Who is (my) poetry for?
Earlier this year I was part of a small writers’ group in Southmead. It was comprised of five Bristolian ladies, all in their seventies or older. We were a strange mix, but we enjoyed each other’s company and I really appreciated their perspective. They spoke about things of which I’d had no experience, and this refreshed me.
One session, we were all sharing our material and I shared a poem Mr. Middle Age with the rest of the group. I was half way through the poem when Kathleen who was the leader stopped me abruptly.
‘S-t-ooo-p! You’re too wordy. Who is your audience, who is your poetry for?’
My mind erased itself and I just stared. Surely, I had thought of this before?
‘You can’t be saying this stuff to a working-class audience. We’re not educated like yourself.’
I began to get defensive. Was she suggesting my style was too flowery? ‘I’m working class though’ I gently protested.
‘No, you’re not. You went to university. You’re middle class now’.
Kathleen wasn’t being mean, she just wanted me to think. She was good at asking the right questions and challenging the group. But this comment bothered me.
Middle class? But I’m from Camden and grew up in Kentish Town. And yes, I went to an independent boarding school, but could only do so on a bursary. To me, middle class is Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley. It’s being pedantic about using a coaster and owning a Fiat 500. These are the stereotypes I hold in my mind about the other. But there I stood, outside of the camp, outside of the circle. It was weird.
Who is Poetry for?
We’d all like to think that poetry is for everyone. Anyone inspiring can write a poem or earn modest living from writing poems. ‘Anyone can perform’ we say, ‘as long as the performance is good’. But was is good? In every industry there are strata and unwritten codes of conduct.
People often ask me who my audience is, or what kind of poet I am. At this stage, I’m not entirely sure. I’m still trying to figure that out. I could be a ‘fight the power’ poet or a hopeless romantic. Or I could be a prophetic poet, or the comedic poet. It seems branding is so essential to get by. Right now, I think I’m the ‘observer of humanity’ poet. But that might change in the future.
All I know is that words are extremely important. Whole nations are founded on constitutions, which are words infused with bedrock meaning. Marriages are broken by breaking words exchanged on a wedding day.
I want my words to build people up and encourage empathy. But I also want to shake things and question narratives. I want my performances to be symbiotic; to learn about people as I share. I want to say my poetry is for everyone, but I may have moments in the future again when I realise I’ve made a divide, when I realise that even though I thought I was in, I’ve been perceived as out.