No. So, she obviously had to refuse.

Despite my own struggles trying to run events and pay artists fairly, which has always been something that’s been important to me, I also recognise that some people, like me, are also doing low/unpaid work in organising these events, on top of accepting rubbish from trying to be a poet. However, it’s important to address issues of payment as they are integral to the ethos of the event. With She Grrrowls, part of the ethos has been that there’s no hierarchy of performers. However, it’s becoming clear that actually what’s more important is that women are valued for their work in monetary terms. I would still like to aim for equal payment for acts, but in July I am going to apply for funding and hope that it is this way that I can afford to pay artists what they deserve and stop apologising. (Though I’m bringing She Grrrowls to the fringe, I’m told it’s different there and that such nights don’t pay acts, and hey it’ll probably cost me around a grand to go myself, so as long as the acts will already be performing, I don’t think I can help that).

exposure-bucks

It was Bryony Kimmings who reminded me of this issue a few years ago, when she politely declined a gig that I shouldn’t have asked her to do, but did so on the off-chance, too exhausted from my day job and commute to properly reflect on the reality of what I was asking. She told me about  illshowyoumine, which is about getting living wages for artists (please click that link, so worth the read!). It’s just not fair that being an artist is not valued as a profession, that it is something that only an elite few can pursue, that the starving artist cliché is something we are too close to emulating. In August I am going to take a risk and go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and from this point I’m going to be making my art a priority, and getting paid for it will be my focus rather than accepting another full-time job out of fear that I am not worth the money, a message that is implied by everyone from family and friends, to society at large.

With this in mind, without naming names, here is the good, the bad, and the ugly, of my experience being a professional poet over the past decade, albeit a part-time one.

The Good

  • £150 for a performance at a festival
  • £75 for curating a one-off event
  • £100 commission for a 15-20 minute set of poetry on a theme
  • £350 for shadowing a series of workshops and taking part in an event + £85 travel costs
  • £100 to read a poem and participate in a discussion on a topic
  • £100 plus professional mentoring to create new work

The Bad

  • No payment, but the only artist on the bill and able to sell books. Then the gig was cancelled without much apology or offer to reschedule.
  • Lots of unpaid gigs, workshops that are booked and then get cancelled, and awkward gigs where literally nobody showed up.
  • Being told you’re being booked to up the number of women, rather than because of anything else. I think this one paid with exposure too.
  • Being paid, but not realising that the host is taller than you and they’re looking at your breasts instead of your eyes. Well, that was a first. Like, in my whole life.

The Ugly

  • Repeat performances and never offered more than £10 for travel, then treated disrespectfully, being patronised and humiliated by the host.

So, in a few months I will working towards getting more of ‘the good’. For now, unable to afford striking today, I will be teaching English and hustling to get some paid writing work so that I can, like, actually eat whilst in Edinburgh.

Hypocrite

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.

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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.

Poetry Parnassus

On Tuesday 26th June I attended the first day of Poetry Parnassus. Having felt quite confident and happy about going on my way, once I got there I did feel quite overwhelmed. Simon Armitage – one of my first encounters into contemporary poetry at GCSE’s – was standing just a few metres away. There were poets from all over the world; the idea curated by Armitage saw poets flocking from all of the countries competing in the Olympics. This day was the World Poetry Summit. Poets, publishers and other important figures in the world of poetry gathered and I felt a little like I was watching from the margins. I was disappointed only in myself for not taking the opportunity to seek out like-minded people, but still, I did absorb my surroundings and scribbled away at my notepad.

Reflecting on my notes now, I shall summerise some of my thoughts in relation to the day as a whole. My notes are 2,317 words, so I hope to make this much shorter! The first point is one which has people divided. Jude Kelly, the Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, made a comment about how it is a positive thing that poetry remains uninfluenced by money. She expressed the view that we shouldn’t want to professionalize the arts. Those with more romantic or anarchistic views may agree. However, I think that you have to bear in mind that we live in a Capitalist country and therefore the rules apply that we need money to survive. It would be idealistic to think that we do not. This very statement is contradicted by the fact that the poets and other speakers at this conference are professionals. They have a right to earn money from dedicating their life to poetry.

Though it is just another fact that they must do other things alongside the actual writing of poetry, their work doing these other things (teaching, editing, speaking at events etc.) is informed by this dedication to one field of practice. I agree that accessibility is important, however, it is worth noting I had to pay the full price of £35 for the summit, as apparently I had missed the “limited concessions” price – something which I don’t quite understand as I’m pretty sure I was one of the youngest people there. However, this kind of balanced out when you take into account all the free events I went to today. It is important because I almost didn’t get a ticket because I had to pay full price. I also almost didn’t come to the free events because of travel and my MA work commitments, but I thought this was too significant an opportunity to miss.

