Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Poets on Picketlines

In Red Shed, comedian Mark Thomas begins by asking that age old question for lefties:  Where do your politics come from?

A question myself and some mates asked ourselves as we sat at the gates of Kirby Misperton’s anti-fracking camp last week, watched steely by more-than-enough Police Officers.  We wandered up the road, and were stalked by three Officers (one each) who referred to us as “young people” in their radios.

Mark’s question leads him to talk about his experience of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike as a student living in Yorkshire’s West Riding and the gut-wrenching pain of revisiting old struggles and battlefields.  It’s a cracking show.

It wasn’t a hate preacher who radicalized me, and I won’t lay the blame at David Cameron’s posh door.  It was Michael Arthur, the Vice Chancellor of Leeds University who, in my third year, stated that cuts will occur across departments.  With my precious theate and English course under review, and therefore the knife, I got involved in Leeds University Against Cuts, at that time a localised collective of lefties and concerned students who would oppose cuts and, critically, defend strike action which opposed cuts.

This led to a great deal of conflict with the current crop of Student Union Officers who essentially backed management and did very little to represent the student’s concerns.  In fact, it felt like they did a super job of representing management’s stance to us.

So my first picketline was a simple batch of students and lecturer’s with a few signs.  Hardly the warring battlelines of cops and miners, or other such struggles across the globe.  People casually sauntered past us, it was all quite civil.  But leading up to this picketline had been a continual battle of debates in seminars, in the Union, in the Student Paper and on the Student Radio.  That’s the environment I learnt:  Do Not Cross A Picktline.  We marched and demonstrated against cuts, it ws the first time I chanted or used a megaphone, and we even did a sit-in outside the Student Officer’s offices.  It was actually the picketline itself that seemed quite tame by comparison, in all honesty.

But the UCU members on strike we fighting for all us students.  We could feel the tide of cuts were coming, not those promised by the VC, but the looming coalition government.  A few months later, Nick Clegg would break his promise, the Tories would test their newfound power against the student and college campuses.  Leeds University students, amongst many, would go into Occupation and the student movement was at the forefront of resisting Tories between 2010-2011.  But by then, I was totally radicalised…er…I mean…politically engaged.  And now UCU are going on a huge strike to defend their pensions, and of course beneath the surface is the issues around the marketability, privatisation and exclusivity of education.

I popped down to the pickets on Thursday, and can confirm the dedicated student body who support their staff and support their strike.  Love, rage and solidarity to all xxx

I’ve read poems on picketlines, and rallies to support strike action.  Picketline poetry is always quite simple and to the point.  From the work of Joe Hill to this day, it’s about giving confidence and inspiration to people constantly and consistently demonised for defending their rights, and by extension other people’s rights.  I’d never claim this poetry is particularly complex, and indeed the romanticism cooked up by artists like Dropkick Murphys and Billy Bragg in songs never quite filters to the ground level, stood in the cold, with flyers, as people filter past without a second glance.  The issues surrounding a strike are always very complex, and people striking need a lot of courage.  But at the end of the day, there’s some very simple rules around pickets and strikes:

Don’t cross a picketline.  Don’t scab.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rejection Doesn't Mean You're A Reject

For those of you unfamiliar with neither the tradition of non-commercial non-profit driven art-making nor putting up shelves:  DIY means Do It Yourself.  Whilst sometimes taken as a don’t-ask-for-help culture, I take it as a call to make the work you want to make and not wait for permission.

Because this has been neatly wedded in my artistic genetics, I don’t apply for jobs that often.  It also explains why I’ve never held a salaried position.  Also why poor.  Obviously I still sign up for the Arts Jobs newsletter, as well as Lane’s List, the London Play-wrighting Blog and scouring various other opportunities sites.  But I know people who are constantly putting in applications for jobs or projects, or submitting poems for competitions, pamphlets and publishers.  It’s old news, but as the old Tories policies of Austerity continue to squeeze the arts there becomes a bottleneck of applications for fewer jobs.

