Welcome to Episode 10 of the Creative Disruption season of The 21st Century Creative, where we are hearing stories of creatives around the world who came up with a creative response to the challenges of the pandemic.
It’s been my most ambitious season yet, with creatives from 5 continents and probably the closest I’ll ever get to releasing a concept album, because all the interviews have had a common thread – how creators around the world were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
And each interview tells the story of how one creative, or team of creatives, rose to the challenge by doing something new and different, that opened up new possibilities for their future.
I also had stories from some creative fields that didn’t necessarily get so much media coverage, but which were also severely affected, such as personal development, experiential marketing, street photography and tattoo art.
And one thread that runs through every single interview this season, is the extraordinary, creativity, courage and resilience shown by my guests, in creating new types of artwork, new products, new services and even entirely new companies, in the face of a global crisis.
And finally, today, I am going to close the loop by sharing my own story of my journey through the pandemic.
So there’s a bit of a different format for this episode, in the first part, I’m going to tell the story of my pandemic, and how it affected our company, The 21st Century Creative. I’ll talk about the challenges I faced, the discoveries I made and the lessons I’ve learned.
Then in the second part, Joanna Penn, who you have previously met as a guest on The 21st Century Creative, has kindly interviewed me about the inspiration behind my poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, and how I conceived, funded, launched and produced it against the backdrop of the pandemic.
After 6 seasons of The 21st Century Creative, it’s quite possible that you already have a pretty good idea of who I am. But on this show, I’m mostly talking in my role as a coach for creatives, so you may not be as familiar with my poetry.
It’s also possible that this is the first episode of The 21st Century Creative you’ve come across, in which case an introduction is definitely in order.
So my name is Mark McGuinness and I’m an award-winning poet from the West Country of England, which Anglo-Saxon historians and Thomas Hardy fans know as Wessex. I currently live in Bristol, which is the big city compared to where I grew up, in rural Devon.
My mother is from Devon and my father is Scottish and his family goes back to Ireland, so there’s a mixture of Saxon and Celt in my ancestry and my cultural inheritance.
The photos on this page are of ‘Elegy for Moss’, a concrete poem I co-created with the artist and sculptor Sheena Devitt, and exhibited at The Lettering Arts Trust; I tell the story of this collaboration in the first part of today’s episode.
Outside of poetry, I’ve spent the last 25 years as a coach for creatives, which led to me writing several books for creatives, contributing to two international best sellers published by 99U, and hosting this podcast, The 21st Century Creative, since 2017.
My interviewer: Joanna Penn
To introduce my interviewer, Joanna Penn is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She writes thrillers and also books on the writer’s life and the business of being a writer. And altogether she has sold over half a million books in 162 countries and 5 languages.
She’s also a friend of mine and also a friend of The 21st Century Creative, she’s been a guest on the podcast several times, talking about mindset and health and productivity and audio for creatives.
She has a very popular and inspiring and useful podcast, The Creative Penn, which is all about writing and self-publishing and book marketing, and creative business. It’s my go-to podcast to learn about book publishing and marketing, and that’s true of many, many writers around the world.
So as you might expect, Jo is a great interviewer, and she did a great job of getting the story out of me in this interview. She is my friend, but she didn’t let me off lightly, she does challenge me in the interview as well!
So here we go for the final interview of the Creative Disruption season: Mark McGuinness interviewed by Joanna Penn.
JOANNA:Today we’re focusing on your poetry, which is exciting, but I wanted to start by asking about the integration. You’ve been running a successful creative business for many years.
What part does poetry play in your life in terms of creativity, and does it play any part in the business side?
MARK: For me personally, poetry is the bedrock. It’s the foundation of who I am in everything that I do. In terms of writing, it’s the most fulfilling kind of writing that I read and also to write. There’s nothing else that comes close really. All my writing about creativity, my work as a coach, they’re really side effects of the poetry. And that’s not to diminish them because I absolutely love doing them and I love the fact that I get to do lots of different things, a bit like you. But really, poetry is at the center of my universe .
