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Monday, 27 February 2017

Poetry Sells (Out?): reflections on the great poetry war of 2016-17

Poetry, or how (not to) get ahead in advertising

So, it's the morning after a conference at Leeds university - which was great, by the way, but irrelevant to this particular anecdote - and I find myself taking a stroll down a busy shopping street with Raymond Antrobus*. Our talk on poetry is animated (anyone who's ever engaged with Raymond in a conversation on contemporary poetry will attest to his dynamic enthusiasm in this regard, no matter what time of day), but we stop mid-sentence as, right there, in the middle of the street, out of the corner of our eyes, we spot Charlie Dark selling trainers and Jo Bell selling mortgages.

Ok, maybe I need to expand in detail: the life-size images of two poets** I know - and respect - are, just a couple of doors away from each other, in the window of a trainer shop and a building society, respectively. Poets have taken over the high street!

Over the last few weeks, I've been reading with interest all the conversations about the presence of poets in advertising and my personal reactions have mostly ranged from 'yay, poets getting paid!' to 'yay! I'm seeing people I know out there!' via 'why the hell would anyone have a problem with that?!'

Behind the scenes - or, rather, in the scene - there are people debating the moral and artistic merit of (spoken word) poets being used in advertising. Some of the arguments seem a bit stale - are we really STILL criticising poets for not adhering to our very specific quirky moral narratives (i.e. in real life, I can buy trainers and use a bank or building society; I can accept a lift in daddy's Jeep; I can even eat in MacDonald's... but the minute I use my creative talent and gain financial reward in campaigns for any of those things, I've sold out...)? Many such arguments are facile and often reveal the same kind of snobbery and sanctimony which we accuse our 'page-only' poet*** brethren of. It speaks of a limited worldview.

I subscribe to three theories in life:

1) if you care enough about someone or a group of people, you'll bend over backwards to understand and even accommodate them

2) the world is big enough for (nearly) everyone

3) implicit and institutionalised bias are the most corrosive evils in society: most people believe themselves inherently 'good' whilst perpetuating damaging behaviour.

In my initial thoughts on the matter, the second theory applied. I can be perfectly frank and say I don't like all of the Nationwide poems, for example, or that I find certain styles of poetry fail to touch me, or that I find certain poets - who I like as people - really irritating in the way they write and/or the way they deliver poems. That *should* be a given; if I passively sat and liked everything, I would be a very bland person indeed. That's also a two-way street; as much as it pains me, I'm sure many people don't like what I write and/or how I perform. Given all of that, I don't feel it should be necessary to voice that opinion all the time. As long as there is poetry being performed, and as long as there is space for poets to thrive, more power to everyone.

Disclaimer: there is also a big hole where more critique ought to be, but this critique needs to rigorous and measured, and conscious of its own space. In plain English: one can critique when it is asked for; one can critique in certain forums where it is expected - and more of these fora should be created; one can critique when one knows what one is talking about and why, and pays attention to the how of the critique. But critique for the sake of belittling, or gaining power, or attention is plain wrong.

When initially thinking about this conversation, the very first thoughts that came to mind were:

a) I had to actively seek out the (Nationwide) adverts online because I don't watch TV at home, so if I were that offended by them, they would be very easy to avoid

b) I've yet to see George the Poet's Jeep advert - mostly because I have no interest in Jeeps, and doubt I have anything to gain by seeing his poem

c) Again, more power to everyone involved: if I were commissioned to write a poem for a company - with some notable exceptions - I wouldn't be averse to it (Jeeps included).

And yet... more considered thought needed

All of that said, Claire Pollard's thoughts on the matter do add another dimension to the argument. Spoken word poetry, in particular, has a certain kudos, a claim to counter-culturality and to integrity which often runs against the principles of advertising. There are certain moral ideas at stake. It's not the poetry that's being sold - otherwise the adverts *could* simply feature long poems (which may or may not have anything to do with the product) with a tiny logo at the bottom - but the *idea* of poets as a wholesome subculture that is being exploited. Pollard argues her point convincingly, in a way that Luke Wright's video doesn't, in my opinion (Niall O'Sullivan's theories in the comments below her post, incidentally, are of particular interest - perhaps there are different approaches to the argument that run at cross-purposes).

All in all - as is often the case - I veer towards agreeing with James McKay, and Fay Roberts, who has written extensively on the matter (and Sabotage Reviews is hosting a series of posts on this, in case you want to read even more). What both of them patiently explain is that this 'controversy' is nothing new. What they then go on to point out is the implicit bias within *some* of the arguments against the 'sell outs' (claims that the poets involved are 'prostitutes' both demeans poetry and those who sell sex; ideas that a black poet ought to be writing angrily about 'the streets' instead of about Jeeps smells a little fishy too, whatever the intention behind it). These kind of arguments are almost as old as language itself!

