Kate Fox is one of the most prominent performance poets in the UK: she’s had her own radio show (on the BBC, so an actual, legitimate, big deal thing), gets proper commissions..she’s even taken seriously by establishment poets. If the UK poetic powers that be have heard of spoken word or performance poetry, it’s largely because of Kate Fox. Comedian, writer, successful solo show creator..I’ve seen this woman use a tablet ukulele app to accompany herself doing poems. In short, she’s utterly fab.
But in the last couple of months, Kate Fox has become significantly more brilliant in the eyes of UK poets: one of the most established, most successful names in spoken word is the one who has decided to lead the fight for fair pay. Creating the Poets Network, Kate Fox (and her partner in this epic idea Tamar Yoseloff) is seeking to establish pay standards for poets, set out how we should be treated…think of a union. Or poets actually being treated as legitimate human beings providing a service worthy of some sort of recompense. Yes, we all want to build her a throne, too.
Kate’s been the poet in residence at Glastonbury (which doesn’t pay. For five days work), she’s performed at most of the major festivals on the UK circuit. She’s lived through the expectation that you will work your butt off to sleep on the ground for nearly a week, paying 20 bucks a pop for shite food, and inevitably leaving the gig over a hundred dollars poorer than you came in. It has to stop. So she’s decided to make it stop. Anyone else applauding at home? I am. But it’s hard to type when clapping.
I could go on for ages about her hugely impressive poetic background. Suffice it to say she’s performed everywhere, gotten the 5 star review, smashed the radio show, done it all again several times over, and is now deciding to make it significantly easier for the poets following in her footsteps to achieve what she had to fight so hard for. Badass.
At the bottom, check out her work. I chose that particular piece because it’s so visual, and I like the gentle. So few of us have the courage to pull off gentle in spoken word. But if you fancy a concentrated bout of Britishness, watch her poem “true grit” all about tea.
1) What exactly is the poets network? What do you want it to become?
At the moment the Poets Network is an email list of poets and spoken word artists who have said they’re interested in joining together to talk about better pay and conditions for poets. We (Me and Tamar Yoseloff, a London based poet) have surveyed that list, and other poets- over 200- and found that there’s an overwhelming call for more support and guidance for poets in these areas. A code of practice, suggested pay guidelines and some proactive talking to the worst pay offenders including festivals were overwhelmingly supported. We’ve got some interesting news in the pipeline about a possible supporter for our aims- but will have to ask the email list if it’s what they want. We’re conscious that there would be an irony in two poets calling for better pay and conditions burning all their own time and resources out to make this happen, so we hope we’ve found a way forward that would work for the network and also for the whole sector. (People join the network at the moment by emailing “Join” to Poetsnetwork@gmail.com)
2) As one of the more established people in UK performance poetry, it’s particularly telling that the call for fair pay came from you. What made you start fighting for fair pay in the first place?
I feel very lucky to have been able to make a living as a poet for the past few years. I still often get asked to work for free but feel confident enough to say no (mostly!). I’ve always been passionate about encouraging other people into this brilliant creative life, particularly in my work in schools, but it feels hard to do that when I see the ways that my fellow writers and performers are being exploited and undervalued. I don’t want to be telling people to just go for it if that’s what awaits them. For the majority of people who can’t afford to work for free, then they need to be able to find ways to make a living out of it- if that’s what they want to do and are skilled and talented enough to do. A particular last straw for me was a public commission being offered in my home town of Bradford that offered money for a stone mason but not a poet. I wrote a blog and got involved in a few Facebook threads about the issues that week and then we set up the list.
3) Once poets hit the age of 30, there is almost no funding left open to them in the UK, outside of the increasingly stretched and pressured Arts Council. What effect do you think this has on the scene?
Poetry is dependent on life experience, perhaps more so than other art forms. Is it possible to have a thriving poetry scene, either in performance or page, without diversity of age? As in, is this lack of support for the development of older artists holding the genre back as a whole?
I agree absolutely that the lack of support for the development of older artists is holding the sector back as a whole. I’m not so sure that it’s just about funding either- it’s that many of the development schemes are aimed at younger people and audiences- Under 25 is probably even more common than Under 30 as a cut off. If venues need to tick boxes by getting younger people in then they’re going to consciously market events at those audiences and the branding will reflect that. Having said that, when I first started out running gigs back in 2004 when I was 29, I was probably constantly aiming for a younger audience because I wanted to distinguish our gigs from what I perceived as older, more staid, middle class poetry readings. I always said I was looking for a North East act who could marry the worlds of hip hop and poetry and appeal across all boundaries. Of course we now have (non North East!) acts like Kate Tempest who do that and a hundred copyists. But one of the other things I valued about the North East scene was its great diversity in terms of age and class and style (if not in ethnicity, being a relatively homogenous area compared to much of the country). It is exciting that spoken word has broken through nationally in the UK in many ways, but it would be good to see a much greater variety of people in it. It’s almost getting to the point where only young people with access to funding can devote the time they need to turn professional. Thinking of the North East again- but this applies to many areas outside London- the arts funding there is at least eight times per head less than in London. How is that fair?
