“One month it was just me, my boyfriend, my Mum and Dad, and two polite strangers who felt they couldn’t leave.” Leicester spoken word maestro Jess Green is never less than honest – just ask her about education policy – but veterans of the frankly feral pre-show scramble for open mic spots at Find the Right Words might find her reminisces on the monthly poetry and rap night’s humble origins slightly unbelievable.
“That was also the night my headliners cancelled two hours before.” Okay, utterly unbelievable. The feeling that permeates the Upstairs at the Western pub theatre on FTRW night is one of unadulterated good faith, from the mandatory all-the-way-to-the-mic applause for first-timers to the trust placed in the monthly Speed Poet (who has roughly an hour to craft a poem from audience suggestions). It’s hard to imagine there was a time when the night wasn’t packed, buzzing, and something that people wouldn’t dare miss.
But there was. After modest initial success, crowds dwindled until that fateful night, when Green had to fill two hours with her own material. Moves to The Cookie and back helped keep the night rolling, but with Green still booking, running and self-funding: “Every month, I wouldn’t sleep the night before and I would be a sweaty mess all day.” The future looked as precarious as, well, it usually does for earnest grass-roots arts.
FTRW was something that Leicester was meant to have, though, and thanks to perseverance, some breaks with funding and crucially, a fresh audience finding a home behind the open mic, the night began to flourish. That this community spirit has become the night’s beating heart is clearly a point of pride for Green. “I’m most proud of creating a space that’s comfortable for anyone to get up and try something. No matter what your style, experience or confidence, you can come to FTRW and the audience will listen to you and give you a huge round of applause when you’re done.”
Green heaps praise on her long-time hosts too. “The intimate space, the informality of a pub, friendly owners… you can bring drinks in!” It’s true that the fabled atmosphere of Upstairs at the Western accentuates all that’s great about FTRW, and the night’s success has fed back into the venue’s culture too, with an increasing number of poets hitting it up as a tour venue. “It’s becoming a real hot spot for poetry!”
FTRW sports an impressive list of headliners in its own right, too. Recent months have been graced by the cutting mixed-media commentary of Paula Varjack, the free-verse onslaught of Joelle Taylor, and the soulful stream-of-consciousness of slam troubadour Buddy Wakefield. Green’s especially proud of that last one: “That was a bit of lucky, right place right time programming!”
She also stands firm on having at least one female headliner per month. “There are only so many all white male lineups you can endure,” she notes, and it’s in keeping with the night’s spirit: a welcoming platform for headliners and open mic alike.
That fusion of appreciation for the existing and passion for the emerging is perhaps FTRW’s greatest strength. “When booking headliners I think about who our regulars might enjoy, who might inspire them or help them develop,” Green explains. “It’s important to support the art you love and make sure it can continue.”
Find the Right Words takes place on the third Wednesday of every month at Upstairs at the Western.