Debate is good, on the whole but, when stakes are particularly high - the future of arts, literature, academia and critical thinking in the UK are all under threat - it needs to be conducted sensitively, and well. And here, the third principle in life I subscribe to comes out in full effect: we are all hypocrites and sell out in multiple ways.

Forgive me my digressions...

One of the most intense years of my life was during my training as a Spoken Word Educator, while completing my MA at Goldsmiths University (am I advertising them by mentioning them?). In one essay, written as part of a module on subversion within school education, I argued that working in schools compromises my practice as a poet/writer. I am compromised by choosing to operate inside a system that: prioritises rote learning over critical thinking; takes a segregated approach to what is considered 'academic' and allows little space for young people to be human/ised; perpetuates an infrastructure conceived of during the Industrial Revolution and is not fit for the twenty-first century, and individualised needs; has been exposed as institutionally racist, misogynist, and oppressive towards the differently-abled (and many others). That may all sound drastic but if you've taught in a school in the last five years, or have followed the political/politicised changes of the education system, you'll at least understand where I'm coming from, even if you don't completely agree. This is even without mentioning the various constraints and hypocrisies imposed by the schools as a writer/performer, where my own socio-political ideologies and personal expressions must be kept in line with the false neutrality of the school****. Teaching young people to express themselves in poetry, to think across disciplines and to perform does not sound particularly radical, but many schools are simply not equipped to enable the basic premise of having a poet in a school, even an unpaid one; it does not always contribute to the tight curricula prescribed by the schools and by government. A strong case has to be made each time for the holistic benefits of allowing creative writing, oracy and freedom of expression.

Given the context of the previous paragraph, an argument about poets on TV sounds a little off; we are all compromised in multiple ways and there are bigger causes to fight for. Sure, you may think that advertising/sponsorship is bad but that's only part of the wider debate. Our whole system is corrupt.

The concept of poetry in education is starkly different to that poetry to sell cars or mortgages but, in practice, as privitisation of schools takes hold even more, lines are blurred and other supposed acceptable spaces for poetry are also compromised. By accepting a paid gig from the British Council, am I selling out by 'advertising' the UK, a country which seems hellbent on pursuing isolationist policies while ignoring its own history, especially in relation to the histories of the countries where it operates*****? By accepting any form of state funding, am I doing the same thing? Well, how about the pubs and theatres I perform at? What if they also happen to have supported other shows I don't agree with (the Barbican springs to mind)? What about the brands I accidentally advertise by being photographed/filmed wearing or drinking them? What about the publishing houses I advertise by being published by them? How different is it to perform something that will be used explicitly to promote a commodity - and being paid for the privilege - to giving implicit endorsements, with or without your conscious engagement in that process?

This isn't a pointless exercise in whataboutery but a serious case for reconsidering the state of our current social interactions. Publishing - poetry, novels, whatever - has never been cheaper, but publishing houses are under threat; literary bodies are under threat; even the recession-proof Arts Council is under threat. The spaces in which we perform are under threat: pubs, theatres, libraries and arts spaces are closing at an unprecedented rate*****. It's truly alarming. But, in addition to bemoaning these particular challenges, we need to look across the borders at journalism, music, and even the High Street - whether in Leeds or Leith, or Shoreditch. Society and culture is under enormous pressure and its existence is precarious. How we consume ideas and art has changed radically in the past couple of decades and advertising has played some part in this.

I am writing this blog directly onto Blogspot/Blogger. When I first started writing here, it was an independent site, but was soon bought up by Google. Until recently, Google didn't sell anything tangible... but still was/is one of the most powerful companies in the world. Most of our information is free but most of it comes via just a few companies. Even our advertisement-free spaces (there are no ads on this page, to my knowledge) comes at a price. If, say, I disagreed with the amount of tax Google pays in the UK, should I boycott this site and move to another platform? If so, which? How about using Facebook to promote myself, even as it also perpetuates 'fake news'; even after it has been caught out in the past using its members to perform social experiments (and God knows what other manipulative practices will be unearthed in future years)? At some point, whatever I do, I will be making a compromise with my values. The only way to mitigate against this is to be measured in thinking about which battles to fight, and when, and why. And, most importantly, how.

Digression over (sort of)

The original title of this was going to be 'a few brief thoughts'. I stand by the title in principle; arguing about poets in advertising is like meditating on the comma in the middle of a huge paragraph on the purpose of art and literature. It's a brief pause in a long debate about something else entirely. Commas are important and change the context and direction of a conversation, however. How we handle the conversation about a few Nationwide adverts can set the template for a number of other, more pressing, concerns.

Spread Eagle pub, NW1
In one of Fay Roberts' posts, she makes oblique references to other controversies within the spoken word community, including physical and sexual violence and threats made by poets and audience members. The repercussions of these events can still be felt; for example, I know of people who still do not feel safe attending most poetry events in London, years later. How can that be?! 

