by Jeremiah Walton, Guest Writer
Busking is street performing in hopes of obtaining tips from passing pedestrians. A vast array of musicians, poets, painters, jugglers, tarot card readers, and other acts compose the majority of the busking community. The performers are generally passionate, taking their work to the streets in hopes of snaring passing ears. This is a living for some.
Before reading this article, please note: no one obtains fame through busking. The minuscule amount who have, or will, are rarities of circumstance. Making connections and socializing with others will help you build a career. Busking won’t.
I busk to make an income while traveling. I perform poetry and distribute books for Nostrovia! Poetry, W.I.S.H. Publishing, and Underground Books. I set up a cup a couple feet away from me so it invites others to throw money in, but is close enough for me to prevent thievery. I’ll usually have a cardboard sign with suggested donations for the books.
In the right communities, with the right people, it can bring in a substantial income. Other days, my cup remains empty and passers tell me to get a real job. You will deal with this shit regularly. People peoplin’.
Slam poems, or generally accessible poems, are better received. Your fleeting goal is to attract an audience to throw money into a little cup at your feet, not to perform the Howl of this generation. It’s a business, a really fun and horrible job, especially when this is how you are making a living.
Performing in public streets is vastly different from performing at open mics or slams. Rather than having an audience ready to go, you have to fish for one. Your ocean is of concrete and full of organisms that do not care what you have to say. And, unless you’re busking for fun, you’re not just fishing for people, but for what’s in their wallets (ah, that infectious dollar bill giving Us fishes reason for gills).
In Buffalo, NY, I busked out front of a cafe in Elmwood. One of my poems caught the attention of a man, and, for a couple poems, I had an audience of one. Before leaving, he dropped $20 in the cup and bought a book. In 3 hours, I had a couple dollars short of $60. That’s not bad.
The next day I made ten dollars in two hours, and had to get creative (a euphemism for selling fake flowers to couples).
Location and time are essential. The first day, I was up at 8 a.m., when the cafe was busiest, and had a large audience passing. The line would extend right out of the cafe to where I had posted up at some points. I had people trapped as my audience (cross walks near stop lights work for this to).
The second day, I arrived at 2 p.m.. The cafe was closing, and pedestrian traffic had slowed.
Location also brings up the concept of territory. Buskers habitually have particular locations they prefer. Harvard Square in Boston is plagued by buskers, and many of them do this every day for a living. That gives them reason to be territorial; it’s how they eat, buy their smokes, and consume other pleasures and conveniences.
The best thing to do is be respectful. Don’t post up right next to the man trying to sell jewelry. He’s trying to make a buck too, and you’re stealing attention from his work. There’s a musician on the corner with the most traffic, and a crosswalk and stoplight. Don’t go to the other side of the crosswalk and start screaming poems. The audibility of your whining and his whining will mesh into this gooey noise of empty cups.
Now, onto confidence. Confidence is key. Know your poems. They don’t necessarily have to be memorized, but make eye contact with your audience, and those passing by. Direct your poem at them.
Be loud, be the applicant (poet) of force (poem) upon external objects (people) to cause movement (soul).
Also, if no one is gathering around (per usual), and no one is paying attention (per usual), directly ask people, “Hey! Want to hear a poem?” This direct interaction can either have them brush you off, or have them stay, listen, and potentially donate or attract others’ curiosity. You have nothing to lose except opportunity.
Practice consistently. You will fuck up, as you’re a human. Read at home, read to your friends, read to the mirror, and then read to the streets.
Busking will help with your confidence and performance at open mics and slams, and vice versa. It’ll help you grow, realize the beautiful insignificant you are, and humble you.
Or it’ll boost your ego tenfold and you’ll be a dick.
BIO: Jeremiah Walton is a traveling poet going across the United States performing at slams and open mics. He’s 18, was raised in N.H., and manager of Nostrovia! Poetry, W.I.S.H. Publishing, The Traveling Poet, and an editor at UndergroundBooks. Jeremiah blogs at Gatsby’s Abandoned Children, where most of his chapbooks can be read free. Jeremiah promotes poetry to the youth, hoping to broaden the community, and promote creating for Self.