– interviewed by James Webster –
The Inky Fingers Open Mic has been nominated for the Best Regular Spoken Word Night category in this year’s Saboteur Awards. Here, I chat with the Inky Fingers collective about what makes their event unique.
Let’s start with the basics: how long has Inky Fingers Open Mic been running and when/where does it take place?
We kicked off in October 2010, and we’ve run an open mic on the last Tuesday of every month ever since. Our much-loved home, the Forest Café, has had to move in that time, so the open mic’s moved three times since, but we’re now ensconced at the Forest on 141 Lauriston Place. Keep track of us at http://inkyfingersedinburgh.wordpress.com/!
Who are the Inky Fingers collective and how did the group come into being?
The core collective currently comprises a shifting, non hierarchical, boundlessly energetic group of the following people, found in varying combinations in time and space at any one time: Freddie Alexander (Soapbox), Alec Beattie (Blind Poetics), Mairi Campbell-Jack, Harry Giles (Anatomy), Ioannis Kalkounnis (Fledgling Press), Rachel McCrum (Rally & Broad, Stewed Rhubarb Press), Katherine McMahon (Outspoken), Rose Ritchie (Craigmillar Writers Group), Tracey S. Rosenberg and Agnes Török (Soapbox). And of the group are also involved organising various spoken word and performance events in Edinburgh (specifics in the brackets).
I set up the open mic back in 2010 with another writer named Alice Tarbuck, and when we realised we were onto a good thing we decided to open up the organisation to whoever had the energy and inclination! So it keeps changing and growing with whoever wants to make things happen.
We’ve answered this interview collectively as well, so you can track us by our initials.
The way you describe your open mic seems to make a point of being inclusive, inviting all different kinds of work, genres and types of performance. Why did you decide on that particular focus/ethos?
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.
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.
More than that, 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.
And what have the highlights of this inclusivity been? What kinds of really surprising or different performances have emerged from the open mic?
OK, so for me the best moments aren’t always the most surprising or outré. What I really live for is when a writer performs their words into a microphone for the first time. There’s this look they get, this total joy of connection with the audience, that I’m just so grateful for. That makes me keep hosting open mics more than anything else! Supporting people in finding a voice.
That said. Someone once read the instructions on a loudhailer box, that was good. Someone once performed the poems of Marilyn Monroe. There was a great flash-fiction about toothless zombies last month that made me smile. You know, words!
And what do you look for when you book your feature performers and what have some of the highlights been of their sets?
Availability, variety, experimentation. We want to be a stopping point for international poets on tour, as well as a platform for up and coming local talent. Kristiana Rae Colon was a recent pleasure and privilege to put on; last year a big set from Jon Sands and Ken Arkind was joyous.
What have the challenges been in running Inky Fingers in general and the Open Mic in particular?
As we’re all volunteers, sometimes we get tired…the advantage of working as a collective means that there are (usually) just enough of us to cover everything, should one or two people take a(n entirely reasonable) sabbatical.
We run an open platform and you really never know what you’re going to get. We have had, on occasion, difficult performers – drunk, offensive or over running – and it’s the host-of-the-evening’s job to manage that, and the audience… it can get interesting.
What’s the spoken word scene like in Edinburgh in general?
It’s as dynamic as a circus held inside a dance club within range of an exploding supernova.
Scheduling spoken word events in Edinburgh is notoriously difficult because no matter what night you choose, something else is always happening. A classic example of this was one Tuesday night when Ian Rankin was speaking at the Central Library, Janice Galloway was talking across the street at the National Library of Scotland, and the City of Literature folks were having their monthly salon about five minutes away. But here’s the beauty of it – all three had a good audience.
You also have a focus on open mic performances being entertaining and engaging, encouraging people to ‘bring their words to life’. Has this been a challenge for some open mic performers?
It just takes practise and passion, really. As long as you feel it, the more you practise, and the more different kinds of audience you practise with, the better you get. Some people are more nervous, or more over-confident, or have frailer voices, or aren’t used to speaking, but everyone can live their words in time.
If you’re trying to convince someone who’s never heard of the Inky Fingers Open Mic to come to your events then what do you say?
When I first performed, I remember thinking I would need a whisky or two to get up and do this if I was prepared to be criticised for my offerings. It was not like that at all, in fact the audience couldn’t have been more encouraging. When I finally got to run away from the scene of my first ever slam poetry event my heart still beating fast with nerves and excitement. At one time I still preferred the 5 minute spots. My nerves couldn’t stand it! I stuck with it because I didn’t want to be unstuck from this amazing feeling of performing your own words.
I have been inspired so much over the last two years by so many people. The person that I nervously was changed and became more dramatic. That is because the words that I am expressing are mine. I edit them in my head, I own them. I listen and believe people when they tell me that they enjoy my poetry.
Try it. What do you have to lose? Also, you look lovely today.
And finally, have you heard of Sabotage before and are you pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur award?
Sabotage provides a platform for some of the most insightful, original reviews out there. Long live Sabotage. And Yes! We’ve been squealing with delight!