‘They’re doing God’s work,’ Debz says, encouraging me to opt for the ‘Ay-up Me Duck’ pancakes in Hanky Panky. She’s a self-proclaimed fangirl making HP an obvious place for us to catch up. Henley, her one-year-old son, is pretty chuffed too, digging into a Nutella heavy option – The Woodland.
HP is also the delicious new home of Testify, a poetry open mic night which, until recently, was held at Storyhouse. An overwhelming turnout in May prompted a necessary venue re-think. The combination of poetry and pancakes adds further lure to an already epic evening.
Only approaching its fourth month (it’s on the first Tuesday of every month) word of mouth and Debz’s social media efforts have highlighted Testify as a not-to-be-missed, raucous occasion that will see even the most entrenched cynic whooping. And the enthused crowd is swelling. ‘It was the moment when I came back from the toilet and the room was full with a queue of people waiting to get in. When you start something like this you think is there a market? Does anyone want it? May was a dream come true. I had to lie down in a dark room afterwards for a bit. It was incredible.’
Thirty-five people arrived, keen to read or absorb, forcing us out of the cosy storytelling room into the main area. Luckily, there wasn’t a show on, and with a little maneuvering of chairs and tables, Testify took over and improvised.
Why does Debz think it’s so popular? ‘Maybe because it’s relatable and people don’t feel intimidated. Also the type of headlines we have; they aren’t pale, male and stale. The fact that – no please don’t cut my iPhone (said to Henley, not me) – we try to be approachable and lively. I’ve worked really hard at getting the word out – I can’t pretend that it’s not been really hard work. A couple of times I’ve been like I don’t think I can do this, building a site, promoting, it adds up.’
Debz works full-time as a nurse and has two, young kids. ‘I’ve had to start being really strict with myself about answering emails all the time and saying I’m with my children now. I’ve made £15 over 3 nights after paying performers so this isn’t about making money.’
Henley picks this moment to drop his knife on the floor and Debz retrieves it. ‘The first child you’re like sterilize everything, the second you’re like, yeah, eat coco pops off the dog, it’s fine.’
The main space of Storyhouse wasn’t going to work as a long-term fix, due to the music and erratic coming and going of so many people, so Debz turned to HP. ‘I’m here all the time. We come every single weekend and it’s our fave place. I came when I was pregnant with Henley. I woke up one morning and said to my husband, I really want American style pancakes. It’s also disabled friendly with gender-neutral toilets. They’re happy to turn the music down and have an alcohol license. Importantly it’s an independent business which I’d prefer to work with.’
Attendees can order food during the event (which kicks off at 7:30pm) until 9pm, and Stephen and Rekha (the owners) are graciously relaxed on closing time. The venue shift also provides the audience with room to spread and grow. It’s only been three months, and three Testify’s but Debz has crafted a warm, funny, delightful event, which continues to charm the pants off Chester.
‘It’s taken off in a way I never dreamt – I recently got invited to the Edinburgh University Conference – ‘The Creative Writing Business’, to talk on the poetry panel. Poets have started asking to come and perform unsolicited. I’ve booked all the performers until May next year. So many people are showing up just to listen, which I wasn’t expecting. At some poetry open mic nights poets just show up to speak, not to listen, they just wait their turn. There’s ego in poetry and it causes a rubbish atmosphere. So far though we’ve had a pretty even split between audience and performers.’
Before the headliner takes to the stage, the first part of the night is open to anyone with the balls to get up and read. Debz encourages the audience to remember how difficult that can be and nurtures a supportive, relaxed vibe. ‘There’s an open mic night in Manchester I contacted to see if I could read, they were like, I don’t know you, can you send some of your work – it’s just there’s a really high calibre here and we don’t want it to be brought down. I thought, I’m not going to read there and I never will.’
I point out what they’re offering is more of a closed mic night. ‘It’s really important to let people be bad. I’ve bombed. You’re entitled – that’s the joy. And hopefully the headliner is to your taste, but if not it’s still a new experience. It’s only one or two poems – everyone can tolerate that. It’s good to be challenged too.’
