Perth Poetry Club, the mathematics of publicity, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Today was going to be my Day Off. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I was going to wander out, maybe take in some art, maybe have coffee with a friend or see a movie. But I find myself thinking — worrying! — about Perth Poetry Club, the weekly community event I instigated in early 2009, inspired by Melbourne’s weekly readings, the Dan Poets and the Spinning Room, and the way they brought poets together into a genuine community as well as giving poetry a chance to be heard.

I’m worrying about Perth Poetry Club because I’ve had enough of the responsibility of running it — of being the manager, the one who makes sure that everything happens, the one people look to for direction, the one who fields most of the the questions and complaints as well as the thankyous.

It’s not that I’m tired, or bored, or that I don’t care. Quite the opposite: I have new ideas, I want to do new things, and the tasks involved in running a weekly show are getting in the way, consuming my energy. Here I was, planning to have a Day Off in the sunshine, and I’ve spent the whole morning and half the afternoon at my desk, thinking and writing about Perth Poetry Club and trying to figure out my next move.

Maybe I need to step off completely and walk away. Not just give away this task and that, not just step back and let others take the lead. I’ve been doing that for a while already and, weirdly, I feel more of a drain on my energy than I did when I was doing most of the jobs myself! That isn’t a good sign. So perhaps I need to step right out of the organising group. Perhaps my presence in the group is holding back others as well as myself.

In late 2008 when I first had the idea, people said, ‘a weekly reading won’t work in Perth, there aren’t enough people, it will be too much work. Try monthly or fortnightly.’ Only one person (Helen Child) offered regular help. Eventually we found a venue (The Court Hotel), Allan ‘antipoet’ Boyd of generously created visual imagery, a website and a striking poster, and the rest is history. In October 2009 we moved to The Moon Cafe, whose owner Georgia Mathieson provides not only good food and drink but a welcoming space for community arts and artists.

On a good Saturday, Perth Poetry Club is exactly what I wanted it to be, and what the slogan says — ‘where slams meet sonnets’. Well-known literary poets reading alongside unknown bloggers and street poets, and everything in between. Influencing each other and getting to know each other. Becoming friends. And sometimes getting reviewed in the press!

The naysayers had a point, though. It’s been a lot of work. I think people who offer to help sometimes get a shock when they realise that what happens on the day of the event — MCing, introducing luminous poets, waving your arms about, being photographed, selling books, collecting donations — is only a small part of the story. It’s like the deck of a ship with a band playing. Underneath, there’s a greasy engine room and a whole lot of machinery and repetitive activity. And there will be someone doing the steering — or at least overseeing the electronic navigation systems — ideally, someone who can read charts and who knows the ways of icebergs.

Enough metaphor! I was talking about running a poetry event and how much work is involved. For example. Having featured poets each week is not just a matter of casually asking them — not if you want them to turn up at the right time and put on a good show. (Thank you to Jake Dennis for your recent help with that.)

Looking after the money, which is contributed by the audience in good faith, is not just a matter of keeping a box of cash somewhere. There are spreadsheets. (Perth Poetry Club has been very lucky with this — we’ve had a reliable treasurer, Elio Novello, from almost the beginning.)

And then there’s publicity.

My approach to publicity (for Perth Poetry Club and anything else I do) is based on what I learned in my years as a volunteer with the Australian Breastfeeding Association, another community concern that needs a constant inflow of new people to keep it going.

I learned that publicity is mainly about having a catchy, descriptive name and image, providing just enough information, and getting it in front of as many people as possible as often as possible.

Publicity also means stepping outside your own headspace and realising that most people aren’t interested in what you’re doing. Maybe one in a thousand are interested enough in poetry to consider coming to a reading — which means that to get one new person you have to make a thousand contacts.

Actually, it doesn’t, because you target your publicity so it reaches those more likely to be interested. In the case of poetry this means the literary community, people who frequent libraries and bookshops, and the weird people you see at train stations. So let’s be really optimistic and say one in a hundred are interested. Marketing theory says that, on average, people need to hear about something three times before they’ll do anything about it. (Before you get cross about that, remember it’s an average. Think bell curve.)

