Monday, December 12, 2016

A new way for poetry?

It began as a frustrated question on social media on June 21 this year: who in Brighton would be up for a massive fund-raising poetry and music event to support organisations helping displaced people?

Within minutes people were responding, count me in. Nearly six months later the Brighton Poem-a-thon happened at Komedia Studio Bar in Gardner Street. We weren't counting but reckon at least 500 people (probably more) came and went during the day. The bar was full for 10 hours and for that entire time there was a performer or a compere on stage. We are close to a target of £30,000 for the Refugee Council and hopefully around £1,500 for the School Bus Project.  

When I first helped put on readings with Brighton Poets in the 1990s we didn't have social media. We printed out flyers and posters and stuffed envelopes to a mailing list. Since then (and probably before, but I wasn't in the city then) there have been many enthusiasts for live poetry who've put their time into providing a platform for performers and a place for readers to listen. The big issue is always how to make it pay. 

Event organisers sometimes get public funding, but mostly don't - or at least, the small event organisers don't. So the model we all turn to is charge on the door and give the takings to performers after the venue hire's paid. 

It was a model we knew wouldn't work for a charity event. Sasha Dugdale, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, came up with the Poem-a-thon model, which had been done in Sheffield and London and raised thousands of pounds for charity. 

It is a brilliant model because all the money comes from sponsorship raised by each performer and there's no need to charge an entry fee. But something else happened yesterday. 

Many of us have asked ourselves if there's really an audience for poetry. We've believed that it's terribly limited, a niche, something the ordinary person isn't at all interested in. We've put up with factions and in-fighting within the very small community that dominates what we describe as the poetry world. We've believed snobs and doom merchants, we've allowed critics to pit page poets against performance poets. We've been distracted away from appreciating the joy of writing and fallen into the bitterness of not-quite-enough-success. Well, perhaps I shouldn't speak for anyone else. I know I have, often. 

Take away the ego, the personal struggle to be seen and heard and replace it with a common objective, to raise money for charities that are doing really important work and suddenly the face of poetry changes. 

Brighton's poetry community and beyond showed that generosity of spirit and collaboration can bring in audiences - yes, waves of people, all through the day and night for all types of poets and poetry. The biggest single poetry event Brighton has seen. We were a large and energetic team of performers, organisers (and their families!), charities, listeners, sponsors, donators of prizes, photographer, designer and Komedia. Everything is possible....

The other factor that might be important is that we weren't charging to get in. We didn't need to - all the performers were there to honour their commitment to sponsors and did not expect a fee. 

I can't draw conclusions from this, but it is making me think. How do we look at this, as poets, if we want readers? Do we have to change our expectations? There are few poets who can count income from readings as a significant element of their earnings. Is this Poem-a-thon phenomenon part of something else? Should all poetry events be free? And what does that mean for organisers, performers, venues?