The Limits Of The Expert

So it’s nice to see my old chum and fellow Aisle16er Luke Wright has been back blogging after a long period of sporadic comms. In my continuing efforts to bore the tits off of all my readers equally (my video game posts have a consistent knack for making at least 50% of eyes glaze over) I’m going to write a tiny bit in response to a point he raised around managers involved in live literature administration. Grab the popcorn.

Basically, in his blog post, Luke talks about the distinction between recruiting managers from experts in that particular field, versus recruiting managers from managerial positions in other fields, and how that applies to live literature (a term I fucking hate – eugh bleugh ptooie! (and I’m not much fond of the moribund ‘spoken word’ either)). In his own words: ‘Now there’s more money about (though not for long with the recession looming) the powers that be have had two main options on how to grow the industry: a) use the existing artists and producers who know the scene and have creative vision; b) bring in proven arts managers from other industries to apply their knowledge of fund raising and management to live literature.’

Although he’s conspicuously evenhanded and tentative in his overall appraisal – probably a wise move given that his ability to make a living partially depends on the good will of people working in this area – Luke seems to come down slightly on the side of using ‘existing artists and producers’, whilst acknowledging the value of having an experienced, talented manager with strong fundraising skills.

It’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you take on an active performance poet, there’s a potential conflict of interest. Lucrative opportunities are few and far between in live poetry, and there’s a real danger that, instead of spreading the word throughout the region and empowering as many poets as possible, they’ll just take the best opportunities for themselves and for their performance buddies. From the outside, a poet booking their ‘contacts’ for gigs and workshops, and signing them up for support schemes, looks a hell of a lot like cronyism. For a poet, taking on an arts admin role is a great way to plug the holes in your finances while securing yourself a prime seat at the trough.

On the other hand, if you’re a poet, it can sometimes be hard not to feel bewildered and frustrated when people who watch approximately a tenth of the live poetry you do, and who rarely, if ever, attend any events except the ones they organise, are the ones taking big decisions on the direction of the medium in the UK for the next five years, with very little apparent consultation. Working with different organisations across the country, rather than seeing a unified strategy and a genuine sense of cohesion and progression, it can feel like you’re watching a hundred little showponies getting brushed and groomed then sent trotting out to market, all with owners hoping to earn kudos for having raised the brightest and the best. It can feel more about promoting an organisation and showing off how much clout it has, than about getting better live poetry to more people, and providing value to the taxpayers who are often bankrolling most of it.

Of course, these two extremes are both strawmen that don’t paint a very accurate picture. We’re a nation of armchair football managers and music critics, and I, like so many others, like to lounge on the sofa, yelling at my telly about how I could do a better job, despite the fact I can’t kick straight or hold a note. All I’m trying to get at is that both options come with their potential problems, and neither one trumps the other. I don’t think oodles of grassroots experience nor a robust background in managerial roles are game-changers.

Nobody working in the Arts – as far as I know – has ever been given a no-strings-attached metric fuckload of money with the instruction ‘go and make live poetry better, however you personally choose to interpret “better”‘. An Arts organisation’s first priority is to secure funding to allow itself to continue to exist, otherwise it has no way of achieving any of its subsidiary aims, just as the priority of any government operating in a democracy is to remain in power, otherwise it can’t affect change. While it’s usually all in the service of exciting, interesting projects, there’s no way you can make replying to emails, checking spreadsheets and drafting press releases as fun as standing on stage, getting whoops and laughter and applause from a crowd. Doing the boring stuff well takes skill, maturity and dedication.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, and without knowing the competing pressures and priorities facing people, it’s easy for me to pick holes in people’s decisions. I’m not sure that’s very fair of me and it’s not a habit I admire, but I suspect we’re all a little guilty of different forms of this from time to time.