So if you want one new person a week you have to make three hundred contacts a week. In the right places. Sounds a lot… but it’s not so bad, because you use technology and existing social and organisational networks to duplicate your contacts. You run off a whole bunch of flyers and leave them in as many places as you can. You send your publicity to another organisation and get them to publicise it. You use the viral power of social media. You find out who the right reporters are and send them media releases. You make a really good website (thanks, Allan) and get everyone to link it, and give it descriptive, literal keywords and titles (like ‘Perth’ and ‘Poetry’) so that Google searches find it.

Then, when the people turn up, you give them what they’re after. It occured to me this morning that the reason Perth Poetry Club is so popular, especially with what we might call ’emerging’ poets, is that being part of it helps them get what they’re after at all the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physical, security, affiliation, personal power, self-actualisation. Starting from the most basic need:

  • Physical (food, shelter, sleep, etc). You can eat and drink and the venue is cosy (sometimes too cosy, admittedly). If you have no money someone will probably buy you a coffee and share their food with you. There is no obligation to pay — the necessary money is provided by those who can. The venue is okay if you’re disabled or come with a pram. The afternoon timeslot doesn’t stop you from sleeping in or going to bed early.
  • Security. The event has a consistent format and happens at a consistent time, every week, so people know what to expect. The venue feels safe and casual: the decor and the people are friendly, arty and scruffy.
  • Affiliation. People feel included, feel a sense of belonging, feel that they have friends.
  • Personal power: this means the ability to make a difference with others and to be recognised for that. To be heard, to be applauded, to be given credit.
  • Self-actualisation, which means achieving, creating, using your skills.

I never wanted people to identify me with Perth Poetry Club. For a while, I guess, I identified with it, but I don’t any more. It isn’t my thing — it’s just something I started. I wanted to get a weekly poetry event going in Perth and then hand it on to others. Hopefully it will to continue to be successful… or, thinking more broadly, hopefully, the poets and poetry fans of Perth will continue to run a weekly event that is well-publicised, entertaining and welcoming, whatever it may be called.

As I try to edit this ramble of thought into something that hangs together well enough to publish, my phone rings. It’s another arts organisation wanting to link up with Perth Poetry Club. The lady doesn’t know me — she got my number from the website. People more often email, but sometimes they need the reassurance of actually talking to a human before taking the risk of getting involved.

As Yeats said, ‘In dreams begin responsibilities.’ But the heck with that for the rest of the day. First, some hot soup. And then, a walk in the sunshine, and  perhaps a movie.

4 weeks in the ghost house: Writing in Residence at Mattie Furphy House

It’s a wintry day, but the sharp Perth light pushes its way through the clouds onto my donated desk, a yellowed pine dining table. The antique table and chairs in the corner are roped off, presumably too fragile or precious to sit at, but not sacred: powerboards, papers and stationery obscure the white lace tablecloth. At my back a brick fireplace is surrounded by copper-panel grapevines and burnished jarrah. In one corner a cheap fan heater oscillates hesitantly.

I’m almost at the end of four weeks’ residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (FAWWA). I’ve been living and working at their writers centre in the Allen Park Heritage Precinct, hidden behind the trees at the beachward end of Wood Street in the upper-middle-class Perth suburb of Swanbourne.

The Fellowship have two houses here: Tom Collins House and Mattie Furphy House. Their denizens call them Tom’s and Mattie’s. I’m living and working in Mattie’s, which was built between 1908 and the 1920s by Joseph Furphy, aka novelist Tom Collins, for the copper-panel artist Mattie Furphy (nee McCausland), the wife of Joseph’s son Samuel. The Furphys built the house in Clement Street, five minutes’ leafy walk away, but in 2005 the Fellowship rescued it from the McMansion-developers, moved it here and spent seven years restoring it. In March 2012 they launched it as the Mattie Furphy Centre for Creative Imagining.

There are quarters for the resident writer, a kitchen and two work rooms. I’m sitting in the smaller work room, once the family dining room. It’s is big enough for a small workshop or conference, but I’ve appropriated it as my office. I call it the sunshine room. Outside the cream-painted windows and French doors there are jarrahs and marris, green plastic tree-guards, walking paths, a pile of planks, a stack of bricks, and Tom’s in its white-weatherboard red-roof mediocrity, leaves piling up in its gutter. There’s one car: a battered wagon belonging to FAWWA’s caretaker, the poet Peter Bibby, who’s away at the moment.