If there was no poetry, there wouldn’t really be much point to the rest of it. So, they really go hand in hand in that way. Creatively though, I think of poetry as completely separate from everything else I do. I love the fact that it’s a different world and I can do what the hell I like there. There are no commercial considerations, there’s no money at stake. I don’t think that’s any great secret about the poetry world. So, I have a lot more freedom than a writer who has to keep an eye on the market, their business is maybe based on selling a certain volume or something like a movie studio where there’s a committee making decisions in a very risk-averse basis. With poetry, I can basically do what I want.
I think the only thing I would say about the poetry and the business, having a relationship, is that it does inform the kind of coach that I am. Because I’m a poet, I’ve got a very strong affinity with creatives of all kinds. That’s who I like to work with, that’s my tribe. On the other hand, I hear from a lot of my clients who say, well, the fact that I’m a poet was attractive to them when they were looking for a coach. They knew they weren’t going to get the usual corporate-style coaching or even necessarily mainstream life coaching. I’ve never thought of myself in those terms. They like the idea of working with a fellow creative because they know we’ll have certain values in common.
JOANNA: It’s so interesting. You said at the beginning there that, ‘Poetry is at the foundation of who I am,’ which is pretty hardcore.
I’ve read all your non-fiction. I knew you before you knew who I was back in the day, over a decade ago, because you were I think about five years ahead of me and I bought one of your courses early on. I’ve read pretty much all your stuff. You do share a lot of personal stuff in your non-fiction books, in your blog, in your podcast.
And yet, you’re basically saying that your poetry is the far more personal side, the more fulfilling side. So, to me, this is really difficult and I think about writing a memoir and something I’m kind of struggling with.
Do you think that your poetry is your more vulnerable side? Are you more vulnerable to criticism? And you’ve written a book on criticism. How do we find the strength to tap into these more personal sides of writing and put ourselves out there in this very vulnerable way?
MARK: Why do you think I wrote a book on criticism?! I don’t know. It was partly me and partly what I was hearing from clients and readers. But yeah, in terms of vulnerability, absolutely. I do write some poems with personal subject matter, but I’m not what’s called a confessional poet, you’re not going to get all my dirty secrets. But even when I’m writing something that’s ostensibly about another subject, of course, in the world of poetry, everything’s metaphorical. So, it’s always personal on that level.
I remember when I started doing poetry readings, I had already come quite a long way out of my introverted shell. I’d forced and trained and cajoled and got myself coached to do a lot of public speaking, for instance, as a psychotherapist and then, later on, as a coach. I was really proud of the fact that I’d overcome my fears to the point where I could speak at an international conference.
I even ended up teaching presentation skills, I had a whole course around this. And, so, I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got this,’ when I was asked to start giving poetry readings. And I was actually quite annoyed to discover that there was this whole new level of fear involved in reading my poems to an audience. It was like there were several more layers stripped off me and I was really exposed on a personal emotional level in a way that didn’t happen with normal public speaking.
So, in terms of how we deal with it, well, my way of getting over it, as usual, is to find the best teacher or coach that I could find and persuade them to let me work with them. I went up to the Orkney Islands off the north of Scotland and I worked with Kristin Linklater who sadly, she’s no longer with us, but she was a legend in acting and voice teaching circles. She had a specialism in speaking Shakespearean verse and helping actors on the stage to do the iambic pentameter with the big soliloquies and so on with feeling.
And, so, I said, ‘I’m a poet. Can I come on the course?’ and she said, ‘Yes, you’re allowed. You can bring your own poetry.’ In total, I spent two weeks up there, two separate occasions. And the first week was the foundation and the second week I got to do the Shakespeare course. And she really put me through the ringer. There’s a story I tell on A Mouthful of Air about the day that she lost patience with me because I wasn’t projecting enough. We all had to read a sonnet, a Shakespearean sonnet, as part of our training. And she kept saying, ‘Mark, we’re over here. You need to reach us.’ And, eventually, she said, ‘Look, this isn’t working.’ And she opened the door and she said, ‘Right, let’s all go outside.’
We go outside on this hillside, like a small mountain on this island in the middle of the North Sea, and she says, ‘Mark, you are going to the top of the hill and we are going to the bottom of the hill. And you are going to speak your poem in such a way that we hear it and we feel it at the bottom.’ And, of course, I was absolutely terrified. But if Kristin told you what to do, you did it. I staggered about at the top of the hill, feeling completely ridiculous. And in the end, there was a part of me that just let go, and this big voice came out and, suddenly, I was booming it out all the way across the sea and over to the other island. And the way I thought, it was a bit like a Shakespearean version of The Sound of Music.
