A Poet’s Guide to Touring
There comes a point in every performance poet’s career where they have to look at leaving home for an extended period of time. It could be just after a book has come out, or a spoken-word album, or even just to share an established set. Sometimes, it’s purely because a number of opportunities have presented themselves in such close proximity that heading back home between each gig doesn’t seem worth it. This is the tour.
In a previous life, I was a drummer and—during my time playing for a few bands—I was lucky enough to see the road. I managed to pick up advice during that period of my life from more established acts. I’ve recently also just come off my first week-long excursion as a poet.
Touring as a poet can be a lot like touring as a musician, but there a few differences. Because of the smaller community supporting poetry, some of the tour gigs along the way will be unpaid, open mic slots, or slams. This is fine; unless you’re someone with a hugely established brand, the act of touring should primarily be undertaken for fun. Spending a few days out on the road can be a great way to see more of the country or to get to poetry nights you’ve always cast a dreamy eye towards. It doesn’t have to strictly be a business decision, and treating it like a road-trip can lighten the mood considerably.
Being away from home means you can’t just nip back to pick up that last thing you’ve spontaneously found a need for. Setting aside a bag a few days beforehand with everything you need will enable you to make those last minute changes before you run out of time to make them.
Here’s a brief rundown of what I carry in my tour backpack.
I’m not a fan of shorts but I am a fan of a spare pair of clothes in case of emergency.
This is my secret weapon to getting a good nights’ kip. Some people’s spare beds are so uncomfortable you begin to wonder how it can actually be considered a bed. A jumper or hoody makes a great makeshift pillow if you need something to prop your head up with. Also, some people’s spare rooms are cold. Finally, a jumper acts as an emergency top if your clothes get, say, splashed with mud from a passing car, or the local youths lob a milkshake at you.
Back-up batteries aren’t expensive anymore (seriously, I bought one in a pound shop the other day), but they are invaluable. You can always be sure that the train you catch won’t have the plug socket you desperately need. Keeping your phone charged means being able to contact the promoter or venue should something go awry. Make sure you charge the battery before you leave!
So many books! This is how I pay for my touring, by selling books to people I haven’t met before. Not everyone will remember your name or the book’s title, or that they even wanted to buy the book, when they wake up the next morning. Selling the books at the gigs is the best way to get the money from them. It also gives you cash in hand to extend your budget without having to wait for whatever platform you sell through to give you your month’s earnings.
Have you ever lost your wallet? I have, and I’ve done it miles from home. I have been saved by the tenner in a discrete pocket of my backpack.
Personal Hygiene Kit
All together in a little bag of its own, I carry a toothbrush, some deodorant, moustache wax and a comb, and some eye spray. If anything should leak, it’ll only damage the things in the bag, which can be washed off at my next pit stop.
A physical copy of the material I’ll be reading at every show.
You will find yourself with so much downtime, on trains moving from one place to the next or at coffee shops waiting the clock out until your next show. It is imperative you use this time to write so bring a notebook and a handful of pens. Set an alarm on your phone for when you have to leave and commit the time to write about your experiences on the road. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few new poems to try out as a special gift to those who see you before the ink dries.
It’s no good hoping you’ll find things to do on the way. Planning everything in advance makes life easier on the road. Don’t just stop at the gigs you’re doing; plan when you’re meeting folks for drinks and when you’re going to see the sites.
It’s a capital sin to not be able to find the venue, only to contact the promoter just before show time and find out you’ll have to walk a solid hour to get there.
As an added bonus, a proper itinerary lets you budget your spending for each day. Work out where you can afford to eat, budget for those coffee chats and a few drinks at each venue, and write it all down. You’ll soon discover that touring is way more expensive than you thought and every penny counts.
Your itinerary should be a physical thing you can turn to every morning to work out where you’re going, how much you have to spend, who you will see, and how you’ll contact them if you need to. If your phone runs out (I told you to bring a battery), you don’t want to wind up with no way to get hold of people.
No one should expect their first tour to be without challenge. Even well-established touring bands run into a plethora of difficulties on their travels. Much of the infrastructure of the touring poet is still evolving, especially as we become fully submerged in the digital age, but hopefully—with these pieces of advice—things should go a little smoother as you find your way around the live poetry world.
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© 2018 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.