Imagine a neon-lit Manchester basement bar where a panda reads poetry from a stage. You don’t need to imagine – it actually happened. That’s just one example of the weird and wonderful wordsmithery that goes on at one of the city’s best loved spoken word nights: SPEAK.
Running every third Thursday of the month at Jimmy’s NQ, SPEAK is an eclectic spoken word night attracting people of all ages, hosted by partners in rhyme Rosie Fleeshman and Alex Slater.
“We’re really proud to be from a city that really supports spoken word, often attending other nights here, and we really love the whole scene,” says Rosie.
“What we noticed though was that spoken word often only lands on the ears of those who are already interested in it. What we wanted to do was break out of the poetry circle and reach a wider audience.
“We have tried to create a night that is exciting, entertaining and breaks some of the stigma around poetry. That it’s for everyone, and you don’t have to go to a library or know loads about Byron to fit in! Having such a great venue like Jimmy’s, located in the heart of the Northern Quarter really helps too.”
Rosie Fleeshman is herself an actor and poet, taking her award-winning spoken word show Narcissist in the Mirror to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. This follows continued acclaim at The Greater Manchester Fringe, where it won Best Spoken Word Show and also Best New Play at the Manchester Theatre Awards.
Actor and poet Alex Slater is producing Narcissist in the Mirror at this year’s Fringe as the debut show from Nothing To Declare Productions, which the two founded earlier this year. He also puts plenty of energy into SPEAK.
“We work really hard as hosts to create a warm room full of energy,” says Alex. “We’re both performers, so enjoy whipping the crowd up and encouraging them to be as loud and supportive as possible.
“This is not a place where you have to silently sit and listen, we always encourage cheers, whoops, stomping of feet and any other form of appreciation. People can buy drinks throughout the night at the bar, so the alcohol probably helps too!”
Together they have created a spoken word extravaganza, and people are singing its praises. With 10 open mic slots at every event, available by email on an a first-come-first-served basis, this offers an opportunity for anyone to try their luck at the mic.
There’s also the promise of equal, ecstatic applause for every performer. Alex tests the response of the audience beforehand, by gauging ‘golf claps’ (gentle patter) all the way up to a thundering, palm-pummelling ‘Freddos are 10p again!!’ (carnage).
Every performer can expect carnage. But as well as great fun, it is a great platform for writers of all genres who are keen to perform their work.
“We called it SPEAK for a reason, for four minutes on our open mic you have all the power,” says Rosie. “SPEAK isn’t about giving people a voice, we already know everyone has one. It’s about giving them a platform to use it.”
And although getting on that platform can seem daunting, Alex is keen to encourage as many people to get involved as possible. There always are a number of first-timers on the stage, so it doesn’t matter if you are a live-verse virgin – you’ll still be welcomed.
“Saying your own thoughts on a mic with no music or anything behind you is really scary, but equally liberating,” says Alex.
“You may be terrified to do it and then be hooked after one go. It can help you get things off your chest, you may discover you’re a natural comedian, it can support your confidence in other walks of life and you make lots of friends very fast. The Mancunian poetry community is very warm, very accepting and very supportive.”
SPEAK has accessibility, fun and a flair for words at its heart, open to all and determined to challenge the stereotype of poetry being stuffy old books and impenetrable verses. Here poets talk about everything from sex to sick, jumping between genres and styles from ballads to univocalics (that’s poems using only one vowel).
What’s the most heart-warming thing abut SPEAK?
“When someone who’s never performed poetry before and is terrified before they go on then at the end get a deafening round of applause,” answers Alex. “The look on people’s faces is always fantastic, you see their shoulders drop, the look of achievement in their eyes, that’s a great thing to watch.”
Every SPEAK evening also stars a special guest headliner, previously featuring Rose Condo, Dave Viney, Megan Beech, Zane Burkmar and ARGH KiD.
It’s even had tongues wagging at the other end of the Northern Quarter, as part of the Worker Bee Weekender, with a one-off special at Ziferblat Edge Street in March. There was also a massive first birthday celebration earlier this year.
““I think the first birthday will always be a special night for us,” says Rosie. “We never knew SPEAK would make it this far to be honest, we aren’t funded and so were unsure how long we could keep it going. When we hit a year we realised how much the night had grown.
“We had a room full of people bursting with love and support for the night. Three of our first ever headliners came back to perform and celebrate with us too. It was really special and we both kind of looked at each other and said, okay, we need to keep this going!”