It is poets and artists who will help to dream the future into existence, says Harry Baker. This was first published in The Church Times

I WAS in Bristol on 16 March to perform at a poetry and music event as part of the brilliant Lyra Poetry Festival. A message had gone around the organisers and performers, questioning whether we should proceed, given the growing concerns about “this coronavirus thing”; but official advice was still to carry on as normal.

The night before, I had performed to 100 people as part of my first ever UK solo tour, where we awkwardly greeted with bumped elbows and exchanged advice on which 20-second song to sing while washing your hands (mine was, and will always be, one of So Solid Crew’s). One hour before kick-off, the Prime Minister gave a televised announcement telling people that they “should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres, and other such social venues” (News, 20 March). I have not set foot on a stage since.

The arts sector, along with every other, was turned on its head overnight. Gallows humour a-plenty, we joked that, even if we were not allowed gatherings of more than ten people, most poetry nights should be unaffected. When huge events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival were cancelled, it was unprecedented but unsurprising: 250,000 people from all around the world being forced into unventilated basements for 50 minutes at a time is a questionable health-and-safety choice, even without a global pandemic.

One by one, the lights at the end of this tunnel were pushed further and further into the distance. Questions turned from the immediate “Will I get my train tickets refunded?” and “Should I reschedule dates before or after August?” to the more existential “Will theatres still exist after this?” and “If a comedian tells a joke on Instagram Live and the audience can only laugh through crying face emojis, does their crushed spirit make a sound?”

AND yet art has not proved to be a disposable luxury. While no poet or painter would kid themselves into thinking that they made it on to anyone’s list of key workers, people have relied on the arts in a time of crisis.

I found myself as grateful for Erin Bolens’s new poem “Miss Pandemic 2020” (“You do not have to be productive, You are not a dairy cow or a field of wheat”) when I hadn’t written that new novel two weeks in, as I have been for binge-watching Schitt’s Creek and blaring Dua Lipa’s new album at maximum volume as a reminder that a world existed in which the coronavirus did not dominate every conversation that we ever had.

From my mum’s taking up lino-printing, to my friend’s joining me in #NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) this year for the first time, to try to make sense of a world that is changing daily, art is one of the core things on which we have relied to carry us through, both as makers and more-remote-than-usual audiences.

The Mexican poet Cesar A. Cruz said: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” In the first few weeks of lockdown, it felt as though the emphasis was on the former. Had we not all been disturbed by being told that we were no longer allowed to see our loved ones, or that we could leave the house only once a day? The poem of mine that has been shared the most during this time is about wanting to hug my friends and family when this is over.

Yet, as time has gone on, the important question has shifted to the second part. On Radio 4’s Thought For The Day, Martin Wroe said that we should not go back to normal “because normal was already not working for most people most of the time”. The virus that supposedly does not discriminate has disproportionately affected poorer neighbourhoods and BAME communities (News, 15 May).

On top of that, the global Black Lives Matter protests have once again highlighted how stark the injustices are at the heart of our society. How can we re-imagine a future in which we disturb those comfortable at the top so much that that is no longer allowed to be the case? It is the poets and artists who are practised in dreaming such things into existence.

WHEN the few grants that popped up for producing new “Covid-inspired content” (because we don’t have enough of that in our lives?) were massively oversubscribed, we found ways to adapt and support each other. I, like many self-employed artists, have nobody to furlough me. Many of us have made ends meet by using payment services such as Patreon or Ko-Fi, where people can support creators directly. Donate-what-you-can models have kept live streams accessible to everyone, where those who can afford it can help cover the cost for those who can’t.

There has been a shift in mentality from the consumer-based model of paying for a ticket for an experience, or a physical end product, to a broader sense of donating so that the artist can keep producing work, because that, in itself, is seen as worth while. I am literally living off the kindness of strangers, and, in turn, trying to pay that forward where I can. From the National Theatre to Broadway, productions have been streamed for free to make accessibility to the arts a temporary reality, not just a reduced-price ticket in a space that someone may not feel welcomed to in the first place.

THE future of the arts will almost certainly fall in between the “l can’t wait until things are back to normal,” and “Nothing will ever be the same again” camps. In a time of climate breakdown, easy wins include the infrastructure that enables performing halfway round the world for a fraction of the cost — both financially and environmentally.

Although “content” has become an over-used term, with limited equipment at our disposal, we have cared more about what people are saying than how polished or shiny the final product is.

Watching the comedian Josie Long perform high-energy stand-up from her front room, while her husband eats crisps in the background, was a far more tangible “We’re all in this together” moment than Hollywood stars’ singing us “Imagine” from their mansions.

The low barrier to entry which makes podcasting so charming has extended to video-making and beyond. The more that enthusiastic amateurs step up to have a go, the more informed and engaged the audiences for those of us who claim to be professionals grows. HarperCollins recently published Poems for a Pandemic, all profits going to NHS charities, and I was thrilled to have a poem included in the volume, alongside the voices of frontline staff who have written their first poem during self-isolation from Covid-19.

AS WE fight for the future in which we want to live, art will always be a part of it. It has been argued that, for the arts to survive, it needs to learn to speak the language of the Tory Government, justifying its existence in terms of prosperity or the proven benefits to mental health. In truth, the arts are as exciting as they have ever been, and will continue to be so, in spite of — not because of — those in power, who, during ten years of austerity, have cut treasury funding to Arts Council England by 41 per cent per person.

I hope that, in the same way as we have come to value teachers, nurses, and many others whom we took for granted in the past, we will keep up this direct connection with those who enrich our day-to-day experience through the ideas, thoughts, and dreams that they bring into our reality. May one side-effect of this experience be that we realise the power that we have to support them directly, so that others may benefit from this, too.

  • Maintain an increased accessibility to the arts brought on by necessity during the pandemic (both as participants and audiences).
  • Appreciate a more direct link between the artist and the audience (financially or otherwise).
  • Continue to apply our imaginations to the world around us — to comfort and disturb.

Harry Baker is World Poetry Slam Champion. His show The Sunshine Kid was voted Best Spoken Word Show of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. Now a full-time poet, his work has been shared on and translated into 15 languages. When there is no pandemic, he gives performances and workshops, and is half of the comedy-rap-jazz duo “Harry and Chris”.


Recommended reading

Poems For A Pandemic (William Collins, 2020).

The Sunshine Kid by Harry Baker (Burning Eye Books, 2014).

Kate Nash in Rolling Stone magazine (22 April 2020) on starting a patreon (or membership platform).