Often, these projects sit on a foundation of an individual’s particular passion for their chosen creative field but end up providing more benefit to the broader community than was ever expected.
This time, we’re finding out more about Hotchpotch, Dundee’s monthly open mic night where writers are encouraged to read their work to an audience. We met with Gavin Cameron, the writer and poet who’s been running the night since 2015, and Ellie Aspen, a writer, editor and the newly initiated co-host before a meeting of the writing group they also organise, associated with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). We discussed inheriting creative projects, the excitement and unpredictability of an open mic format and their upcoming collaborations with I Am Loud.
Creative Dundee: So how did Hotchpotch start?
Gavin Cameron: Hotchpotch has been around since 2010. I did not set it up; in fact, our email address begins with ‘custodian’ because I feel like I’ve just inherited it from other people. It was initially set up by someone at DC Thomson who was looking for some kind of open mic night, but for poets instead of musicians. I hadn’t been there since the start but I’d been going for a few years and then one week, the previous host was ill and asked me if I could take over, and I said “Yeah, of course!” 8 years later, I don’t think that person is coming back!
CD: And how did you get involved with Hotchpotch, Ellie?
Ellie Aspen: I actually found out about it through the NaNoWriMo group, which I joined in 2015. I never went along to meetings [to NaNoWriMo] until 2020 during our online meetings, and then joined the in-person ones in 2021. Which led to me finding out about and going along to Hotchpotch.
CD: Have you made any changes to it?
GC: I’ve tried to put my stamp on it and make it a bit more streamlined. When I inherited the group, I also inherited an email distribution list but to make it easier to communicate, I set up an email server that also allowed people to self-opt in and out and I also bought a web domain. I introduced written standards of behaviour to the website too, so people coming along know what to expect. We say when you go up on stage, nobody’s going to give you a hard time. But it works both ways, so don’t comment, don’t heckle. I think I’ve only ever had to shoosh 2 people in 8 years.
CD: There’s a certain element of unpredictability with it being open mic; how is it organising something when you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to get?
GC: It’s more of an art than a science. Some people use their full 7 minutes, but other people go on, read for two minutes, and then’re away again. We have a traffic light timer just to let people know gently where they are, and it doesn’t matter whether they go slightly over, but there will be other people waiting their turn. But the open mic aspect is something we always do. We’ve actually turned down collaborations before, with people quite well known on the scene because members expect that open mic element and so if it’s not there, we can’t do it. I now make sure when I’m doing the events to leave regular breaks too, because it’s hard to listen to a lot of poetry at once. My rule of thumb is no more than forty minutes, I usually aim for thirty/thirty five so people can take a break.
CD: Do you find it’s a lot of the same people coming back or is it always new faces?
GC: It’s quite a mix! At the last one we had about half a dozen new faces. It’s actually a change I’ve noticed since I’ve taken over; when I first started going, it was definitely an older crowd. You did get students but it was more likely that they were in their 50’s and 60’s. There was a kind of slump, where we were getting very few people and a lot of people left, and then it ramped up again and I don’t know how, but the average age has definitely come down. But we want people of all demographics. All ages, all genders. We have almost a specific LGBT contingent and it’s great to see.
EA: We are very inclusive and everybody supports everybody. There’s no judging as far as I’m aware.
CD: Writing is traditionally quite a solitary pursuit. How do you find people take to performing their work? Any nerves around sharing?
GC: It’s funny, I actually forget that people don’t like standing on stage because I do it so often. I think there’s a difference in how people approach it. If people want, they can make it quite anonymous. You don’t have to give your real name if you don’t want to. Some people do perform, some people even memorise it, but some people just read it off their phone. There’s a subtle difference between performing and reading, even if you’ve got the same source. It’s the poetry cadence.
EA: I know that I quite like reading it off my phone because I struggle with memorising. But I like to change my tone depending on the piece, to bring that performance aspect. But there’s other members who definitely perform. Because it’s this open mic format too, you don’t really know what people are going to be talking about, or what they’re going to do. It could be poetry, spoken word, music, comedy, something out of a play or novel that you’ve written. We get a really wide range.
GC: That was something I actually wondered about with the last I Am Loud event in November, how the work was going to gel together because one performer was very Dundonian and another was really the opposite, but their work is both about social issues, and so it worked really well.
CD: You mentioned I Am Loud, who host monthly poetry nights. You’ve got another event coming up with them in April, tell us a bit about how that came about!
GC: Last year we caught the attention of another group called I Am Loud, who are based in Edinburgh. They joined up with us twice last year, September and November, and with them we retain that open mic aspect, just with slightly shorter time slots. What I Am Loud does is take one person from each local act, one person from I Am Loud themselves and then bring in someone else unrelated as the headliners. Last time they had Jo Bell and Miss Yankey, who were brilliant.
EA: That September one was the second time I’d ever gone to Hotchpotch and I was amazed by I Am Loud, especially when I was performing one of my pieces and they started talking to me about how much they liked it. I was fangirling, especially with one of them being this world renowned poet. It was a confidence booster.
