This isn’t about you. It’s about me. It’s not about getting anything off your chest, it’s not about the cathartic experience you go through on stage, I don’t care. I don’t want to know. I’ve paid for this shit, so to me – your audience – this is about me. My entertainment, my amusement, my night out, my time.
I’ve been running open mics and poetry events for over two years now and I try to keep my stages as varied, open and inclusive as possible. However, I see my role in these situations as an arbiter, a keeper of balance. Obviously I want to give everyone a chance on stage, but this must be finely tuned with the audience’s desire for good quality original entertainment so unfortunately when certain people come up to me beaming and brandishing their latest scribbles, eager to inflict them on an unsuspecting public my heart sinks. The template poet who writes the same piece about a different subject every week, the feminist who only writes about bastard bloody men, the black guy who only writes about racial inequality, the emo kid who only ever writes about cutting himself… I could go on.
Obviously I’m not saying that any of these subjects are anything less than valid or that performance can’t or shouldn’t be cathartic. Some of the most inspirational and exhilarating shows I’ve had the privilege of witnessing have involved an incredible outpouring of emotion and when it’s done well it’s wonderful. However, what I can’t stand is seeing an audience tolerate tired, hackneyed ideas trotted out time and again to forced applause but it’s OK man, cos it’s a big deal to him and he’s like, expressing himself, y’know?
Bollocks. Don’t care.
For me, the catharsis comes in the act of writing and I have a number of poems that will never get anywhere near a microphone, they’re mostly angst-ridden works of self-loathing and misery and they’ve served their purpose by the very fact of their creation. They were written for the page and there they shall stay. Page poetry is one thing; a reader can pick and choose whether or not to follow up on your extensive experience of scratching away at your wrists with whatever blunt compass you choose but I think it’s just inconsiderate and selfish babbling on about it to every audience you get your misery-smeared lips near. I believe that the day you call yourself a performer you assume a duty to do your utmost to entertain your audience. As such, when I’m writing for the stage my first and foremost thought at all times is: Why would anyone want to listen to this? Is it actually entertaining? Is it original? Is it funny? What’s the angle, the insight, the story? Or am I just having a clever whinge?
So, what can we as a community or scene do about it? How can we push the movement forward without alienating or offending people? My honest answer is I don’t know. It’s a complex issue and I think solutions vary from situation to situation, night to night and poet to poet.
I think that fundamentally the responsibility lies with the promoters though. It can be hard to refuse someone badgering for a gig but in order to combat the still widely-held preconception of poetry as a tedious and trivial form detached from true entertainment there needs to be a separation of wheat from chaff. Freebie open mics are one thing, I agree that everyone should have access to an expressive outlet and it would be a sad day for me if that was not the case. However, if the scene is to move on, evolve and gain the recognition it deserves, we can’t expect people to pay for rubbish.
Bad comics get heckled off stage, bad musicians get talked over and ignored, unoriginal poets however are politely listened to, clapped and told their work is touching and moving when in actual fact everyone knows it was just bloody boring, as if the very act of expressing oneself validates the performance irrespective of its true value. There’s a time and a place for having a moan at people you don’t know very well, it’s called therapy and there’s a reason it costs you, not them, money.
Alex Iamb is a stand-up poet, compere and Cambridge Area Co-Ordinator for Hammer & Tongue. He was born to kind, loving parents who have supported him unswervingly and without question in his every endeavour. He has consistently thrown this loyalty back in their faces by refusing to endeavour. At anything. Ever. Until now. A little while back some fool told alex he should stand up in front of a room full of people and have his already substantial ego massaged a little harder than usual. Oh dear. Since then he has been enthusiastically harrassing innocent members of the public at gigs and festivals all over the country, leaving literally tens of people slightly unsettled and a bit bemused. He has shared stages with such literary luminaries as Byron Vincent, Tim Clare, Kate Tempest, Attila The Stockbroker, Yanny Mac, Rhian Edwards and Salena Godden among others. God help them. It’s all their own fault.