I went down the bottom of the hill after that, and there were one or two people who actually there were tears in their eyes. So, it had connected. And after that, I really don’t care as much. I found myself in readings where I realized I’m the loudest poet in the room. Because something Kristin did, it just unlocked the voice and it wants to come out .
JOANNA: That’s so interesting. And that’s definitely a good tip for people because I’ve had plenty of professional speaking training and I can, same as you, speak on big stages. There’s always a little bit of nerves but it’s fine. And yet, I still haven’t read my fiction work in front of a group. I will always resist that because it’s so much more personal, it’s so much more scary. And it’s almost like that experience helped you break through that. So a tip for people listening, don’t just go on a a public speaking course, you actually need to do something that is with work that means something. I think that’s super useful.
I do want to come back, you said you’re not a confessional poet. A lot of people might not realize that there’s such a breadth.
If people are not in the poetry community or have only read some poetry or maybe studied some at school, what are the different types of poets out there?
MARK: It’s a broad church. The confessional poets started in the ’60s with people like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath who were basically putting out their family history, stuff that wouldn’t have normally got talked about, personal history, particularly with them around mental health. It’s all about ‘bearing my soul and just letting everything out’ kind of thing. Some poets will still do that now but others like to take maybe a more oblique approach. So, that’s one school.
Another way you might classify a poet is by the style of the writing. Personally, I write in quite a lot of traditional forms. I wouldn’t call myself this but some people would label that ‘formalist poetry.’ It sounds a little bit like formal dress though to me. I don’t think any writer particularly likes to say, ‘I’m this kind of writer,’ because we all like to think we’re unique and special, don’t we?
JOANNA: But you use particular structures.
MARK: I do. I do all the Shakespearean sonnet and the iambic pentameter. And I love all the old forms, like the medieval ones, the renaissance ones. They’re magical structures, there’s almost like an incantatory quality to them. I think it’s a shame that we’re in danger of losing that as part of the mainstream of poetry. I think, recent years, it’s coming back, it comes back in waves, so to speak. But certainly, that’s my default form of writing. Whereas I think a lot of poets, their default these days would be to write in free verse.
So, it doesn’t have meter, it doesn’t necessarily have rhyme, although it can do. It wouldn’t have more of a set structure but, of course, its own kind of discipline. T. S. Eliot famously said that there’s not really any such thing as free verse because there are always constraints in art. But if anybody’s listening and you’re not plugged into the contemporary poetry scene, just because you read one type of poem and you think, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I like that,’ there’s an awful lot to choose from just like fiction. Don’t let any one experience put you off.
JOANNA: Yes, I think that’s really important. I’ve written a pantoum and other forms like this, and the boundaries can actually help us be more creative. Some people might have tried a haiku, which looks simple but it’s not. I guess ‘basic’ is one word for it, but you have to think about so many things and you have fewer words than you do for a book. So, it’s a very different art, which is interesting.
Let’s talk about the poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air. You’ve got this successful show, The 21st Century Creative, which is very tied into your business side. I’ve been on it, you’ve had some really big-name people on, it’s a great show, highly recommend it to people. And we both know how hard it is to do a podcast.
Why launch a poetry podcast, and what is it that the spoken word brings for this?
MARK: It really began very simply with just the urge to share some poems. I was looking at my bookshelves, which, if we were doing this on video, you would be able to see, there’s shelves and shelves of poetry behind me. And I started to think, ‘It’s a shame if the circle stops with me, it’s just me who reads and enjoys,’ because I’ve got so many hours of pleasure and sustenance from those. Most people don’t read poetry. And I got to thinking, ‘Surely, it can’t be that hard to invite them in and take a book down from the shelf and read it and say, ‘Look, isn’t this great?’ and show them what I love about those poems?’
And, so, that’s a lot of, obviously, famous poets of the past, but also I know quite a few contemporary poets who write the most amazing things. I used to go to classes at the Poetry School in London and the City Lit and, apart from anything, I was learning. Everyone would read a poem and we would critique it. I would just think it was the most fabulous evening of entertainment. I would be getting a live performance from about six poets one evening and it would be really really high-quality and really varied, picking up on what you were saying. So, I just thought that this should be more widely known. Wouldn’t it be great to put these poems on a podcast so that other people can enjoy the way I do?