I went to half of the talk about poetry and money, and half of the Tradition vs. Innovation talk. The fact that there was a debate about money suggests that the above statement from Jude is not quite a given; she states in this discussion that it is ‘the elephant in the room.’ What is clear is that to be a poet, you must take on other work and Ollie Dawson, the Director of the Poetry School, found that younger poets are more willing in this area. Representing Kenya, poet Shailja Patel spoke out from the audience and told us that in the USA, there is a National Writers’ Union. It helps with issues of copyright, healthcare and so on and seems like a fantastic idea.

Tradition vs. Innovation was good to listen to as I had just been reading Adventures in Form, which is the most interesting book I’ve read since Dorothy Parker’s collected works and has me itching to write more poems. Tom Chivers from Penned in the Margins was involved in the discussion and made the point that they are not actually opposites as they feed into one another and that there is a “spark” when such concepts meet. Hence why this new book from Penned in the Margins is so exciting.

In a discussion about literature in the digital age, Nikola Madzirov spoke about horizontal and vertical dialogues. Thinking the web is more of a… web, so more sporadic than those ideas present, I got a bit confused here. Can anyone shed light on the meaning of this? I thought the work that was being produced could be in danger of being a bit gimmicky, but that the thought of having poets from around the world performing digitally at StAnza also seemed like a unique kind of festival, opening us up to people we may not normally come across, other than on rare occasions such as Poetry Parnassus!

In a conversation about poets finding their way in the 21st Century, Kayo Chingonyi proved to be one of my favourite speakers. He had a clarity, knowledge and passion that was articulated exceptionally well. Though it has to be said that Dean Atta made a delightful statement about wanting to be made into a hologram which made us all smile and chuckle a bit. I also felt I connected to some of what Raymond Antrobus said about there being a difference in writing to yourself and from yourself. My poem, Drama, actually comments upon this dilemma that I have faced as my urge to write in the past has come from a cathartic impulse that seemed only natural to me, whilst I have been over the last few years to perfect it as a craft.

After the provided packed lunch listening to poetry from around the world upstairs, I went to the Poetry & Elitism discussion. Bas Kwakman begins with the statement that ‘political poetry is always bad poetry. Good poetry is always political.’ And so ensues a discussion that (like the Tradition vs. Innovation talk) deals with binary oppositions. In my dissertation for my BA I examined Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and my distaste for binary oppositions began there. As Taja Kramberger asserted; it is a ‘false dilemma.’ The whole point of elitism is that there isn’t access for the so-called populist, and then the populist itself becomes a different kind of elite, creating yet another hierarchy.

Another one of my favourite speakers, mentioned earlier, Shailja Patel spoke about the fact that there is a common misconception that equates elitism with difficulty, and populist with the political. This was in response to a elite-defender, who, like Bas, seemed to assume that some sort of elite was needed to ensure quality. Oh, the commoners can have their populist/political shit and we can just carry on here with our poetry of superior quality. No. Patel made her points extremely well in the debate, but also actually recited a poem ‘For the Verbal Masturbaters.’ She told us that she never takes free speech for granted as she did not have the privledge growing up. So much of this discussion relies on privilege and, in my view, anyone that defends elitism is a privilege-denier, or just needs to think a bit more.

To end this section, a quote from Taja Kramberger – ‘Poetry: you are not made from words alone.’

 

 

 

 

 

That evening I met up with my old housemate, Kirstie, and we caught poetry that fell down from the sky with the Rain of Poems. It took some time before I got a couple of poems, pictured below. People went crazy and almost physically fought over it, with some people greedily giggling at their hand-fulls. I’ve never seen people so excited about poetry, I thought. Slightly cynical about it, I thought that a lot of people would not treasure the poems as they should. Still, it was very surreal and pretty as they fell and glittered down to us.

Today, Saturday 30th June, I went back to go to more free events. I thought I also may get the opportunity to speak to some others there but didn’t see anyone I knew and didn’t feel I could randomly strike up a conversation with someone else. I first went to WOW (Women Of the World) Breakfast. This was one of my favourite events, and it was FREE! I forgot my notebook today so made just a few pointers in my (non-smart) phone. The discussion about writing from the mind/body brought me back to the idea of binary oppositions and those false dilemmas again. Sadly, I can’t remember the names of anyone to write who said what, but it was disheartening to hear that one visiting poet from Africa has said she was ignored even at Poetry Parnassus. Upon her own success, she was called up and told ‘African women don’t write poetry, it’s for African men.’ There was a man that enthused about the amount of young women with desire to write, as a cry for some positivity. A young woman also made some comments about not feeling ‘hard done by’ and again at the end that she was ‘not fight, just enjoying every word.’ However, I think that by doing just that and nothing else, you are ignoring and placating the wider issues that are a reality that women are faced with all over the world.

