The Poetics of Money #2: Fay Roberts

-by Fay Roberts

A young man’s voiceover tells us about individuality and rebellion as conventionally beautiful folk drive and dance in cinematic high definition. Another young man’s voiceover talks of individuality and rebellion as conventionally pretty white people vault railings.

A single mother tells us about her relationship with her young daughter. A young man talks about his childhood home. Another talks about communication in the Snapchat era. A woman talks about pragmatic compassion as Elgar soars. They all appear candid and conversational.

These are recent national television adverts featuring spoken word artists performing poems they’ve written to market a variety of products. And opinion about it seems to be divided, publicly, between “hey, good for them” and “UTTER BETRAYAL OF PRINCIPLES DIMINISHING ALL PERFORMANCE POETRY!”

This commercial engagement has stirred up some extraordinarily loud antagonism, including a magazine article that didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to lambast the modern poetry scene or mourn its demise, blaming everything from the adverts to “identity politics” (don’t get me started) in slam competitions.

Roughly once or twice a year there’s some kind of controversy in the poetry world. They’re often bonding experiences – plagiarism’s a good one for that, because there’s a clear bad guy, right? Except when baseless accusations fly and lines are drawn on social media. Or when some poets get invited to Buckingham Palace and some of them refused to go and some who didn’t have the choice express distaste for those who accepted. Or when someone starts physically abusing other poets, but the truth is half-spoken only in certain circles and people step up to defend the ultimately indefensible…

And the more I think about it, the more I realise that we like to talk about the poetry/ spoken word community and yes, those who subscribe to and work for that to be a real, much-needed thing have started to make something tangible, vibrant, supportive and awesome, but, for the most part, we appear to be merely a group of people who have one thing in common: we like speaking our words aloud for audiences.

And we like to talk about how Spoken Word is a really old artform actually, especially when certain poets get snooty about the shallow, vaudeville razzamatazz of performance poetry with its terribly declassé tendencies and reliance on tone and body language to carry the message, but as a modern movement? We’re barely starting.

And nowhere is that clearer than in the opportunities afforded to spoken word artists to gain awards, plaudits, and meaningful exposure, never mind make enough money to live based purely on performing. Compare us to any other performance or creative form and really, what is there? Most full-time performance poets seem to make the bulk of their cash from teaching in one form or another, and vast numbers of us compromise by staying in the day job and worrying that we’ll never be a “proper” poet. Spoken Word has only very recently been included as an official genre in the Edinburgh Fringe festival and, although its bandwagon is gathering zeitgeisty momentum, ambitious performers are still placing themselves in the categories of Theatre or Comedy, presumably for the sake of awards and the summoning of audiences.

But I don’t remember people taking to social media to make hyperbolic statements about how ‘page’ poets “selling out” to greeting card companies ruins poetry and wrecks poets. Why is spoken word to be held to higher account? It’s more scary than any other performance form I’ve ever engaged in – these are my words, spoken by me. It’s an incredibly exposing experience. Is that why people need it to have more integrity? But what does that actually mean?

It’s probably pretty clear by now where I sit – if someone wants to earn money making an advert using their spoken word skills, fine. To my mind, they have the right to make whatever they want with their words and voice, and to settle their own consciences accordingly. And we have the right to critique the quality of the poem, and to debate the relative ethical merits of the organisation involved. Yay freedom of speech! What we don’t have any right to do, to my mind, is lay out opinions as facts and make sweeping statements about how one poet’s decision to trade off their reputation as a performer is damaging all performance poetry and poets.

And I don’t care how long you’ve been making a living from performance poetry; I don’t believe that your opinion is any more worthy than anyone else’s. Some of the more recent vituperative statements have been couched in terms of “advice” or “stirring up debate”. Unfortunately, they seem to have shifted the tone from the existing debate to people feeling stung and belittled by the unsought judgement.

To my mind, it’s not those who’ve chosen to work with commercial organisations that are causing tension among spoken word artists, but those who’re laying down the law that need to re-examine the effect they’re having. (Note to those denigrating the commercial poets by comparing them to “prostitutes” and/ or “sucking corporate cock” – not only is this whorephobic, its assumption that those who choose to perform fellatio are immediately of a lesser status leads us neatly into a barely tacit attitude of misogyny and homophobia from those touting themselves as morally superior socialists.) There’s a phrase that Christians use: hate the sin, not the sinner. So rail against the capitalist system by all means, but try some compassion for those who have little choice but to work within it.

