The Artist-Audience Dilemma

As an artist of any kind, you are very likely to at least eventually face some sort of artist-audience dilemma. It starts with the question of “Who do you create for?” Some people would readily answer with “Myself,” others would readily answer with “For other people.” And the people whose initial answer is the former probably have the greater problem. Especially when you distribute what you create.

I believe in art as a form of self-expression. How then can the sole purpose of your self-expression be to pleasure other people? That is not being true to yourself. You really mustn’t always give the audience what they love at the expense of your authenticity. Nevertheless, the audience is your consumer market. If they don’t like your book, why would they buy it? If they don’t like your music, why would they listen? If they don’t like your writing, why would they read?

Your success depends entirely on the audience, while your authenticity depends entirely on you. See how difficult a commercial artist’s work is?

It was recently brought to my attention, for instance, that sometimes, my poems are too long for people to pay the due attention, and that also, sometimes, my finales are not attention-grabbing enough. This was my thought process:

  • But this is how I write! –>
  • I shall end a poem how I damn well want to end a poem. –>
  • Why should I compress my ideas for the sake of an audience? –>
  • Oh yes…because the audience are my consumers. –>
  • Why do I need their attention anyway? I’m just doing me. –>
  • But I’m a performer now. Hence, I can only do me for them. –>
  • People should stop expecting things! It’s stressful!

Yes, I know that is an unsatisfactory end to my thought process. But this is me being me. (Do you get the dilemma now?)

Another issue is people not getting things. Think about it like a comedian who makes jokes about, say, chemistry, but the audience is made up of 80% physicists, and so the laughter response is daunting. It’s like that, but it doesn’t matter if it’s jokes, puns, experiences, similes – if they (the audience) don’t get it, you’re lost, man. Both parties are. The type of audience is, in fact, crucial, sad as it may be to think that you can’t just “do you” and prance away. =(

Me, I love metaphors – extended metaphors, especially. I use them a lot in my poetry. And there are some times I feel like I have struck pure gold with what I’m writing, you know. Those pieces that you read even weeks later and say, “Gosh dangit, I am a genius!” Then you release it to the world, and then even your best friend doesn’t get it until you explain. Sigh. Feels like it’s all just going to waste, when you release elaborate things to a world that is unwilling or unable (as yet) to look beyond the surface.

You cannot imagine the frustration I felt when, at the time I was reading a collection of Sylvia Plath poems, I freaked out from all the genius in “Two Daughters of Persephone,” but nobody understood why until I explained for MINUTES! And she’s dead! What if she lived her whole life with people just not getting her? It makes me sad.




“Stop talking.”


“I said stop talking.”

“Excuse me?”

“Gyae kasa! Anaa Twi nso wo nte ase?”

“I understand, but…why should I stop talking?”

“Because, quite obviously, nobody cares.”

They were sitting in the lavishly furnished living room of one Kwasi-Mensah’s good friends, Victor, enjoying a drink or two each, as well as some light snacks. Wine, soda, plantain chips and peanuts were placed in various positions, on side tables and in the hands of the guests. There were about ten of them in total, the host inclusive. He had invited them over for a drink and a chat after Kwasi-Mensah’s major production at the theatre earlier that day. The gathering was as much of a socialization session as a celebration of the success of Kwasi-Mensah’s artistic efforts.

Five years ago, if you had said that Kwasi-Mensah would be staging his plays in the biggest theatre in the capital city, nobody would have believed you; not even Kwasi-Mensah himself, who had honestly never expected the fame to come so fast. Nevertheless, there were now thousands of people who came to fit themselves into the theatre to watch his productions. He was working hard, being appreciated, and earning his living, in a much better way than his colleagues who had hit “success” before him. And after this particular production, there had been congratulations all around. But, admittedly, they had been here at Victor’s a while, and certainly, some people were beginning to get a little tipsy.

“I am afraid,” said Kwasi-Mensah cautiously, as though he were walking on broken glass, “You still haven’t made yourself quite clear enough.”

“Oh, for hell’s sake, I’m being as blunt as possible! I said, stop talking, because nobody cares! Not about you, not about your life, not about your hustle! People like and enjoy your plays! But nobody gives a cow’s fart about you. Or am I still not making enough sense?”

