Literature Working Group Report and Live Poetry

The programme for 2010 is shaping up very nicely (take a look at the names down the right-hand column). The only problem is finding a slot this year for people I’d really like to book for a reading. The programme is full until June, and November is going to be something special (more on that soon). That leaves only six slots for September and October and it’s not as straightforward as picking the first six names from a list. There’s always 2011, I suppose.

We’re continuing to have ‘3-minute spots’, around three of these at each event. They give new poets a not-quite-so-terrifying chance to have a go at reading and also enable experienced readers to try out recent material. There are still a couple of 3-minute spaces at the March event, so email me if you would like one of those.

Speaking of March, I can reveal that Kona Macphee’s reading will mark the official  launch of her new Bloodaxe collection, Perfect Blue.  With the superb Alan Riach and talented newcomer Aiko Harman also reading, the whole evening should be a memorable one. Also, nice to see this positive review of the February Valentine’s Day event from Mairi Sharratt’s A Lump in the Throat blog by a ‘newcomer to poetry’.

I’ve been trying to digest the new Scottish Literature Working Group report. I guess many people simply ignore these things, but it will have serious impact on Scottish writers and readers. If you think that doesn’t include you, you’re wrong. One section of the report (pp.16-17) talks about live literature and of giving block funding for the entire seasons of “successful proven venues” (this includes those who host only or mainly prose writers) and making more money available to do this. Sound good? Good for those which get the money, of course, but who will get it? What does “successful” mean? At the moment, most poetry venues can get grant money for only one or two readers per season, if that. Financing an entire season at any venue would be very costly and the budget surely won’t stretch over many such venues. The rest will get nothing. Current diversity, which means more opportunities for readings (both writers and audiences), may disappear. Any live poetry organisations are going to have to fight their corner or, more likely, merge into a bigger organisation.

That said, the current system is inadequate and I welcome attempts at rethinking it. I agree that the recommended level of payment set for a reader (£150) isn’t ordinarily enough to attract the biggest names. It’s also farcical in that no poetry venue would exist if it had to pay everyone at that level: most poets would get no readings at all! The report at least acknowledges this and wants to create a system whereby venues can attract writers with international reputations and pay lesser known writers as well (the grants would include a £100 minimum fee for each reader). Also, at the moment, the grant scheme only covers writers based in Scotland who are on the Live Literature Database. The report urges that grants cover costs of writers beyond Scotland, which would be a huge improvement to the system and would enable promoters to bring far more great writers to a Scottish audience. I’m all for that. It will cost more though, given the increase in travel expenses, and I wonder how much (if any) extra money will be made available for this scheme in a time of cutbacks.

One thing is unclear to me from the report. At present, the Live Literature Scheme gives grants for paying individual writers, which must be matched by the host organisation. It gives £75, but the venue must add £75, and the writer is paid £150. If the LLS were to finance an entire season, with a minimum per reader of £100 and big names getting four or five times that, the overall cost will be huge. But does the host venue have to match the grant? The report talks of venues “recouping their outlay” through better promotion etc. However, the kind of outlay necessary in this proposed new system would put every poetry reading series in Scotland out of business immediately, no matter how professional their leaflets and advertising happen to be. If, on the other hand, the grant doesn’t require match funding, what is the incentive for organisations to work on gaining audiences? The subsidy mentality would kick in. I just don’t understand how this is going to work. It doesn’t seem realistic, but perhaps someone can enlighten me.

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