Loose Muse: redressing the balance for women writers

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When I first set up Loose Muse in the summer of 2004, I honestly didn’t think that eight years later it would have grown into London’s premier night for women who write, or that it would have become so firmly embedded in London’s literary scene.

At the time there didn’t seem to be many opportunities for women writers to read their work, share skills, and discuss what to do next in a non-threatening, supportive environment. When a monthly slot became free at Covent Garden’s Poetry Café, Loose Muse was born, and has been running successfully on the second Wednesday of each month, except August. 

From day one, despite running on a shoestring budget, I never had a problem getting featured writers who were happy to appear despite being paid little more than pin money. On the plus side, they had the opportunity to sell product, as well as participate in a wider debate on how they did what they did, and what the next step might be for novice writers.

Each Loose Muse features two women writers, a general open mic session where work can be shared from the floor, and occasional special guest spots if a someone is passing through London, is keen to take part, and I can squeeze them in. We have featured over 160 women writers of all genres, drawn from all over the country and overseas – from the US to Argentina, and Europe to Singapore via the Middle East.  True, it’s a tad poetry-heavy…but I’m a poet, so that’s my world.  But it is also a cross-genre event that includes novelists, playwrights, bloggers, songwriters and journalists as well as women who write flash fiction, short stories, for film, or work in radio or theatre. It is for any woman who writes anything at all, so that those who want to write can learn from, and share skills with, those that already do. It is all about helping women writers to take the first steps to a career in writing, and providing a friendly, supportive environment where they can test their skills, and grow more confident in their creative abilities.

There’s always a robust and lively open mic session where anyone who wants to gets up to five minutes to strut their stuff .  I’m always amazed at the quality of all those women writers who take part; and it’s very satisfying to see them progress from nervous first-timers who have never shared their work before, to reading from their first published collection, with confidence and poise.  Sally Blackmore was so nervous when she read at Loose Muse for the first time she visibly shook with fright.  She went on to publish two collections of her work, and was an Olympic Storyteller in 2012.  Katrina Naomi, who got her first paid gig at Loose Muse, went on to win the 2008 Templar poetry competition with her pamphlet Lunch at the Elephant & Castle, was the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s first writer-in-residence, and is a Hawthornden Fellow. Camilla Reeve was picked up by Flipped Eye after taking part in Loose Muse open mics, and had her first full collection published in 2010.

One question I get asked a lot is, can men come to Loose Muse events?  Of course they can.  This isn’t a women-only event, but one that welcomes anyone interested in writing.  In fact 10-20% Loose Muse audience is made up of guys who come because it’s a high-quality, interesting night.  But while they’re welcome to take part in the Q & A sessions, only women can read from their work. Sorry guys, but there are plenty of other nights where you can read your stuff.

In 2011 things took a massive leap forward when Loose Muse was given a two-year Arts Council of England grant to develop the project further.  This has meant that as well as being able to pay featured writers a reasonable fee, I’ve been able to commission new work, paying the six writers commissioned so far a very healthy fee for the two series of poems and four short stories they’ve produced. I’ve also been able to produce two anthologies of new writing for 2012 and 2013, which have been welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm, and proved immensely popular.  These anthologies are a fantastic springboard of creative imagination, with new writers appearing as equals alongside veterans of the literary scene. Each anthology to date has presented the work of 34 writers, many of whom haven’t seen their work in print before, with lively, high-quality launches attracting a vocal and animated audience.  

But is there still a need for a women’s writers’ night, I hear you ask?  Well, yes there is.  So many other events are testosterone-fuelled, antler-locking events where alpha males lock poetic horns and read “love” poems that are really “shag” poems, and where women (especially if they’re over 40) are often patronised or minimised.  I’ve seen some male hosts practically dribble in lust-filled anticipation at any young or attractive women writers who take part in events…not an attractive scene. 

