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Opinion There's no poetic justice when it comes to inclusivity in the arts

We'll only get a seat at the table if we build it ourselves

THERE’S been social media hand-wringing recently, wherein university poets craved “a place at the table.” The paltry number of women and black poets who had been reviewed in whichever journals the poets had been purchasing to read reviews upset them.

While there’s clearly disparity between the numbers of female poets I see at spoken-word events, and the wide range of backgrounds at many of these and the establishment spaces, I’ve never looked to “the table.”

Those who know what knife goes with which dish, and in which back, haven’t been overlooked. The likes of us are in the kitchen and serving the food and to then expect them to invite us to the same table is wishful thinking, at best.

Some of the edumacated may think a degree will make their work valued but it’s the seats, not the table, where the power rests.

There’ve been several “identity” anthologies of late. Some of them have been excellent and working class, black and female voices have much to say and much that should be heard. But what we should beware of is if we’re being put into ghettoes by organisations who can then pat themselves on the back for their diversity.  

The BBC, for example, will vaunt inclusive programming, especially in the arts, while paying women less than men. Representation is important but it’s in the money that the power lies.

Who decides who’s represented? I had similar thoughts reading a recent article about the unionisation of sex workers. Joan Hardwicke offered us right and wrong working class when surely the real story here is workers organising themselves? For many, it’s the top-down worries of the bureaucracies focusing on numbers, not people, that frequently sell us short.

Many working-class writers and artists suffer “impostor syndrome.” We sometimes feel that we shouldn’t be where we are. I’ve shared the feeling but have never seen the answer as representing the Establishment or making oneself a clown figure of your own background for the mainstream.

I don’t look to those at the table to offer me a seat, whether that seat be approval for my writing, my place as a worker or the acceptance of my background. Those things only hold value to me when they’re built by ourselves.

As Black Panther Fred Hampton concisely said: “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Spoken word struggled long and hard — it exhausted me! — to create our own space, one where a range of voices was welcome, where our poetry was heard and recognised by people struggling, just like ourselves, in a world that didn’t value our thoughts, art, or us as people.

We would be fools to hand over all that productivity and audience to the very people who’ve exploited our words and labour just so they can trumpet their newfound, and very marketable, inclusivity to the very audience that we built.

When arts organisations talk “truth and authenticity” it’s worth checking if they’re the same one looking the other way when the venues they use don’t pay living wage.

I’ve long respected those that build their own space and all those who’ve strived to do so with zines, gigs, and their writing. I really don’t give a toss what toff reviewers have to say — as the Roman poet Martial wrote: “I serve up food to please my guests, not fellow cooks” (Book 9:81).



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