I thought I should contact you as my blog about the line up of the “Verse” festival has a had a good response from readers and been ReTweeted and shared via Facebook quite alot.
I haven’t previously felt moved to comment on a venue or festival’s poetry line up because usually I think All Poetry Programming is Good Poetry Programming- and also that it’s none of my business!
However, perhaps because I had lived in Stamford, the festival struck a particular chord with me and I did feel a bit disappointed to see such a low proportion of women represented on the festival bill.
I wanted to draw my blog to your attention- and also wondered whether you had any comment to make in response, or might take my thoughts into account in future programming?
Date: 11 January 2012 10:01:33 GMT
Subject: Verse 2012
Thank you for your email and it is great that you feel so passionately. However, we feel you have got this out of proportion and have been somewhat unreasonable in your comments. If we have been in any way gender-biased it was not intentional especially given that the organisers and promoters are all female. Furthermore, the judging panel for the Poet Laureate competition comprises of two women and two men.
Verse 2012 is a small scale festival for Stamford based solely at Stamford Arts Centre with a highlight of finding a Poet Laureate for the town. The town itself currently has no poetry scene compared to our thriving neighbour Peterborough, which has poetry coming out of its ears. It is unfair to compare Verse to the festivals mentioned in your blog as it is by no means as big as any of them – in all there are 4 live shows, 5 films and 4 workshops plus a day of schools workshops and a children’s exhibition in the gallery. There will be support acts for two shows which will be both male and female plus there is Pint of Poetry, an open mic evening which anyone can take part in.
The programme has been thoughtfully put together in partnership with Book a Poet to introduce our audiences to the spoken word. As a district council funded project, we took advice from experts as to who we booked for the festival and very much wanted to focus on local successful poets with just two national names as headliners – one for adults and one for children.. This was based on availability and that particular act’s suitability to what the festival needed. In all honesty ensuring gender equality didn’t enter into our minds when booking, and we stand firm that it shouldn’t have – a talented poet is a talented poet, regardless of gender, and this will be reflected in our future Verse festivals which I am sure will involve plenty of talented female poets. We know our audiences very well – almost too well – and know this programme will work for them.
As I have previously said however, this seems an unnecessary argument considering the small amount of poets booked in for our festival – I could very well understand it if we had 20 poets and a tiny proportion were female, but our current ratio doesn’t seem outrageous, especially when emphasising my point on Twitter that we expect many female applicants for the Stamford Poet Laureate.
We’re really looking forward to Verse in March/April and I hope you will participate and support the festival as it is clear you are passionate about both Stamford and Poetry. If you can make it down it would be good to meet you – perhaps at Pint of Poetry you could show us your material. Please feel free to quote this response in full on your blog, but please do not paraphrase.
Marketing & Publicity Officer
stamford arts centre
Thanks for your response. It raises a couple of further points.
I am surprised you said that the organisers and promoters all being female in itself demonstrates that there could not be an intentional gender-bias- especially as you then admit that “Gender equality didn’t enter into our minds when booking and we stand firm that it shouldn’t have”.
The centre receives Arts Council funding and, in the words of someone I spoke to there today “We particularly champion diversity and equality in the arts and equal distributions of resources”. It is an essential condition of their funding in fact and is the reason I will be passing this correspondence on to them.
If your aim is to increase participation in, and audiences for, spoken word, then I strongly believe that gender equality should enter your minds. For the Laureateship you are asking people to submit both written work and then perform a piece. There has been much writing on how significantly fewer women submit work to poetry magazines. A recent example comes from the leading poet Linda France writing for Friction Magazine based at Newcastle University’s Centre of Literary Arts. She said “Many editors have mentioned the disparity between male and female submissions to magazines, despite the fact that at most writing workshops women far outnumber men”. An editorial in the national journal “Poetry Wales” made a similar point last spring; “We receive fewer unsolicited poetry submissions by women…there remains work to be done in drowning out the voices that…subtly inhibit many women writers”.
You say “A talented poet is a talented poet” and I agree, but it seems that organisations such as yours who are explicitly receiving funding in order to increase participation and audiences have a particular responsibility to take account of these issues and make your statement that future Verse festivals will involve “plenty of talented female poets” something you are actively working toward rather than just hoping for.
Most of the research is about submission and publication (As another example a 2010 study by VIDA looked at publication ratios in literary journals. The London Review of Books featured 343 male authors, against 74 female authors, the international “Poetry” Journal featured 246 male poets and 165 female poets). There is an even greater gender disparity in the world of performance poetry and spoken word. A typical ratio on a bill or event is around 1 in 4 women and I have often been involved in competitive slams where the ratio is closer to 1 in 8 women.
In my own work as a professional poet since 2006, I believe I am usually booked because I do good work with a reasonably broad appeal. At the same time, I am glad when a booker or promoter has given thought to engaging more women as audience and participants by recognising that visible female performers can impact on this. I often work with disengaged boys and young men in schools and colleges because performance poetry is a particularly good means of engaging them in literacy- but I also then look for ways to introduce them to the work of male performance poets who may be more likely to act as gender role models for that demographic. I certainly do not believe gender is the only factor in finding role models- my way as a comic poet has been paved more by John Hegley say, than Pam Ayres- but I do believe that it is a significant one. A significant one that was worth factoring into a festival that is intended as an introduction to spoken word at a venue where you know your audiences “Almost too well” and are, in common with most arts centres looking to actively engage new people. Worth going the extra mile and finding at least one more female poet for your adult audiences and workshops and school workshops. There are several in the Midlands.
I feel strongly about this not because I am passionate about poetry or Stamford (lovely though it is- I have been based in the North East for most of the past 13 years and now live in North Yorkshire), but because I have been working toward increasing participation in live literature for several years- on the board of the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes, as a participant in the Cultural Leadership Programme, as an organiser of spoken word workshops and events and as an artist and mentor.
At a time of arts funding cuts, I fear that some of the wonderful work that has been done to increase the profile of live literature may fall by the wayside. Its particular strength as a platform for all sorts of voices will be diluted too. To hear of an arts centre that has the vision to invest in it is wonderful on the one hand- and then frustrating on the other, when that opportunity may not cast as wide a net as it could, or when programming without considering gender equality becomes a matter of pride. When that opportunity and the work of Stamford Arts Centre might stand as a model to inspire other arts centres of the viability of such a festival, and inspire even better practice in drawing in the many men, women and children who haven’t yet been introduced to the power and pleasure of poetry in performance.
I wish you well with the festival and am sorry that you consider my previous blog post to have been “Out of proportion” and “Unreasonable” in its highlighting of the apparent lack of consideration given to gender representation in the festival. I hope this letter further explains my position.