Growing Up. Part 3. Poetry

This is a topic, I suppose I cover quite frequently. If you would like to know a little more about the beginning of my performance journey, click here. I wont go into those details today. There are many ways, that I have grown as a poet, in this journal entry, I’m going to talk about the factors that have lead up to my position today. I’d like to elaborate on my stance on #PayThePoets.

When I began my journey in performance, my sole aim was to get my name out there. I intend to publish my poetry, and in order for any of my books to sell, I needed for my name to have been heard of, before my books are on the shelves. I would meet and pitch myself to any event organizer, I ¬†work on my performance religiously, I practice everyday at any chance I get. During 2011 and 2012 I would perform an average of 2.5 times a week. Sometimes taking on five performances in a week. I would ferry myself around as much as I possibly could, and aimed at a minimum of two performances a week, but never less than one. The expenses involved in that kind of schedule is immense. I borrowed money when I didn’t have it.

Towards the middle of 2013, I was running seriously short of funds. During that year, I often got myself into situations where I had made my way to events in Westlands and City Center, from which I had no idea how I would get home. I was forced, on those days, to spend the time that I was not on stage, sending smses and making calls, to get help to get home. At the time, I was driving and on two occasions I was forced to find somewhere safe to park the car for the night and sleep in it. Even, from friends and family, you can only ask for that kind of help a certain number of times before sympathy runs short. It defies common sense to go somewhere without knowing how you will get home. I often voiced my concerns to to organizers concerned, but they maintained that it was not possible to give me any money, even for transport. In the many performances I have done (over a hundred) I have only been paid for four. For a small number of other performances, the organizers have gone into their pockets to give me fare or petrol to get home.

Last year, after sifting through about one hundred short listed poems. I had the manuscript for my first anthology ready; Speak. By this time my name in poetry circles had already become, quite well known. Poets who were just starting out started asking me for advice on their presentations, and general advice on how to be a successful poet. Simultaneously, I had begun a series of expansions in my business. I met, and still meet, many talented poets. I started to feel heart broken, by this world that I had invested so heavily in. Although, with the connections I had established, I could connect performers with stages where they could share their work, when asked about how to be successful, monetarily, I was at a complete loss.

Cars need more than petrol to run. Last year, I had to come up against the reality that I could no longer afford to run my car. Since then I’ve been using public means, but that is not where the financial constraints end. I could no longer afford the fare to attend the events, that had afforded me the small fame I had gained. I had to make a difficult decision; when called about performing at events, it had to be on the condition that I be given (at minimum) fare to and from the event. One by one the event organizers stopped calling. At the moment, on average, I perform two or three times a month. Even this small number, of events that I am doing, is mainly based on the fact that my business has regained the capacity to afford me that luxury. For many months last year, I was unable to perform at all, let alone, support other poets by attending their performances.

This situation begs a question. Is performance poetry reserved for those who can afford it? Due to discussions that have stemmed from #PayThePoets it has recently become evident to me that there are a good number of poets, that have found ways to make the craft pay. The trouble with these avenues, is that they are often deals made between the poet and profitable event organizers or radio stations. These deals are exclusive in nature. They usually only have enough room for the poets who are already in them.

It is entirely possible, that I personally have been lacking in correct networking and/or marketing techniques. Should those skills be prerequisite of writers and performers? Is it not at all possible for the performers and writers work to sell itself in this industry? Due to financial constraints that I’ve already mentioned, and the fact that publishing companies are wary of publishing first poetry books, I have not yet been able to publish Speak yet.

When I give advice and mentor poets who want to work on their performances, I start off with a disclaimer. That this industry has no guarantees, and little chance of financial gain. However, considering, the audience demand for this art, and the substantial number of entrance charging poetry events, should that be the case? The more thought I put into this issue, the more I want to be one of the game changers.

 

The trouble with depending on the artists finances to support their performances perpetually is this: All types of art are dynamic, they are ment to change over time. I would like to illustrate, using a couple of different visual art forms.

