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 radicalhack.com 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.

What do you think?