The more I thought about this, the idea of a poetry podcast, the more I kept going back to the idea that poetry, at its roots, really is an oral art. It’s older than writing. It would be the tribe around the campfire listening to the voice of the poet, or the shaman, or the bard, or whatever they were called, and they would be telling stories in song, in verse, in maybe a mixture of the two, and there would be epic tales. There would be tales about the gods and heroes and the creation of the world and love and betrayal and so on. That was really how we made sense of our world. A lot of the time the poet would be the memory database of the tribe in terms of history, and mythology, and religion, and then sometimes even stuff like botany, and the medicine, and whatever.
And modern poetry, we don’t look to the poet for an understanding of life, the universe, and everything these days in the way that maybe we did once upon a time but poetry is still there as an oral art, and reading a poem, listening to a poem spoken. One of the other things I’ve discovered about podcasts, and I know you’ve seen this too, it’s a really privileged medium because people tend to listen to podcasts in the quiet time of their day, in their me time when they’re cleaning up, when they’re commuting, when they’re going for a walk.
It struck me that this is a chance to have the poet’s voice in your ear, in that quiet time of the day, and it’s not going to give you the whole cosmology and meaning of the universe but Robert Frost put it beautifully when he said, ‘A poem can give you a momentary stay against confusion.’ A moment of clarity, of…not quite certainty or reassurance but maybe of being earthed or connected to something that feels true, that feels real and authentic.
That’s the potential of a podcast is really simply to have the poet’s voice in your ear doing that and maybe helping you make a bit more sense of your world.
JOANNA: I think now there are a lot of performance poets as well and even you could say into the rap movement, and song lyrics. People know these by heart, the songs by heart because they are essentially poetry, and a lot of them rhyme.
I know not all poetry has to rhyme, but rhyming poetry in song is a way that it was the message was carried, wasn’t it, as well?
MARK: Absolutely. I think of poetry in some ways very much like music. And I would say to anybody who doesn’t feel confident as a poetry reader, think about it like this. So, for instance, I can’t read music, I can’t play an instrument, I can’t sing in tune but I have strong opinions and tastes in music. I have a brother who is a musician and was a professional musician and he can explain all the technical stuff and his knowledge of music is much deeper than I am, but sometimes if we have a discussion about music, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but I just don’t like it. I like this instead.’
I think I would really encourage you, if you try the podcast, to use it as a way of starting to develop your own taste in poetry. It’s not an academic discipline, they try to turn it into one but that’s not what it is. The way I do this on the podcast is I throw you in at the deep end but then I also throw you a life jacket.
JOANNA: What do you mean by that?
MARK: The way this works is, you hear the opening music but then the next thing after that you will hear is the poet reading a poem. If it’s a living poet, I get them to come and read it. If it’s a dead poet, I’ll read it on their behalf. But so often we feel, ‘Oh, you need to have it explained to you first and get the CliffsNotes into the footnotes,’ and whatever. No, you don’t. If it’s a good poem, it doesn’t need an introduction and it should have an effect, even if you don’t grasp the whole meaning of it all at once. And treat it like music. Does it make you feel something? Does it create images in your mind or emotions? Do you feel it in your gut?
That’s throwing you in the deep end. You just hear the poem, whatever it is. But then the life jacket I’m going to throw you is you’ll get a bit of context about the poems straight after it. If it’s a classic poem, then you’ll hear me effusing about the poem and talking about the background and what we know about the poet. And also some technical stuff about, ‘Look what they’re doing here. Look how this is made, how it works.’ And you will get the technical stuff, but again, it’s not academic.
I’m going to show you how a poet…and the old word for a poet is…well, in Greek, ‘poet’ means maker. So, this is really a craft, practical ‘how’s this put together?’ approach. If it’s a living poet who’s on the show, then I will interview them for about 10, 20, 25 minutes about the poem, where it came from, that’s usually the question I start with, and then how it evolved in the writing process. So, you’ve got the poem, you’ve got your initial response to it, your own experience of it, and then you get a bit of perspective or background about it that maybe helps to shed some light on aspects that weren’t immediately apparent.
