What does it mean to Speak Weird?

by Eden Craw

Surely we all know Spin by now. Its clustered and cosy venue space is ideally suited to lively and frenetic live events and as such it has been the sight of many a spoken word, music, and comedy gig over the years. The record store above is nothing to be sniffed at either, but that’s for another day. Spin takes a leading role in the Spoken word scene, however, and although the Blue Lamp, Cult of Coffee and Bonobo have all had their roles to play over the years it is this bar that continues to be the place where the grassroots literary movement thrives. You may have been to something of the sort yourself, after all, the venue plays host to the Hysteria performance night which never fails to excite with its ever-vibrant LGBT extravaganzas. One might also remember the genesis of the Re-Analogue collective, who launched to much fanfare with Neu! Reekie!’s Michael Pedersen in the headline slot. Casting our collective memory back even further, however, to a Wednesday Night in September 2017 we might even remember when Speakin’ Weird moved there after their first few nights at Underdog. 

Speakin’ Weird truly is one of those events that seems to have gone from strength to strength. Since those days in 2017, I can hardly remember a Speakin’ Weird which hasn’t packed Spin’s chairs and tables, lined its bar or coated the stairs and standing space with punters. But perhaps this success is testament to the winning formula. Speakin’ Weird is, at its core, an open mic night. Plain and Simple. It is self-avowedly open to all manner of “poetry, comedy, prose, stories, angry rants and introspective musings” and it delivers that by the bucket load. Over the years there has been music, stories, political rallying cries, poetry, hip-hop. You pay £3 on the door and you get to go in and watch it all, if you have anything written down in a notebook, phone or fag packet you can sign-up and walk onto the stage. There is usually a headliner who is sometimes local and sometimes from further afield. These headliners are usually very good, although I will admit that I’ve seen some clangers in my time, and can range from professional writers and performers (usually from further south) or hot topics from the Aberdeen scene. They’re given the whole of the middle slot of the evening and so whilst they do not dominate the proceedings they often act as anchors and tone setters for the night.
It is testament to the charisma, wit and tact of host and founder Orla Kelly that the night has been so successful for so long, and doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere any time soon. The democratic process of application for the evening essentially means that there is no screening process outside of the hiring of the headliner for the night. The atmosphere is always friendly, honest and accepting to boot, no doubt because the tone is consistently set by Kelly to be nothing else. Can you imagine how great this is if you are newbie, scrap of poetry in hand, stutters on the lips and sweat on their palm? It’s a brilliant bed of artistic development where saplings can be planted in a wizened and knotted bower of experience. Of course, Speakin’ Weird has not been without its foibles over the years. There are, unfortunately, isolated incidents of performers who can’t contain offensive behaviour or language. There are other times where performers are, frankly, bad. But Kelly acts to keep it all together. She can see beauty in even the flattest poem and firmly root out anyone who’s voice is not welcome. There is retroactive policing to protect the safe space and retrospective editing to bring everything into harmony. It is an elegant formula, and it has served the literary scene of Aberdeen well. 

Whilst it cannot be said that Re-Analogue and Hysteria have been directly influenced by the format used by Speakin’ Weird, the success of the original certainly paved the way. Neither of the offshoots take the same radically democratic approach to Speakin’ Weird but this is due to their different focuses. Re-Analogue, with its tendency towards the weird, experimental, and avant-garde, could not sustain the open mic format. Similarly, Hysteria’s focus on queer, female, and non-binary works means that, for obvious reasons, it cannot be open for all to perform. Instead, both groups use a semi-formal system of applications and invitations to fill their set lists. Of course, these formats work just as well, nobody can argue that either have enjoyed less than their fair share of success. It may well be then that Speakin’ Weird proved to the organisers of those other groups that spoken word performance nights would be extremely popular. It might not be fair to assume that the interest in these evenings is purely due to Speakin’ Weird, any city with two universities and an art school is sure to produce something of an audience, but it was the catalyst for the growth of what is a consistently busy and diverse scene. Now an unquestioned success, it stands as a pillar amidst the changing fortunes of those other organisations. More importantly, the openness of Speakin’ Weird means that it truly is the interface between the uninitiated and the literary world of Aberdeen and taking part in it keeps the beating heart of the literary arts healthy, nourishing the scene from its roots to the highest branches. 

Aberdeen does not just host Speakin’ Weird or the groups that I have mentioned here. There is a constant flourishing of new groups, even Underdog is trying to get back in on the action. Perhaps the scale of this success can be illustrated through the use of a single example. Glasgow was the European City of Culture, six times the size of Aberdeen, with three Universities and an even more prestigious arts school. It sports a Modern Art Gallery, some of the best music venues in the country and the National Theatre. But you can comb its bars and cafes from Trongate to Bearsden and you’ll find one regular spoken word night, crouched beneath a bridge beside the murky river Kelvin. It is a small event, in a cramped venue and the performers are almost universally awful. It does not hold a candle to Speakin’ Weird.