Last night the last Find The Right Words before the summer, which means my last before I go off to uni in September 😥 It’s a bittersweet feeling, because I’m so sad to be leaving this regular poetry night that has been such a regular part of my month, and played such an important role in my development as a writer and performer… but it was a great show. This is less of a review, more a train-of-thought collection of feelings and ideas that came to me while I was watching the open micers and Buddy Wakefield’s incredible headline set.
Last night I really tried to pinpoint what it was about certain performances that I liked so much, so here are some of those ideas. In Buddy Wakefield’s performance, it was the way his dialect came through that really made it feel personal and direct and unique and broke down boundaries. It was how animated and energetic he was throughout the performance, the way he used movement in a way that mirrors his vivid and unexpected use of language. I noticed that in the open mic performances and Buddy Wakefield and in other poets that I like, a common feature is the use of an anecdote or a story or a specific memory as an anchor for a poem, as a trigger for memory and meaning – I realised some of my first and favourite poems are written in this kind of way. I think I appreciate these poems differently, too, like some poems the words wash over me and it’s nice don’t get me wrong but like anecdotes and stories and memories keep my attention better, I think. And I have also been thinking about how good artists engage the audience. One of the things I’ve noticed that’s most significantly different between myself and other newish poets and the more established, experienced acts is the ability to engage the audience, and I’m not sure if it’s just a skill that comes with time. But I have some ideas, I think laughter helps (and can work even if most of your work is serious). You can explicitly involve an audience by giving them a ‘chorus’ to join in with . You can unite people in breathing. You can directly address them in your poem. You can use common experience to make your work relatable.
Tangled thoughts, but I think they’re useful.
My dad told me this story once, about him and his brother going to art galleries. They’d start off at the same painting, and after a few moments my dad would move on. He would go around the whole gallery and come back to the beginning to find his artist brother still examining that same first painting.
I really empathise with my dad in that story. Like… I’ve never really got Art. I never know what to do in art galleries and could never understand how people could find so much meaning in a painting. So I recently, I started doing what I always do when I don’t understand things; I put it into words. At art galleries now, I wander around until I find a piece of art that I like, then sit down in front of it with a notebook and pen and write down everything I can see, everything it makes me feel, every question I want to ask about it… As well as helping me to appreciate visual art more, it’s a really useful writing prompt. (Here is a poem I wrote inspired by the work of Barbara Hepworth.)
Taking inspiration from other forms of art and thinking about the idea of ekphrasis has made me think a bit more about the blurred boundaries between different art forms and how subjective the definitions are. Like, when me and my girlfriend were sharing our love of Kate Tempest, it struck me that I thought of her as a poet whereas Kara thought of her as a rapper. And some of the poetry shows I’ve enjoyed the most have been ones where there is fluidity with the art genres. Jess Green’s Burning Books is performed with a live musical accompaniment; Jemima Foxtrot’s Melody involves seamless transition between spoken word and a cappella singing; and Paula Varjak’s Show Me The Money uses poetry and music as well as film and documentary-making techniques.
This blog is kinda about my development as an artist, so I suppose what I feel this means for me is that I want to try and experiment with different art forms, and take a more flexible attitude to art and The Arts. I’ve come up with three writing prompts inspired by these ideas that I am going to try, please feel free to use them too.
- Take a line from your favourite song (not the chorus or the hook, something from the middle probs) and incorporate it into a poem. Performance: you can sing or say the line.
- Visualise a scene, a place/event you remember really vividly. Describe it in a poem, as if you were constructing a storyboard.
- Take a poem you’ve written/are working on and read it over a beat or a piece of classical music. Notice how it changes the way you perform.
St. Ives is the bleached white Tate, the
hazy, colliding seasky blues and,
gaps in grey monoliths,
the soft green of Hepworth’s garden.
This is stone
in conversation, composed
so the towers may whisper over the heads of their bulbous cousins
who are cut along the natural grain
so voices may slip across the ancient lines in their skin –
life is not kept in
our faces when she reduces us to pure movement;
the swelling outline of a mother’s belly,
a dancer’s pulsing form.
We are far from the flat-faced Madonna and Child –
we never realised we were
detached, matching each other’s contours,
distant and close as art behind glass.
~Ruby Kelman, 2016
This year, I have decided to be a ‘Proper Poet’. Whatever that means. Like, in my head a ‘Proper Poet’ is an artist, and an artist is someone who makes a living from their art. But since I made that decision I’ve been realising more and more that art and survival are not necessarily compatible.