And then, at the end of the show, this is my favorite bit, we play the same recording of the poem again. And even though it’s the same recording of the same poem, people tell me, ‘It sounds different the second time round,’ because, of course, they’ve got that bit of context and there’re some things that they’re listening out for that they’re going to notice because we’ve highlighted them in the interview or the commentary. So, that’s the deep end and life jacket approach to poetry.
JOANNA: I think that’s so interesting. I love that you’re delving deeper into the craft side. And your enthusiasm for poetry, I think, is infectious. So, basically, if listeners don’t know anything about poetry, they’ll get something out of it.
And then, as with poems, if they already know things, they’re going to get a deeper level of meaning in these poems.
MARK: That’s right. I’ve got two ideal listeners in mind. One is a poetry geek like me who lives and breathes this stuff and wants to experience it in a different way. And then the other is the person who’s cultured, reads a lot, but reads probably anything but poetry, and giving them a way into it. The other things I try and do, particularly around the questions with the poets, is if you ever read a poem and your first response is, ‘What? Hang on a minute, I don’t get it,’ or, ‘Does it mean…?’ whatever, I try and ask all of those questions to the poet.
So, if you’ve ever had that response to a poem, then tune in to A Mouthful of Air and you’re going to hear me grilling the poet and saying, ‘Come on, what are we supposed to get from this?’ or, ‘Am I being dumb?’ or whatever. So, it’s just opening it up and not being so precious about it.
JOANNA: Not being precious about poetry is actually really important I think. We all get so het up, so serious about all this stuff I think probably because so many of us did it at school.
I did poetry at school and it was very serious and very important.
MARK: That’s right. I got a lovely email from a reader the other day who said, ‘I used to run screaming from poetry but now you’ve opened the door and you’ve shown me it can relate to me.’ I think a nice example of this is I have my longtime teacher and mentor, Mimi Khalvati, a really wonderful poet, and she’s just published a lovely book of Petrarchan sonnets called Afterwardness. And, of course, when you hear the word ‘Petrarchan sonnet,’ you think, ‘my goodness me, that’s going to be elevated and on a pedestal and a bit remote,’ but the poem that she read is called ‘Eggs.’
When I asked, ‘From where did you get the inspiration for it?’ she said, ‘Well, I ordered a fried egg in my local cafe.’ And it’s about an egg. She’s got this wonderful theory about how eggs are like Petrarchan sonnets. You’ll have to listen to the episode to untangle that. But, hopefully, that gives an idea of the down-to-earth aspect of it, even with something as revered as such an old verse form.
JOANNA: The other thing I think is really interesting is intellectual property. I think this is super important to talk about because you mentioned living poets and dead poets.
In terms of the intellectual property of being able to read a poem in audio format…because this is one of the issues. A lot of people want to quote poetry in their work or song lyrics, and you can’t usually because they’re so short, it can’t possibly come under fair use.
How are you dealing with the intellectual property side of the show?
MARK: I am doing my best to be scrupulous about it. What that means is old poets does mean old poets, so it’s stuff that’s out of copyright. Shakespeare’s not going to sue me for using his sonnet. Chaucer is probably not going to get too annoyed if I do a bit of one of his poems.
For the contemporary poets, I’m checking with each poet, who is the license holder or who needs to sign off? Often it’s the publisher. And we’re getting the publisher to sign off and say, ‘Yes, we’re happy.’ I’m pleased to say that publishers are happy to do that because, obviously, with each poet, we’re showcasing a poem, typically from their latest book and encouraging listeners, ‘Well, if you like this one, then go and buy the book.’ So, yes, absolutely, you’ve gotta be super careful.
It’s the same with song lyrics. It’s so easy to think, ‘Well, I’ll just put a couple of lines in my story because the characters are in a bar and that’s the song that’s playing and it related to them,’ but no, you really can’t do that.
JOANNA: You have to be super careful, that’s why I wanted to mention it.
Let’s talk about the interesting poetry publishing side. Because yes, poems are great when they’re performed by voice but they’re also, a lot of them, in books, I have a lot of poetry books too, they’re designed in print to look a certain way on the page. I feel like a lot of people set them out in certain ways, or some people format things, say, without capital letters or they have things running onto different lines that you would’ve put just in a sentence if it was prose.