And if, as these critics are so keen to point out, the commercial poets are damaging our reputation in the eyes of the general population, how much worse does this very public bickering and denigration look? We are all of us, at any given time, compromising on our work, our art, our lives. I, for one, would rather regret a commercial decision based on the need for stability than engaging in something that looks remarkably like bullying fellow artists.

This article was the result of an open invitation for poets to share their thoughts on the Nationwide debate. You can read Sophie McKeand’s take here.

The Poetics of Money #1: Sophie McKeand

The Nationwide adverts, along with collateral backlash, have been sparking debates among poets on social media for several weeks now. I put a call out for pieces open to discussing the topic from an interesting perspective. First up is poet Sophie McKeand. -Claire Trévien

Nationwide Poetry by Sophie McKeand

Perhaps it was the Kolkata heat, or the second glass of red, or impatience to head out that forced a knee-jerk ‘I’ll do it’ to Claire Trévien’s FB post asking for someone to write about the recent slew of poets appearing in commercials. I offered to write something because I was approached to cast for two separate adverts recently and, after much agonising, went for both.

I didn’t get either. Which is fair enough. Now I’ve started writing about it (on a flight to Delhi), the nerves have kicked in because, honestly, after reading this Vice article along with some pretty vicious FB posts slagging off the poets who did do it, I’m a bit terrified about writing about it, but I want to be honest about the motivations for being involved with the process. Supportive messages from sages Joelle Taylor and Anthony Anaxagorou for the poets involved perhaps gave me a bit more courage to be open, and I hope a personal account might offer a different perspective.

Dissecting the various for and against arguments is something I’ve decided to avoid, mainly because I’m not interested in reducing myself, or anybody else to a cliché or political ideology. We are all just people, trying to make it through the day – trying to make a living and be creative individuals. We all have lines we wouldn’t cross – as a staunch republican (in the British, not US sense)  and someone who believes passionately in Welsh independence I could never accept any award from the Queen for example (not that I’ve ever been offered one). Although if this process has taught me anything it’s that I’ll be a lot less judgmental towards those who do in the future.

Returning to advertising – I was approached by a casting agent last year for a Christmas ad for a well known organisation and was immediately dubious. What was I promoting? Who would see it? Would this be a massive sell-out? I liked the company’s ethics so there was no issue there – but advertising? I know poets whose current day jobs include advertising and copywriting and others who prefer to work in a coffee shop than on community projects – they’re doing the best they can with who they are and the skills they have and good on them for finding ways to continue creating work.

I am not fortunate enough to be one of those rare and luminous beings who make all of their income from writing, but didn’t see the advert as a massive sell-out to be honest. The agent was efficient and brusque. I didn’t feel I could get enough info out of her so decided to go along with the process with the thought I’d pull out if it was a shitty job.

It was. A couple of hours before the Skype casting (I couldn’t get to Manchester that day) at 9.15pm at night after a full day working in London I was sent through the ‘poem’ the successful poet would read on the advert. There’s a reason ‘poem’ is in inverted commas. It was, quite bluntly, fucking awful, and this is because, I kid you not, the company’s ‘creative team’ had written it. Not an actual poet. I made it clear while reading the piece dead-eyed to webcam in a variety of cheery *not cheery* styles that the piece really ‘really’ needed work (I was being polite) and that was probably enough for them to put a big black mark next to my name with the words ‘trouble maker’. I never heard back. Thankfully. I couldn’t have read that out. But I might have done it if I’d been allowed to rewrite the whole piece.

Why would I even put myself through this? I’m a credible artist, and not particularly mainstream so doing something like this would be career suicide wouldn’t it?

Unless you are from a particularly privileged background (which I’m not) you still have to earn a living, and there’s a long tradition of artists from across the board doing adverts for all sorts of reasons. Ken Loach and his 1980s Macdonalds commercial being the first that spring to mind.  He’s not massively proud of it and has stated that “It sits really badly on my conscience,” but he needed the money, which paid the rent and kept his family afloat.

The hugely talented Gary Oldman has been known to take a part in large Hollywood films he doesn’t particularly love in order to plough that money into films he wants to make with the intense passion he is so highly regarded for – I might have read somewhere this is how he funded the stunning Nil By Mouth and here’s a link to a Daily Mail(sorry) piece on a 2014 advert of his which probably helped him pay for a low-key piece he feels immensely proud of.

