Tag Archives: performance poetry

Stamford Arts Centre says one woman on a bill is indeed enough.

Hi Anna,

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?

All best



Date: 11 January 2012 10:01:33 GMT
To: <kate.fox@virgin.net>
Subject: Verse 2012

Hi Kate


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.


Kind regards


Kimberley Taylor


Kimberley Taylor

Marketing & Publicity Officer

 stamford arts centre

Dear Kimberley,

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.


Kate Fox  


Why being bored on a Board is a Good Thing

I was a board member for the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes for two years until February this year. In the same way as missing out on the induction training to be an Airtours entertainer in the mid nineties left me in bafflement about the true importance of the Macarena and the rules of organising darts tournaments in an all inclusive hotel in Tunisia, I had just missed out on some governance training the Apples and Snakes board had all been sent on and so had to pick up the role of a charity trustee as I went along.

For the first few meetings I thought that it was to combat wrist gnawing boredom whilst piles of mostly financial documents were pored over and fellow board members interjected with gentle questions like: “In Quarter 2, why is there an amber light on education bookings through the website?” and Robert, the unflappable and detail-filled general manager answered at length. It was clear that the board was supposed to be boring because Geraldine Collinge, the Director, was exciting and creative and filled with inspiration and ideas for spoken word in the UK. We, accountants, lecturers, DCMS and British Council employees London Council managers and poets were there to ask gentle questions and look sensible but not really to get involved, like benign peers scrutinising bills. It could not be said that we were “running” the organisation, though Julia Mlambo, the organised, strategic thinking, sensible Chair had regular meetings with Geraldine and an excellent grasp of the overview of Apples and Snakes vision.

Then, to my surprise, after Geraldine moved on and there were major Arts Council grants to bid for and funding to raise in an unfavourable climate, the board did suddenly turn into a body that Did Actual Things. There was a day of brainstorming towards a new set of mission statements, a recruitment committee appointed a new director and the gentle questioning became strong steering to avoid unnecessary risk, look for new opportunities and make a strong case to the Arts Council for being well governed and stable in this time of transition. I realised that, as one of only two board members based outside London and one of only two board members involved full time in performance poetry, I could be a voice for risks and opportunities connected to these things, as well as for poets and people outside London. All of the board members began to say more in meetings.

One board member began to sound a more urgent drum for more energy being given to fundraising, I started sitting on a hobby horse about retaining sector specific expertise within the organisation. Both of us looking out for risks as we perceived them. Julia, the Chair, steered a course between staff concerns, the company’s mission and objectives and the need to hold a secure position and convey that to the Arts Council. It was clear that concern for due process and stability was paramount throughout.

The thing that has prompted my post is incredulity that the Poetry Society trustees acted as they have in two particular areas: i) spending £24k on legal fees, when there was not even an ongoing case & when charities can get free legal advice from ACAS. I can only imagine how Christopher Beard, board member & accountant or Robert, General Manager and careful man, would have reacted to this squandering of precious reserves. It just wouldn’t have happened. What next- hiring Edelman to clean up the PR mess? ii) Although as David Morley says, it seems that there is a story behind the story of personnel clashes, the board’s bright idea to get the Poetry Review editor to report directly to them, without informing the director, seems to have been a human resources plan with the car crash factor of David Cameron hiring Andy Coulson. A plan that has led to the continuing terrible management of the whole situation. There’s an exciting plan of work for the Poetry Society to get on with, and they can’t do it until the ship has been righted and trust restored.

So, now the board has resigned , effective from 12th September, what or who next in terms of trustees? I quite agree with Jane Holland’s statement that the board should have good administrators on it, not just good poets. I’m not saying the Apples and Snakes board was perfect. It was rather toothless at times. But it did have a good set of people who were experienced in the management of strategic organisations and who knew what funders and regulatory bodies would expect in the way of management. I was glad I ticked the poet/regions box but I think more board members should have too- even more the case for the Poetry Society which would surely have more weight with more members were it not perceived to be so Londoncentric. (For my last board meeting though I had an 8 hour round trip for a one hour meeting at which not even a cup of tea was available- it is lovely when national organisations recognise that some humans exist outside the city boundary and make arrangements accordingly). It was murmured that perhaps Apples and Snakes should be looking to make more contacts with “individuals of high net worth”, so perhaps some of those much touted arts philanthropists should be approached by Poetry Society members. It may be a little more difficult to find individuals who are both poets and individuals of High Net Worth…

In a questionnaire, Apples and Snakes staff said they did not know what the role of the board was and that they rarely saw us at events. It seems that even greater transparency for a board’s work may be useful, for the Poetry Society lot even more so after all this. Their trustees seem to be presiding over a PR disaster, the like of which probably isn’t covered in those governance classes. Still, it does seem that sending the new cohort on a few might not go amiss…

It shouldn’t be forgotten that trustees do valuable work for nothing and can bring immense value to an organisation, as surely, the Poetry Society board did until they got in over their heads in a tricky situation. It can’t have been pleasant. I was most often on the Apples and Snakes board a mixture of bored and frustrated and fascinated at the workings of a national literature organisation. I think I’ve generally been more useful in life being a poet or promoter or workshop facilitator- but then, at least I was also a voice for people who are a bit underrepresented in the running of such organisations. May many more of those come forward for the Poetry Society- it really, really needs them.