Talk about what are the options with publishing. Why is print so important for poetry, and what are the options for poets in terms of the different publication routes, and what are you doing?
MARK: Actually, print isn’t necessarily important for all poets. I mean Homer may or may not have written it down himself…
JOANNA: He is dead!
MARK: …or herself. It started off as an oral medium and, to this day, as you said, there are performance poets who say the real thing is the live experience with the audience. And the book is like a souvenir to them, and they say, ‘It’s not the real thing,’ say, ‘Don’t judge me by the book, judge me by the show.’ So, it’s a wonderful kind of hybrid.
I think it is an amphibious form, it can live in the water or on the land. And talking to poets sometimes, you can see that the way it’s laid out on the page may or may not have a really strong relationship to the way they read it out loud. But in terms of publishing options, the poetry world is very conservative, folks. It’s made me think of the fiction world about 10 or 20 years ago. There are indie poets, there is an indie poet scene, but that’s not the route I have taken.
I know this has raised eyebrows in a few quarters because all my non-fiction I do publish independently because I like to be in control of it and do it my way. But I’m going the traditional route for the actual publication of the poems, but I’m also having my cake and eating it by having a podcast where I get my direct relationship with the audience.
One big reason for going the traditional route is it’s a very practical one, and that is that I want to reach the readers who love poetry the most. And right now, as a general rule, those people are far more likely to read poetry that is presented via a publisher. If I decided to self-publish my poems, which I could do, I know how to do it technically, I would be missing out on that core poetry readership. And I don’t want to do that. I do want to reach a wider audience as well but I also want to reach the real enthusiasts.
We can argue about whether that’s fair, or that’s the way the poetry world should be but I think sometimes, as authors and creators, we need to deal with the world the way it is rather than the way we think it should be. For instance, if you’re writing genre fiction and romance or science fiction or thrillers and you say, ‘Well, I don’t like e-books. To me, a real book is a print book so I’m only going to publish in print,’ you’re going to miss out on a lot of the hardcore readers of that genre. So, one big reason is just that practical access to the readership that I want.
Another reason is more of an artistic one. Which is one big misconception about poetry is we often think it’s a solitary art, that it’s all about the individual poet channeling their visions and expressing their unique talent. And, obviously, there is some truth to that but, if you read a lot of poetry, after a while, you realize it’s more like a massive group writing project that’s happening across space and time and even between languages .
If you read any significant poet, you’re going to find ideas and allusions and references and poetic forms that have come from other poets and, quite often, translations or rewritings or answering back to other poets’ work. To me, writing poetry means being a part of that conversation with other poets. Where you’re reading each other’s work and responding to it and discussing it and so on, as well as the ghosts of the past. Right now, if you want to be part of that conversation, then it’s much harder to do that as a self-published author. It’s very much expected you’ll have a publisher and that will be your entry into that world. So, that’s the route I’m going. Those are the main reasons.
There’s other things like print quality. The average poetry book is typically 60, 70, 80 pages and you try getting Kindle Print to align the spine properly on a book that that’s thin, the title on the spine. Also, a lot of the poetry publishers really do go to town in terms of print quality and font and paperweight and presentation, so, there’s the experience of reading the book and holding it in a way that it’s a beautiful object to contemplate. So, all of those combine together. At the moment, traditional publishing is the main game, I’m afraid.
JOANNA: I’m still going to challenge you on it because there are plenty of people, for example, who will work with a printer to do a beautiful print object, which is the same printer as the poetry publisher might use. And there are lots of ways to reach people in different mediums and ways to get a poetry audience to buy that book.
I want to go back to what you said at the beginning about your poetry being the foundation of who you are and ask whether it’s really about validation and acceptance of peers and the deeper side of being a creator and a poet. You’re an award-winning poet. Awards, I feel, are part of validation. And I also feel that a publisher that is known for great poetry is validation for your art.
Forget all the marketing and print quality, is it really about validation?
MARK: From the ego’s perspective, yes, of course.
JOANNA: But that’s important.
MARK: Yes, sure. We all have an ego, and that’s part of it. I have gone back and forward and thought about this and partly it is that I love the poetry world.
