Eh? eh, (gets his ear trumpet out, puts in his dentures and leans further on his walking stick) What’s that you whippersnappers said?To be fair on myself though, read everything I say about poetry in the comments above, there’s no cynicism in it, it’s all love and passion. Am I cynical about TV, fame and the mass media? Sure, always have been. But in that case, I’m not as cynical as the things I’m cynical about…
I’ve blogged about these issues before, and it’s something that me and Ray Antrobus have spent a lot of time talking about. In fact, one of the things our collaboration with Keats House, the Emerging Poets Forum (opening performance in the grounds of the museum this weekend! — details here), is hoping to do is to push new young poets further forward, give them a platform that can help launch careers. We want spoken word to have the kind of popular presence and mass audiences it deserves. I’m not talking about flash-in-the-pan poetry popstars (Murray Lachlan Young, anyone?), but more the kind of hard won popularity that comes from graft and talent (say Scroobius Pip). And I’m not talking about fame for fame’s sake, but talking about expanding poetry’s reach, the inspiring power of performance, the way it can really give voices to the marginalised, encourage people to speak out. I’m tired of going to open mic nights and just seeing the same people performing for the same audiences (mainly each other), the self-reinforcing cliquiness that can poison poetry. I’m not performing ’cause I have stuff to get off my chest, I’m not performing ’cause I like applause, I’m not performing for money (OK, sure, I do all these things) — I’m performing because I believe in what poetry can do. And I want more people to be able to have that.
But Niall (who really knows the poetry community, and really serves it — he runs the weekly massive open mic at the Poetry Café, amongst many other things) shook up my thinking about this a bit. There’s a lot of meat in the stuff he’s saying above — it’s not a misguided purism or elitism; it’s coming from a deep-seated love of poetry could do. He’s been around a while, and he has seen the damage that can be wrought when spoken word gets a foothold in the mainstream — the reams of poets who are just doing it to get fame or money, the flooding of open mics, the lack of respect for the medium and its performers. I’m happy to take the bitter pill of the TV format if it gets poetry out there, but it is possible that exposure could burn out the scene, undermine the community.
So I suppose the answer is to be careful about how we do this. There’s a difference between working hard — building exposure and careers, earning recognition — and opting for the fast buck, the fifteen minutes of fame. We’ve got to make the mainstream work for us, not the other way around. From a political perspective, being parasitic on it, rather than letting it eat us up. That’s a tricky balance to strike. I don’t even know where to start, to be honest. And at this point, most of it is just dreams.