His unfocused eyes roved about the room, daring anyone at all to challenge him. But it seemed an invisible, silent cat had come in, and now held each of their tongues for ransom.

“Look here.” His words were starting to slur as he gulped more of the wine he was holding. “How many people attended your show? Three thousand? Four thousand? And how many people sought you afterwards? Seven? Fifteen? Massa, they came to watch your thing and go home. Nobody really wants to see you. Your identity as a person has now been upstaged by your identity as a playwright.

“Your name may be circulated because people are writing reviews. But they don’t need to know you before they do that, do they? And when you go months without a word, people will complain about how you haven’t released in so long – but they won’t give a damn about what is going on in your life to make you so slow. Do you understand? Nobody cares about you, because you are not the product; your art is. And you’re not even tortured, to add a little excitement to it kraa mpo.

“You’re not a celebrity. Nobody will recognize you on the streets and ask for your autograph. Nobody will remember what it took for you to get here. You are not a figure, you’re a name. The person you were inside will only be considered when you’re in your goddamn grave!”

All eyes in the room were on him, but he had no eyes for Kwasi-Mensah. It was an unforeseen explosion of resentment that nobody, not even Victor, had been prepared enough to know how to react to.

Little kids did not lie, Kwasi-Mensah knew, because they did not know how to. But upon growing up, careful dishonesty seemed to be an adult’s master craft. It was said that there were only four types of people who only ever told the truth: Jesus, babies, people on their deathbeds and drunk-ass people. For drunk people did not truly say what they did not mean; they only said things that sobriety would not allow. Firewater was a tongue loosener, fashioned to throw people straight into a cruel court of assessment.

But the man was not yet done.

“So go on and write your little dramas. But don’t expect us to care about any irrelevant details of your life, just because you’re an artist. My goodness, I can’t stand you people! Have a good night, I’m going home.”

And with that, he set his glass down and marched out of the room, swaying remarkably little, considering how intoxicated he really was. The wine in his glass continued to swish sickeningly, like thick blood, churning up in the pit of Kwasi-Mensah’s stomach, making him feel sick to the core. Not for the first time since his work had begun to gain recognition, Kwasi-Mensah felt irrelevant.



I am thirsty
for your company and intelligence.
And I hunger to know more.
Promise to feed me
with words of wisdom,
for I have a growing mind
which needs nutrition to survive.

Our dates will be in libraries
and our field trips into fiction.
We will get high on speculation
and have evening rituals of mental meditation,
Late night sessions of intellectual conversation
And read,
Always with our eyes on the narrow road,
Else our knowledge will only be fool’s gold.

We will grow old in lyrical tandem.

Excitement is when you learn from me.
Elation is when I learn from you.
Ecstasy is when our minds click
with the single simultaneous thought
that proves our minds were meant to be united.

Marry my mind and I will wed yours.
Ravage my thoughts, and I will love yours.
Leave no corner unexplored,
And pledge
That all that must be left behind closed doors
Will be locked within yours.

Question. Answer.
Be questioned. Be answered.
Discover, and discover your limits.
For we may say we may pursue everything,
But not everything is beneficial.
To be smart is to know how smart one should be.

But grow old with me.
When the first strands of grey hair sprout on our heads,
We will count each one as a streak of wisdom,
until we can call our foliage Solomon,
our curls more numerous than his girls.

Why must we sleep?
Why must we leave the company of the kindred thinker?
Separation seems agony when we had already become one.

Turn on the night lamp.
Read me like a book and I’ll speak you like a quote.
By the final full stop,
We shall call each other one another’s Proverbs.



Self-Hatred of a Seed

My fingers tremble as I look at them. They do not tremble out of anger. They tremble out of fear, out of terror of something that I cannot run away from, no matter how far I go.

The dark thoughts have ensnared me again. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of my study, doing nothing but trembling, unable to free myself from the whispers in my own head. I still find myself here often – too often for my own comfort. No matter how far I always believe I have come from what I could have been, any hint of resurfacing has the capacity to throw me back into this state.

Sometimes, I hate myself.

