Thursday, November 15, 2012

Keeping Poetry Alive in Hawke’s Bay

 – by Bill Sutton

The Hawke’s Bay Live Poets Society (HBLPS) was started in 1992 by Keith Thorsen, working as Community Arts Advisor for Hastings District Council. 
The Society’s name references the movie Dead Poets’ Society, starring Robin Williams, and makes the point that poetry is still alive in Hawke’s Bay, not just as a subject taught at school, but as a living art practised by live poets.
Keith was/is a ‘performance poet’ in that his poems are (mostly) written to be performed to a live audience. Probably the best-known performance poet in New Zealand today would be Sam Hunt, but of course there are others. 

The Society began by meeting at monthly intervals in the Cat and Fiddle Tavern in Hastings, which paid $100 a month for the entertainment value and the extra customers. When the Tavern closed HBLPS moved to the 1066 Bar, and later to the Hastings Community Arts Centre, which charges HBLPS a monthly rent.
The main purpose of the meetings is for members to be able to perform their own poems to an informed audience, and to listen to poems from other members and invited guests. Over the last 21 years there has been a large turnover of members but no reduction in the numbers participating.

The current mailing list comprises around 130 addresses, with roughly equal numbers from Napier City and Hasting District. On a typical club night 20-25 people attend, with an average of 19 performers. If a high-profile guest poet is appearing, up to 80 people may attend and up to 25 may read poems. 
The current HBLPS practice is to invite three guest poets a year from outside Hawke’s Bay. Guests are paid a performance fee and are compensated for their travel and accommodation costs. Most of the better-known New Zealand poets have appeared at these meetings, and several have appeared more than once.

Each year HBLPS includes something new in its programme. This year there was a presentation by a member on ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a ‘yarn-bomb poem’ competition sponsored by Beattie & Forbes bookshop, from which the winning entry is being knitted into a wall hanging; and poetry readings at three Napier venues to mark National Poetry Day.
The Society’s two main costs are venue hire and visitors. These are partly covered by the $5 door charge at the monthly meetings, and partly by small grants from Creative Hastings and Eastern & Central Community Trust.

How does the Society fit into the wider New Zealand poetry scene? There are other local poetry groups e.g. in Nelson, Tauranga, and the four main centres. But the feedback received from visitors indicates HBLPS is one of the best.
Our Universities, Polytechnics, Art Galleries and Museums tend to be the main beneficiaries of central government funding for the arts. Poetry is no exception to this rule, and it does result in imbalances. The number of new graduates from creative writing classes at tertiary level is impressive, but how many will be able to earn a living from their writing? If one looks at the market for new books it seems clear that few - if any – writers can earn a living from writing poems.
Some New Zealand poetry books are still being published commercially, with government support, but the market is tiny and shrinking. Many bookshops no longer make shelf space available for poetry. Most local poets will never have their poems published. Self-publication remains an option, but what exactly is the point, unless you can somehow find an audience keen to read it?
This problem cannot be overcome by technology. The internet does offer new opportunities for artists, writers and musicians to engage with global audiences. But the same audiences can readily access art, poetry and music from all over the world. There is no such thing as a local market in cyberspace.

There are of course many parallels between the issues faced by poets and those faced by visual artists, musicians, film makers, actors etc. The Hawke’s Bay Live Poets Society focuses on keeping poetry alive in Hawke’s Bay by: providing for its members to share their poems with each other; bringing in guest poets from other regions; and encouraging members to publish their work in the wider world whenever they can. The recipe appears to be working.

Bill Sutton is currently Secretary/Treasurer of HBLPS

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