“You can be loud, you can be proud, you are allowed.” Inside Hackney’s open mic night

Poet and founder of Hidden Literature Ovyuki on stage at open mic night. Pic: Hidden Literature

“You can be loud, you can be proud, you are allowed. Make it your mission to give yourself permission to bare yourself, dare yourself and one day, one day soon you’ll no longer compare yourself to the latest sensation. It’ll be your own revelation that sees you…”

These are the words of Amy Allen, a spoken word artist on stage at Hackney’s open mic night this week. The poet gave herself the word ‘breathe’ to riff off. “Under the weight I am here, I am questioning if I’m queer…it’s ok, I’m here, I’m still here listening, scared, scarred, open, broken, hard, a shard…” pronounces Allen.

Hidden in a quiet road in Hackney Wick spoken word artists follow the illuminated sign ‘Grow Hackney’ to a venue where an open mic night has found its home – veterans and new performers are all welcome. 

Hidden Literature has been hosting open mic nights ever since poet Ovyuki launched it in 2020.

Speaking to ELL, she said: “Poetry is life. I always say to people that life is the poem, and that gives us inspiration to write, to create art.”

“I went to the library yesterday and the librarian didn’t even know what an open mic was, so I guess [the open mic] is just shedding a light on the things that you’re doing.”

A view from outside the balcony of Grow Hackney Pic: Ella Tunstall

Ovyuki opened the night with a piece of her own poetry, titled ‘How to Fly’, which broke the ice.

“Magnificently present yourself budding, and liberated to the echoing sounds of life. If freedom is the key, it should be a primary preference of yours that you should know how to fly.”

Artists – around a dozen – were given 5 minutes to perform. Each was told to share a ‘word’ they felt aligned with their poem before they started. That yielded words like ‘Imagination’, ‘death’, ‘love’, ‘anticipation’, ‘flavour’, ‘birthday’, ‘motherhood’ and even ‘Stalin’.

“The workers awake, they’re ready as they take the stance…while bankers count bitcoin profit, workers are in the gut of the underground, sacrificing health, crippling spirit, what of it?” recites Margot.

Amaiyah was up next, on ‘motherhood’: “Now I look back at your old person running through the school gate, navigating the crowd with the oversized bag on your back, doing it all on your own while I watch you from the gate.”

Spoken word is said to have come from the 1920’s US Harlem Renaissance. Black poets like Langston Hughes and Claude Mackay created an avant garde movement that celebrated Black culture in different forms: poetry, music, art.

It has often been seen as a lesser form in contrast to traditional poetry. But things have been changing. Earlier this year, Forward Prizes for Poetry announced an award category for spoken word for the first time in its nearly 30 year history.

Poet Amy Allen told ELL she was ambivalent about mainstream awards for what has long been perceived as an underground genre.

“I feel like spoken word should be recognised but it’s also like then, who is it for someone else to say what it is better than somebody else’s?”

“For me spoken word’s not about getting it right, it’s about me saying what’s on my heart and getting it out and sharing it. From that I think that I’m being evaluated on something. I can feel stifled, so sometimes entering competitions and prizes can feel like I’m being then judged and that stunts my creativity.”

Audiences enjoying spoken word at Grow Hackney Pic: Ella Tunstall

Salma Kreiser, who works for a charity, was an audience member at the event. She told ELL: “Good conversations come out of it as well, like people will come up to you afterwards and talk about your piece.”

Alex Murdock, who has been writing poetry since his teenage years, performed a piece about haunting feelings:

“So much to unpack in the night, the candlelight comforts me in the absence of sunlight and it’s timid. The trickle starts to tickle the fright. The burning light transcends through time to a period where my retina is evermore tender…”

Speaking to ELL after the performance he said: “Hidden Literature is a great space, and it facilitates well to allow poets to be their authentic self.”

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