However, there was one phrase in Luke’s post I’d like to pick up on – not in how it relates to any of his personal views, but in how it tends to get bandied around and vaunted across Arts organisations. Luke talks about this notion of getting people onboard who ‘have creative vision’. Personally, I believe that sometimes the disproportionate value placed on so-called ‘creative vision’ and strong personalities rolling out big, bold projects and proposals, overrides other important qualities like, y’know, listening. You don’t need to be a gigging performance poet yourself to work in an organisation that aims to improve and promote the medium, but you do need to be willing to engage in an honest, respectful and sustained dialogue with a wide spread of people who do, not just in this country but across the world. There is a wealth of knowledge out there, distributed amongst hundreds of enthusiastic pro-am experts, and it seems not just foolish, but willfully arrogant not to attempt to draw upon it. That doesn’t just mean accepting criticism and sending out the standard survey asking ‘How could we do this project better next time?’ after you’ve pissed away 50 grand on some ill-conceived vanity-wank – it means asking a decent spread of relevant people before you’ve squandered the time and money, to see if what you’re doing is actually what the people you’re supposedly doing it for want.

I suppose what I’m saying is that, as a performance poet who has notched up over 100 gigs in the last twelve months, I’d like to think that those involved in organising events, initiatives and projects relating to live poetry would see people like me as an important free resource of information and opinions. And I’m not using ‘people like me’ as a euphemism for ‘harrumph, why don’t people beg me for the chance to listen to my divine wisdom?’ (although I like feeling important as much as the next petty, insecure egotist) – you can only get a true picture by consulting a range of people from across lots of different nights. Indeed, probably even more useful than getting the poets’ views would be directly engaging with audiences and listening to their feedback, and, even better, getting into dialogue with people who don’t go to spoken events but maybe attend events in stand-up, music and theatre, to see if we can start to think about strategies for showcasing the best live poets to a wider appreciative audience. By the same token, a lot of people who perform live poetry, myself especially included, could do with asking advice from those with experience in larger organisations, then listening to and acting on the responses we get.

So basically, I reckon one of the most important qualities a high-level manager in Arts administration can have is an open mind and a willingness to listen. Whether they’re an ex-poet, a promoter or someone with management experience in a related area, it doesn’t really mat
ter, as long they’re not an arrogant asshole who thinks they know it all. (like me) Indeed, I suspect we could use some new blood from different disciplines, coming in to suggest ways to improve. At the moment, live poetry is an obscure cultural curiosity on a par with beekeeping. It deserves so much better.

I should also point out here that I have met plenty of people within Arts administration who clearly devote an awful lot of time to listening to others, and who are incredibly conscientious and hard working. (I’m sure there are people reading this now thinking what? I spend my whole life in fucking meetings! Listening is all I fucking do!) It must be really difficult trying to synthesise lots of different people’s opinions on a subject, all of whom have competing agendas, and many of whom, I’m sure, must come across as shambling simpletons. Also, I realise that the whole ‘big project launch, big creative vision’ way of doing things is, in part, a result of how organisations have to go about securing funding. ‘Listening’ sounds a bit woolly, unless you launch it as a ‘big listening project’ or just pitch another dreadful networking event (which tend to be weirdly uninclusive, closed shops). And, of course, at some stage somebody’s got to cut through all the bullshit and actually make the decisions. Only hippies throw everything out to a vote, and look where that got them – crusted in their own filth, huddling round shards of green calcite for warmth. (and before someone chimes in with ‘well you’re just betraying your ignorance there, Tim – green calcite is actually for reducing anxiety’ THEY’RE USELESS CHUNKS OF ROCK YOU GORMLESS LUDDITES)

I’ll close with a quote from Shunryu Suzuki, to lend a spurious air of Zennish wisdom to my latest incoherent, axe-grindy blather. Suzuki famously wrote about cultivating a quality he called ‘beginner’s mind’, once stating (perhaps a little mischievously) that the essence of Zen was ‘not always so’. As he put it: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’


One Comment

  1. Luke Wright says:

    great post Tim. I agree, but listening skills are exactly what I think those 'experts from the field' have. In a field such as ours being an expert means having an ear to the ground. There are a few people I know of in this field who are great at just that and I think would have been very exciting choices for the Apples job. And no, they aren't mates of mine. And no, I'm going to go into who they are, as you say above it's easier in this matters to keep out. Nice to hear your thoughts.

    x