Photo by Daniel James (licensed under Unsplash Licence)
It’s a Wednesday night in Clapham, and my friend and I are standing outside a gay bar, where I am stopped every so often by people quipping “I loved your poem! Have a great night!” in a way that I thought was exclusive only to my own daydreams about the exuberant London creative scene. Although this isn’t a dream: it is staunchly real, and the product of Poetry LGBT’s wonderful nine-year anniversary open mic night.
Earlier that day, in conversation with the event’s founder, Andreena Leeanne, she explained how and why Poetry LGBT came to be – a story which, as I found out, owes a lot to her talent and passion for community within storytelling. Leeanne started writing thanks to an impromptu birthday present courtesy of her now-fiancé Germaine, and a spontaneous interest in an open mic in February of 2014 ended up leading into an entire year of attending and speaking at least one open mic per month. After reading for the first time and walking off stage to thunderous applause, she confessed to me that she’d never felt that feeling of euphoria before – “nobody had ever clapped for me in my life”. The open mics she then attended became a space for sharing her art where she “found peace”, but still “felt like I had to really censor myself to see whether some of the things I was sharing were going to be suitable for the audience I was in.” There’s a willingly complicated honesty (and bravery) in sharing your writing with others: a trouble that is catalysed if you are a queer writer sharing something explicitly related to, say, a romantic relationship, especially if the crowd appears to be more oppressive than welcoming. Atmospheres like these make it difficult to share the more personal elements of writing – elements which are arguably essential to the creative process.
“I knew that I needed a space where people could write down how they felt, because at the time [going to open mics] was really helping me. I thought, if it can help me,” Leeanne says, “then it can help other people. They need a space that’s non-judgemental and welcoming to share their own writing.” And so in 2015, after asking if she could host an event at Tipsy Bar, a basement bar in Hackney, Poetry LGBT was born, witnessed on its first night by 125 people keen to both indulge in and perhaps share writing in a place free from a hetero-normative gaze. The event moved to a couple of different venues before they settled on Clapham’s ‘The Two Brewers’, which was the bar I attended on Wednesday, the 31st January.
As soon as I walked into the room where the open mic was being hosted, I could tell that the safe space that Andreena wanted to cultivate through Poetry LGBT had been a definitive success. Apart from my friend and I, there were people sitting around us that were incredibly diverse in all ways – and everyone was speaking to one another, revelling in the mood set by the glittering gold stage and raffle tickets in their hands (more on this original addition later). Although people were sitting with their friends, there wasn’t a sense of separation at all; in fact, I saw many people moving chairs to start up conversations with complete strangers, propelled by the newfound confidence that being in a welcoming space affords you. The event was introduced by Andreena herself, and thus began the following few hours of poetry, music, and (at one point) dance.
I’d hate to point out specific performances in this article, because, as Andreena explained to me in her interview, there isn’t a hierarchy at her open mic. “Everyone gets a round of applause, no matter how much you like them”. Throughout the event, she encouraged us to keep clapping for everyone, even if they were just walking up to the stage. This applause is something that Andreena seeks to incorporate into every single person’s performance because the simple act of standing onstage in front of a large group of people and pouring your heart out is a feat of intense bravery, no matter the apparent ‘quality’ of the piece (although, unsurprisingly, everyone that read at Poetry LGBT was incredibly talented). The poems read out by people ranged from short and sweet love stories to much more visceral and genuinely gut-wrenching pieces about the hardships they’d suffered in the past. Most of the performers at the anniversary event read out (or even performed from memory) their own poems, and there were also three acts that performed their own music in an inspiringly immersive way. The vast display of skill and emotion exhibited by those who read was, in fact, so inspiring that I got up during one of the multiple rounds of applause and asked Andreena if I could read one of my own poems, which I’d just written that same day – to which she obliged, meaning that I had unwittingly become the final act of the night.
However, as I got up onto the significantly tall stage and adjusted the microphone in accordance with my height, it didn’t even occur to me to feel afraid. Listening to over twenty people’s stories, and being surrounded by total strangers that clapped with the enthusiasm of football fans whose team had just won the World Cup, I knew that everyone in the room was on my side. There was no space for fear in mine nor anyone’s performances – the people reading before me who had confessed that it was their first time at an open mic seemed completely confident in saying so. What Andreena has created through Poetry LGBT is much more than just an open mic. It is a beautifully inclusive hub for people of all backgrounds, sexualities, and gender identities to share their art without having to stop and wonder if they might regret it afterwards. And take it from someone who’s done it themselves: you won’t regret it in the slightest.
The sense of community afforded through Poetry LGBT was made especially evident during a particularly poignant moment of silence wherein we watched a clip of William Gowans, who was a supporter of Poetry LGBT that sadly passed away in November 2023, reading out one of his wonderful poems. There was a tangible feeling of sadness, yes, but also of overwhelming respect – it almost brought me to tears.
The event ended with a raffle, which Andreena half-joked was solely there “to make sure you stay until the end”, and though I left empty-handed, my heart nevertheless felt full of pride, not only in myself for having read aloud but pride for everyone in that room, poets and non-poets alike, who’d sought out a space to freely express themselves, or who’d tagged along with friends that wanted support, or who simply wanted to read something they’d scribbled down moments before walking in. The lack of judgement in Poetry LGBT was accentuated, too, by the welcoming joy of Andreena Leeanne’s organisation (and our previous interview). Her intention of creating an event focused on expression without the barrier of scrutiny has blossomed into something truly worth witnessing. Poetry LGBT is a testament to the beauty of writing – and how it is the people who write that make it beautiful. “Writing isn’t a competition,” Leeanne tells me after I ask what she has to say to those who want to write but don’t know where to begin, “and the only advice I really have is: start. Just start. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Start from anywhere and move forward from there. People don’t need permission to write whatever they want, but I think literature can be quite exclusive, quite daunting. And I just think that people should know that, though there is a space for academia, there’s also a space for us misfits, who just write down whatever we want in whatever style we want. It’s about creativity and expression.”
If you want to experience this creativity and expression in real life, be sure to follow @poetrylgbt on Instagram for updates on upcoming open mics and events, whether they are through Zoom or in person.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor