Spoken Word Istanbul: where Freedom of Speech runs the show.
Spoken Word Istanbul is the biggest open-microphone community in Turkey. I met Merve, the founder and host, to discus about that and what's going on there every week.
[N]- Hi, Merve! Who are you? What do you do in your life? Tell us something about you...
I am a twenty nine year old translator and writer based in Istanbul with two cities Paris and Rome sitting in my heart like parted lovers. I love the clouds especially under Roman sky. I also love the Bosporus when it turns silver blue before the rain. Five years ago I wanted to be Odette de Crécy and Daisy Buchanan, two fictional women characters in Proust and Fitzgerald. Part of me still wants to be like them but I largely grew out of that yearning. I can also run two miles if you tell me you have a giant bowl of raspberries waiting for me.
What is "Spoken Word Istanbul"? How does it work? What are the rules?
Spoken Word İstanbul is the biggest open microphone community in Istanbul, hosting writers, poets, singers, stand-up comedians, improvization artists, stand-up comedians and every other person who feel like sharing their words with an audience. We offer a stage for six minutes. It is quite simple, those who want to perform on a given night show up half an hour before we start and I sign them up. Then we start the night, without ever knowing how it will turn out! The rules are that we are not racist, sexist or homophobic. Other than that, every verbal expression is welcome.
When did it start? Where did you found that? Why?
We started in 2012. We are inspired by Spoken Word Paris run and shaped by the Anglophone literary community in that city. I lived in Paris seven years ago and became a part of that community which I still have strong ties with. When I came back to Turkey, I said “Why not in Istanbul?” I wanted to find English-speaking writers and poets based in or visiting the city, motivated by a sense of joining kindred spirits. Looking back on the four years since we started and the people I have met in Spoken Word Istanbul, I guess we have attracted just the right type of performers I had in mind.
I came to SWI different times and I felt a big sense of community. I'm kinda feeling home even if nobody can speak Italian. How's this possible? How did you put together all these artists and friends?
For many years I have struggled with the idea of vulnerability and strength. I tried to go about my life with a heavy lump in my chest that felt like slow death. I’ve always wanted to connect with people, reach out to strangers in a safe environment, hear their stories, let them be themselves so that I could also be myself with all the imperfections I tried so hard to cover up. I still struggle with it and Spoken Word Istanbul helps my fight. This really is a place where you can be yourself without any pretense, shame, fear of judgment or ridicule. We sometimes try so hard to look more than we are, thinking perhaps others are always better than us whereas in fact it’s ok to be less. And more than ok to learn from others with an open heart. So that sense of community and feeling at home at Spoken Word İstanbul, I believe, developed with this motivation to be and let be. I don’t exactly know how it is maintained though, it’s still part magic to me. I host and try to set a positive and encouraging tone to the night but I do not prefer anyone above another or govern the content of the performed work. Some performances shine out like shooting stars, some others are dimmer, but we never know about anything in advance. I also believe that when you share a piece of yourself on stage, be it with confidence and self-contentment or nervousness or both, you communicate the message that it’s safe to do so. SWİ is where you form great friendships because it’s where you find likeminded people who are willing to share, listen and respect.
At SWI people share personal issues in different ways, from poetry to stand up comedy. Do you think that art can help going through tough moments sometimes?
I absolutely believe in that. A former Spoken Worder came to Istanbul shortly after breaking up with his fiancée and became a regular pretty quickly. Each night at Spoken Word, he started or finished by saying how much he loved Lucia and how she left him. Over time, I could see how this was a form of release for him, talking about his experience and reading work inspired by his love for Lucia. Sometimes we have poets whose very voice and performing style reflect a clenching sense of anger or resentment. Expressing emotion can be therapeutic especially within a social environment that’s welcoming and respectful like Spoken Word İstanbul. On a personal level, Spoken Word helped me go through the most difficult period of my life by helping me connect with other people who would sympathize with or echo my pain. I wrote monologues to divide and externalize my idea of selfhood, acted out a different woman each time or two women simultaneously. I was testing the waters of being and becoming.
Can you tell us some top moments of SWI?
Recently, Ahmed, an Egyptian friend joined SWI. He performed several times, mostly funny acts with a clever twist on cultural stereotyping. One night, he took the stage again and said in advance: I'm sorry I won't do a funny piece tonight. Then he talked about how his friend was killed by a short-range rifle in front of his eyes. He read a poem about him. Shocking? Yes. Touching? Most definitely. How it touched each one of us in the audience is another story, considering we are a rich mixture of people with very different backgrounds.
On a contrasting but equally powerful tone, we have Lisa, a fearless writer and performer who reads erotica, taking all of us by storm. Shocking? Yes. Titillating? Oh yes. Both performances happen in a single night and nothing is to be predicted beforehand. And that's the beauty of Spoken Word İstanbul.
Any project in the next future?
We have just launched our website www.spokenwordistanbul.com
We are also considering a sister spoken word event in Istanbul, exclusively in Turkish, but this is still a thought we are developing. We organized our first writers' retreat in Datça in June. We will do another one possibly in the fall.