Making a Living vs Living and Making

4/6/19

I have a distinctive, slightly uncomfortable memory of a poetry reading that pops up in my head every now and then. It doesn’t involve me but another poet, reading at an open mic. The poem was an inspirational one, spurring the listener to reach for their dreams, to chase their goals and to not let anyone put the breaks on their ambitions. The poem espoused unwavering faith that anybody could “make it”, as long as they tried hard enough and believed in themselves. It was like an early 21st Century Spoken Word version of a montage from an 80s sport movie.

The thing that made me feel uncomfortable at the time was that the poet was conspicuously unsuccessful. This wasn’t the type of open mic poet who treated poetry as a hobby or leisure vocation, this was someone who wanted to be a big, famous poet no matter how oxymoronic that term was. As far as this poet’s definition of success was concerned, he had, to this point and in the years after, failed.

It is easy to smirk at the unsuitability of this poet to convey his message of believing in yourself and fulfilling your dreams. But this also begs the question of whether the poem would have been more true if it had been performed by a successful poet? Successful people have a habit of espousing the values of self belief, hard work and defying the odds while downplaying other factors such as their natural talent, charisma, their contacts and the undeniable aspect of luck. The simple fact is that there are a great number of people who wont make it in their field because of any number of the factors listed above.

Self belief and determination will not be enough if you aren’t particularly talented or charismatic. At the other end of things I have known supremely talented people that have not hit the big time because they lacked the ability to schmooze and hobnob, or were hindered by anxiety, depression or any number of psychological conditions. People that “make it” in most chosen fields tend to do so because of the right blend of natural talent and professionalism. Being an Oxbridge or Brit School alumni, or having the support of wealthy parents, doesn’t seem to hurt either. This is not to deny the amount of hard work that went into any of these careers, just a reminder that hard work on its own isn’t enough.

Mentoring and development are big aspects of poetry and spoken word right now. Big organisations receive large amounts of public money on the promise that they will help bring the next generations of artists into the light. The problem is that a lot of this seems to be based on the advocacy of “making it” to a cohort of artists that won’t make it, bar the odd one or two here and there. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this came when some poets told me about how they had attended a masterclass with a couple of poets about how to make a living as a poet. I didn’t know how to tell these poets that they, through brute statistical likelihood and from my own observations of their own performances and work, weren’t going to make a living as poets, no matter how much good advice they were offered. The only people in a position to make a living as poets were the ones being paid to tell a room full of poets who would never make a living from their work how they could make a living from their work.

At a weekend course for a big literary organisation that focuses on workshopping, I told a roomful of aspiring writers that they should try self publishing their own slim volumes and sell them at readings. My exact words, It might not buy you a house but it’ll buy you a beer, provoked a burst of good-willed laughter and the odd glare of horror. I never worked for that organisation again.

Similarly, I keep hearing of the disenfranchisement of poets who end up on extended development schemes, normally aimed at the under-25s. They enjoy a year or so of special attention from their mentors and high profile shows at swish venues. However, at the end of the run, as the next cohort of under 25s are brought in, the majority that have not been earmarked as the next best thing have to make do with a dwindling scene of open mics, slams and the odd feature spot in a room above a bar. When you start your career at the top, it’s hard to find the will to work towards it when you’re plonked back down to the bottom. None of them seem to have been primed or prepared for this, the eventuality that most of them will face.

At a panel Q&A a few years back a young woman brought up the fact that it was so unfair that she, as a 26 year old poet, would not be able to take advantage of all the opportunities that were afforded to younger artists. I replied by speaking about how I had accumulated many years of experience at hundreds of events before I even had an idea what I was doing. I was about eight years in when I attracted enough attention to get some good opportunies and quit my day job. I have a feeling that wasn’t the answer she was looking for. She would have been similarly nonplussed if I had told her that she might have actually dodged a bullet.

A few years back, a terrible BBC documentary about performance poetry spoke about TS Eliot looking “more like a banker than a poet” before introducing the Beats, who I guess looked more “like poets”. “But Eliot WAS a banker!” I remembered shouting at the screen at the time. I also thought of Wallace Stevens, Vice President of an insurance firm, giving short shrift to anyone who solicited him on the business of poetry during working hours. I also thought of Fred Voss working at a machine shop all his life, writing poetry that no “full time” poet would be able to pluck from their imagination without living it first. I thought of Sally Read drawing from her experiences as a nurse, such as cleaning and preparing the body of an elderly gentleman, to write a poem that I still show to students who read it and exclaim that it’s one of the best things that they have ever read.

I think about the beginning of my own career as a poet, the first decade of which dovetailed with my job as a labourer and landscape gardener. If there’s one thing that I can recall from that time it was the sheer joy of my creative process. I, like many other open mic regulars, would spend a couple of evenings knocking out new poems, rehearsing them under my breath as I trimmed hedges or planted conifers in mazes and then declaimed them on a stage somewhere in a Soho backstreet venue at night.

The process repeated itself week after week. I can’t think of many times since where the creative act has felt as thrilling or satisfying. If I was to teach anything about being a poet it would be this, to find a process and a routine that brings you joy rather than fame and remuneration. If success, in terms of getting recognised and paid, comes along then it should never be at the cost of this process.

Making a living from the art form you love can cure you of that love. It can take away your creative control and your free expression. You might spend months writing carefully-worded grant applications that will allow you “time to write”. You could find yourself being criticised for appearing in an advert for a building society even if the money enabled a few months of creative freedom.

I think that the only people doing well out of the current arrangement are arts admins who keep their jobs as cohorts pass through, and the artists they anoint from each subsequent generation. Much like that other failed instrument of advocacy, the literary prize, too many resources are ploughed into strategies that focus on chosen ones.

In the epoch of late capitalism, governments boast about reduced unemployment while the gig economy grows. Few workers can afford to live in the cities that they work in, forty percent of workers in London are paid below the London living wage. At the same time, calls for Universal Income come in response to the growth of automation. Will we live in a future where machines provide value for all rather than for a small group of billionaires?

Whatever comes about, it may have an massive impact on how we keep categorising creative practice as vocations, careers or hobbies. If we all end up with more leisure time with the establishment of the Universal Income dream (I wouldn’t count out those billionaires just yet), how will this affect our crude categories of amateur and professional?

I think back to that poet reciting his piece about “making it” and how I crudely dismissed him as failing under his own criteria. I think I should have asked him whether the present thing he was doing, sharing something he created with a room full of people, brought him meaning and pleasure. If yes, I would have told him that he has already made it, in the sense that he has lucked out in finding something that most people will never find. If no, then no moment of success would ever bring meaning or accomplishment with it.

Ask anyone who’s truly been there, there’s never a moment when you “make it”. There’s only the act of making.

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