I’m also going to assume that both John Cooper Clarke (oven chips) and John Lydon (some sort of fake buttery spread) did it for the money.

So why did I consider an advert? Absolutely and only for the money. I would have been paid enough to take at least six month off to write the next few projects (a TV drama, a new collection) and as we’re selling up to live in a van this would have sorted us out nicely. There’s a huge number of companies I’d never consider doing an advert for (oil, meat, Nestlé … the list is extensive) but this company is one I use regularly and there’s no way I could get a bursary for the amount just one ad pays.

Over to Nationwide. They also approached me last year before Christmas. This time I was really cautious but was reassured that I was being asked to write my own poem. They didn’t want an advert – just a piece of poetry responding to certain universal themes. They’d chat with me, decide on two themes, I’d write two thirty-second-poems and film them on my phone. They’d pay me for writing them and then if they liked them I’d perform them on camera in the way you’ve seen on TV and get paid a decent fee for the rights.

Again, the ethics of the company wasn’t an issue – they’re a mutual building society who played no part in the banking crisis. Their customers are their shareholders and in all honesty it made me like them more – I figured I’d probably bank with them if I wasn’t already with the ethical Co-Op.

Over a weekend I wrote two poems but set one proviso – the poems had to be me, not something they might want me to be. This meant I wrote a nature poem and one about working with elderly people. Not the sexiest of topics perhaps – which might explain why they didn’t use them but there’s no regrets. I was commissioned to write two poems and was well paid for them.

I work full-time as a poet. That’s a precarious position to be in. A good 75% of income is from running workshops, which I dearly love but creating and dreaming them for eight years now is beginning to feel a bit like pulling my insides out and handing them to people to either devour or turn their nose up at on a daily basis. When my clients already have a whole heap of issues to deal with (and that’s just the teachers/support workers/care staff) it can feel like the work is seen as a nice distraction at best and a massive inconvenience at worst.

I need some time to just write because that’s what inspires the workshops and gives me the energy to inspire participants – but I can’t afford to stop working. Rent has to be paid, my massive credit card debt has to be serviced and I have a life to pay for, so I decided to view this as a generous bursary that could be ploughed into creative time.

This is a personal piece about writing for adverts because I’m not sure I can do anything else. We could argue the politics of it until the earth fell off her axis but nobody’s opinion was ever changed through those sorts of discussions. All I can do is tell it like it is. As a self-employed poet I take commissions from a variety of organisations that have included Wales Millennium Centre, Chester Pride, Llangollen Pavilion, various friends’ weddings – the latter being free of charge of course, and I’ve loved the challenge of writing every piece.

With more years of austerity ahead and increased cut to the arts, we’re all fighting to get by day-to-day; trying to make a living from doing what we love. Some days are better than others. Some days we worry we’ll never make it to the end of the month. Other days an opportunity comes along that’s too good to turn down. Whatever you would or wouldn’t do in this situation is entirely your choice. And good for you for sticking to it. Art is subjective so if you don’t like the poem – great – scroll on past. But pulling down other poets because you don’t agree with the path they walk is a pretty low move when you have no idea of the circumstances within which they’re working.

I’m not going more into the ethics of this because I don’t believe there is anything more to say. The whole poetic profession hasn’t fallen into disrepute because a few poets performed some pieces to camera. We’ve looked more foolish slagging each other off like school kids – it’s no wonder we struggle to be taken seriously by the wider community if we have such a hissy-fit at a few lines read out between X-Factor slots. Ken Loach will be remembered for the heartwrenchingly honest Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake – the adverts he made back when his principles prevented him getting any decent work are an embarrassing aside. We’re all accruing plenty of those in life. I like to see this as a sign that I’m living for myself and not others.

So here’s the thing – if you’re creating decent work it will stand the test of time, regardless. These adverts aren’t going to get anybody credibility – but I went for it in the hope that I could buy some time to create the next piece of work without the strings attached by arts funding or having to spend weeks creating an application ‘outstanding enough’ to impress a bursary panel who have to plough through hundreds of applications when, in all honesty I feel the more subtle aspects of my work get lost in these kinds of processes.

I want to finish by saying that I’m not writing this to ask permission, or for you to agree with me, but the world is becoming more and more judgemental and intolerant and it’s depressing to see that, at times, poets are leading the charge on this instead of focussing on things that really matter.