It’s easy to think of gatekeepers as being the big bad enemy, etc., but the poetry world, it’s not like there’s a lot of money at stake. Nobody is in this for the money, they’re all enthusiasts. I’ve grown up with this world, I’ve been growing up reading certain publishers and enjoying their output and the style of work that they put out there, and I wanted to be part of that world and play that game. The idea of going and printing my own books and supervising a printer and storing all of that, it just doesn’t excite me.
JOANNA: And, obviously, I’m challenging you, and I feel the same way. I feel like you’re an indie author for your non-fiction, we have our money-making books and then we have our books that are art and our books of our hearts. For example, I still want to win an award for my fiction. I don’t know whether I want traditional publishing, but I probably still do, I still think that’s part of the validation of the industry. So, I think it’s important for people listening to separate the business side and the money-making side from the art sometimes.
It doesn’t have to be both, does it, all the time?
MARK: There’s always something that you can get attached to. If you’re writing a more commercial field, you can get attached to the money, or a field that has got a wider audience, you could get attached to fame. Poetry, yes, of course, it’s very easy to get attached to the whole professional reputation and peer review and how you’re seen within that community. But whatever field that you’re in, there’s going to be some temptation for the ego.
One thing I say to my clients, because I get all kinds of different versions of this from different clients. I get some artist clients who will come in and say, ‘I don’t know if I want to play the gallery game and have my work represented in high-end galleries and introduced to people in a certain way or if I’d rather just go direct and sell it and have an online presence.’
What I say to clients is, ‘Play the game you want to play. Because whatever you do, there’s going to be an upside and there’s going to be a downside.’ And it’s all a game. But you’ve got to think about the game that really appeals to you that you think, ‘You know what? I would enjoy playing that,’ as well as, ‘I think I have a reasonable chance of competing.’
JOANNA: And you can play a different game for different projects.
MARK: Yes, absolutely.
JOANNA: Exactly. We’re so lucky to have the choice now. There used to be only one game and now there’s lots of games. I don’t think you can play the same game with the same book, that’s important.
MARK: No, you can’t. And also, even within the same world, so like I said, I’m having my cake and eating it. I’m going the traditional route for the actual publication, and that’s got its own rewards and frustrations, it moves very slowly, for instance, but then, having the podcast as a direct, like I said, visceral medium where I’ve got my own platform, my own voice in the world.
Weirdly enough, there’s a stigma against self-publishing poetry, but people quite admire the fact that you can make a podcast. So, that’s a weird loophole in the poetry world, which I’m quite happy about. I do think, if you’re going to think about this maybe from a slightly more strategic perspective, just think about if you want to do well at whatever game it is you choose, then you just think, ‘What are the rules? What are the parameters? And what are the things that maybe not so many people are doing, and could that give me a little bit of an edge or a little bit more fulfillment and satisfaction in how I approach it?’
JOANNA: Absolutely. And, of course, both of us use podcasting to both serve our community and also as a vehicle for our businesses in terms of your 21st Century Creative, and this podcast, The Creative Penn. And now we both have podcasts, I have my Books and Travel Podcast and you have A Mouthful of Air, which are more passion projects.
It does take a lot of work and it costs money to produce. You have very high-value production, I don’t spend as much on high-value production as you do. But, if people are thinking, ‘Oh, is podcasting really worth it?’ You talk there about some of the recognition you can get in a community.
Can podcasting pay for itself financially, or is it worth it for the reputation and the other ways you can get a return?
MARK: Firstly, it’s absolutely worth it for the pure joy of doing it. Any time that I spend writing or recording this show, including recording my own episodes or interviewing poets, it’s a delight and the time just disappears.
I work on it in the mornings, typically, and it’s lunchtime before I know it. Another really cool motivation is just connecting with listeners. When I get a response, like the person who said, ‘I used to run screaming from poetry and now you’ve opened the door,’ or if I talk to a poet and they have a good experience and they felt that they’ve been able to put themselves out there into the world, that is, absolutely the core of what makes it worth doing. And if that’s not there, if you’re only doing it because you think, ‘I need to do something to build my reputation or generate income or sales or whatever,’ then find another way of doing it.
