Today on the blog, we have Ben Aaron MacLeod talking about the Newcastle Literary Salon. Ben is one of the co-hosts of the Salon, along with the lovely Juli Watson. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at the Salon before and it’s a really unique atmosphere.
Thanks to Ben for appearing on the blog.
The Newcastle Literary Salon.
By Ben Aaron MacLeod.
What single word is the most frightening to modern aspiring authors? Rejection? Editing? Typos? None of those, I’d argue. If you’ve ever been to a workshop on getting published, one hosted not by authors or small-time presses, but the big international print houses, you’ll know that there is only one word on everyone’s lips. One confusing, cringe-worthy word, without which, they tell you point blank, you’ll never even get an agent, never mind published on a global scale. That word is platform.
This was the grim discovery I made when I attended the Hay House Writer’s workshop in London two years ago, where they’d jetted in their CEO, Reid Tracy, all the way from LA or somewhere, just to put us all out of our misery and open our eyes to the true sausage-making of books. But what is platform? I remember asking myself, and as Reid explained I liked the sound of it less and less. An author’s platform is their presence, nowadays chiefly online, it’s about the influence they have, who they know and most importantly, how much of the public they can reach. It’s what I call the neo-nepotism of the literary world and it all boils down to this: How many people are listening when you speak? Basically, you already have to be famous before you can become a famous author. This is the enigma offered to many starting on the Road to JK Rowling, a perpetual chicken and the egg argument that sinks so many dreams in a tide of rejection letters. This is the cold, number-crunching reality of the traditional publishing world, that nobody will do your marketing for you, that big publishers won’t accept submissions except from an agent and if you haven’t got a big enough platform, a ready-made audience, then agents won’t even read your work.
Most writers are typically of the shy and retiring disposition, content to spend their days cloistered by computers, barricaded behind walls of words. It seemed like this cruel world was asking a lot of its introverts. It was with this clarion message and resounding dichotomy still ringing in my ears over a year later, that I decided to moot the possibility of founding Newcastle’s first permanent Literary Salon with poet and artist Juli Watson. As shy and introverted as Juli and I are in private, in public we are the reverse. Together we decided to use this hard-won superpower for good, not evil, to help encourage and promote the literary and poetic arts of Newcastle and support our fellow writers in the development of their elusive fame.
So, back in January, our new spoken-word night emerged onto the literary scene. The reasoning behind the Salon was thus, that we would be there for the North East’s book-hungry, poem-drunk masses to quench their fill of the region’s latest offerings and to provide a marketplace, where local word-farmers might come and tout their wares, while gaining tips from worthy peers. From the outset, we chose the word Salon, eager to bring a flush of grand civility, the smell of the Lit and Phil to a spoken-word scene dominated by pubs. We were keen to return to the old ways, the heritage of the Salon ideals, because this modern world of self-publishing, platform and publishers-beyond-reach have unwittingly returned us to the patronage of old, only now our patrons are the public at large and not merely a select few.
We established a theme for each evening, something to give our writers camaraderie and the audience something to get their teeth into. In November, we’re set to tackle Revolution and Revolt and after a Christmas break, in January we will examine Childhood and Family. With no topic anathema, we hope to carry the spirit of Salons of old, to stir discussion and dissent in equal measure. In line with tradition, we dispensed with open-mic, but made the invitations open to all. Anyone can write to us and request to perform; our email address is below. Without open-mic we feel the evenings are structured and organised, as comfortable as theatre and not like truck-spotting on a windy bridge, waiting for something good to come around the bend; always waiting, never sure. But if the future will of the people bends to open-mic, then who would we be to refuse? We are, after all, an instrument of the great unread. From the audience side, we hope it is a fun night out, where cup of tea and slice of pizza or glass of wine and piece of cake can accompany fresh forays into the literary arts; a feast of discovery, expanding both waistlines and minds.
Having spent our youth in the cosy environs of the Scrumpy Willow, we are now venturing to pastures new, with our inaugural appearance at Bar Loco on Friday, 27th of November. We’ve had some great guests performing for us along the way, including Valerie Laws, Scott Tyrell and Josephine Scott, as well as many local favourites like Jenni Pascoe, Harry Gallagher, Patrick Shannon and Steve Urwin. I’ve been particularly pleased to witness the emergence of a new generation of talent, people I never would have read or heard of otherwise; the astounding poetry of Anna Chen and Catherine Selkirk Ayres, the performance talent of Leila Hussein and Alix Alixandra or the gripping prose of MJ Wesolowski, Andrew Atkinson, James Tucker and countless more that spring to mind. Because the Salon is ultimately there for you. If you write, it’s your chance to read and grow. If you like books, then it’s your opportunity to shake the hands that wrote them, to guide and shape the artists’ development with your opinions and insight, to get the inside track on what’s really going on.
As far as I know, we are still the only regular spoken-word night in the North East where admission is free. This isn’t because our performers are sh*t, or what we have isn’t worth paying for, it’s because Juli and I strongly believe that access to the arts should be free to all. If poetry moves you to remove twenty quid from your pocket and thrust it through streaming eyes at our performers, or even us for that matter, then that’s greatly appreciated, but just because you haven’t got five pounds to rub together doesn’t mean you should be denied that experience in the first place. But freedom often comes at a cost and without your presence and support, we simply can’t continue. So rather than sell tickets, we receive donations at the end of the night, so everyone can pay what they feel the evening was worth to them and we can put the money back into the Salon, towards marketing and bringing it to a wider audience.
We want to spread the word, not only about good writing, but about good writers and poets. We always set aside time for the performers to tell the audience a bit about themselves and their work; what inspires them, why they became writers and what the work is really about.
I knew from the outset that I didn’t want bare, stark readings, plain writing standing alone. If that was all we had to offer, you might as well sit at home with an audiobook. I want a connection between artist and audience, something more than you get from paper and ink, to be able to see behind the scenes and put the backroom front and centre. Really, it is only through connecting with an audience, through standing up and reading aloud that a writer or poet can truly get a measure of themselves, of the power and influence of their work. In this way, the Salon isn’t a means to an end, it’s not about sales and platform, it’s about self-improvement, development and a meeting of minds. I can’t speak for Juli, but this is my vision, as grand and romantic as it probably is. We have a long way to go, admittedly, but if there’s one thing that writing novels has taught me (or trying to write them, at least!), it’s the essential art of patience.
Ben Aaron MacLeod
To read more about The Newcastle Literary Salon and for details of their latest event, simply follow: http://www.facebook.com/NewcastleLiterarySalon
The Newcastle Literary Salon – Bar Loco, Leazes Park Road, Newcastle
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of upcoming themes and to enquire about appearing.