Competing For Audience Attention: Is Poetry Enough?

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Why do people go to poetry events?  Or, perhaps more pertinent in the light of some of my recent experiences might be the question; Why don’t people go to poetry events?  Thankfully the success of many events is not measured in audience numbers but if it were then for many organisers the discouragement might well be overwhelming. Those of us involved in hosting, running or even just attending poetry events know that success can come from things like watching people develop, feeling barriers being broken down and seeing words and emotions touch the lives of individuals. But there can be no denying that it can often be very tricky getting in the numbers of people for which we might hope, and while small audiences do not necessarily diminish the enjoyment of events for those who organise and attend, it would sometimes just be nice if more people came.

Perhaps the first point to unpick might be just what we might mean by “people”.  Speaking from my own experience poetry audiences often constitute two kinds of people that I would categorise loosely and unscientifically as Poets and Non-poets. 

Let’s broaden out the first category “Poets” to include practitioners, performers, poets and poetry enthusiasts, basically individuals who habitually enjoy some combination of reading, writing or listening to poetry.  These are perhaps the core audience members who, in many cases, will have an almost default attendance at their local events notwithstanding emergencies, televised World Cup football matches or that most elementary of scheduling blunders; the clashing local poetry event.

But recently my mind has been increasingly focussed on the second category of potential attendees, the “Non-poets”, the people for whom poetry in any form is not really on their radar.  We all know of course that poetry is everywhere, these days perhaps more than ever what with the insurgence into TV advertising, and poetry seeps its way into everything from social functions to the walls of public toilets.  But just because it is a ubiquitous part of all our lives does that mean people will be taking a particular interest in it?  Perhaps it is precisely because of poetry's mass public distribution and normalisation that it loses its appeal as an art-form of which to take any special note.  Anyone can write a poem, right?  If so, why bother going to an event when it can be so freely absorbed via some bloke from the pub, the Nationwide Building Society or of course, social media?

With many other forms of both art and entertainment the adage of “if you build it, they will come” can still ring true, but I would say for poetry this is not always so.  I was recently aware of a poetry event which was held actually in a brewery and featured a superb bill of well-known and hugely entertaining poets.  The entry ticket was the price of a pint of beer, and that ticket then entitled you to a free pint of beer.  What, as they say, is not to love? The event was heavily publicised, the venue, the organisation, the poets and the beer were all brilliant.  The audience was in single figures.  Why?

There seems to be little difference at Poetry Festivals.  Thankfully a festival will draw much of their audience from the existing fan-base of my category one Poets, but the category two Non-poets can be very thin on the ground and there is rarely a large turnout at a festival event for anything which is “just poetry” and doesn’t feature someone who has been on the telly or which doesn’t have something interesting, exciting and relatable to offer. 

And that brings me to what I believe is a key element of promoting poetry in general to the wider public.  I suggest that Non-poets view poetry not necessarily as uninviting but simply as inaccessible.  It’s not for them.  Perhaps it conjures up tired memories of school text books.  Perhaps it seems too mainstream, or they simply cannot see themselves represented by what the events have to offer.  This is certainly nobody’s fault (except maybe, Society’s, but that’s a different rant entirely) and I offer these thoughts in complete support of all poets and spoken-word event-organisers everywhere.  But perhaps in those areas where poetry events are simply not getting the numbers we have to do more to appeal to the non-poets. 

“An evening of poetry” seems to be not enough to get the sought-after bums on to the sparsely-populated seats.  Amazingly, even “An evening of poetry with free beer” didn’t really manage to hit the spot, but at least they tried.  What we need, I suggest, is to create and promote “An evening of poetry where something weird/amusing/interesting happens that will attract hitherto ambivalent Non-poets”.  What that literary clickbait may be, I leave to the creative minds of those who may be taking these words into account.

Because as we all know, whoever they are, once they get in the door, once they buy their beer, once they settle in their seats and actually listen to poetry without peer-pressure, childhood reticence or technological distraction… they bloody love it.

◄ The English River: Virginia Astley, Bloodaxe

Addressing The Poetry Periphery ►

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uncover

Tue 17th Jul 2018 23:14

i have attended a number of poetry events, and registered the quite sparse audience but have never paid mind to it-too busy enjoying my own self to let it ring something..
Is poetry enough? to attract a good number of category number 2 to round a noticeable audience? Maybe not, as you have said. If we have them in mind, then we should offer alongside poetry what they could not so easily wave; perhaps add comedy or sale of small artful items-purses,customized diaries..., what would appeal to their non poetic selves to spare sometime to be invited into such event.
Accessibility is truely a very key factor.

