Paying poets: why it’s not a dirty secret

When I entered the poetry scene in 2011, I was just happy on the open mic, writing something new each week, getting up on stage and reading, and of course, being in awe of the feature poets who got to do longer sets – and for a reason, they’re good at what they do.

So it’s flattering when they ask you to feature, some gig organiser sends you a Facebook message inviting you to perform for fifteen minutes – and then, at the end of the night, they slip you a yellow tinged bank note for your troubles, which you spend promptly at the bar. Sometimes it doesn’t even cross your mind that you’d get paid for this, for some, it’s just a hobby after all, we’ve got other jobs, and we do it for the love of it.

If some random guy pulled up in a truck and asked you to help him move some heavy boxes for the afternoon, you wouldn’t be all like “Oh I love moving heavy boxes, sure, I’ll do it for free.” We love performing poetry, so why should we get paid for it?

Well, for starters, other people are.

You to a gig, usually a pub or a bar, let’s be honest, and all those punters that came to see you, they might not know you or they might, but they’ve come to see a ‘pro,’ and maybe those punters have paid for tickets or they’ve bought a bunch of drinks at the bar, but whether or not you want to be untainted by the devil money that might compromise your art form, someone else is doing alright off you.

If we as poets, blush and just feel flattered that we get asked to perform, and it’s an unwritten rule that none of us really expect to get paid, even if it’s a nominal amount, then it sets a precedent, anyone looking for some cheap entertainment to pull people into their bar, or make their event look classy can ask us for free.

It’s perfectly understandable that sometimes we’d donate our performance for a good cause, if it’s a little gig that doesn’t make that much money, or a fundraiser for some worthy cause, but we should value our work enough that we see that as something we’re giving, like we’d donate cash, or volunteering to move boxes for a friend moving house.

The industry, of writers and performers and musicians and artists in general, is rife with the expectation that if you’re just starting out, or even if you’ve been doing it for a while, that we’re just happy to perform “for the exposure” all the time, just glad for people to get to know us. And despite the #PayTheWriters campaign getting some attention, it’s not really something talked about in the world of live poetry and spoken word.

Many gigs do pay their artists, whether it by selling raffle tickets in the break, charging entry on the night, some of the bars paying artists, or through grants and donations. Artists getting paid shouldn’t be some dirty little secret. We should endeavour to create a scene where this is more common.

For some, it’s not your main game, you’re working other jobs or working in different art forms, and you guys should be paid too, but I think it becomes more important for those hustling to do this as a more ongoing thing. Not because you want to get rich, run off to some tropical island with money bags, but because if you want to do this more, you still need to pay rent, buy food, and live comfortably, and if you’re earning money more from doing what you don’t love doing, you’ve got less time to work on what you love doing.

Creating a culture in which poets can thrive on their art form and being supported financially in doing so can benefit all of us, it’s the difference between your feature performing something they madly jotted down on the tram to and from work, or having a day to workshop and rehearse your stuff. That’s not for everyone, perhaps not everyone wants that, after all, the daily grind might be what fuels your writing, but we should value ourselves enough to say that that’s something achievable and a worthy goal.

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Annie Solah