Where there’s Poems there’s Brass?

There I go again, making a fuss about poets not being paid. Aren’t there better things to worry about? Bedroom tax, single mothers, homelessness? Yep, I reckon. Except professional poet is a job like any other and when our employment rights (such as they are) are trampled on then acceptance of it has a negative knock-on effect on the whole ecology of freelance creatives and potential future creatives in all fields who also have to fight these battles again and again.

This one started when I was sent a five page spec document saying “Poet urgently wanted” to write a poem to go on stone plaques raising awareness of Bradford Beck, the river which Victorians bricked under the city when it got too smelly. Commercial sponsorship had been raised towards the stones, the council were installing them, they “just” needed a fifteen line poem which flowed as a piece but could also be split up into individual lines of no more than 45 characters which could in turn be split into two halves of no less than 10 characters, ideally with a reference to that particular plaque’s location . An interesting, quite difficult, commission in my home city I thought, then I noticed the conditions of whether you could subsequently publish or use the poem included the caveat that there would be no pay. Stonemasons would be paid, council installers would be paid, not the urgently needed poet.

There had been a reference in the introduction to there being “no prize money” but “immortality”, So this appeared to be something between an open competition and a commission. Competitions mean you don’t have to pay anyone, they’re just happy to win, as would no doubt be the case here for many entrants. Commissions mean you do have to pay.  I’d argue the complex spec and the fact it isn’t called a competition mean it has landed somewhere in between- in muddy waters where the council has asked the Friends of Bradford Beck to open up the process to “consultation and engagement” (even though the ecological volunteers who have got all this off the ground already had a poem they were going to use) and this general call out which appears to devalue the work of writers is the result. (Article here: http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/11810016.Poet_criticises_plans_not_to_pay_poet_for_new_Bradford_work/)

Hang on, can’t anyone write a poem? Yes. This is something I’m passionate about, something I love surprising people with in writing workshops. Inspiring people to poetry about the Bradford Beck is a great thing- but I would argue that that is separate from a funded public arts commission which could be taken up by a Yorkshire writer and thus contribute to the cultural ecology of the area. There are hundreds, even thousands of poets who earn money by running workshops, undertaking residencies and commissions, teaching and writing poems. The sales of poetry books are negligible- but millions of people are reached by the activities of poets who use their skill with words, their ability to show people the world anew, in all sorts of public spheres. Some of them do this part-time and have other jobs on the side.

I spoke to Friends of Bradford Beck who agreed they should pay the poet “on principle” but haven’t got time to do any more fundraising. I would have said- tough you can’t commission a poem then- but one of their members had produced one they were going to use- it was Bradford Council who insisted on opening this process up, without taking account of the uncomfortable fact that this might mean asking a freelance creative to work for free (or getting a member of the public to do one and calling it participation in the arts).

Most of the time in my professional life as a poet, I get asked to do a job, quote my minimum daily rate (£300, as recommended hitherto by the Poetry Society) and agree what I’m going to do for that. However sometimes the boundaries do get blurred. Last year I ran a project for the Yorkshire Festival, getting Yorkshire poets to film landscape poems to go online. The spec was by no means as complex as the Bradford Beck one, but it was quite specific. There were four professional commissions (the funders insisted I do one, as a condition of funding it- so I effectively commissioned myself) and then six more which were to come out of workshops. The poets in those other six films were not paid for their time or words- but not all those who did the professional commissions were full time professional poets and, arguably, some of those who did the “open” commissions were “emerging” poets who approached it as a job. I think I could have managed all this more effectively but was up against time constraints, budget constraints, multiple partners, yadda, yadda- the sort of thing I sometimes hear from well meaning project managers who start selling me short.

For one of my highest profile commissions involving over forty days of work over six months, I was paid fourteen thousand pounds. For an equally high profile commission- five days as Poet in Residence at the Glastonbury Festival- which involved travel to Glastonbury, buying tent and equipment, being asked to produce two poems a day for the website (and not to “be pushy” about getting media exposure) I was paid nothing. No pounds. Though I did get a £50 performance fee for my gig on the Sunday. I said yes to this only because I thought it would be interesting, and help counterbalance the fact that I’m mostly heard on Radio 4. I kept mulling over why it was okay not to be paid. When the sewage collectors were and the burger flippers and presumably the marketing manager who gave me my brief. I knew it was a non-profit festival and many of the bands lost money in appearing there- that the ticket is seen as payment in itself. It’s not quite how I saw it. I wouldn’t have been going anyway and I worked, writing poems non-stop for fourteen hours a day. Although it’s not exactly going down the mines and would be some people’s idea of heaven- it was mine really- but it’s also my job. Still, I’d made the strategic decision for this to be one of those things that would be too good an opportunity to turn down, with some reservations.

It only clicked why Glastonbury thought it okay not to pay me this weekend. I’d innocently asked about payment for a ten minute stand up slot I’d been asked to do at the Radio 6Music Festival on Tyneside. The producer said the festival “didn’t have a budget for acts”. Record companies paid for bands to go because they’d be on the radio and sell records “But I suppose it’s different for poets isn’t it?”. Er, yes. We slip flexibly but precariously between cultural worlds. Usually, we don’t have significant products to shift- our performances and our words are the “product”. But if we were really serious about making money, we’d be a comedian or a banker or a plumber wouldn’t we?

I’m not going to attempt to make the argument here as to why professional poets might be a good thing in a world where language is subject to political and commercial forces, diverted and bricked in to flow underneath our feet, its potential wasted.  Just to say that we’re often not even able to make that case until people know that poetry can be a job, words can be your labour and they will have to pay for them if they might serve their own purposes. It is a craft in fact, which some people commit to developing as much as a stone mason does to chiselling their words. In consistently working for free or cheap, and not paying others, poets and those who employ them, might as well be carving the profession’s gravestone.