We are back, we are back, we are back. Yet again, I have for you a conversation that is so RAW it should be aired on Monday Night. You can read the PG version here, but this is the one you want to dig into.
I met The Repeat Beat Poet (@RepeatBeatPoet aka Pete de-Graft Johnson) on Twitter in the lead up to the 3rd National UK Poetry Slam. We chatted, we @’ed, and I was struck at the mastery of thought that Pete expressed when talking about the business. We re-connected at a pop-up Jazz Bar in Leith during the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and had a barn-burning conversation alongside Jah-Mir Early and Ciarán Hodgers. I knew I had to get this on tape, so I invited Pete to the 24 Royal Terrace Hotel, where we got some wine and opened it up again.
Pete has a huge resume, representing the University of East London at UniSlam, being featured regularly on the London Spoken Word circuit. One of his projects that we focus on is his co-founding of The PAD, a creative workspace and venue in Barking. This forms the foundation for a lot of this conversation, which is only interrupted once by a wasp attack.
Freddie Alexander: I was thinking over the past few days. How could I bring someone from London to Edinburgh. My thoughts going into that are we have a student or is working, so we need to work around their schedule. We need to then put in costs of travel and accommodation, on top of that paying a performance. Now accommodation becomes easier when you are working closely with a hotel… travel is tricky, but not impossible. But when you start adding these up, and you have a ‘break-even’ rate, how much do I need to then have to price tickets at in order to exceed that, ideally. What are your thoughts?
Pete Johsnon: Being able to pay artists in the way that artists would like to be paid, so respectfully, expenses… travel, accommodation, if need be, and then also a few… to have one venue or one organisation covering that cost, currently for poetry is difficult. Let’s not pretend that… the scene is growing really fast, but let’s not pretend that businesses external to the scene are ready to get in on that. So then it becomes a matter of sponsorship and goodwill, and being really meticulous. Playing the long game.
If you can have a deal with a hotel bar, in which you are doing one night there, maybe every two weeks or a month. If there are going to be twenty people there using the bar, and maybe there is a spare room for the night. That is where the good will comes in as well. The way to spread the cost is to get more people involved in the poetry scene. To get different businesses. If someone wants to do food for the event, get them involved. You can give your artist food for free, or something like that. There’s many other ways to get different communities and businesses involved, but once we start looking externally at who can help us push this scene forward, that helps us spread the costs. Because everybody wins. It’s an easy way to ensure that a hotel has another 20 people drinking in it, that that food company has another 10 customers.
The initial stage of that is good will. Making sure that your relationships are professional and respectful. That goes both ways, poetry to external and then external to poets. Because if your bar doesn’t give you a microphone, and you’re competing with the football. That is not respectful to the artists. It is about spreading the costs.
FA: I think that is a good point. I think being able to find ways around it, through a network. Because it means that not one person can fail. If one part folds, another person can kind of take their place. I was really interested in the structure of the night that you run. Because I’ve not… to my mind, come across a night with an investor that is not Creative Arts funding. Most nights will go for either Creative Scotland or the Arts Council, but you said that yours was privately funded?
PJ: Yeah, so it is a private investor. The venue I run is called the PAD. It is a creative space, recording studio, and community. It was born out of a university business competition. They said to the business students that the best idea would get funding – it was NatWest run. We got through to the final round of that, but our investor met us through the preliminary rounds of that. He’s not in the creative industries at all, but he sees the potential in it. Within the PAD, it is a straight-up redistribution of wealth. We have opportunities and luckily enough an investor who is with us, and we like to give these opportunities out and give some of the gratitude that’s been shown to us to others in our communities. We are based in Barking, just outside of London. That is an area where there is not much to do, it will be on the cusp of gentrification in about three years, Cross Rail developments… currently the main cultural things to do in Barking in which there is a huge skatepark… [WASP ATTACK]
… the PAD is out in Barking there is a huge skatepark, there is also hiphop culture, direct culture, but apart from that there’s no clear cultural arts scene. So people are looking for something ot do. We want to give people that. We say that here is a creative space where artists can come and actually share their work and their ideas, and share loving art. Nobody is singularly into one part of creativity anymore. Thanks to the internet people are into not only films, but the music in films, who was the photographer… and so we take that mode and put it into the PAD. If we are showing a series of short films, let’s get a DJ who’s music reflects that. Let’s get some visual art pieces on the wall to bring together a sense that it is not just the event, but it is coming into the space. It is making sure that the space can adapt to whatever creative aspect is being exhibited in it.