Four Possible Futures For Performance Poetry

This week I was asked by someone writing for a Uni newspaper to write a bit about performance and slam poetry and about how I “saw the the future for performance poetry in Britain”. I realised that my view of it’s future had shifted quite a lot since the change of government and shake up of Arts Council funding. How realistic are any of these scenarios?

1. It continues as a grass roots activity with small, enthusiastic audiences and occasional break out performers impact on other fields: eg Hip hop or stand up comedy.

-In most cities there are at least one or two regular events where performance poetry is part or all of the line up. Still, even the most marginal sports (ice hockey say with average attendances of 5000 attract many, many times larger audiences.)

2. It gets more funding and support as a non commercial art form, is used more widely as an educational tool, and borrows platforms and values from subsidised theatre and theatre venues – whilst also developing its own reflective practice and criticism.

-It feels like this is the way things were heading pre Funding crises. Things like the “Lit Up” initiative were spearheading a spread into larger venues. Artists like Inua Ellams, Polar Bear, Molly Naylor and Zena Edwards were working in ways and forums also used in experimental theatre. Aisle 16 & others continued getting Escalator East funding to take shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and many poets worked on Creative Partnerships projects in schools. Apples and Snakes continues to advocate for the medium- & the Arts Council sees it’s funding of an Olympic S
Am project as a strategy to widen it’s educational use. Much less money around than there was though- & the Poetry Society seems to be having a bit of a meltdown over a division between how much they should focus on widening poetry participation through education. A reflective practice among artists and critics would be nice though. Universities might have been pulled in in an era of more humantities research, but that seems likely to be delayed some years now.

3. It breaks out into the mainstream like stand up comedy and becomes a commercial art form supported by British versions of the visionary Russell Simmons of Def Jam in the U.S.

-Yeah right. As many performance poets as non performance poets seem perfectly happy to play for small audiences and not “sell out”.

4. It diversifies and re integrates into other art forms in the way it used to in the early 80s and you get performance poets valued in music, comedy, traditional literary events, academia and even the corporate world.

-Personally I think the diverse portfolio of work that the Saturday Live (Radio 4) poets do is a good example of this. It may not quite fulfil my dream of a mainstream platform promoting greater inclusivity, but a reminder that poets can write accessibly and to order on a wide variety of issues (as also done by Ian McMillan on Radio 5 in the 90s), it means that you can see performance poets in sports arenas, health conferences, er…supermarkets, Literary festivals (as the novelty act though). Live in forlorn hope that Carol Ann Duffy might include performance poets in things sometimes….sigh.

Not included in these scenarios though is the melting pot/melting poet most commonly, not exclusively working in London. Crossing page/performance boundaries. As likely to be found in post in a literary residency as in a one person show in Edinburgh (Helen Mort for example) and less likely to reject out of hand the occasional label of “performance poet”. Their future is more closely tied to the general poetry funding/audience situation in the country (hence, a but precarious but probably safely subsidised to a degree for the foreseeable future).

Or none of the above?

Re; Search

In the hallowed land of Borders bookshop I got a “How to Research”  book by the Open University Press and have constructed a short questionnaire for the writers I’m going to interview in the next couple of weeks. They’re writers who already do lots of work with young people and work with New Writing North alot.

It feels good to actually be doing something concrete now. Quite alot of things I’ve done this week have fed into my thinking. But more in a mushy sort of way. “Full on Futures” was a day organised by Creative Partnerships at Arc to get year 9s motivated to think on creative careers. I did very practical half hour workshops, getting them to storytell, speak about themselves and explore their opinions on the value of creativity- but what I didn’t do, and couldn’t have done at this point was advise some sort of obvious career path into writing. (and I don’t think it’s enough just to say “Write!”, though heck, that does help). Claire, the North East Apples and Snakes co ordinator was there handing out info and it does feel that hopefully that performance poetry organisation may plug some gaps, but there is still a big, gaping void mostly for writers aged 11-18.

I’ve also been to the launch event of the African writers Festival at the Northern Writers Centre and been inspired by Ben Okri (“Doesn’t life have a dream like quality?” and Jackie Kay, in very different ways. Then, last night, a gig at the Chillingham Arms in which I tried out a new poem on stage and hoped it might give me a key to the one woman show I’m doing (as an associate artist for the Live Literature Consortium). I also heard a writer say that working in schools made them tired (and knew that feeling so well, but wonder if anything can help balance this for writers?). 

Now I’m getting on with writing a poem for the Journal Culture Awards (that will somehow mention all 39 nominees and be interesting and funny and read well on the night…) I’m looking forward to freer time for writing from September for a while, but for a now feel like I’m learning a hundred things a day and really caring about the role of writing again. For a time after I’d finished my family memoir that somehow drained away for a while. Now I keep coming up with plans to get more people writing and reading and more voices heard. Being in the centre of that again is encouraging the feeling I think. So many people and organisations are doing it.  Which ones will stick?