Two events have caught the attention of the Midlands literary chatterati this week, the schism at Worcester Literary Festival and the news that Bilston Voices is to finish. The detail for both is quite different, but both are united by a common theme – value and appreciate what you have.
Worcester Literary Festival
Over the past three years I have witnessed the Worcester Literary Festival being conceived, delivered, and grow. That has been on the back of extraordinary individuals; poets,photographers, artists, academics, storytellers, authors, musicians, short story tellers and flash- fictioneers. Together with dedicated organisers and aficionados of the literary scene, a vibrant monthly poetry event, Parole Parlate, flourished, a magazine was created and three Festivals took place. That experience was shared and owned by all who were involved in an uncertain, yet rich, alchemy. The satisfaction in organising such events should not be ownership, but in pleasure at what has been created, in the same way that a parent does not feel that they own a child, yet takes pleasure in that child’s achievements. And that pleasure is invariably shared between parents, school teachers, grandparents, family and friends. This blog is not about taking sides, I haven’t heard the full story. It is about looking from afar, as a commentator, not a participant, and reminding all to value and appreciate what you have.
Running Festivals is not easy. It certainly isn’t for the money and they devour the time of organisers voraciously. Quantifying success is uncertain. Does a stunning, intimate, inspiring reading attended by ten, leaving those who did attend smug knowing “I was there” fail? Is a bland well attended event offering an instant, but transient, fix, the literary equivalent of a McDonalds meal, a success? Financially, certainly, but no literary festival is just about that. At Worcester, there may have been a debate about what the Festival could and should be, but what has been achieved already has been spectacular and valuable. It should be appreciated.
I am delighted that, having stared over the precipice, those involved at Worcester have rallied around to ensure that the legacy of the past three years has not been squandered, as appeared to seem likely. The people, performers and artists of Worcester and surrounds have provided me with some of my happiest and most rewarding days in recent years. I know that sentiment is shared by many others who have similarly enjoyed sharing their art there. I wish you well and look forwards to exciting , rewarding and productive times ahead with a new committee.
This week, Emma Purshouse announced that the September instalment of Bilston Voices was to be the last. The economics of the event for the venue may have been a factor. I have been attending Bilston Voices for some four years. I could not allow its passing without an appreciation of a very special event. Its longevity alone tells you much. Supported by Simon Fletcher, but driven by Emma Purshouse, it provided a platform for writing of all genres in a supportive welcoming environment. Local writing groups supported it well. Although the audience was predominantly older, the outlook was fresh, enquiring and inquisitive.
Thus, aspiring novice writers were given a chance to play and learn their craft, whilst established published authors relished the opportunity to perform before a proper poetry audience which appreciated stories, monolgues and drama too. It was a community where most people new each other, but newcomers were welcomed, where you could not go for a few months and still be welcomed back as if you had never been away. Characters were in abundance, with contributions eagerly anticipated from those who had delighted before. Unusually, it was not open mic, but with an invited bill of five, yet still forty plus people would show up every month because they knew the quality of performance would be high, and that their friends would be there to share the experience with them.
The economics of poetry at Coffee Houses is fragile. Forty people buying a £2.50 coffee only grosses £100, pay two people to staff the bar, take away the petrol money for them to get there, and the cost price of rereshments, and no-one gets rich. An owner at another coffee house hosting poetry once said to me “ we are not a community centre you know” as they watched some audience members come- and buy nothing. Of course organisers can charge for entry, but as soon as you go beyond the nominal entry fee that Bilston Voices charged, audiences dwindle in the medium term. You can charge well for name poets and special events, but regular poetry evenings are not like that, they tend to be about a warm felling, rather than the adrenaline shot which demands to be paid for.
I draw no conclusions about Bilston Voices’ demise. I do reflect that we should all savour, value and appreciate these events when they are running, as nothing lasts forever. We should never be complacent and revere those heroes, like Emma, who has done such a fabulous job for so long ( she may even appreciate a rest, she has earned it). And of course history shows that you cannot keep a poetry audience down. If the demand is there, something will surface to satisfy it.
Bilston Voices opens its doors for the last time on Thursday 26th September, 7.30pm at the Metro Cafe, Bilston – get there early, it should be quite a night.