4) Outside of to support charitable causes, should poets ever work for free? Are we harming our genre and perhaps other poets when we agree to do things for exposure?
I think in general, assuming we’ve served our time and are the skilled and experienced poets that people want to book for money, then we shouldn’t be working for free. Especially if doing so reinforces the message to the booker that this is the norm. If it’s something you really want to do and there’s a good reason that the project or event doesn’t have the money (and it isn’t just that they don’t value poets enough to give it to them) then one suggestion would be to submit an invoice for what your time would have been worth had you charged. The argument about why poets time and skills should be valued can’t be made enough.
5) What is our responsibility to each other? As an awful lot of self-employed people, all arguably fighting for a small pool of work, what do we owe each other? Is there a responsibility not to under-cut, not to work for free?
I think there is a responsibility to keep making that argument about why and how poets should be valued. It helps yourself to keep making it- because we’re all always fighting our inner resistances and the myths about starving artists (and about flexible, mobile, cheap labour which affect the whole population)- and it also helps the sector as a whole. It’s true that poets do tend to be individualists- many of our survey answerers said things like that it would be like herding cats!- but we are all part of the arts ecosystem. I think more experienced poets also have a responsibility to spend a bit of time encouraging newer poets to value themselves. Especially when you’re starting out you can be so grateful that someone’s willing to pay you that you forget what it is you have to offer.
6) What sort of push back have you received since initiating this fair pay fight? Has it negatively impacted your own career?
I am probably blissfully unaware! I’m quite happy not to be offered work I’d have to do for free. Having said that, I do miss being part of a grass roots open mike scene, and I think that’s something I lost a few years ago when I turned professional. It’s nice to be reminded, through the Poets Network, of the sense of community and solidarity there is among working poets who are all so different but have so much in common. I have more contacts in the performance poetry world and Tamar Yoseloff has more in the page poetry world and it feels good to be reaching out to both of them. We were both aware of the possible negative impact on our careers of it taking up too much time and organisation for us and are hopeful that we’re on the verge of getting some useful resources in place that will benefit the whole sector.
7) What do you see as the future of the performance poetry world if it continues as it currently is, if there are no gains made towards fairer pay?
Lots of open mikes with nearly no progression to paid gigs. Lots of young, middle class people entering the scene, lots of other people leaving it. About twelve people in London making a living and everybody else taking three jobs in order to afford to teach three school workshops a year and gig at five summer festivals. Actually, no, I’m not that pessimistic. There are lots of thriving pockets of activity – but I’d love to see more of that middle ground between grass roots energy and mainstream success. People need space to experiment and take risks. It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve taken myself off to do a PhD at Leeds University. I’m lucky enough to have a three year studentship- but have always been quite determined to find spaces to do what I do. It’s sort of like a business skill which makes me rich in creative time, if not money. Fairer pay probably doesn’t mean bigger houses and more cars to most poets (though fair play to those for whom it does). It usually means more time to be creative, to pass that creativity on and to receive it back. One of the things that will be important is to help,and be helped, make the case for why society should value what poets have to offer.
8) How did you go about setting up the poets network? What advice can you give to scenes in other countries maybe wanting to follow your example? Indeed, do you feel this should be a global fight, where every poetry scene links up to engage in this same fight in our own countries?
It was more simple than I had thought! I’d spent a couple of years talking to people and writer’s unions and wondering how we’d go about it. Then I saw that comedians in the UK had got together by setting up an email list and voting on some codes of practice. I thought “Hang on- poets could do that” and when me and Tammy were talking on Facebook, despite never having met at that point, we encouraged each other to go for it. We then set up a Survey Monkey survey straight away because we knew we needed to know what people wanted, and have acted quite quickly to get to the point where we’ll have some concrete outcomes. I think that’s important. These things can become a talking shop. It literally hadn’t occurred to me until you’d mentioned it that it could be a global fight- but of course, the whole principle behind the Poet’s Network is that we’re better together than getting frustrated in small clumps. We’ll certainly be making whatever codes of practice we come up with available on websites, and hopefully have a forum, and it would be great if poets in other countries might be inspired by this- although of course many of their issues might be different. For some people the idea of professionalised poets is anathema. For me it means a more diverse, more socially connected group of creative people being empowered to value themselves and what they do and to help make this case to a society that doesn’t always value the expressive arts. I’d love poets to join together globally to make that case and to learn from each other.
Find out more on Kate Fox Below