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Dave Morgan

Sun 8th Jul 2018 14:02

Hello Mike, I seldom venture into WoL territory these days other than a monthy session hosted by Jefferama at Bolton Socialist Club but your comments triggered this off the cuff response.
I suppose one tack is to ask what we're trying to do. Entertain, socialise, share common ground, challenge, create opportunities for development? When Write out Loud started it was the only live regular poetry night West of Manchester before you got to Liverpool or Lancaster. Today they abound and a good number are initiated by young writer/performer/organisers who want to create something for themselves and their contemporaries in a way which supports a particular idiom or style. I confess that until Scott Devon turned up at Write out Loud I'd never heard of Buddy Wakefield or Saul Williams (about 2005). that idiom was quite different from the surreal free verse of say Alabaster de Plume, the social commentary of Tony Walsh, or the personal and unique yet shared journeys, recorded almost as therapy, by many of us. So the world changes and where we used to get mid 20s on a Sunday night, or mid 40s for a bumper session with guests, or 60 plus at a special venue such as the Octagon, the whole thing has evened out. It is harder to get a decent audience ie attendees who have come to listen to poetry, or at least to performance, as opposed to the performers themselves. The open-mic brings in the audience.
There is no silver bullet. Social media seems essential but overplayed; local papers have limited range; the number of places, including libraries, where you're allowed to put up a poster is diminishing; word-of-mouth still seems to be the biggest single factor. Ten years ago a group of us would travel to as many venues as possible in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Lancaster, where we were exposed to many styles of writing and performance, magnificently entertained and always inspired to do more when we came back. There was a huge camaraderie in the Bolton Write out Loud scene at the time. Yes we went to read, but we also went to listen and learn. Inspired, we created proper poetry festival events with national names such as John Hegley and Brian Patten. Were we wildly successful in pulling in a significant paying audience? Hardly.
It's a slog. The world changes. Dead Good Poets Society was the only show in town 20 years ago in Liverpool. Now it competes with several other events some with a lengthening pedigree, others more ephemeral. How much poetry can people take? There is a growing interest among young people in spoken word and performance. They leave me standing. In fact they intimidate me (not intentionally). Much, I suppose as we did to them, if they ever ventured into our territory, twenty years ago.
Good luck to the poetry boat, whether sail, steam or diesel. I think the voyage should be enjoyable, take you to new places, allow you to escape your strictures, free you to be someone you've secretly longed to be, challenge you, develop you, whatever. It doesn't necessarily matter how many people are in it. Or do😎es it? (follow this metaphor until it self-destructs).

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 6th Jul 2018 17:44

The school phase is hugely important and depends of the
skill and commitment of a teacher who loves the idiom and is willing to actively communicate his/her dedication
to one of the hardest of audiences to please.
I like to imagine such a teacher suddenly turning on a
class and reciting Siegfried Sassoon's "The General" with
the angry upfront passion the piece intends. Or catching
them unawares in another context with Houseman's
"The Cherry Tree". Young minds accept passion, nature
and even melancholy if it is convincingly brought to life so they can relate to it. The "fancy" stuff can come later as
they grow in understanding and maturity.
Perhaps the school curriculum lacks the flexibility and the
trusted staff to see this happening as things stand and
they are "force-fed" stuff too rarefied for their years,
thereby causing a lasting damaging disaffection.
A great and avoidable pity.

Peter Mortimer

Fri 6th Jul 2018 12:33

An interesting article and much of it has a familiar ring! Having organised poetry events for more than 40 years at different festivals, book launches etc, here at IRON Press we always include a musical act as well. Few people like an evening of only poetry - I know I don't.
Many poetry readings are dire, my spirits lifted only be the words "This is my last poem'.... A lot of songwriters don't get up to perform their own songs, but for some reason the poet is always expected to perform his or her own work. Why? Many of them are no good at it. Good poems anyway are vastly outnumbered by poor ones. Singers have to learn basic crafts before they get up to perform. Poets don't. I am a long-term poetry editor and campaigner and love all those strange creatures who write the stuff, but fully understand why most people would never dream of attending a reading.

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Colin Hill

Thu 5th Jul 2018 16:08

I very much enjoyed this article Mike - and Steve your reply too. Steve's point about accessibility is interesting as venue choice might play a part in whether or not the non-poets feel comfortable pushing open the dark door down the corridor in the basement and taking a seat.

I'm off to one of my local events tonight at Brown's in Laugharne where Dylan Thomas used to hang out. The fact that it's held in the hotel bar usually means some visiting non-poet guests wander in or get unexpectedly caught out mid-pint and more often than not they end up staying and having a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

And again, to echo Steve, publicity is the key. Blitz social media and stick it on WoL's Gig Guide!

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steve pottinger

Thu 5th Jul 2018 11:05

This is a great article, Mike, grasping the poetry nettle which we tend to steer clear of. I know of a lot of wonderful poetry events – some of which I go to – but very often they're poets talking or reading to other poets. Nothing wrong with that, obviously. But if we think poetry can enrich lives, surely we want *more* people to enjoy it? Enjoy it not just as consumers of poetry, but find that they can write poetry, and have an opinion about poetry, too.

For a lot of folk, poetry comes with baggage: they hated it at school, it was written by dead men and used archaic language, it didn't – in any way – speak to them. That's what they expect of poetry events. So why would they go?

Presenting a poetry night – if you want to attract at least a few of the normally sceptical or disinterested – is a skill which requires time and effort, just like learning to write good poems. What works? What doesn't? What's engaging? What isn't?

Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists (we're based in the Black Country) make a point of creating accessible, enjoyable events. We work hard to publicise them, and we take them to places where people don't necessarily expect to find poetry. We recently ran an Arts Council England funded project which put poetry broadsheets in pubs, cafes, tattoo parlours, nail salons etc all across the region, and we had poets chat with members of the public as well. We found people who weren't interested, sure, but we also found folk who loved poetry but didn't know there was a 'live' poetry scene, and we met a sizeable number of people who came along to our events expecting to watch paint dry and found they really enjoyed the poetry. Much to their surprise.

As far as I'm concerned that's a result. It's hard work, yes, but as you say in your article, when people see good poetry well presented.... they bloody love it!

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