The Spoken Word: an American in York
Are you planning on being in York around the first of January and want a “bracing start to the year” (to steal a quote from the WOL editorial staff)? If so, somewhere around 7 pm on Tuesday evening, locate the Exhibition hotel, make your way to the Conservatory in the rear, and find a seat. A long-running poetry and prose open mic is about to start.
In the well-lit, tchotchke-filled back room, poets and other writers - and those who enjoy listening to literature read out loud - gather each month on the first Tuesday, sign up if they want a slot, and stake a claim at one of the quickly-filled tables. People start settling in around 7 pm. As 7.30 approaches, there are last-minute dashes to the bar, quick hellos to friends, and rustling pages. Soon, either Alan Gillott or Rose Drew stands up and says: “Good evening, and welcome to The Spoken Word!” And on 1 January 2013, for the 85th month in a row, the open mic will get under way.
The Exhibition hotel is quite central, near the corner of Gillygate and Bootham, and just beyond the city walls at Bootham Bar. The Theatre Royal is nearby in Exhibition Square, which also contains the City Art Gallery and the King’s Manor, as in King Henry VIII. The glorious ruins of the abbey are close by, too.
The Ex, as it’s known locally, is a very cool venue, with generous proprietors who don't charge us room hire, so we don't charge the audience. They’ve been known to offer us platters of chips, on the house: they just enjoy that “art” happens in their hotel. In 2008, our poetry and prose anthology, The Exhibitionists (Stairwell Books) was created from material submitted by our regulars, and that year was placed tenth in the Purple Patch list of small press anthologies.
We’ve become quite used to a First Tuesday signifying poetry and prose. Our open mic in Connecticut, which was only poetry (if the occasional participant read prose, some regulars could get quite sniffy) met from March 2003 onward and outlasted us after we left for England in late August 2005. When we arrived here that summer, determined to find the local mics and “just be audience”, we quickly realised that right then, no regular poetry open mics were meeting in York; and that we missed hosting. By September, I had finagled two slots at the Plus Fifty Festival’s poetry evening (age 45 in my case; but they took pity on me); by October, I’d found a writing workshop - actually, three of them - and had announced I wanted to see an open mic started in York. By November, we were planning a monthly venue with two other people. December: venue selected. January: we …
Well, we fell out with the other organisers, discovered a fallback room, met there in January and February, and on the first Tuesday in March 2006, had found a new home at the Exhibition hotel. Nobody said it would be easy!
Like all new venues, we had slow nights and busy ones, but we really started to take off after about a year. The other open mic, which the other organisers had envisaged offering everything from comedy to juggling and in between, also went from strength to strength. They had also wanted a monthly “featured” guest, and that was actually something that we had wanted to avoid after the 2.5 years of featured readers in Connecticut. Besides, York’s a big village, or a small city, and certainly handles the multiple music open mics, several writing workshops, including the prestigious York Writers, and two and even at times four poetry/prose/comedy open mic events too. Each event has its own flavour, with regulars at the various mics often going to two or even more a month. It’s even better than the old TV show Cheers: here, everyone knows your name, but also wants to hear what you’ve been churning out.
For both Alan and myself, poetry has become one of the main fabrics of our lives. We met at an open mic, flirting once a month for about a year, and had a first and second date at a very prestigious weekly open mic. By the third week, “our” mic, where we’d flirted, came along again. Within a month, in other words, and amongst words, we were both hooked. Meeting at a monthly lit event has a lot to offer. You don’t need to faff around over dinner at expensive restaurants, pretending to be nicer, smarter or richer than you are. If you’re the confessional-type of poet, like me (like many Americans), well, Alan knew who I was. And I knew what interested or inspired or outraged him, too. Quite an honest series of monthly “dates” we had in the end.
Within a few months, Alan had noted that a new Borders bookstore (RIP) was planning to open a few miles from my house. Did we want to organise our own open mic, as “our” mic was winding down? And so, March 2003 we launched … and never stopped. Running an open mic for this many years takes commitment, insanity - or perhaps just an otherwise empty life!
And now, almost 10 years on, missing only four months between countries and the odd first Tuesday where we might be away (leaving guest hosts running the show), we’d love to welcome you to the York Spoken Word.
Head over on January 1 with your post-New Year’s Eve headache, or join us in February. Or March. Arrive early; the tables fill quickly, though we can cram quite a few bar stools in to the nooks and crannies. Please make sure to leave us your email so we can send you our monthly reminder. Sign up for your 4-5 minute slot, and sit back, ready to be dazzled by some of the finest short stories, creative non-fic, poetry, excerpts from novels that we are privileged to enjoy. Come to listen, have a pint, and a bite of bar food. Come any first Tuesday you can. I’m pretty sure we’ll be here.
Rose Drew, from York via Miami, is finally wrapping up a PhD involving human skeletons. Her favourite place is in front of an audience, usually spouting poetry; or giving talks about archaeology (and skeletons) to lay and professional groups. She co-owns small press Stairwell Books and is delighted that all the hard work is finally paying off. Her first book, Temporary Safety (Fighting Cock Press) was no. 9 on the list of the 2011 Purple Patch 20 Best Individual Collections.
PHOTOGRAPH: ROSE DREW