I plucked up the courage to ask a question, which thankfully they squeezed in for me. I wanted to know, as a student, since the majority of people who study Literature and take writing courses are women, does this filter out? If so, why… and, do they have a chance at a  level playing field or are they at a disadvantage when it comes to publishing? Picking up on something they said earlier about a need for more female editors, judges and critics, I questioned whether a way forward may be for bloggers to review female books. Some interesting thoughts came out of this, but it still remains to be answered in the future. I got home and found a Facebook comment thread about female writers not submitting enough.

So, part of this may be to do with confidence, and a willingness to take risks and perhaps not possessing enough of the characteristics of being a creative entrepreneur! The career progression from university also needs to be more informative, useful and supportive. Although there are issues with blogging, in that they’re unpaid, I had recently thought that I would LOVE to receive free books if I could review them on my blog. I believe I have a fair amount of readers but it would also be something I could build upon. I have had some experience writing reviews but I would love to do more. Whilst I am still at the beginning of my career I wouldn’t mind sparing some time to read and write about what I love! I may take more of a Dorothy-Parker-esque way of writing about the events, exhibitions and books I experience, but at least I’m honest!

After a small break reading The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, I went to the Clore Ballroom for some Salt readings. It was good to see Chris McCabe as Tom Chivers had told me about him when I did my internship at Penned in the Margins and I had read some of his work in the latest book I mentioned earlier. He read poems about a meat-book, explaining a Van Gogh painting to his son, and existential clubbing. Kayo Chingonyi has to be mentioned again because he was one of my favourite poets of this day as well! He read poems about how to create a mixtape on the out-dated cassette tape, as well as taking us through the rhythm of his dance. He also seems like a really nice, genuine guy, which always makes me like the poets even more.

Sadly, Death Poetry was full, so I found life outside and read a bit more before going back to the Level 5 Function Room for ‘They Won’t Take Me Alive – Women and Revolution.’ Namechecks to Alaide Foppa, read by Amanda Hopkinson, Gioconda Belli, Chiranan Pitpreecha and Farah Didi. Bidisha also did an amazing job as chair for this and the earlier WOW talk. I was so glad I stayed for it because I learnt a lot and it was wonderful to be able to hear their poetry. They spoke of the ideas of poetry and activism, comparisons to fruit and flowers and images of beauty, and showing the world what injustice there is and moving on to other subjects, how this political voice is at the core of you. I made out about 5 words of Gioconda Belli’s Spanish recital of ‘The Dream Bearers’ which makes me morn for the lost language of my hispanic roots. Still, I have uploaded some free Spanish tutorials on my iPod now.

Wow! So, over 2000 words means I better stop! Full from tapas, and looking forward to Sunday-Tuesday as I celebrate a year of being with my boyfriend 🙂

xxx

Penned in the Margins

So, last Thursday I was selling books at the Penned in the Margins event at Aubin & Wills as part of my internship.  The poetry readings were from Glynn Maxwell, Clare Pollard, Simon Barraclough and Joe Dunthorne.  I arrived later than I planned as there were messed up trains… and then I got lost by walking in the wrong direction – typical!  So I was a bit anxious and flustered when I arrived, but settled down a bit once I knew what I was doing and made myself at home with a bottle of beer.

There were a couple of girls serving the drinks, so I had to help them a bit whilst selling the books as I was next to the drinks.  They were friendly but so different from me, quite posh and ALL blonde, which was a bit funny as their friends and co-workers appeared at times and they were all very similar.  I got the feeling they like a certain type of person at Jack Wills/Aubin & Wills, as the websites note they “represent the directional nature of the brand” and need to “embody the… aspirational, lifestyle brand”.  One of the girls did literature as part of her course, and the other was a singer, so that was cool, sadly can’t remember their names though!  I guess I felt a bit out of place with those girls, as one complained of the possibility of a 36 month phone contract I thought about joking about my Nokia 3330 or whatever it is.

I took advantage of the free drinks, listened to some good poetry and sold a few books, of which Joe’s pamphlet was the most popular.  A couple of people I’d invited over Facebook came – Paul Riggs, the ‘Australian guy’ I met at Farrago, and Amy Acre – both bought books as well which was cool.  I felt really inspired and even had lines running through my head for a couple of poems, but have inevitably forgotten what they were.

We then went to the pub and I chatted to a few of the poets/literary people, but I can only remember half their names.  I should have gotten a lemonade instead of that last half pint.  But I only drink lemonade with alcohol in it.

That reminds me of a poem I wrote, so, here it is:

Half Pints

You asked me what I liked to drink

What’s that all about?

As if it’s the first time we are going out

As if you have to really think

As if you don’t already know me inside out.

Said you normally drink cans or JD and coke,

Out with the lads,

I thought it was a joke.

‘Cause you used to buy me drinks

Even when you were broke,

Guess it’s been a while since I saw you last;

Been a while since we spoke .

And you’ve always been forgetful

And I’ve never been that cool.

And I’ve never been regretful,

Always been a love fool.

But I’ve had enough of half pints.

Fill me up

To the brim

My glass

Totally full.

xxx