Okay, spill the beans on the headliners. ‘Mostly they’re people I’ve seen perform and loved. I’m moving away from mainly page poets to performance poets. Our October headliner is Jamie Thrasivoulou. He’s writer-in-residence at a prison in Derby and he released his first collection last year. We’ll have a Christmas party in December with two headliners – we’ve got Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, a queer Muslim writer, whose first poetry collection comes out in July. She did a fringe show and advertised it by walking around wearing a burka and backpack singing in Urdu. She was actually singing the words to Katy Perry’s ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it.’
The diversity of headliners makes it truly unique. Every month there’s someone with a completely different voice to entertain, dazzle and astound. ‘That was my aim. If someone contacts me and I have someone like them already, I say no. I also want it to be inclusive and not just getting my friends out there. They’re always experienced poets with a book out or who are doing something cool. I always pay the headliners. You hear a lot of people saying they won’t pay performers because the exposure is payment enough. I tried giving exposure to Tesco for bread and they wouldn’t take it.’
After I compose myself, I ask what the headlines have made of Chester so far? ‘They’ve said Chester was a really good audience in the way that everyone applauded. Jane Bradley really wants to come back.’
I confess that listening to Jane has spurred me back into writing poetry. Can she come back? ‘Maybe we do a first birthday party next March and we just have her again. She launched us – she was the perfect headliner.’
Speaking of Jane, let’s focus for a moment on Debz’s trip to Edinburgh. ‘Jane was booked to speak on the fiction panel and invited me as her plus one. I knew it would be a good chance to connect with people – like Claire Askew. I tweeted Claire to say how excited I was to go – then she invited me to speak on the poetry panel, and I was like, no you need someone proper and she said, Babe, you are proper.
Debz had no idea what this would entail when she said yes. ‘I wanted to take the opportunity no matter what – though on the day we did talk about how sometimes opportunities come round twice and you should never kill yourself to make it work. We debated the business of creative writing, so I was talking mostly as a promoter – like what tips to give to people starting out and what we thought about the good and bad poetry thing – should everyone be able to perform whatever they want or should there be quality control? I’ve been invited back next year to be on a new panel about being a parent.’
Also known as smashed it.
Does she feel that the connections she’s making, social shoots off from Testify, are reward enough?
Henley butts in, ‘More, want more!’
‘Sorry,’ Debz says, ‘My son’s having a shit fit because he realizes his pancake is over.’ I’m feeling the same sadness but trying to keep it in.
‘Back to your question about reward, yes, completely. The women in that room promoted each other, supported each other, offered to put me in touch with lots of their contacts. I’ve found that in Chester too, especially with women. They seem to be willing to go, at no benefit to myself I will hook you up with something/someone. That’s wonderful.’
We’re often told women naturally want to compete with one another. ‘It’s internalized misogyny – women have always had to adapt to a male world. The phrase that came out of Edinburgh was collaboration, not competition. There’s room for everyone. We’re all just trying to achieve, for ourselves, for the greater community. We show up for each other. We’re also dispelling the myth that when women get together they just bitch. After I’d been on Flipside, Rach and Mr Parsley didn’t just say thanks, bye, they came to Testify to support me. I know if I needed help with something, I’d have an army of friends to call on and that’s a real community.’
I ask Debz what she’s working on at the moment and how Testify has influenced her writing. ‘I met Sophia Walker through Testify and she’s just accepted me as a mentee for a year – working on a show to take to the fringe in 2019 – that’s what I’m focusing on right now – a collection of poems on nursing. I’ve also applied for Arts Council England funding to make Testify a CIC (Community Interest Company) – you can pay yourself for your time but then any profit goes back into the business and community. Chester Voluntary Action is helping me.’
She also wants to branch out beyond the open mic night. ‘The plan is to run more workshops. Rosie Garland does a workshop called ‘Silencing your Inner Critique’ – how to shut up that voice in your head that says you can’t do things. She’ll be here running that in September. I also want to do a disability-friendly slam, (I’m deaf and wear hearing aids), hire a BSL interpreter and have low lighting. People on the autistic spectrum can come in first, come in last, sit where they want to. You can have work read on your behalf. In standard slams, you get penalised for not memorizing your work.’
The next Testify night is on Tuesday 5th June, at HP, and, as always, is pay what you can afford. The headliner is Maz Hedgehog. accountant by day, poet by night. I urge you to show up Chester, get on a sugar-high and make some noise.