Is there a shared set of standards that the poetry/spoken word community/ies can comfortably adhere to? Is there a united front that welcomes and encourages the voices that are often disregarded in other spaces? (Again, there have been heated exchanges recently over accessibility and inclusion of poets with mental health challenges******) Words are not neutral. Well-written, well-expressed poetry possesses the power to challenge the reader/listener and navigate them through imaginative leaps, through rhythm, through sound. In optimum conditions, it can delight, entertain and bind communities while shedding light on injustice; in other conditions, it can alienate and demean. The same applies to other forms of spoken word, incidentally. Stand up comedy is a very close cousin of live poetry.

The Oscars have just drawn to a close and there are, undoubtedly, numerous opinions on the merit of the host's and all the award-receiving actors' speeches that take relentless pokes at the current US administration (and the man at its helm*******). Some people feel actors shouldn't be poking their heads above the parapet to comment, especially when they are speaking from very privileged positions. That opinion is merely another side of the same Rubik's cube which argues that (Western, spoken word********) poets must always be left-leaning, must always eschew explicitly commercial pursuits in their poetry, must always be angry and working against power structures, even as they thrive within them (often taking up positions in schools, universities and arts organisations).          

We cannot escape our own positioning, as poets and as humans. In addition to picking apart those of us who have managed to get exposure and sell cars, we need to constantly pick apart the purpose of our art and the community. 

A conclusion, sort of

I'm walking down the street in the middle of Leeds with Raymond Antrobus, looking for breakfast. Most places are shut - it's Sunday - and all the locally-sourced, vegetarian, ethical, artisanal coffee-type places that my search engine promised in abundance are closed. I'm hungry and neither Jo Bell with her mortgages, nor Charlie Dark, with his trainers, can feed us. Right now, they are irrelevant to our more immediate needs. 

As we walk and chat, I'm also reflecting on the day before, where I sat through hours of presentations by writers, academics, publishers and social commentators on 'narrating the Caribbean'. During this all-day conference, over a dozen speakers - from their various angles, and from their various backgrounds - discussed some of the themes within this title. How do you narrate 'Caribbean' when it is no longer a geographical space? Narrating the 'Caribbean' necessitates navigating complicated diasporas, languages, ethnicities and histories. Since it was first ever inhabited by Europeans, it has been a massive social and racial experiment. And, tied in with that, an economic one, a template for what global commerce has become today, via sugar, bananas, tobacco, rum... and the commodification of humans. Narrating the Caribbean means going out of the way to counteract the silencing of certain voices (whether that be due to their race, sexuality or gender). It also means being brave and imaginative with vocabulary and with themes, playing trickster with speech and movement.  

It's not much of a leap to say that the spoken word poetry community must embrace some of the same challenges that Caribbean writers, regardless of genre, face. Funding is in short supply and imaginative leaps must be made. For some, this might mean using advertising as a platform to gain exposure. For others, this may mean the opposite. Either way, for all of us, if we are to thrive, we need to foster more space for community. That means, yes, critiquing, but it also means taking on board other opinions, being sensitive********* to voices that do not share the same privilege, being willing to apologise for falling short, being adaptable to a rapidly-changing society, being proficient at using language to subvert, satirise, educate and entertain, in equal measure. It also means being wise about the how

Somehow, I don't feel it is my place to judge what poets do inside the privacy of their own billboards and commercials. But I do think it is my place - and the place of other poets - to make sure poetry thrives inside the marginalised places where it can provide a vital lifeline. Despite my aversion to the school system, for the damage I've seen it cause to some young people - myself included - I recognise it is important to champion poetry within it, and 'spoken word' poetry in particular, because of its immediacy and because of the empowering nature of being listened to rather than just read. I feel the same for the prison system - and for other areas I have yet to explore (poetry in hospitals, detention centres, and even on doorsteps; and poetry that brings groups of people together in conflict zones). I feel that, if we are committed to making the art form shine, and if we approach it with passion, there will be no danger of it becoming diminished or cheapened or compromised by a few adverts. I also believe strongly that if we champion platforms for critiquing (Sabotage, fair enough is a good start, but there's space for more), we can learn from each other and make each other better. 

Ok, it's lunch time.

P.s. Come to my gig tonight! It's free and not sponsored by any multinationals as far as I know.  

Extensive notes

*who has work published in the March 2017 edition of Poetry Magazine #justsaying

**ok, Charlie Dark's notoriety as a poet is overshadowed by his involvement in the hiphop scene and his "Run Dem Crew", which makes his presence in a trainer shop a more natural phenomenon.