Anyone who has used Ngong Road, between The Junction and Karen, over the past five years will have noticed a change in the kinds of pottery, sculptors and furniture available. That change didn’t take place over night. Some years back, the pots were either mat, varnished, or painted one colour. The Sculptures were wooden, usually little pot bellied men. The furniture was standard, the only difference between any two vendors would have been quality. Some time after that, began an experimental time period. During that period, the pots became painted with two or three colours, usually, bright green, orange and gold spray paint, these garish colour combinations, caught more attention, but begged questions about the taste of the people who had painted them and who would buy them. The sculptors began to have one out of the ordinary item on display, a giant frog, or miniature giraffe, the forms of which could not be called entirely lifelike. The furniture vendors began to feature one out of the ordinary item as well, like a four poster bed or a clay fire place.

These out of the ordinary items, where not perfect, they were all interesting to look at, but not necessarily pleasant. This art form was financially supported. As more people became interested in the idea of having customized items, the diversity and quality of the items improved. If you drive up that road today, the vendors have much wider variety. The pots are painted in sunsets, flamingos, siloets, zebra stripes and leopard spots, just to name a few. The sculptures are an array, from the big five, to dogs and horses, they capture movement and character of their subjects. The furniture is diverse, if you are to go window shopping, walking along the whole stretch would be rewarding as the craftsmen have become expressive, flamboyant and tasteful in their designs.

I believe that performance poetry, is stuck in an experimental loop. When free poets are always favored over seasoned poets, that leaves little space for mentorship, and development of the art form. By the time a poet reaches the point in their development where they can start passing down skills, they are also at a point where they would need to start focusing more on income generating activities. It would be around the time where someone would want to start a family, or start making investments in their future like aiming at a promotion or buying some land.

 

I have heard performance poets, being advised to focus more on writing and publishing as a means of moving forward, than on performance. When the Kenyan readership culture is considered, that argument is flawed. Kenyans, rarely read work that is written by Kenyans. Also, oral culture, which has been culturally significant since before colonial times is still favored over reading, in general. In the post Moi era freedom of expression is allowing that culture to flourish more readily. There is however, a disconnect between performer and audience. The audience doesn’t have many ways to directly connect with the performers they appreciate most.

It is also important to consider that the activity of organizing poetry events, is quite hit and miss, few organizers have been able to sustain events that charge more than 500ksh entrance. Organizing a poetry event is a costly thing to do, depending on the scale of the event. It can cost hundreds of thousands to organize an event of a substantial size, especially if time, energy and resources are to be dedicated to rehearsals. The organizers themselves are seldom guaranteed that they will break even.

After much thought, I have a proposal. I have already discussed it with four event organizers, who agree with me and will begin implementing as soon as their next events.

We should have a collection box, at the doors of our poetry events, that way, if members of the audience are moved or inspired to a point where they would like to support their artists endeavors, they can tip them directly. The fee that they pay at the gate, ensures that the event is possible, whereas the tipping box, is for voluntary support of the artists themselves. The general contents of the box are to be split, after the audience has left, by the poets who performed. If an audience member would like to specifically give to a particular artist, they should have the option of putting something in a small envelope and putting the name of the artist on that envelope. Those would be given directly to the artist, for them to open at their own time.

The introduction of the idea of tipping the poets would help many of the issues mentioned above. The audience would have a chance to make individual commitments to the art on a voluntary basis, thus strengthening the relationship between audience and performers. It would help to free the art form from some of its economic barriers. It would motivate performers even more, to give their very best at every performance they attend, and would help them know, when they have specifically moved a certain crowd, with a particularly good performance, thus encouraging growth in the art form as a whole.

Growing up has afforded me a different perspective on my role in poetry. It’s not just about getting my name out there or selling my books. Its about creating a healthier environment for the poets that will come after me. Its about protecting young talent from exploitation and working towards better quality in the art form for generations to come. That journey of improving the poetry world around me, is one that I’m just beginning.

For my experiences so far, and for a vision for the future, I am deeply grateful.

Most of all, I am grateful to you, my reader. You make waking up at three thirty, well worth it.