Loose Muse sets out only to redress this balance, and demonstrate women writers can write about things other than cats and children, have vivid, robust imaginations and can write with strength and passion about anything and everything.  Otherwise we wouldn’t have Harry Potter, Cathy and Heathcliff, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, PD James’s poetry-writing detective Adam Dalgleish, or even EL James’s bonk-and-bondage  Fifty Shades of Grey, to name but a few. Today the humble Loose Muse open-micer … tomorrow the poet laureate or bestselling novelist. You’ll never know unless you try.

The deadline for submission to the spring 2013 anthology is the end of January, for an early March launch. The only real rule for writers wanting to submit is that they must have attended at least one Loose Muse event during the preceding six months.  Take a look at the Loose Muse website  for full submission guidelines.

The next Loose Muse is on 9 January, featuring poet-artist Janice Windle and writer-singer-performer Linda Shanovitch, plus special guest Claire Booker with one of her 10-minute plays. The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BX 8pm. - £5 or £3 concessions. For more details, or to join the Loose Muse mailing list, contact Agnes Meadows at agnespoet@googlemail.com

* Do you have a story to tell about your open mic venue? If you have, get in touch with Write Out Loud’s Julian Jordon and Greg Freeman at news@writeoutloud.net  and you could feature in our Tales from the Venues series.  

◄ Tributes and a piper at Write Out Loud Wigan

TS Eliot prize contenders line up the night before award ►

Comments

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Isobel

Sat 19th Jan 2013 18:34

I'm not sure I'd enjoy reading to an all woman group. I like the mixture of styles and subject matter that you get with mixed groups. I like personal stuff but wouldn't want a whole evening of it. You can't generalise too much about men though - I know plenty who write about their emotions too. And I know women who do humour really well.

I've never understood free masonry either - why anyone would want to go to an all male environment like that - other than as some sort of social climbing exercise. Still - if they get something out of it and it is't hurting me.

I've come to the conclusion that everything is ok so long as it isn't hurting anyone else. It only gets annoying when non inclusive groups get arts council funding, where large all embracing ones can't. There is something fundamentally wrong with that.

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Freda Davis

Fri 18th Jan 2013 21:10

I sort of agree with you Chris here. I have been to women only poetry events and the atmosphere is very different from an event with a gender mixed audience and those taking part. Even reading to an audience of 50% women feels very different to reading to a mainly male audience. I really enjoy all different audiences and hearing poets in those different contexts.
The argument for a women only event varies. Women are not more scared of reading their work than men. But individual women may well be put off reading their work in a mainly men group, especially if they are writing very personal stuff. They may be encouraged to start reading if they feel it is a receptive audience who will share their experience. An audience where men are in the minority might be more reassuring. Once people have read a few times it matters less, unless they only want to address their work to women.
It is part of the nature of gender politics that men do not fear reading to a female audience more than to men. Also they do not tend to read really personal stuff, at least until they have got used to their audience. I say that from 15 years of sharing the running of Puzzle Poets, not from knee jerk assumptions about gender.
I would encourage all writers to read to audiences as mixed as possible, to see how they respond. I do really enjoy reading to an all women group though. Its the sisterhood thing.

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Chris Co

Wed 9th Jan 2013 11:09

Quote
One question I get asked a lot is, can men come to Loose Muse events? Of course they can. This isn’t a women-only event, but one that welcomes anyone interested in writing. In fact 10-20% Loose Muse audience is made up of guys who come because it’s a high-quality, interesting night. But while they’re welcome to take part in the Q & A sessions, only women can read from their work.

(Sorry guys, but there are plenty of other nights where you can read your stuff.
Unquote
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It sounds like men are second class citizens at your events. Also you say there are plenty of events for men? Mmmm what does this really mean? I have never known of a male only event (puzzled). Also, I have never been to an event that comes with the black and white negative connotations you have stated. All the poetry events I have ever been to - bar none have broken down stereotypical barriers - not erected them.

All the events I have been to - bar none, have given an equal platform to straight men, gay men, bi-men, young and old men, to straight women, bi-women, gay women, young and old women...to both genders from all kinds of differing socio-economic and educational backgrounds. In fact almost all these differences have nearly always melted into insignificance. Poetry is quite amazing; it's amazing how it can break down these barriers. With the right organising and comparing - It offers people a common connection. You hear people's minds/souls and forget the rest.

