Monday, April 21, 2008

The Audience for Poetry

It’s easy to say that I would like people who don’t normally read much poetry to pick up my stuff and enjoy reading it. I guess most poets would like to reach beyond the traditional poetry audience.

But how to go about that? It’s got nothing to do with any “difficulty vs. accessibility” debate, nothing to do with the poetry itself (with the proviso that the poetry is good quality). It must be to do with getting one’s poetry in the public eye, getting it noticed by those other than habitual poetry fans. It must be to do with marketing, attracting new audiences, a touch of evangelism. As I’ve observed before, people who don’t read poetry sometimes find they like it when they do.

Practically, how can poets draw readers who would rarely think of opening a poetry book or going to a reading?


Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is one of the good things about the web in that people can stumble across the odd poem lying around and that’s all they're being asked to read, they don't have to commit to a whole book. The thing is most books of poems are collections of pieces that have been written over a large period of time and the editor has made so effort to put them in a logical sequence. In reality every poem is a stand-alone work. My wife gets to read my poems as they should be read, one every so often, on its own so she can give it her full attention.

The hard thing on-line is attracting passing trade. Almost all my readers are writers of one sort or another who have their own blogs and their own wares to tote. I did one post a while ago and used the keyword 'X-Factor' and you should've seen my stats jump. I'm sure they were all bitterly disappointed but it shows what you need to do to attract the casual reader – write about something that Joe Public is interested in, slip in a poem (a short one mind) and point him to where he can get more if he likes.

One of the big gripes about poetry is that it's not relevant. And yet John Cooper Clarke was doing adverts for Kellogg's in his heyday simply because he wrote about things the general public could relate to and presented it to them in a manner they could get. Thirty years on the guy is still on the go and audiences are still loving him.

Steven Waling said...

I don't agree that every poem is a stand-alone work - poets like Allen Fisher, Charles Olson, Racheal Blau du Plessi work in the extended series, "the life poem" as it were - though even they can be read singly (though you miss a lot of resonances when you do that.)

Also, I'm wary of the term "relevance" - what is relevant to one person is another's yawnathon - (not another poem about "working-class life"...) I love John Cooper Clark, but I also love Shakespeare.

I don't know how to get some of those people who don't read much poetry, but I know I don't want to patronise them. Bunting's advice - "Don't explain. You're reader knows as much as you do," is still pertinent.

Hazel said...

Rob, I think you have one of the answers in your hands - a pamphlet. Although it's nice and necessary to sell them, giving away pamphlets is a fairly practical way of finding new readers. I've left mine in waiting rooms (with permission) of places like Kwik Fit and hospital waiting rooms. I also carry a few with me and if I get chatting to someone on a train or bus etc., I will offer them a copy.

Realisticly it probably won't bring lots of new readers, but it's surprising how poems filter out. I've beem lucky to discover a couple of people who came across my work by accident - and several years ago someone posted one of my poems on their blog and I have no idea where they bought or found the pamphlet. It is encouraging.

Recently, Scottish Pamphlet Poetry were contacted by a French professor asking permission to translate poems from a pamphlet he'd purchased from SPP for a book he is editing - the poet had no idea his work was read further than a great example of pamphlets and the web working together.

I bet your blog has created new readers and brought people to poetry - it's just unfortunate that you rarely get to find that out.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I recently read some poems at the opening of the Eco Portal in Edinburgh, the managers had found my blog and asked me along. The reading went well.

I leave poetry postcards or similar inside books that I donate to charity shops. No idea at all if this gets new readers for poetry. I'm also a member of Bookcrossing and sometimes leave books in public places, I've had a couple of poetry books travel the world that way. Not sure though whether they were picked up by poetry lovers or purely out of curiosity.

I also think the multi genre evenings like Kin and Silencio that used to run in Edinburgh were great - music, storytelling, short theatre and poetry all in the one place, appealing to different audiences.

Matt Merritt said...

The postcard idea is a great one, CGP. I'll definitely try that.

Anonymous said...

What if a dozen lesser-known but talented poets got together regularly, and each of them picked 10-20 of their own poems that worked as spoken pieces, and then put in the time so that they could perform them well from memory? What if they gave themselves a memorable name as a collective? Isn't that essentially a band with anywhere from 2-6 hours of live material, a flexible set list, and the ability to perform on street corners, on Youtube, in bars, or theaters?

And speaking of theaters, if a dozen better-known poets did the same thing and approached a better-known theater saying they have a show requiring no sets, no direction, no props, no extras, and a snob-appeal marketing pitch, you think arts editors and theater audiences aren't going to be the least bit curious?

And considering that the script is already written and the performers all know their lines, how expensive would it be to produce a film of that same group saying all those words in different locations?

I just think that we already know at this point the size and type of audience that print is going to attract. If poets care about bigger audiences, they have to worry about buzz, just like everyone else in the arts.

Hazel said...

Anonymous - if you click on my name, you will see that there are poets - not just one, but several steps ahead of you on that idea. And the audiences were very high and very appreciative - only the critics didn't like it.

