All too often, I’m the first to make a joke about it. To quip that being a poet’s an easy life, that it’s largely a matter of lazing about watching the world go by and waiting for inspiration, that it beats doing the 9-5. And in many ways, it does. But the reality of making a living on the fringes of the art world is a million miles away from easy street, and my occasional flippancy about it doesn’t do it justice.
There’s a lot more to it than just getting up behind a microphone to read your work.
Anyone who’s self-employed knows how much graft goes on behind the scenes, and – in that respect – being a poet is no different. Gigs don’t just happen. You have to find out where they are and who to contact, bat emails back and forth, juggle potential dates and try and fit them in with other gigs you’re pitching for, be patient when the people you need to get back to you – who are most probably doing this in their spare time after work – don’t respond as quickly as you’d like and so you lose two or three gigs because you need them all to hang together to make them pay. You have to start from square one again. You learn how hard it is to find small venues which are available on the nights you want, with a room you can work, and a decent PA, and a manager who gets what you and the other people on the bill are trying to do, and doesn’t say No because there’s a third-rate Queen cover band he can put on (again) instead. And once more, you start from square one.
You fit all this round the other stuff in your life. A day spent keeping an old van in working order, sourcing a new battery for the motorbike, walking to the supermarket in the rain. With making sure there’s enough work coming down the line to make ends meet and worrying what you’ll do if there isn’t. You wonder how on earth you’re going to find time and space to sit down and actually write something. You tell yourself it’s all raw material, that all this graft will transmute to inspiration, but sometimes it seems a long time since you sat with someone and spoke with them about their art, or their music, or what’s going on in their life. You make a note. This needs to change.
And you go to bed at night, too tired to sleep, and find yourself wondering about the woman in the cafe down the road, about how she got there, what gave her the laughter lines and the sadness in her eyes. And the homeless guy who sits by the bus stop all day long, watching everything that happens, talking to himself, basking in the sunshine or hunkered in the rain… what’s that about? And you realise you’ll always ask Why? And this compulsion is both a blessing and a curse.
You do it because you have to. You do it for the moments when you stand up before an audience and have them in the palm of your hand, for the times a magazine or a website publishes your work and strangers write in to say how much they enjoyed it. You do it for the joy of putting words together in a new way, for the creation and connection. You do it because it’s as necessary as breathing, because it makes everything worthwhile. Because otherwise you’d only be twiddling your thumbs, bored out of your mind.
And you know it’s the same for all the poets, musicians, artists, sculptors, painters, and writers, the ones you count among your friends and the ones you don’t yet know, that the hard work and the hard yards they put in so often goes unrecognised. You take your hat off to them.
And you hope they keep at it, because in doing so they make the world a better place.