In terms of time and money, yeah, you’re right, Jo, I am a perfectionist about audio particularly. I always want to have high production values and music and I like having the atmospheric soundscapes that Javier Weyler creates for both of my shows. And it’s not cheap to do this. So, again, just for anybody listening, you don’t necessarily have to be as perfectionistic as this, there are lower-budget ways of doing a perfectly good show. In terms of what I wanted to achieve, my first show, The 21st Century Creative, pays for itself via coaching clients, and I’ve also recently added a Patreon membership.
But for the new show, A Mouthful of Air, it’s an art project and I can’t really see a lot of commercial potential. I don’t really have that commercial interest in it. But I didn’t want to compromise on the production quality. So, I did something I’ve never done before, and that’s to apply for public funding from Arts Council England. I thought there is value for other people here, it’s really a public art project. I’m going to be sharing poems and connecting poets with listeners. So, if I do it well, there’s going to be a benefit to the listeners, there’s going to be a benefit to the poets, and there’s a benefit to their publishers. I really want this to be my contribution to the poetry world.
I made this argument to the Arts Council. I filled out the longest application form I have ever done in my life. And I’m very pleased to say they responded and they gave me the full amount of the funding. So, thank you very much to Arts Council England for stepping up and doing that. Sometimes I hear from creatives who say, ‘I’d just like to be funded to make my art,’ that hasn’t been my experience of how the funding world works. You’ve always got to sell your ideas. I had to really think hard and make my case and say, ‘This is how it will help me develop as an artist but also this is what’s in it for the audience, this is what’s in it for the public, this is what’s in it for the poets and their publishers, and so on.’
Whatever you’re doing, if you want to do it at a high level and you get it out into the world, and even if you’re giving it away for free, like a podcast, you’ve still got to sell it. You’ve got to sell the idea to advertisers or patrons or clients or sponsors or a funding body. And then you’ve got to go out there and sell it to people who have got the listeners, who’ve got an infinite choice of other podcasts that they could be listening to.
JOANNA: I actually really love that you’ve done that because, again, in the same way that you talked about the different kinds of publishing, it’s not either/or.
It’s the same, you have a coaching business, you’re an indie. You sell online courses, you have done anyway in the past, and now you’re applying for a grant. I think it’s the same. You don’t have to just do one thing, it doesn’t have to be all grants or all indie or all coaching. I think that’s what I want to encourage people is to think wider than just the one thing. Obviously, we’re both full-time creative entrepreneurs so we can branch into these other things. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually.
As we speak today, I’ve just put out my 10-year-anniversary post, it will be in the past when this goes out, but this idea that, after a number of years, your confidence perhaps grows and your income is steady enough in other areas that you can actually branch out into things that you might have been putting off because you couldn’t afford it in other ways, and now you can.
Now’s the right time to branch into these more passion projects.
MARK: Definitely. Looking back, it was years ago I had the idea for the two shows, I wanted to do a poetry show and I wanted to do the coaching show. And I started with the coaching one partly because I was reasonably confident it would make money and, therefore, it would pay for itself and all the equipment I was buying, not to mention the training and whatever. But also because, creatively, the poetry show is more complicated and more demanding emotionally and there’s more people involved, there’s more moving parts.
I’m really glad I did the coaching show first because, although it’s longer, in terms of production, it’s simpler to do. You’re right that, again, you’ve got to think a bit strategically about, ‘Well, if I do this first, that will get me to there. And then when I get to there, then I will have more options creatively, hopefully, financially and business-wise.’
Where can people find you and the podcasts and everything you do online?
MARK: Starting with the poetry show, which is my new baby so I want to introduce it to everybody, it is A Mouthful of Air on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all the usual podcasting platforms. The website is amouthfulofair.fm. And, if you go to the website, you can sign up for an email subscription, even if you listen to the audio podcast via an app, and you will get a transcript of every single episode, including the text of the poems.
If you want to read the poem as well as listen to it, go to amouthfulofair.fm and sign up for the email version and you can experience the amphibious nature of poetry.
If you’re interested in the other podcast, The 21st Century Creative, that is 21st Century Creative on all the usual places. And my coaching site is lateralaction.com .
JOANNA: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Mark, that was great.
MARK: Thank you, Jo, I really enjoyed this. You took me to some unusual places for a podcast interview. So, thanks.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
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