*** According to the KJ dictionary, Page (Only) Poets are those rare species who make an art form out of reading their poems as dryly as possible, eschewing any hint of 'performance' in poetry. POPs live outside their own bodies. They believe in concepts such as 'universality', 'transcendence' and 'purity' within poetry - and culture as a whole; the sea is universal, Autumn is universal, the poem transcends the poet. The fauna genus among them frown upon imposing any personality or autobiographical detail within their poems, limiting their creative expression to changes in seasons, flowers and classic fruits (excluding mangoes, which belong to the Exotic Other species).    

**** Example 1: The idea of a teacher/visitor swearing at school is controversial, yet most pupils use copious amounts of profanity, and are literate in it - also, even literary texts they deal with contain this language... it's a strange one.
Example 2: During one school assembly on Valentine's Day, a (straight, male) colleague dedicated a love poem to me. He was reprimanded for inciting homophobic behaviour - apparently, outside of explicit anti-bullying classes, even the suggestion of non-heterosexual love was controversial and likely to cause a riot.
Example 3: Many schools have explicitly banned pupils from certain vernacular tics - such as starting a sentence with 'Basically' - or from using Caribbean-derived 'slang', such as bare, in favour of 'Standard English'. Rather than promote literacy, it devalues their unique expressions and the social/historical context of their communication. Many pupils are thus less responsive to outsider 'poets', who are seen as part of the problem.
Example 4: 'Sir! Are you a rapper, sir?' When schools, and society as a whole, prioritise a certain canon (white, male, preferably dead), often taught by a certain demographic (white, middle class, deadened by work pressure) it perpetuates stereotypes. No matter how often I am introduced as a poet, no matter how I present myself, every time I am introduced to a new school, someone will refer to me as a 'rapper' or imply that I have some kind of 'street' cred. (Sometimes this is useful)
Example 5: Sometimes the poet - especially the 'street poet' - is positioned as an arbitrator for the disciplinary system: 'disruptive' pupils are offered up as experiments, and magical results are expected. (Again, sometimes this is useful. My work as an educator and mentor sometimes allowed me space to perform healing work; simply allowing pupils space to express their feelings within a creative framework is magical) Most often, though, this is an unreasonable expectation with dire consequences, especially when the poet's work is undone by other pressures of the school system.
Example 6: Pupils deemed too disruptive or under-performing could be pulled out of workshops with no notice; thus poetry is seen as a 'reward' rather than a natural element of learning. The poet's position is once again compromised
Example 7: Many 'performance' poets I know are dyslexic; many more have developed unique observational skills from having being othered/isolated when they were at school. Returning to unreformed schools often means revisiting places of trauma. Yet, still, schools are held up as 'neutral' places of positive learning for the benefit of 'all' pupils. Bullshit.
Example 8: In new, politicised learning spaces, workers at school must promote 'British Values'; they must subscribe to the Prevent agenda (which, while it has some important uses, can stop pupils from speaking in the first place - thus, instead of preventing terrorism, it 'prevents' teachers and pupils alike from voicing their truths. That is a dangerous space for a poet.) Oh, and any poet with a criminal record is likely to be prevented from working with children too, even when supervised by teachers.

*****I've written on the legacy of colonialism several times before so I can't be bothered to provide links right now.

*****As above, no links, but stats are easy to source online. I'm not just making this up!

******I won't go into those controversies here, but really being serious about including a wide range of people requires another series of conversations. In this podcast, Harry Giles, Abi Palmer and Andra Simons discuss some of the issues at stake. It's an ongoing conversation.

*******Again, it's not just about one man. In this illuminating post by Bernice King, she explains why it's important to not get distracted from the issues at stake by focusing on one person. That one person is part of an administration, even if he positions himself as a one-person shit-storm; he is a wheel in a larger cog and it is up to us to pick apart all the elements and unravel the threads.

********In many other traditions, spoken word has other cultural frameworks. There's a rise in Christian/Evangelical and Islamic spoken word poetry globally, and some crossover from other traditional forms of poetry and spoken word. They do not carry the same cultural weight of the Beat, working men's club, dub and slam poetry scenes that have influenced modern "Spoken Word culture" here, which tend towards being anti-establishment and working class-orientated.

*********Poets? Sensitive?! What?!!! I don't mean in the delicate, fragile sense of the word, but in the tuned-in sense. We need to hear and respond. And sometimes stay silent in order to listen. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

UPCOMING GIG: Spin Cycle - TOMORROW (Monday)!

I am immensely looking forward to SPIN CYCLE tomorrow, part of the Extra Rinse Series. From 7.30, it'll be Sam Berkson, DJ Lethal Lew and me, doing some poems and spinning some music tracks at Machine No. 3 in Homerton, E9.

Do come!


Extra details can be found here

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Upcoming: Spit & Polish TOMORROW!

Hey up!

Managed to get myself into this month's Kentishtowner paper with Spit & Polish co-guests, so check it out here.

In the meanwhile, it'll be great to see some local and not so local friendly faces there. Come along if you can!

All the details can be found here or here