Angela, Sidekick Books’ latest team-up pamphlet, was recently launched at Drink, Shop & Do, King’s Cross. The event took place in a room divided from the main bar by an open doorway. The sound system broadcast to the whole floor, so when Sidekick took the mic, those in the main bar who were not attending the launch, could nonetheless both see and hear it. This set-up struck me as symbolic of the poetry market. In the event room were people who bought poetry books. They were mainly poets, I think. In the bar area were the general public – not poets, not buyers of poetry books. They could apprehend what was going on, but they were not part of it. Nor did they attempt to enter the event room. That night at least, they could see poetry was there, but it wasn’t for them.
Recently, I have been trying to cross this divide, to find out if the public will buy poetry pamphlets. My motivation stems primarily from a feeling that the poetry scene is too insular. I imagine we all get into writing because we want to communicate. However, communication with an apparently indifferent public requires a great deal of effort, and it can seem like many professional poets refocus their aspirations on playing pass-the-parcel with prizes and arts jobs. Accepting prize money as a consolation for reaching a tiny audience doesn’t seem to me satisfactory. We have to work harder to communicate, to reach the non-poetry-buying public.
Angela has a Sidekick stable-mate, a spoof public information booklet created by myself and Phil Cooper entitled Confronting the Danger of Art. Over the last few months, I have taken a microphone and a portable amp down to Southbank, and busked the pamphlet outside Tate Modern. This is one of the few spaces in London which can be worked by street performers and I regularly have to compete for attention with bands, Hare Krishna dancers, soap bubble makers and a man dressed as a Viking. I’m not a natural performer, but draw encouragement from the fact that my poet/pamphleteer predecessors include Milton, Blake, Shelley.
So far, I’ve sold around 60 pamphlets this way. Who buys the pamphlet? Art teachers, students, tourists, especially European tourists (which surprised me, given it’s not their native language), general passers-by of all ages. Often people stop to find out what I’m doing. Some ask me if I’m preaching, or say they thought I was a religious nutter. I get a bit of attention from vagrants. There are people who want to take over my microphone and perform to the public. And some think the pamphlet’s anti-art arguments are genuine. One well-spoken old lady who described herself as a journalist and musician told me I was a very dangerous man. When I explained the pamphlet was a spoof, ‘Oh yes, I can see that,’ she said. ‘Who is allowing you to do this? Do the police know?’ Finally, turning to depart: ‘I don’t think you’ll be doing this for much longer.’
I’ve never worked in sales but I’m picking up technique as I go along. I find potential buyers like to be talked to about the pamphlet. It’s not enough that they hear me reciting it, or flick through a copy. They want to have a conversation about it, an interaction with the performer. At first I used to hold back on certain details concerning the pamphlet’s creation, for example the fact that the opening chapter is based on arguments in Plato’s Republic, out of a fear that this might seem over-intellectual. However, often this seems to be the detail that clinches a sale.
The night of Angela’s launch, I took copies of Angela and Confronting the Danger of Art out into the main bar area, and upstairs, to see if I could find any buyers amongst those who were not attending the event. It turned out I could. Overhearing the launch had piqued curiosity. Books, badges and Angela Lansbury masks changed hands. Rather than being fearful of the public’s indifference I think we have to be prepared to go out and approach non-poetry-buyers. How often do we have an opportunity to do this? Well, to quote Angela:
Every day –
Every day –
Ian McLachlan’s pamphlet Confronting the Danger of Art is available from Sidekick Books. He tweets @ianjmclachlan
Buy Confronting the Danger of Art, Angela and our third Sidekick team-up, Riotous, all for £10.00 + postage