I have been listening to poets and performers, overhearing their frustrations about touring 9 months of the year just to keep themselves afloat, their incredulity at being constantly expected to work simply for ‘exposure’; and trying to work out how on earth I could make a life out of art for myself.
Last night at Find The Right Words in Leicester I got to hear an extract from Paula Varjack’s new show, Show Me The Money, which asks the question “can you become and artist and still survive?”. She has interviewed artists at various stages in their careers and put together a ‘performance documentary’ exploring the relationship between art and money. It encapsulated a lot of the feelings I have about money (“sexy but toxic”) and brought home the realities of art as a career path. That, even when you are actually paid, the rate will not reflect the hours the writing, producing and editing takes. That to be a full-time artist is impossible for most people. But also that to have another job alongside your art doesn’t make you any less of an artist, no matter what people might think. That art is valuable and rewarding in its own right, and that it feels kinda soulless to sell it. But that the fact remains that people want art, but still aren’t prepared to pay.
All this money talk could make a person feel hopeless. But actually this morning I feel more energised to pursue the arts than ever before. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it’s the honesty. So many people continue as artists without the financial incentive and there is something… pure about that, something that suggests art is immeasurably more worthwhile than some other career paths. It means that I will need to think seriously about how to balance doing what I love with making enough to survive (and that is scary), but I have come away with a sense of comfort in knowing there is joy and solidarity in making art and that is enough to keep me going.
I made another post a few months ago summarising my feelings about working for free: you can read it here.
I have had one of my periodic bursts of inspiration and have decided to start blogging again. I had a mentoring session with Melanie Abrahams on Friday and she gave me so many ideas and so much energy for poetry, and I feel like I need to make sure I have a solid way of actually acting on them. So, I’m going to (try and) use this blog to keep track of my progress with those ideas, as a way of setting goals, celebrating my achievements and interacting with other artists.
This year I want to:
- make contact and engage with 10 poets/performers/artists and interview them about their own experiences
- see and review 5 poetry/theatre shows to inspire my own
- make a press pack I’m happy with
- enter 3 competitions
- perform somewhere new
So yeah. Wish me luck. Fingers crossed I’ll keep you updated.
This week is possibly the most important, and most exciting, of my life as a poet. At the start of this year, I decided that I would start taking my poetry more seriously, and a couple of weeks later I have 3 gigs and 2 workshops in the space of seven days (as well as a RJFP shift and a pub crawl…). I am ridiculously excited. I am also kinda terrified. I mean two of them are open mics and it’s not like I’ve never done this before. But I’m preparing for the longest sets I’ve ever performed in front of new, big audiences, I’m running workshops at my old secondary school where I haven’t been in two years and I’m going to try and sell some little collections of my poetry for the first time too.
So if you’d like to come and support me, here are the dates and info about my performances this week –
Tuesday 19th January: open mic at The Y Theatre, Leicester
Wednesday 20th January: Find The Right Words, Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
You’ll also be able to buy my brand new tiny poetry collection, which is a little zine containing 6 of my love poems, for the bargain price of £1.50. (Perfect for Valentine’s Day, or something)
Remind me to reflect on this next Sunday…
This week I started volunteering with the Real Junk Food Project. From dealing with inexplicably rotten eggs and cooking without gas on my first two days, I learnt a lot about spontaneous problem-solving, as well as a whole new concept of paying for food. They work on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis, whereby you can give a money donation after your meal but can also offer your skills, time, energy and ideas in exchange for food. This ethos really speaks to me – I like legitimising the value of someone’s non-financial attributes as a way of building communities and side-stepping capitalist structures.
However, this realisation coincided with a newfound creativity. Over the past couple of weeks, I have become very focussed on my poetry and have been writing more, offering to run workshops, collecting testimonies, finding competitions… I am suddenly so fixated on the idea of being a poet professionally – and this is where I hit my dilemma.
Last month, my friend Jess posted about artists having a “collective responsibility” to insist on getting paid reasonably to destroy the idea that art is not a ‘proper’ career. Plus, I’ve been thinking a lot about how so often artists are expected to work just for “exposure” (ie for free). This attitude already means that the art world is very elitist, excluding almost all but those who have the wealth to pursue creative projects as a hobby.
And this is my problem. On the one hand, I want to share my skills and my art with others for free because undermining capitalism is a great thing. On the other, I can’t take down capitalism by myself and in the meantime me and other artists still need to survive within it. And in that respect I have a duty to poets and other art-makers to demand fair payment for the time and effort that goes into my work… I’m still working out how to strike the balance between ethics and survival. I’ll let you know if I get there.