Coming back to Poetry @ the PAD, which is the monthly night that I run, I host it as the Repeat Beat Poet, it is an ongoing seires of conversations between myself and our feature acts. So we have our open mic, we have our feature, and then after their 20-25 minutes we have half an hours conversation about the issues that they’ve raised, their work, and how they do what they do. And the reason why they do that is because we take tat conversation that usually happens outside of the bar after the gig, which is where a lot of the value of poetry nights comes from. You take a poem that you liked, or you had thought of before, and we put that on stage, where the audience can get into the context of it. We can also delve into some of the intricacies, stuff that isn’t easy to talk about. Poetry doesn’t shy away from issues like racism, depression, mental health issues, sexism, that’s all fair game. And it should be. We should be able to have those conversations, on stage and with people.
FA: I like that. I’ve not heard of a night that really does that, outside of really traditional poetry readings… in which the author comes along to talk about their work. I’ve not heard about that within the contemporary spoken word scene.
PJ: It is one of the few things about the classic, traditional scene of poetry that I’m going to take, that I really enjoy. necessary in building a new art form, a new mode of doing things, is a rejection of the old ways. We’ve kicked out against a lot of the traditional Radio 4 poetry, the thing we hated at A level. But the thing they had right was allowing authors a lot of time and space in talking about their work. Currently spoken word artists don’t like to talk about what they do, but hopefully that’s changing. I believe that’s a good thing. We need to seem accessible. We need to let people, who don’t know what spoken word is, have an easy way to find out. Slams are one way of doing that, and that’s fine. There is a place for slams. But for the people who are more contemplative, into long form content… Poetry @ The PAD is more for them. It’s more for the person who wants to experience the art and then experience the artists talking about it. And then go away and make up their mind with those questions.
FA: Do you host those questions?
PJ: There’s a couple of easy jump-off questions. The beauty is that I can jump off what they did in the performance. I don’t have to come prepared apart form knowing the poet and knowing their work, so I have a couple of easy things to start from.
FA: That’s really good. I’d love to see some more of that. How did you go about getting the team together for the PAD? What is the split that you have between organising and creating?
PJ: The PAD was started basically out of… it has gone through many name changes. At first it was an independent dance music label, and before that it was a blog… after this business competition we decided we would take it on as a larger project. Momentum hit, and then we had to properly look at is as a business, and as an opportunity that we had been give. When I say we, it started out as three of us, but then as soon as you realise you have an opportunity you realise that you need more people to help you out, you need a larger team, so we went from a team of three to a team of five. Then also we work very closely with people for a short period of time, and if they join the community… because the PAD is a creative community… so if you’ve worked with us once, and we feel comfortable with you, we will end up working with you again. It is a core of five of us, and the balance between creating and organising… luckily for me, I’m not one of the people who’s working closely on the production, or the day-to-day running of the PAD. I’m more involved in promotion, event management, and artist/public relations. Our sound technician is just in the studio recording with artists every day, and is on a grassroots level. Our director is also a DJ, but what matters is that we are all organising and creating. None of is just creating, because you wouldn’t be part of the management team. But none of us is just organising because we still have such a love for creating, and the art. It is a fine balance, probably not doing it too well, to be honest…
FA: No one ever does. That’s okay.
PJ: There’s no silver bullet to how much you are creating or organising. It’s generally about you are doing enough balancing for the business to run, so you have enough time to create. I do think because of the lucky opportunity we are in, I think the organisation does have to come first. Otherwise these opportunities are very fleeting, and they do go. We are coming up to our one year anniversary at the PAD at the start of October. The percentage of small businesses that fail in the first year is around 80. So even that is an achievement. We need to keep building, keep growing, and keep momentum.