Last week I didn’t get to interview stage for a job I was really gunning for.  I tried not to envisage actually getting the job for fear of setting expectations too high, but certainly hoped I’d be invited to interview.  When one is faced with such news, there’s plenty of routes an anxious brain can walk.  The road to bitterness is well-trod (treaded?) for a privileged kid like myself.  Assuming that the system is rigged, or stacked against you, is not very helpful when you’re able-bodied, white, male, het and cis.  Plus it’s difficult to change in your circumstance.  Use what little power you have to undo what you perceive as a rigged system in the systems you’re part of.  This road is a sole-shredding, effort-filled uphill slog.

So the other road your brain can take is all downhill.  It starts with acknowledging you weren’t right for the job, a fair assessment.  But then why weren’t you right for the job?  Because you’re not good enough, obviously.  Because you’re not experienced enough.  Because you’re not strong enough.  Because you are good enough, but you wrote a terrible application (even if you spent hours and hours on it).  This is the road that leads to the Land of Should.  I should be at this point in my career.  I should be doing more.  I should Get Better.

The problem with trying to Get Better means feedback.  The problem with anxiety is you pile feedback onto feedback that turns into a weighted, unhelpful burdensome barrage of worries/thoughts.
Not going to lie, not getting an interview put me into a funk these last few days.  And it’s made worse by the guilt at feeling arrogant.  The shame in knowing your worth.  The disgust at yourself that you dared to think you had potential.  All the italic gut-punch flashing thoughts.

As I say, I don’t apply for as many jobs as other people in the industry do.  And everyone deals with rejection in different ways.  But being rejected doesn’t mean you’re a reject.  Shamefully my instinctive gut reaction is to give up, or make a career choice.  Obviously sometimes one needs to readdress strategies and approaches, but to swing to an extreme is never useful.  I guess what I’ve learnt is to take it slowly, to digest, to consider and to take those negative thoughts, interrogate them, breath and let them slide for the more practical package.  So as you continue walking along this over-used, exasperated metaphorical road you have your walking boots, well-resourced backpack and iPod playing your ‘Onwards!’ playlist.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Energy Doesn't Just Mean Energetic

If you watch videos from poets like myself & Dave Jarman we’re much happier to toy with the microphone, to stomp around the stage and to offer more interaction.  I think secretly, me and Dave wish we were rock stars in bands (well, he is).  Dave is bold.  Kate Tempest paces the stage like a tense caged beast, Vanessa Kisuule is an articulate whirlwind and Dom Berry is like a bubbly, walking, talking human high-five.

By contrast, if you watch Hannah Davies energy it’s much more around her face.  The expression of a staunch story-teller, unfazed, the warm eye-contact and of course well-paced delivery draw you in with a welcoming intensity.  Sara Hirsch, our last guest at Say Owt, is a trained actor but she brings characters to life by painting stories with conversational language rather than bluntly embodying them on the stage.

There are different ways you bring energy onto the stage, and how you use it.  Certainly the louder, faster and more intense poets will often be more memorable.  The ones who bellow or ditch the mic or strut across the stage or clamber into the audience.  But that doesn’t mean poets who read from the page or refrain from such ballsy acts are not using energy.  A political point is not made more revolutionary by shouting; a comedic rhyme structure is not funnier because it’s faster.

On Tuesday I took part in the ATG Slam, and most other poets read from the page/phone.  A mixture of introspective, warm and playful poetry from a good number of first time performers.  I knew I didn’t have the scores to win, so I decided to perform a poem off-mic, loudly, messily and, for those who know me, spontaneously self-referential.  I didn’t win, and in the process blew a speaker.  I’m not a punk poet for nothing, right?  I guess I just wanted to bring a different energy into the space, one less introspective, measured and sharp and something more raw and jumbled.

Energy can come from all sorts of places; physically on stage mine tends to be more in my upper body.  I like to ground myself, but enjoy twisting my shoulder, scanning a room, hunching over the mic and sometimes having a little wander.  My energy goes into a bit of chaos, a constant fiddling with the mic stand, rubbing together of hands, being surprised by myself or the audience reaction.  I’d like to call this energy cartoony and playful, urgent and klutzy.

But here are some words that might be good synonyms for how a poet can use energy on stage without necessarily meaning louder or faster.