Fire and Dust in the Write Out Loud spotlight

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Coventry's Fire and Dust has been nominated as Best Regular Spoken Word Night in this year's Saboteur Awards.  What better time for Write Out Loud to ask them just what it's all about, this Open Mic game?  Host Raef Boylan answers the questions...

How long has the 'Fire and Dust' night been running and what made you think you should set up a spoken word night in Coventry?

To my knowledge, for the past four years Fire & Dust has been Coventry's only monthly open mic event dedicated solely to poetry. Local publisher Silhouette Press first set up Fire & Dust in 2014, as the city was lacking a poetry night. When Adam Steiner passed “Here Comes Everyone Magazine” onto myself and Matt Barton, F&D came as part of the package, so we’ve been striving to make a success of them both. F&D started off really small – one night, just six of us turned up and only two had brought poetry! – but we’ve grown into a consistent core audience of 30+ people now.

Every location on the map should have at least one regular poetry gig I reckon. Writing is generally a solo mission, so it’s nice to make contact with your community once a month and feel part of something. Poets aren’t always welcome at normal open mics – I guess we bring the tone down!

Do you have guest poets? If so, how do you choose them?

We do have guest poets, normally one or two headliners at each gig. We’re keen to attract some big names, naturally, but we’re all about giving a shot to emerging local talent too. Sometimes the HCE team seek poets out by making contact on social media; sometimes, they’ve been recommended to us by our regulars. Recently, poets have been approaching us themselves – that’s quite nice, like a nod of recognition that we’re doing alright. F&D is fully booked up now until part-way through 2019 – which blows my mind! Whichever way we discover them, we check out some of the poet’s work beforehand and if I like their style, or maybe it’s not my taste but I think plenty of other people would enjoy it, they’re welcome at F&D. When we have two guests, I try to mix it up to appeal to as much of our diverse audience as possible, e.g. a rapper alongside somebody who writes contemporary sonnets. I don’t always get the balance right, but mostly it works.

What are the highlights of running a night of this sort?

You get to hear lots of different voices and approaches to poetry; I’m a big fan of people chucking about clever imagery and experimental language but I love the funny stuff too, and I get choked up by some of the intense emotions poets offer up to the mic. It’s amazing to witness people’s confidence grow over time – before you know it, the shaky and reluctant first-timer has developed into a keen, clear-voiced performer. Sharing poetry seems to bring out the best in people – I guess because it calls for a degree of vulnerability? Overall, the Fire & Dust crowd are a lovely, supportive bunch. We just want everyone to have a good night and take pride in their work.

And the difficulties?

Lately, both the room and the open mic slots fill up fast, which means we have to turn readers down. That’s a new experience, like I said, back in the day we used to be desperate for more poets to turn up and I don’t cope well with the guilt. But we have a new system: a priority slot is reserved for next time for the ones who miss out – hopefully that will keep people coming back and give us a nice rotation of regulars on the mic. 

Finance has been a difficult one, as our funding applications have been unsuccessful so far. The event is free, and we just pay our venue (The Big Comfy Bookshop) a fee for the PA system. We pass a jar round and whatever the donations don’t cover, I pay from my pocket. (Which is fine now but sucked the year I was jobless and living on JSA.) Our ethos is all about accessibility, so we’re not going to start charging people to get in but I’d love to be able to pay the guest poets something too – creative work is still work and shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s tricky. Fingers crossed that we secure some funding soon…

What advice would you give to someone thinking of setting up a Spoken Word Night?

Keep it regular. If you don’t stick to the same place and time, people stop turning up. They won’t want to risk a walk in the rain, only to arrive at the pub and find you’ve moved the gig to next week. We’re lucky, because the bookshop reserves the first Thursday of each month for Fire & Dust – so, on that note: find a venue that’s genuinely supportive of your poetry night and keen to promote it.

You've just been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for best Spoken Word Night, what does this mean to you?

It’s really cool, and unexpected. I like that Sabotage Reviews explore a range of diverse works from the indie lit world – stuff deserving of acclaim that the bigger, long-established prizes tend to overlook. Since nominations come from public votes, I’m hoping what it means is that we’re doing something positive that our regulars enjoy and want us to keep doing. I’m also hoping that both Fire & Dust and HCE Magazine have been flagged up on the radars of some renowned poets, who otherwise wouldn’t have thought of coming to perform in Coventry. As previously mentioned, poets: we can’t currently pay you but we have a decent-sized crowd, so bring some of your books to sell! Finally, it might demonstrate to funding bodies that Fire & Dust has been working hard to engage with creative communities on a long-term basis and deserves a bit of cash to help us improve. Yeah, this is a recurring theme. I got into poetry for the big wads of money…doesn’t everyone?

Photo: Alan Van Wijgerden

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