I’m hankering to finish a particular poem, but that can’t be done quickly, so I’ve delegated it to my subconscious for the time being while I reflect on my stay here.

Everyone I meet says, ‘How’s the residency? How’s the writing going? I’ll bet you’re getting lots written. Not having any distractions must be nice.’

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I’ve done lots of writing. I’ve written every day, worked on many different poems, made a zine and started this blog. I brought in Seventh Continent Productions to film a performance video. Because I have to write a report I started keeping a logbook to track my work, and that’s been so encouraging that I’m going to keep it up after I leave. Being my own manager, I can’t stay away from email for longer than a few days, but I’ve kept away from the rest of the Internet as much as I can. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking. My writing journal and logbook are electronic, which makes it easy to tag and search, and the last four weeks are full of Poems, Opportunities, Things Learned, Ideas and Insights. I get to be only a writer except when my kids call me — it’s opulent luxury!

But it’s not true that there are no distractions. I’m living in a writers centre! People come and go, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the office in Tom’s is open and busy with volunteers. On Tuesdays lunch is served for the volunteers: good bread and homemade soup set out on placemats for ten or more seated around the sagging main table among the antique furniture in the front room at Tom’s. When it’s time for soup someone wanders over and taps on my window.

And guess what happens? I get talking! People can be very distracting. On the other hand, they give me ideas, energy and drive, especially when they’re the ones who did so much tedious grant-writing and — how can I put this nicely? — networking, in order to get my funding.

People also come in for workshops and mentoring sessions. Some are mine, as required by my contract, and some are run by others. While I’ve been here there have been several meetings and workshops complete with teamaking and noise (and some useful contacts for me).

Most events are held in Mattie’s front room, a big, beautiful, timber-scented room with a mirrored fireplace. If it were mine I’d bring in overstuffed leather couches, funny little tables, brass candlesticks and portraits of dead poets — but that’s not going to happen, because its size and acoustics make it perfect for classes and meetings as well as intimate performance events like readings, house concerts or book launches (and yes, you can hire it). So it’s furnished with stackable chairs and plastic trestle tables.

But most of the time I’ve been alone with the walls. And the floors. And the chairs. And the cushions. Are you getting the idea? The biggest distraction is the house itself. I meant to tell you all about my writing and activities and my ideas for the writers centre, but — rather like the Fellowship itself — I seem be kind of stuck on the house.

From outside Mattie’s house looks empty, unused. The wide front verandah contains two ratty doormats and a picnic table. That’s all. It could use some seating, perhaps some potted plants, and a big friendly sign on the front. But I suspect that would require formfilling, phone calls and long difficult meetings with the local authorities. Welcoming signs are definitely not the civic style around here. The whole suburb is as smoothly groomed as the dogs and owners who walk, jog and personal-train on the oval outside my bedroom window. From the street there’s no evidence that a writers centre lurks behind the vegetation. A small sign near the house says ‘Beware of Venomous Snakes’: if I added ‘and Poets’ it’d be the only graf for miles.

People say there’s a ghost here, but I haven’t seen it. I think the house itself is the ghost, caught between two worlds, the past and the future, unsure of how to move on.

Here’s an idea for you, ghost. I can Creatively Imagine this house as a drop-in centre for writers, open all weekend every weekend, with a roster of experienced writers in attendance, with formal and informal talks, discussions, readings and workshops, with quiet writing times, with ambient music, with a lending library (gold coin donation?), with a book and zine sales table in one corner, and in the entrance a large, prominent box with a slot in the top, into which the community who love coming here contribute according to their not inconsiderable means to keep the centre going.

Making something like that a reality wouldn’t take much funding, just time, enthusiasm, organisation and community connection. But it’s just one idea.

The writer-in-residence coming in after me is another career writer and educator, Horst Kornberger. It’s Friday morning, so he’s here now, teaching his year-long course ‘The Writers Passage’. He has at least fifteen enthusiastic students. I can tell when he takes a break by the eruption of noise around the tea urn. I ask him what he thinks of the house. ‘This place was conceived, built and used by artists’, he says, ‘and should continue to be used by artists. It has a potent spirit of place, a powerful creative effect.’

