Welcome, welcome, welcome! Welcome to our first ever Virtual Open Mic! It’s wonderful to have you here, it really is. This is the first of six episodes, each with new writing from new people: stories, poems, video, audio, visuals and experiments. We have allsorts! We’ll post a new episode every two hours over the course of the day for your interest and delight. First up, your online host is claiming MC’s prerogative and opening with the story of how this virtual open mic came to be and why it might be important. Then our first open micer (who also happened to open the first ever Inky Fingers event), Roddy Shippin, has a poem to share, followed by a witty tale from Jennifer Watson, a performance from Ruth Aylett and the much-loved Sarah the Poetic Robot (who appeared at last year’s Minifest), and great poems from Derek White and James Hamilton. Enjoy these, and everything that’s to come today!
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Why I Love Open Mics
an introduction to Inky Fingers’s first ever virtual open mic
Back in 2010, I arrived in Edinburgh after a year in London. I was hunting for work – something that would begin paying back my postgraduate debt without draining all my ability to write and perform – and going to as many spoken word events around Edinburgh and Scotland as I could. There was plenty to go to, but oddly (I thought) no open mics – no event where absolutely anyone could get on stage and share their work. So, knowing that running an event was on of the best ways to get to know a spoken word scene, I thought I’d set one up. I met another writer called Alice Tarbuck who was similarly hungry, and we set about making it happen. The Forest Café, still then at 3 Bristo Place (much loved, never forgotten), with its free access policy, was the very best place to begin.
The first event was in October. Our features were the Chemical Poets and Laura Hainey, both of whom I knew from past spoken word events in Scotland. We had a full slate of open micers and a packed audience. It was free, and open to anyone. Since then, we’ve run an open mic every month (apart from a holiday in September) for the past two and a half years, despite venue closures, hurricanes, broken budgets and broken equipment. The collective running the events has changed and expanded over time – there’s now 8-10 of us making things happen, deciding collectively what we ought to get up to and working individually on different events. It’s great fun, and I hope this is just the beginning of it all. We do plenty more, but the open mics – free, and open to anyone, reading any kind of words – will always be at the core of it.
So why do we do it? What’s so special about open mics? Because we have to face up to it: open mics are the scrappy, messy end of the spoken word scene. It’s where a lot of us begin reading, writing and performing. So not every performance you watch is going to be life-changingly wonderful, or even that good, at least not in any objective terms. They’re a rag-bag, always.
Here’s the first thing I love: scraps are fertiliser. There’s no way I would ever have got started performing if there weren’t open mics to build up my skills and confidence, and I know many professional poets and performers who’d say the same thing. Open mics grow us, not just through giving us places to practise, but also because they feed us a wonderful diversity of words. We can find out not what one editor or host thinks we want to hear, but what a scrappy, diverse collective wants to say. Open mics are also the fertiliser of a scene, because they create new performers, and that creates new organisers and events. Without them, we wouldn’t have everything else.
Here’s the second thing: mess is experimentation. When I have new work in new forms I want to try out, open mics are the first place I go to. A well-hosted open mic is warm and welcoming, and the audience is there not to judge you but to enjoy being with you. An open mic gives me the license to not be that good, to get it wrong, to make a mistake and for that to be OK. Without open mics, I’d just perform the same style of thing over and over, because I’d feel too scared to try something I didn’t know worked. And every open mic I go to – literally every one – has at least one person doing something new with words I never expected.
But those two things are the smaller reasons. They’re both tied in to the idea that “being good at it” is what we’re all aiming for. That a writer or performer has to have a career, and that career has to progress to better work and better audiences. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Of course not (after all, I’m trying to make a living out of the performing arts, and we don’t live in a post-revolutionary utopia of mutual aid just yet). But I do think that open mics, at their heart, are about something else: about words (about art!) being about more that getting good enough at something to please lots of people and then make money out of it, even about more than saying true and significant things about the world.
Anything can happen at our open mics. We have rules that are enforced very friendlily, the most important being: no hate speech, everyone gets five minutes at the mic, and everyone gets a round of applause. All of those rules are set to support the maximum number of people in being part of it. Within that frame, you can do whatever love or damage to words you want to. You are not judged for how good they are, or by any objective criteria: instead, you’re thanked for giving us your words and your time, because, whatever else they are, they are a gift.