We poets do care - and where does snob appeal come in (apart from the critics) - lovers of poetry, like poets are a very mixed bag.
It's like saying that everyone who enjoys music is a snob.

Cailleach said...

You've heard of strip poker - how about strip poetry..?

I know that's being terribly facetious towards a subject that I know and love so well.

Jim's got a good point about little and often - poems need a lot more time devoted to them than, say a novel - I'm not putting this well, but what I mean is that I read poetry much more carefully than I read novels.

And yes, the i-net and blogs are a great way of extending the medium's network. Since I've been blogging and reading other people's blogs I've found out far more about poetry than I would have done, twiddling about on my own.

I've seen DVDs doing the rounds of poets reading and talking about their work, a nice extension of the use of CDs.

I think that poetry will always occupy a certain niche for people: some will come to it and others need to be coaxed, and others won't want to be bothered. The audience is definitely wider than it was a few years ago: it's how seriously people take it. Ack.

Rob said...

Some good ideas here, so thanks to everyone who commented so far.

I really like John Cooper Clarke, Jim, but I also like mnay poets who have little chance of such popular appeal. However, I think most poets could attract more of an audience than they curerently attract.

Speaking for myself, I don't expect to sell my poems or get a live audience in similar numbers to a celebrity biographer. More people buy Stephen King books than Carol Ann Duffy books, but CAD has built herself a good audience. As has a 'difficult' poet like JH Prynne. I think audiences are there to be created, no matter what kind of stuff you write. I want to write the stuff I am interested in writing and, at the same time, build an audience for it. It will be 'relevant' to whoever likes it - I'm with Steven on that.

I also want to help grow the audience for poetry generally, as I care about poetry and its future.

Hazel and CGP - good stuff! Pamphlets, postcards and eco-politics can definitely bring people to poetry. I wonder why Kin and Silencio stopped? The mix of genres sounds like an ideal way to expand the poetry audience - as long as the material is good!

Anon (is that you, 'sefton'? Maybe not... I prefer some identifying mark on 'anon' posts, even if it's not your real name) - you really got me thinking. I might even do it, although my memory isn't the best. However, I think it could be a winner, along with some music etc. An idea is forming.

Hazel - I think anon's "snob appeal" pitch was supposed to appeal to the decision makers, bureaucrats and administrators who allow things to happen at their venues. That's how I understood it.

Barbara - strip poetry would work for some people, but I might drive away audiences! I know some people will never like poetry, just as I will never like reading Barbara Cartland romances - that's fine. The challenge is to reach people who might like it if they got to hear/read it. The Net and DVDs/YouTube videos offer real possibilities. Helping people find you among the billions of sites on the Net can be tough of course.

sefton said...

You guessed right, Rob. I'm Anonymous.

Just back to say that any time the discussion of distribution turns away from print, that's understandably troubling to contemporary poets.

For starters, obviously there's something lost when writers port their wares over to the audiovisual age. There are complicated ideas, visual cues and grace notes that can't translate if they're heard but not seen. There are talented poets and interesting poems that are never going to be suited for anything other than print. And for poets who can make the transition to another medium, there's still the fact that they can't trot out all their wares, only the stuff that has pronounced sonic/rhythmic appeal and lets the audience get something out of the content on the first pass.

And all that's before getting to the obvious issue: the performer is exposed, and the audience is going to respond immediately. In the suggestions I forwarded, I'm asking for new and difficult skills. So, yes, I get the fact that I'm saying the key talent (writing well) isn't enough, and I know that's appalling.

All that said, poets can deliver something to audiences that they can't get anywhere else:

Meaningful words with nothing to sell but their own worth, delivered by the source.

Slam poets don't write well enough (yeah, I said it), comedians come close, but their only destination is humor, and everyone else in the public eye is either speaking with an ulterior motive, or they're using someone else's words, or both.

So I don't know if a group of poets approaching a performance in an organized way would succeed in attracting an audience, but they do offer an audience the gawk appeal of seeing the creator of something interesting stand there and testify. And I think there's a chance that an audience might like to be stunned/intrigued/amused/moved in two minutes flat, and then have that happen again and again and again...

Anyway, I have some plans to try something along these lines locally later this year. We'll see how it goes.

hazel said...

Sorry that I got the drift wrong!
I was also trying to point anonymous in the direction of the website but my link seems to have failed...

So much for my good marketing. :-)

Rob said...

How's this?

Lippy Bissoms

Rob said...

And how about this from YouTube?

This is The Scaremongers, featuring top UK poet, Simon Armitage, on vocals – and I can only presume he wrote these lyrics! Pretty good, I think, especially the bit in the middle.

Of course, this works better if you’re a well known writer like Simon Armitage, but some fans of intelligent indie guitar pop are bound to want to explore his poetry, and his poetry has already led to interest in his music. So branching out, doing more than one thing (as long as you do them fairly well) should create a buzz.

Crafty Green Poet said...

As far as I know the organisers of Kin stopped because they didn't want the format to get stale; the organisers of Silencio each were involved in their own other projects and probably didn't have the time to carry on. I think its a real shame there's nothing equivalent around now, I really did like the mix of genres and the mixed audience that attracted.