This being Perth, the sun has come out. It’s shining on the jamjar vase of foliage and flowers I’ve stolen from nearby houses with more garden than they need. In a minute I’ll go into the gloriously modern kitchen and make a snack. Then maybe I’ll walk down and look at the sea. After that, I suspect I’ll get my poem finished.

Extracts from eulogy

Commissioned 2010. This work may not be reproduced by any process, including printing. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for being here to commemorate the life of my dear mother-in-law, Mary Louise Johnson.

Mary was much loved by many family and friends, and I’m honoured today to be able to tell you a little about her life.

As well as a loving wife, Mary was an enterprising businesswoman. Soon after her marriage she opened a shop in Smith Street — appropriately for Mary, a hairdressing salon. She wasn’t a hairdresser herself, but an entrepreneur, employing several stylists. She named the salon ‘Mary Louise’, and with her hard work and attention to detail, it did well. After a couple of years she was able to open a second salon in Davis Street. Eventually she was able to sell both for a handsome profit, which gave Joe the finance to set up his construction, concrete and limestone businesses.

One of Mary’s favourite TV shows was ‘Neighbours’. She never missed an episode and became wrapped up in the story. Tammy once answered the phone and got a shock to hear Mary crying.

‘What’s wrong, Mum?’ she said.

It turned out that one of the characters on ‘Neighbours’ had died.

Mary leaves behind three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She was a great and beautiful lady who gave all of us her unselfish love and many happy memories.

On being called a performance poet

Commissioned 2009 for the Australian Writers Newsletter. This work may not be reproduced by any process, including printing.

People call me a ‘performance poet’, but I would say instead that I am a poet who performs. So what’s the difference?

It’s a difference of attitude and intent. A performance poet is one who writes primarily for performance; the performance is an integral part of their artform. Their tone of voice, pitch, speed of delivery, body movements, gestures and facial expressions become part of the poem. Poets like this (such as Melbourne’s Santo Cazzati or Steve Smart) are more likely to publish in audio or video form, although many publish in zines, books, blogs and websites also. All of the performance poets I know write and edit their poems first; some (such as Perth’s Belowsky) also improvise at the microphone, finding the audience interaction helps them generate ideas.

Some performance poetry also works well on the page, but some does not because so much of the form resides in the poet’s performance style. Some hip-hop rhymes, for example, are bright and alive in performance (whether performed to music or not) but flat and dull on the page, because the rhythm and associated tension are created primarily by the MC’s timing and emphasis rather than by the words themselves. In particular, good MCs and hip-hop poets know how to bring out the assonances and inventive off-rhymes of their poetry by emphasising particular syllables.

Likewise, some ‘page poetry’ works well in performance, but some does not. A lot of poetry needs more than one reading to be fully grasped; or it may have visual form that does not translate well into performance. It may also include unfamiliar words or terms that need to be looked up or given a footnote.

People call me a ‘performance poet’ because they see me performing — rather than merely reading — my poetry: and perhaps because I often do so without notes, wearing dramatic black clothes, sometimes playing the guitar rather badly, and generally taking up a lot more space than I’m entitled to. Attending, and lately, organising, poetry readings and spoken word performances is a big part of my life and I would guess that most other poets know of me from this rather than from my published poems.

However, I don’t like being described as a ‘performance poet’: that’s only half the story. Since I published a collection, people have said to me that my poems contain patterns and forms that are not discernible from my performances. And I find the idea of someone sitting down with my book and responding to it a lot more exciting than someone listening to me perform. Go to any poetry slam and you’ll see how easy it is to use cheap theatrical tricks to get an emotional response. Doing so with words alone is a whole lot harder.

So why perform or read your poetry?

You can hear what it sounds like. Getting someone else to read it aloud is even better. I love reading other people’s poetry aloud even more than performing my own.

You can bring your poems to life and interpret them for the audience.

You get your poetry to people who otherwise would never experience it. You sell a lot more zines and books.

You get to meet other poets and hear their words.

And it feels amazing! Especially if you’re wearing dramatic black clothes.