Put off by pretentious poetry? A new open mic night in Chester might be just what you need. Debz Butler has gone from not having written since school, to writing her first poem, getting published in an anthology, performing as a featured in artist at Write Out Loud, and launching her own Poetry Open Mic night,Testify Chester… in a year! Oh she’s also a nurse and a mum. I’m tired just writing that lot, and I wonder where she gets her energy from, but as soon as I meet her, it’s obvious this is a lady on a mission and she has energy to spare.
She sparks with curiosity and interest; our conversation starts tangenting quick and wide – I can see why her ideas, opinions, and passion for social issues found a creative outlet. But how did that happen, exactly? Pure rage, apparently. Her response to yet another example of women’s body image being negatively manipulated by money-hungry industry was to just start to write. And write. She got it all out on the page in one go. ‘I think I’ve just written a poem. It can’t be a poem, I can’t write poetry’ was her instant reaction to her first work (cue a sub-conversation around female / male confidence and impostor syndrome).
This newly awoken spoken word warrior was not going to let a little self-doubt get in her way, so she took up the challenge to explore the genre in perhaps the bravest way possible – finding and heading to an open mic night, telling no-one, just to watch and listen, but taking her notebook just in case, and actually taking to the stage on her very first visit. Ballsy. And successful; the poem was later published in a charity anthology, and she has just performed as a featured artist on the same stage less than 12 months after her debut.
More poems, performances and poetry slams (think 8 mile rap battle but with poems) later, and although she describes the community as largely supportive, helpful and welcoming, Debz couldn’t ignore that, regularly being the only female in a field of 8 competitors, she would really like to see wider representation at performances. The only solution, clearly, if you’re Debz Butler, is to decide to pioneer your own open mic night, specifically designed to be as inclusive as possible to encourage more people to enjoy this rapidly growing art form. This lady really knows how to make things happen, and in a few short months from concept to launch, we are now just two weeks away from the first Testify Chester. Aptly housed in the Storytelling Room in Storyhouse, after a persuasive conversation with the artistic director, this will be a monthly night with a featured artist and open mic time for anyone who wants to try their hand. The headliner on March 6th at 7.30pm is Jane Bradley, founder of For Books Sake (a website that publishes and promotes women’s writing) and performance artist.
So what’s different about Testify? Debz explains that inclusiveness is at the heart of her new venture. The venue lends itself to making everyone feel equally at home by removing or addressing some common barriers: there’s gender neutral toilets, hearing loops, accessible entrances and rooms, plus Debz has put in place provisions for trigger warnings and anti-anxiety meet and greets, and a ‘pay what you can afford’ ticketing policy so that everyone who wants to can attend. She is also adamant that featured artists will be paid, especially in these days of reciprocal exposure being the new default currency for artists. She’s also added the Testify Shameless Plug tin her newsletter to help spread the word about new talent.
If you fancy giving it a try, the best advice is to just come along and sit and listen – sign up for the open mic is on the night, so you can be spontaneous if you’re feeling brave or just take it all in – no pressure! You might be inspired, you might chat to the artists in the break, you might find you love the spotlight! The only rule is to bring an open mind, and be supportive, to quote Debz ‘just be a decent human being’ – sometimes tough subjects come up in spoken word as it’s a safe space for people to express emotion, experience and opinion.
What to expect? Poems on menstrual moon cups, breast-feeding, dating and politics have featured in other events. The genre is not only broad on subject matter but also style – from a simple reading to more rap based or rhythmic performances, even added movement and gesture, pretty much anything goes. Poems might be quickly written on the day inspired by a news topic that deserves comment or long labours of love refined over months, just let your passion shine through. Debz simply loves performing and wants to give others the opportunity to share her passion. After a year in the poetry business, does she finally think of herself a poet? ‘A performance poet, yes, a Poet with a capital P and a posh accent, no, not ever’.
Pretentious? Definitely not
Testify is an open mic poetry night that runs the first Tuesday of every month from 7:30pm until 10pm. Pay what you can afford (suggested £3).