Competing For Audience Attention: Is Poetry Enough?
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.