Sunday, 25 January 2015

How (Not) to Put a Price on Poetry

While the poetry world has been debating Big Questions like the alleged nepotism of the TS Eliot prize, the literary credibility of Kate Tempest’s rap album, and the effect on free speech of the terrorist attacks in Paris, a different argument has attracted my attention. I have to thank Paula Varjack for pointing me in the direction of the Eternal Graffiti blog, whose co-founder Mike Simms recently posted a challenging article about the prospects of make a living as a performing poet.

Simms, a poet based in Atlanta, Georgia, argued (quite rightly) that it should be perfectly possible to do so. With the rise and rise of the spoken word scene, more young poets are now aspiring to make a living from their craft – and why not? If performers can have ambitions of careers on the West End or touring the world making music, why should poetry be the poor relation?

The problem, according to Simms, is that poets themselves are their own worst enemies. Too many are content to perform for free, sofa surfing their way around the country and relying on book and CD sales to cover their expenses. Or else they accept pitiful token payments from event promoters – payments that make a minimum wage job stacking supermarket shelves seem a more attractive way of putting food on the table. Simms reports a conversation with a professional US poet who turned down a $200 performance fee because it “wasn’t worth her time.” It was more cost-effective for her to spend that time at home developing new material.

“Poets need to stop undervaluing their art,” Simms declares. And I can’t argue with that. In poetry, as in all the performing arts, most of us do what we do for little more than goodwill. We all know the busking musician who spends rainy Saturdays in town centres and comes back with nothing more to show for his labours than a chill and a handful of loose change. Or the actor working as a waitress to make ends meet, honing her craft by night in draughty village-hall am-dram in the hope of a decent review. As a nation, the British (like the Americans, it would appear) are chronically bad at valuing their artists.

But Simms’ solution to the problem is a worrying one. “We have to establish tiers in spoken word... There should be an inherent knowledge that if you want someone who is at the top of their game, you can’t even approach them with a $200 budget, the promoter should have known that they were in the market for a lesser (however you want to define that) caliber poet... If you want to pay a poet nothing to do a show, go get a rookie.” Yet perplexingly, Simms declares that this is “not elitist.”

I beg to disagree.

Simms presupposes that all gigs are professional gigs, well funded and capable of packing in large audiences, where the promoters are trousering the proceeds and leaving the guest feature with peanuts. The whole concept of grassroots art seems foreign to him. He’s also assuming that a ‘big name’ poet equals a ‘better’ poet, and it’s on this basis that the ‘professional’ deserves better remuneration than the ‘rookie’. As an event organiser I find much to criticise in both assumptions.

First of all: it would be wonderful if every poetry event had some kind of grant funding, or backing from an arts institution. But this just isn’t the case. In the UK, if you want to run grassroots literary arts events you either have to get very lucky with a grant application (the minority) or you have to self-fund. Our little open mic, The Speakers’ Corner, has been running off and on in York since 2006 and is well respected in the region for the quality of its guest features, which alternate award winning poets with up-and-coming local talent. But I make no money from it. Our guest performers, as a rule, are really good; but my day jobs don’t pay enough to allow me to give them the kind of fees they deserve out of my own pocket. Furthermore, I’m determined that grassroots arts should be accessible to all. That means I’m not prepared to charge the audience more than £1 per head to come to the event. The money we collect buys guests a pint and covers their travel expenses; a few quid a year is spent on publicity; and there is basically nothing left over. I could try putting the admission fee up to a fiver or more so that I can pay my guest features, but I don’t think it would be looked on favourably by my audience, who always have the option of going elsewhere.

Then there are charity events, fundraisers, and the like. If you’re running these from the grassroots, you have to call in favours from your guests, or they simply won’t happen. For the Arts Against Homelessness benefit gig I’m organising in March I have no budget, so I have to ask my guests if they will be prepared to give their services for free (or for travel expenses only) to make sure that the money we take from the audience actually goes to the homelessness charities that we are supporting.

As for whether a ‘professional’ poet is a ‘better’ poet: all I can say is that I’ve seen some big names in the poetry world – people who have won major literary prizes and regularly get booked to appear at festivals – give the most limp, uninteresting performances you can imagine. Meanwhile Speakers’ Corner, a back-of-a-pub, £1-a-shot, grassroots outfit, has hosted numerous ‘unknown’ local poets who would blow these big names out of the water. Being a ‘name’ doesn’t mean that you’re good – nor does it mean you’re any more deserving of a realistic fee than the not-yet-published local performer. It just means that you’ve networked yourself into a position where someone with clout knows your name.

Like Simms, I sometimes wonder if I’m colluding in devaluing my art. I regularly do guest feature slots for nowt, or for travel expenses and book sales only. But I think the real devaluing of poetry happens when you start putting a price tag on it. Simms talks about poets “defining a value proposition” for their art. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a less poetic suggestion in my life.

Nonetheless, poets have to eat. We are entitled to respect for what we do. A large promoter with an Arts Council grant should never offer less than minimum wage plus reasonable travel expenses. In most cases, it should be offering more, to reflect the time and trouble we put into creating our poems and honing our performances. But poetry’s natural home is among the grassroots, and we should never underestimate the value of grassroots art. As I’ve argued before, it’s not something you can ever put a price tag on.

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