People do words, do art, for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them want a career. Some of them find it therapeutic. Some of them want to get their anger out. Some of them want you to fall in love with them. Some of them are desperate for a place to speak out in a world that prevents them from speaking. Some of them are in love with beauty, with many different kinds of beauty. Some of them find that only doing art makes them feel good. Some of them don’t even know why they’re doing this. All of this needs a space. All of this should have a space. That’s what an open mic is. Open, and free, always.
So with all that in mind, while we fix the plumbing in the Forest, welcome to our first Virtual Open Mic! You will find extraordinary things in it. There are people in here who were at our first ever open mic. There are people from around the country who can only rarely be part of our events. There are people we’ve never met before. There are people who have never shared their work like this before, and that, to me, is the most wonderful thing to support. Everyone who emailed us something to share, we’ll host here over the course of the day, in six episodes, each packed with different people and different writing. This is for all of them, and for all of you. This online event would not exist without these people, or without you as an audience. So give it your time, and give it your love. Thanks for joining in!
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when you lean in close –
maze of hair, heat & smoke spirals,
rain bursting like static
& possibilities stretched each way
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Not Just Tea and Biscuits
Afternoons in the Brown household were generally given over to drawing spaceships. Barry tended to do intricate scale diagrams of complicated designs. Charlie’s efforts were usually brightly coloured, with birds and animals added for decorative effect. Daphne worked diligently, doing complex calculations concerning power outputs, thruster positions and light year estimations. Every evening, the three siblings would compare notes, pinning their efforts onto a board and pointing out special features. Finishing a spaceship drawing was something none of them had ever achieved. George, their father and inspiration, was long dead. He had been a technician at the local spaceship factory and harboured desires of going to Mars one day.
“If only we could get someone to build one of these, to see if it worked!” Daphne said one winter’s evening, her mouth full of tea and bourbon biscuit.
“Just let me make some phone calls,” said Barry, brushing custard cream crumbs from his Arran jumper.
“Knit one, we could knit one!” shouted Charlie, waving his arms around, a jammie dodger in each hand. Lovingly, his siblings smiled at him and then at each other.
“Maybe, Charlie, maybe,” Daphne said, gently.
“No, really, I saw a pattern in last month’s “Novelty Knitting for Novices”. Only snag is how many balls of wool we’d need; I think it was two and a half million of blue and one and a half million of white.”
“Perhaps we should see how Barry gets on with his phone calls,” said Daphne quietly, watching Barry pick up the phone and dial.
“Question for you. Richard, on the funding front. Spaceship project; some fabulous designers have a terrific plan. Time to get up to date and move into new sectors, eh?”
Until that moment, neither Daphne nor Charlie had any inkling that Barry was on nodding terms with Sir Richard. Very soon after, the call concluded and Barry was grinning from ear to ear.
“We’ve got a deal; he fell for it hook line and sinker! Extra income from our pension payouts next month will make up the balance.”
“You’re a genius, Barry!” cried Daphne and Charlie.
“Zog, here we come!” shouted the three grey-haired siblings, waving slices of Victoria sponge in celebration.
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Ruth Aylett and Sarah the Poetic Robot
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we can beat the myth.
you used to play on the sands
beneath the cliffs where I stand.
there are worse monsters than the minotaur
places more damned than the labyrinth.
it took you time to find the door.
let the past be past.
I watch your ship sail up the firth,
the white sail tied to the mast.
* * *
I urge our horses on through the woods.
As the moonlight clears a pathway for the snow
She leans her gentle head in its fur-lined hood
Lightly on my soldier’s arm. Ahead, the low-
Beamed house awaits, friends and wine in wooden bowls,
Ghost stories round a Christmas fire till midnight, carols.
Our sleigh rocks on its springs. She shifts: her hand
Nestles itself into my happy elbow –
I jerk awake, and find myself back inside
This freezing kitchen with its pitted walls,
Its hanging light-bulb. Unsuddenly alone,
My fifteen year old face confides
Itself in thin pale shapes in the window.
That borrowed tape of Delius’s Sleigh Ride
(Too good for my tinny player) hisses to a finish.
Beneath the stairwell now, something hostile calls;
A car tries to start. Unblinking yellow
Streetlights effortlessly diminish
Whatever the evening can’t abandon.
Outside, the windows in the other blocks are dark
And the snow finds only garage roofs to land on.
But still it falls.