But your event erects barriers in one respect doesn't it. That's rhetorical - it does.

To reiterate somewhat - I'm not aware of the existence of a solitary "men's poetry night". I think should one exist (I doubt one does)...most would avoid it. I most certainly would not go to such a thing. Equally I would not go to a - hetro only poetry event, or a 30 something only poetry event or a working class only event. Because each label - screams of those it excludes.

Just to add; I do not recognize the nature of the typical male poet you paint, which I must say sounds very sexist (a man talking about women or female poets in such a wholesale way would most likely be thought of as… a misogynist 1970s knuckle dragging throwback?).

You get good and bad poetry of all types from all types of men and all types of women. When it comes to risqué material - I have heard it from men and women alike in equal measure (I have also seen men and women make the passes you speak of – though to be fair, not more or less than in other places people socialise). To paint one sex in the way you have, with all its derived inference; and to paint the other as noble. Well it seems dreadfully narrow minded and utterly false.

I prefer to think true liberation is inclusivity - an equal platform for all. As the French would say Liberté, égalité, fraternité…though without the need for a revolution lol.

I have no doubt whatsoever that you have done some very good things for your poets. I don't question that for a second. I'm sure also that you have really brought poets on and helped their confidence and helped them achieve real success – that’s great. Pretty much all good poetry nights do that. But you’ve erected a barrier that needn’t exist. Erected a barrier that plainly discriminates against male poets finding their feet or achieving; some of which clearly attend your event.

I really wonder how you can ask men to join you? How can you ask them to watch, but to not be in any form part of the exchange. Poetry is the sharing of gifts is it not, an essence of communication? I thought poetry was about sharing – but the men at your nights are mute or rather muted!

Do you not trust your male poets in the audience at your night – with your ambiance and in your setting; do you not trust them to be able to share their poems too? Or would they, ‘being men’, be likely to dribble shag poems on the basis of their testosterone? Also do you ban women, particularly over 40s, those who tastefully dribble out shag poems – you know because of their estrogen ;) Teasing of course, but, well I think the points are pretty important behind the jokes – don’t you?

A bigger question for you…

If this was an all male poetry event and women were welcomed, but told that they had no right to any input in the ‘open mic’...would that be seen as reasonable? Would it be seen as helping men and their poetry blossom?

Or

Would it be seen as misogynistic and something from a bygone age?

That’s a question for each person to ask themselves.

P.S

I co-run 24 poetry nights a year at two differing venues. I know how hard it can be and I know all the effort it takes in running an event. So I congratulate you on the effort, on making a difference on behalf of the female poets you have helped (genuine no pat on the head stuff). I hope you go from strength to strength – though maybe in a somewhat differing direction.

The magic of poetry breaks down barriers. I have friends; young, old, male, female, gay, straight and from all kinds of differing socio economic and academic backgrounds - precisely because poetry - cuts through all that. It has done the same for many of the poets I know too. Also it’s not just at the nights I’m involved with – it’s with everyone else's/all other events. Every event I have EVER been to has had this effect – it’s one of the powers of poetry when people come together around it.

I get the showcasing of female talent - I get the emphasis...I just can’t see why you can’t or wouldn’t want to extend the sharing process – whilst still showcase the female talent with guest sets.

I am probably not telling you or anyone something different from what they already know, but the point is still important and needs to be made; every poetry event has its own style and an organiser can in part shape that…whether it is having a stage, microphone, lectern etc. Having set lists, or keeping things as a read around where people remain seated…lots more ways. Choice of setting also has a huge impact, from loud pubs and niche wine bars to cafes and libraries. And as compare or in association with your compare; you can shape an event towards a given taste – towards your taste. If you want an event that allows quieter/more reticent voices to come forward (they exist in male and female varieties by the way) then that can be done.

Maybe I’m missing the point…no doubt some will say I have and they might be right.

In any case must dash!

I have to dribble out another shag poem before the big hand reaches that big number at the top of the clock...otherwise my wife will end up making a dinner that goes cold!


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