FA: I know we talked about this earlier, but just to clarify your thoughts on it. Are we in a generation where to be an artist, you need to learn more skills than just the art, and is that the failure of art schools?
PJ: It’s not just a failure of art schools, but a general failure in the social attitude toward art. People are willing to pay £80 to see Adele but also will not give £2 to a busker. People will pay thousands of pounds for a piece of art, while not wanting to fund art schools or give money to grassroots artists. Being an artist right now means being self employed, doing it for the love, scrabbling money together, having to work for yourself, being vey disciplined. If you haven’t got a safety net or a trust fund it means working 9 to 5 and then performing two nights a week and being dog tired…
FA: Writing on your days off.
PJ: Or on trains home. Being an artist right now is not encouraged, every parent will tell you that. It is also something that is totally necessary, and is more necessary each year. Because of how in flux things are, politically, culturally, artistically, it means that the global narrative of how we see the world are up for grabs. Donald Trump can rise out of nowhere and effectively have a narrative that has been fed by the Tea Party and Reactionary politics. In the same way, ISIS have developed out of the same reactionary fundamentalist narrative. In the middle of this uncertainty artist, poets, can put forward a view of the world that is direct, accessible, and can reach people. That is discouraged because being an artist is not easy, and is not fun a lot of the time. If you are talking about racism or sexism people will switch off because they don’t want to hear it. Being an artist is difficult, and it is also the most rewarding thing you can call yourself. Being able to say I am an artist, in the real sense, in that I believe in what I do and will stand behind what I say, and that people should hear what I say, I think that is a very important thing to say to yourself.
We have such opportunity. We have the internet. I can reach anybody in the world, with an internet connection. But you have to be so disciplined. You have to be ready to put effort behind it.
FA: You can connect with someone’s energy and be galvanised with that connection.
PJ: Let’s look at it this way. I met you at the national Uni Slam in Leicester, but before that we had been tweeting back and forth for ages. Because we had been talking about poetry. First you were a name on a screen, then you were a conversation after and event, and now we are talking in Edinburgh. I think that is another great part of what it is to be an artist right now, making connections with people wherever they are. If you, as an artist, can go rach people where they are, that is important in this time because people don’t feel like they are represented. But if you can give them a voice by haring your voice. That’s why representation in the arts is a huge thing.
FA: To round off, what has been the most exciting thing for yourself both in terms of the performance but also the experience of being up here.
PJ: I’ll take performance first. The most exciting things I’ve seen… there’s been a trope of shows dealing with the relationship between artists, commerce and money. For me that’s been fascinating. Shows to shout out include Made to Measure, by Sara Hirsch and Ben Fagan, Tina Sederholm’s ‘Til Debt Do Us Part’, Paula Varjack’s ‘Show Me The Money.’ I’ve found that really exciting because it shows that other people are talking about this, that other people are aware that the way artists treat themselves in relationship to money, and the repressed relationship we have to money is damaging us. It means we are undersold, underpaid, and we are taken advantage of. People are mistaking our kindness as ignorance. But seeing that there are many different shows with many different standpoints, that is exciting because it shows we are ready to direct this part of the culture.
The exciting thing about being at the Fringe in geneal… being a poet at the Fringe is wonderful being able to connect with different poets from different parts of the country, who I only knew as names on screens, that’s been super exciting. There’s been three main poetry venues in which I’ve had a drink in the bar and met somebody who I’ve admired. Silk, Banshee Labyrinth and the Pilgrim. The Boomerang Club, a night that I’ve been working with at the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve had about 42 acts, and the nature of flyering for them, the poets that you thought were the gods of the scene that you thought were separate from you, are actually willing to have a drink. And want to talk about art, and why they do what they do. And why they love it. Because let’s not lie, we do love it. In the middle of all the money talk, and the business talk, there is a reason we come back and do it. It’s because we love it. We just have to make sure that it isn’t too much to our detriment.
FA: Thanks for that.