Can a New Agency Make Spoken Word Pay?

Melissa Ridge gets animated when she talks about spoken word.

On a recent, rainy Monday in the small South Anne Street shop where she works, there’s little footfall, so she can talk about her new start-up, Boundless and Bare, an agency for spoken-word events and performers in Ireland.

She set it up with Melanie O’Donovan, who she met in college. Back then, Ridge wanted to start a poetry society in University College Dublin. O’Donovan was in the literature society, so they set it up together.

“We both thought, the one thing that lacks in the spoken-word community is advertising, because nobody knows what’s going on apart from the people who are directly involved,” says Ridge.

So, outside of the event facilitators, the poets, and the story-tellers themselves, it can be hard to let a wider audience know when something is going on.

“If you come in from the outside, you’ll only learn about events by word-of-mouth,” she says, Groups on Facebook are mainly for the poets and facilitators. There’s nothing there for people who want to attend, but who don’t want to perform, she says.

A quick search of “spoken word Ireland” throws up pages for Poetry Ireland, the Irish Writers’ Centre, a few articles and the website for the International bar – so there’s some, but not much of an online presence.

“That’s what we want it to be. A hub of information,” says Ridge. They want to fill that gap, and advertise events that are already happening, and promote artists.

A Chance to Be Heard

To some, spoken-word and slam poetry is synonymous with basements, bars, and low lighting.

But Ridge says she isn’t too concerned that artists might hesitate to take the edge off the underground image, by making it easier to find. “You would think, but I think the underground nature of it is more of a hindrance,” she says.

She and O’Donovan sent out two surveys – to those who go to these kinds of nights, and to those who run them – before they started up, to find out what they want.

And what they want, says Ridge, is a chance to be heard. “They want people to come to their shows, they want people to know that they’re there, and all they have at the moment is social media.”

In the year and a half that Felicia Olusanya – who goes by Felispeaks when she’s on stage – has been part of the spoken-word scene here, she’s noticed a few things.

For her, spoken work is about creating spaces where poetry exists. But “there’s no diversity in how it’s presented or experienced, apart from slam or open mics”, she says.

It’s hard to reach outside the bubble, says Olusanya. “It becomes quite insulated – it’s very underground, like a secret society.”

That is something she doesn’t celebrate. “Society has pushed poetry underground,” she says. So, a platform like this – Boundless and Bare – would be “amazing”.

Other poets might not be that excited about it at first, she says. There’s an idea that “it’s our thing”. But she thinks they’ll see the benefits later.

“We get comfortable in that space: underground, after hours, only certain kinds of people. I think it’s very important for poetry to become mainstream,” she says, but without diluting it. “It needs to be accessible to everyone, [and] having an agency can help to increase the value.”

“It’ll still be literally underground,” says Ridge. Just more will know about it.

The Poetry Business

What they really want, says Ridge, is to see people travelling.

“At the moment, poets based in Dublin will only perform in Dublin-based events. The big thing about spoken word in Ireland is that there isn’t enough money to pay for performers, or even travel.”

If they can help increase support for events, she says, that should lead to the artists getting more support too – and an increase in travelling poets.

At the moment, Boundless and Bare is self-funded, but they’re hoping to apply to the Arts Council once they’re more grounded in the scene.

“It’s not music, it’s not art, but we want to raise the profile, and get some more attention to it, and get some money flowing in there,” says Ridge.

Ideally, down the line they want to sign people on, and get them travelling and on tours. Right now, they’re putting in the groundwork, earning it; they want to show people what they can do.

That means releasing the first five episodes of their podcast, featuring international spoken-word artists, facilitators and writers, on 26 April, which is National Poetry Day.

And a monthly gig guide, a round-up of all the spoken word events happening in Ireland over the coming four weeks.

“The way the rules are changing,” says Ridge, “Facebook is now burying these small pages, forcing them to boost their posts, so you have to put money into the posts so that they’re seen – again, that’s money, and you can’t draw from a budget that doesn’t exist.”

At the moment, the spoken word scene is great for mutual respect and support, but the big challenge for artists is trying to get paid, says David Halpin of the Circle Sessions performance collective.

“I know plenty of spoken word artists that have the talent to make a career out of their art, but in Ireland there are very few avenues to do this,” he says.

Olusanya says the same. “Poetry tends to be the most underpaid art form, even with other artists – an agency might change that.”

It can be a very lonely process, she says, but an agency like this “would put your wildest dreams in a template”.

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Zuzia Whelan: Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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