GC: It was actually the I Am Loud shows that showed me that Hotchpotch is becoming a bit too unwieldy for one person. When I go there, I bring a sound system and it’s quite bulky because I don’t drive so I take it on the bus and I have to set up all this technical stuff. And alongside that, you’ve also got people coming in and you need them to sign up to perform. So I brought Ellie on board to help, so I can concentrate on the sound system while she goes around and signs up names. It’ll just be so much easier.
CD: Your collaboration with I Am Loud isn’t the only one you’ve done, is it?
GC: No, we’ve done a few little side projects that have come from Hotchpotch. The first one was the first Rep Stripped event in 2019. We successfully pitched for 45 mins and hosted an event called Hotchpotch Presents where we had a lineup of 7 or 8 people and they all stepped forward to the mic to read something. The pieces weren’t necessarily linked but we worked out an order for them so they had a nice flow and it seemed to go down quite well with the audience!
I also developed the Literal Flow Test, which was a gameshow I devised during the kind of pandemic end wave. I thought to myself: “What if we had a poetry slam that had the structure of Just a Minute on Radio 4?” I was watching a lot of Taskmaster at the time so I thought “What if the scores matter and they depend on how long you speak?” So this gameshow was born. Then, when JD Henshaw started the Dundee Fringe at Dock Street Studios, I pitched the idea to him and he was willing to host it, so we ran it there as a live event two or three times. I think if it wasn’t for such enthusiastic members of Hotchpotch backing it, it wouldn’t have happened. It was tricky to get people interested the first time because it was untested, but the second and third times it was no problem. I’m actually seriously considering applying for funding to run it again because I was able to pay the people last time with ticket money from the Dundee Fringe. In the meantime, it’s trademarked and the rules are available for sale online for other people to play if they’d like to.
CD: How have you found it finding the space you need to host Hotchpotch?
GC: In the long run, we haven’t had too much difficulty but we’ve been around a few venues. There was one place in particular who were very good to us, they took us in when another place closed, but they also put us in a corner and in the other corner would be speed dating, or a hen night or something. There was another place that had one member of staff who used to cash up during the performances, and all you could hear was clink-clink-clink so it was nice of them to give us the space but we had to move on. A couple of other places closed, one of them before we could even do the first event. One of them we managed to get one gig and that was it. Right now we’re at the Hunter S. Thomson, and have been there through the previous owners and names of the venue too. They give us the basement space to use for free in exchange for people buying drinks, which has been great.
EA: The perfect thing about that space is that because we’re downstairs, it feels more intimate, especially with the lighting down there. So even if it’s busy upstairs, we don’t actually hear it.
GC: I kind of know the owner and he’s told me that he likes having us there, I think because we’re a bit less rowdy than some of the other crowds and this helps fill their bar on a Wednesday night, which is traditionally a bit of a dead night.
CD: It’s brilliant you’ve found an accommodating venue. I wanted to ask a bit about how you keep a group like this running: it sounds like financially, its running costs are fairly low?
GC: Yeah, Hotchpotch isn’t the kind of group that really needs funding except for specific projects. I’m also of the mind that if we’re charging entry that money needs to filter down to the performers, but if it’s free entry then it doesn’t matter as much because we’re not getting paid either. The motivation for doing it is for the love of meeting writers and for keeping this kind of group going.
CD: And has having that community– be it at Hotchpotch or in NaNoWriMo– around writing made a difference for you?
EA: Definitely. I found it really helped with my confidence, and actually made me more confident in job interviews too. I’m a really anxious person, I’m nervous around new people but I’ve found that during the pandemic, having that Discord server for NaNoWriMo and being able to come on the call, even just with my camera off, really boosted my confidence. It made it easier to come to the in-person meetings too, because I could come in here and put faces to names and voices to names. It’s actually pulled me out of my shell a little bit.
GC: With me personally, it’s different I think. I love hosting it, but running the group is different from being in it and it can be incompatible with writing. I do still write, and every so often at Hotchpotch somebody will perform something and I’ll think, “I need to respond to that!”. But in any case, I’ve got so many unfinished projects right now that I’m not starting anything new.
CD: What’s the wider creative scene like for writers in Dundee?
GC: I tend to think of Dundee as somewhere that can support one of everything– so there couldn’t be another Hotchpotch, there couldn’t be another NaNoWriMo, but there’s another storytelling group called Blether Tay-Gither that’s all about folk tales. There’s room for them and Hotchpotch. Something I actually think would benefit Dundee more widely is having a dedicated comedy club. There’s a lot of stand-up comedy that goes on, so maybe the weekend could be reserved for comics and there could be more spoken word, avant-garde stuff during the week. I think we could support something like that. Just a small place that people can go and enjoy it and also try things out.
EA: You can literally do anything and everyone will support you. I think when you find the right people here everybody supports everybody.
CD: What can people do to support you?
GC: At the moment, we don’t think we need to scale up the event, it’s good and manageable as it is. But we can always deal with more people coming along! Even if you come, you’ve got no obligation to read. We always need an audience, we always need ears.
EA: We’d love new members, both to Hotchpotch and NaNo– the more the merrier!
If you would like to support us in creating even better content, please consider joining or supporting our Amps Community.