Does just one woman on a Poetry Festival bill matter?

I lived in Stamford for a few months when I was a journalist at Rutland Radio. Burghley horse trials, the setting for telly’s “Middlemarch”, a swimming pool murder, a Tory MP and a total eclipse of the sun are what I remember. A place with a captive audience for poetry. Captive future poets ready to be inspired. If Stamford Arts Centre had staged the “Verse” poetry festival when I was there, it would have been the most exciting thing to happen to me apart from the eclipse. John Hegley, Ian Mcmillan, Joel Stickley and the Dead Poets (the splendid Mark and Mixy)?  “Poetry doesn’t get much better than this” I’d be saying in a Greg Wallace from Masterchef voice.

However, thirteen years later and many experiences of running events and workshops myself, something about the line up made my foot itch, as Hilary Dragon’s Den Devey might say. Apart from Camilla Mclean who will be “Reading poetry while children decorate cupcakes”, there are no women on the line up or running workshops. What’s the trouble with that? my 1999 self might have said, there’s enough that’s inspiring about this lot to mean my oestrogen is a secondary consideration.

Well…over the past few years I’ve discovered that, in a sort of osmosis, greater numbers of female performers, writers and, even audience members, are more likely to dip their toe in poetic waters when they see other women up there too. It is more subtle than the “I didn’t know poetry could be fun” conversions that are a happy ten a penny consequence of booking accessible, people-friendly poets, but just as prevalent. The “Verse” festival will be doing some school outreach work- and I find schools will often be really glad to book female poets because it gives their girls an additional role model (Just as they can be happy to book male poets who may be more likely to engage their boys). I know these are generalisations, I know it’s not possible or desirable to do “Representation” above wonderful artistic experiences, but I think, in these straitened times, when a small town arts centre is committing resources to showing “Poetry’s not boring” that it’s important to widen the net for its audiences and participants and display some-dread word-diversity- so as to pull in and inspire as many people as possible. Particularly since this seems to be a first chance to really show Stamford a sense of a multiply-voiced poetry world.

Focusing purely on gender diversity, I had a quick look at some statistics for bigger poetry festivals.  Stanza will have about 43 men billed this year and 33 women, Ledbury last year had 46 men, 35 women. Either way, with such a large line up, they both had more room for a wider cross section of poetics than a small festival could ever hope to achieve-nonetheless I’m sure Stamford Arts Centre could have booked at least one or two more of the many excellent female poets out there.

5 thoughts on “Does just one woman on a Poetry Festival bill matter?”

  1. Surely Stamford Arts Centre can’t really be held accountable for this? It’s not as though they have actively sought out men over women. I’m also sure that you’d soon be complaining if they had chosen women whose work was not very good, purely because of their gender. “Stamford Arts Centre will put on any old rubbish but at least they are showing a commitment to gender equality”. If women don’t have the motivation to enter and take part in this sort of thing then that’s down to them. I’m sure those who are serious about their poetry and have a desire to share it would make the effort. It is not the duty of Stamford Arts Centre to act as a ‘hand holder’ regardless of the fact they receive funding. People should just be grateful that they are providing a platform. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. They are providing the opportunities, it’s not their fault if women are not taking them.

    1. I think Stamford Arts Centre does have a duty to look at ways of increasing participation. Programming a bill is one way to help this. They told me that they didn’t think about gender equality. I think they should- for the reasons I’ve laid out. The Arts Council likes organisations to consider it too.

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