The Arts Council needs to recognise that Spoken Word is an artform they should embrace
The spoken word community in Ireland is a budding network of event facilitators, festival curators, writers and performers. Speaking generally, it is no secret that there is little money to be made in spoken word and this is not so surprising when you learn there is slim to none financial backing to begin with.
As artists we look to the Arts Council to support our network of events that promote community activity, oral traditions, literature, creativity, expression and mental wellbeing, as well as funding and supporting our own enterprise as artists through bursaries.
Scrolling down through the categories supported by the Arts Council you will find: Architecture; Circus; Dance; Film; Literature; Music; Opera; Street Arts and Spectacle; Theatre; Traditional Arts; and Visual Arts. The argument of course is that spoken word surely fits under Literature. If that’s so then I ask why Street Arts and Spectacle can exist apart from Visual Arts, or why Opera exists apart from Music? Why can’t spoken word be given its own category separate from Literature?
Trudie Gorman of Flying South had applied to the Arts Council for financial support for 3 years consecutively and was rejected each time. Flying South was a free, monthly, mental-health-themed arts and open mic night funded partly by Dublin County Council but is now inactive due to lack of funds. Until spoken word is recognised as a legitimate and distinct artform, this is what will continue to happen.
Peter Power described it in The Irish Times as “institutionalised begging: project awards, bursaries, grants, residencies, free office space, mentorships – all structural languages of financial insolvency and cup-holding hidden in proposed potential.”
Apart from the composers and dancers among us, we can only shake our metaphorical cups for some of the €75 million on offer as the Arts Council’s walks by us without even a glance of recognition.
For years spoken word has been passed over because of its ability to blend and meld with various genres. This is in one way incredible and in another way a complete hindrance.. Spoken word artists can be poets, storytellers, musicians, comedians, film makers, artists, actors, singers or all of the above in one. Simply put, we are Irish writers and performers creating and using platforms to connect with people all over the country. Yet there is no box on the Arts Council grant application for spoken word artists to tick.
That is not to say the Arts Council does not support writers and festivals. Bursaries in the past have been awarded to spoken word poets like Erin Fornoff who, in 2015, received money for her first novel ‘Better People’ and Dylan Coburn Gray who, in 2016, was awarded the Next Generation bursary as a playwright. The short-lived spoken word festival Lingo which ran for three years was awarded €10,000 in 2016.
It is difficult to put across in a standard Arts Grant what spoken word does for people. We don’t make millions creating sculptures, we’re not a tourist attraction (yet), but we are the forefront of protest and mental health awareness. Spoken word artists can often be found speaking to crowds at rallies and demonstrations for causes such as the homeless crisis, mental health budget cuts, Black Lives Matter and Repeal the 8th.
As a community of artists, we address issues close to the heart of the nation, instilling confidence in the masses that they are not alone. A feat that not even the government can do because as one headline in the Irish Examiner put it, ‘It’s easier to get coke and a pint than it is to get help’ in this country.
The reality of spoken word in Ireland is not glamorous. 2017 All Ireland Poetry Slam Champion Nuala Leonard set up a GoFundMe page to pay for flights to the European Poetry Slam in Budapest to represent Ireland in December 2018. The All Ireland Poetry Slam of 2018 sourced its funds through a FundIt page that was desperately shared across social media so the All Ireland Final in Galway could happen.
This is the current financial state of spoken word in Ireland. And I am guilty for my part in it. I am guilty of offering the payment subsidiary spoken word artists are expected to accept. Free publicity. A bigger audience. A bigger stage. A great opportunity.
I was in college and was blind to how wrong perpetuating this attitude and practice was. I wanted to create a space for city kids and country kids alike so that they could be exposed to this artform of words and music and magic. Money was ranked far below the importance of finding and sharing new voices.
It was a policy the UCD Society Council held high: No speaker fees allowed. It wasn’t a policy I questioned when I became auditor of the English and Literary Society. I suppose the UCD society council wanted this policy for the bigger societies. The ones inviting celebrities to fill up huge lecture halls.
As auditor, I set up ‘The Cavern’ to find new voices. It’s a monthly poetry, music and comedy night with featured acts and an Open Mic that takes place in the basement of the Newman Building in UCD. It was a joy to watch people get out of their comfort zones and try stand-up or read one poem hidden away in the notes on their phone; one guitar would be swapped between three budding musicians. My hope was to create a community of artists on campus and create a space for people to go and meet others like them.
I thought that if I brought artists performing on the Dublin circuit to UCD to show the students what was happening in the city then they could do it too, never fully addressing the reality that the artists they enjoyed so much never saw a penny.
After college my role was reversed, I wasn’t the event curator and facilitator but a poet getting asked to come and perform for crowds for free. It was on the basis that I would be rewarded with free publicity and bigger stages and better opportunities, but I still finished each night with less money than when I started.
That tsk tsking should not be put on the events, however. To charge money on the door deters the audience, but it also pays the venue rent and the PA guy, and the curator but the last ones to see any of the box office are the performers. And the funny thing is, if they didn’t show up then the night itself would be for nought.
There will always be somebody new to replace you. Emerging artists pop up unjaded and unfazed by the fact that they won’t get paid, but their name will be on the poster and they get their fifteen minutes. You say no to an event and object to their unwillingness to even consider paying you a fee and they won’t blink. They’ll look over your shoulder and see who is next in line. This of course does not represent the ethos of all spoken word events in Ireland. And there a lot of spoken word events in Ireland. Some alive, some comatose, and some, well, dead.
Lo and behold the spoken word graveyard of Ireland: Flash Poetry Nights, LOQ, Monday Echo, Noise Upstairs, Milk and Cookies, Ash Sessions, Fresh Poetry Slam, The Odd Wednesday, Live Words, The Lighthouse Sessions, and Lingo. In the coma ward we have: The Red Pill, Vybrations, Flying South, Petty Cash, Whilst, and revived from an uncertain future Slam Sunday. For every spoken word open mic/slam night/variety show extravaganza that emerges another one seems to shrivel and die, its life force drained. Why is that? Money.
It is true all the great artists in the past had patrons who supported them but beyond Ireland’s Edge programme by Intel supporting Other Voices and Zurich Insurance presenting the Dalkey Book Festival there is not much patronage going on and if there is, it’s called advertising.
Is there a future for spoken word events without potential funding? Is the spoken word graveyard to keep digging? Hopefully 2019 will reveal some way forward. With financial support, spoken word may finally emerge from its basements and into alcohol-free and wheelchair accessible venues. It seemed that the closing down of Filmbase was the nail in the coffin for alcohol-free performance venues in Dublin. With the closing of its doors, Aidan Murphy’s Slam Sunday looked to be finished.
Fortunately, it was saved by Poetry Ireland who now run it out of their building in Dublin 1. This year Poetry Ireland will continue their support and sponsorship of Lewis Kenny’s Inter-Varsity Poetry Slam which is now in its 4th year running. By starting a new Open Mic Lemme Talk and opening their doors to Slam Sunday they are creating a new space for spoken word in Dublin. We can only hope they continue their support and this new renovation of the heart will allow the spoken word community of Ireland to grow.
Originally Published in BND Issue #1
Written by Melissa Ridge