Inky Interview Special: Debz Butler from Testify: with Claire Faulkner

Debz Butler runs Testify, a community organisation which organises open mic nights and writing workshops in Chester. Testify prides itself on delivering poetry without the pretension, and whether you’re a first timer or an experienced performer, everyone is welcome. We were delighted when Debz agreed to talk to us about Testify…

Have you always been interested in poetry?

Not really. I’ve always written short stories and really loved reading, but poetry wasn’t really on my radar. I thought that because I didn’t know about form, that anything I wrote could never be ‘proper’. It was only in 2016 that I gained the confidence to call what I was writing poetry.

What made you decide to share and perform your own work?

I wanted to see if what I was writing was ‘real’ poetry so decided to go to an open mic night. I went to Sale Write Out Loud and was instantly hooked. I went, not intending to perform, but got up at the very last minute and loved it. It was such a great buzz to share something so personal. It was so inspiring to hear other people perform, I think a really important trait of being a performer is learning from others. With open mic nights, sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right supportive space for you. I was very lucky that I landed on the right one for me on my first go.

What inspires you to write?

My own life experiences mostly. I try writing what’s happening in the news but my personal feelings always end up in there. I have to do a lot of editing on my work to make sure it’s not just me ranting to the sky. In 2018, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and apart from journalling, I couldn’t write throughout my treatment. I’m only just managing to confront that experience and write about it. I think its an important lesson in giving things time.

I’ve seen you perform a few times now. I love what you do, I think my favourite at the moment is Moon Cup. But I was also very moved by some of your work about nursing. You bring a realism and share experiences in poetry which many women can relate to. How do audiences react to your work?

I’ve generally had good responses to my work, people say they can relate to it. You have to gauge your audience though, sometimes the mood in the room dictates what I perform. At Testify, I always perform first to ‘warm up the mic’ and how many people are there/how enthusiastic they are, has a big influence on what I perform.

You organise and run Testify, (when we’re all allowed out), a poetry night in Chester, which is great, by the way. I think there was definitely a need for a regular performance poetry night in the city. Can you tell us a bit about Testify and the reasons you started it?

I had found a couple of open mic nights I loved but they were predominantly in Manchester. I found Chester Poets but it is on a Thursday, when I didn’t have regular childcare. I continued to go to the Manchester nights for about a year, then during the Chester Literature Festival I got talking to the artistic director about how the Storyhouse would be the perfect venue for a regular open mic night. He told me that he’d give me the space if I ran it – and so Testify was born!

After 2 months, we outgrew the space in the Storyhouse and so moved to Hanky Panky Pancakes – our forever home.

What has been the reaction to Testify?

Overwhelmingly positive and supportive. We have a good group of regulars now who show up, as well as a constant stream of new people. Testify isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. There are other groups out there. Some people disagree with Testify’s ethos of ‘be supportive to everyone’ and say we shouldn’t applaud mediocre work. I disagree. I didn’t start the night to make people feel shit about themselves. The number one rule of Testify is ‘don’t be dick’ and if you can’t abide by that, then we aren’t for you.

Since the lockdown, Testify has moved online. You’ve been sharing ideas, poetry and prompts. Can anyone join the Testify Facebook group?

Absolutely. Even if you never have any intention of coming to a Testify night or are going to leave straight after lockdown is over, you are welcome in the group.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for new poets?

Keep reading, keep writing, keep watching. Your first work will be shit. That’s fine. Find an open mic night or writing group that suits you and stick with it. Whenever I feel blocked, being around other writers always inspires me. Always read the submission guidelines.

Who are your favourite poets? What are you reading at the moment?

Thats a hard one! My all time fave is Dominique Christina who is an American poet and slam winner. Her work always makes me cry.

Leanne Moden’s work always blows me away, as does Maz Hedgehog. Nick Degg is bloody brilliant as well. Rosie Garland is always an absolute master in performance and writing.

I don’t read a lot of poetry, I prefer to watch videos on YouTube or see people live, but David Subacchi’s latest collection, Where is Wales, is beautiful, as is, When Women Fly, by Sarah Pritchard.

Where can we find more of your work?

I have a page on the website with links to my published work.

I’ve also been featured in ‘These are the hands’, a poetry anthology featuring NHS staff. All profits are going to the COVID-19 emergency fund and people can buy a copy here.

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