Golda, my wife of more than a year, knows exactly where to find me and what to expect, by now. She knocks softly on the door of my study. I do not react. She did not expect me to. She walks in, and is unsurprised to see me sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching my own fingers. Quietly, she moves towards me, and cautiously, she lowers herself into a similar position, directly across from me. She is careful because of the three-month-old seed growing inside her. That seed is something I both love and am absolutely terrified of.

“Joshua,” she says softly, sweetly, trying to cajole me out of my mental state. “Look at me, Joshua.” I do not heed. Gently, she places a manicured hand on my chin and lifts my face up so that my eyes are on a level with hers. “Joshua, please.”

It is her plea that truly gets to me. There is so much love, especially in the helplessness that one has when they cannot save another. What tears you apart tears them apart, because they cannot tear it out of you. I look back at her so she can read the remorse and fear in my eyes.

What got me into this state seems like such a trivial issue; it almost doesn’t make sense, even to me, that I can be affected this deeply. What got me into this state is basically a non-event.

Golda and I had been having a perfectly ordinary discussion about my work. I had been trying to explain the proceedings of a meeting and why my manager had been making me mad, and it wasn’t Golda’s fault that she didn’t get the technical stuff. But you see, I am not a person who easily understands that what is so obvious to me is not immediately comprehensible to her. Even now, I still struggle with that. And so, in my quest to get Golda to understand, I had become more and more flustered and impatient, my voice had begun to rise – and that was when I heard what frightened me.

It was the tone of my voice – it was not the tone of my voice; it was the tone of my father’s voice.

It is odd to think that, in being forced to grow up with the people we never want to be, we inherit their characteristics. And when you have spent so long trying not to, that is the worst thing of all. Because then, you become a slave, even in your liberation.

My father was the very thing I hated; his loud, authoritative manner, his overbearing characteristics, his belief that he was always in the right; his impatience, his unwillingness to understand other people, his desire to speak and never to listen; his refusal to understand that other people were not himself and his insistence on taking egoistic pride in it at the same time. The man was an army general in a domestic setting, and he made me cry more times than I could count – way more times than I should have, when I knew even then that I had grown too old to still allow myself to be pushed to tears. Even then, my own tears made me angry.

He is not dead; I just never speak to him. That, my sister can take care of. As for me, I want nothing more to do with a man who will not accept his flaws and thus refuses to change them. I want nothing to do with someone ridiculous enough to think he is perfect. Contact with him would make it so much more difficult to stick to my vow to liberate myself completely from his characteristics. I am told these things are not genetic – lack of tolerance, impatience and sheer wilful blindness – and yet I can see the seed has been passed on anyway, through other means. Proximity to the man throughout my childhood has instilled it in me. I am trying to remove it form its roots. It’s hard to free yourself from a man when a part of him still lives inside you.

That conversation with Golda, with me raising my voice, showed signs of the seed still planted by the man. And recognizing him in myself made me hate myself. It always did. Each time I got close to acting like him, I got scared. The anger I inherited would make my fingers tremble. My fingers trembling would make me sad. My sadness would make Golda worried, like she was now. Even from afar, this man had a finger inside the bubble of my life.

She takes my still-shaking hands and laces her fingers with mine. “Joshua, you are not your father,” she says. She has said this sentence to me many times.

“No, but I can be.” I have given this response many times.

“Honestly, my love, you are paranoid. You make me hate this man too – the man who has done this to you. He has kept your mind in chains long after you separated yourselves physically. Nobody should be potent enough to do that. But I know what he is, and I know what you are. Joshua, you are love, not anger. You are virtue, not vice. And you struggle with what you are not, just like we all do…The danger is that you tend to mix up what you are not and what you are. Feel,” she says, putting my hands upon her belly. “You are a lover. Inherently. Love is our union and love is the fruit of our seed. In six months, there will be one more person in this world to love you more than life itself. And your father didn’t bear this child; you did.”

“And my father bore me,” I retort sadly. “Why am I unable, after all these years, to relieve myself from the memories of him in my very own words and in my actions? You say this is not genetic, but I fear it is. If I didn’t and do not quench it all from me, who knows what could happen? Golda, do you understand? I hate the man. But I hate myself too, for taking after him. It is the last thing I have ever wanted, and I live in fear – constant fear – of instilling the same seed in my child. Golda, Golda, I can never forgive myself for that. I love our unborn child…and that is why I hate myself so much!”