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Industry Insider Jen Cosgrove

Jen Cosgrove. Photo by Anna Stewart

‘How Hotchpotch Happened’ is the first in our ‘Industry Insider’ series. Jennifer Cosgrove is a journalist, writer and organiser of Hotchpotch. She lives in Dundee, and started the open mic night ‘Hotchpotch Dundee’. ‘Hotchpotch Dundee’ is an evening for people interested in creative writing, poetry and literature. It is an opportunity to hear local writers read from their work, to read something out yourself on the open mic – whether it’s your own work or your favourite piece of prose or poetry – and to meet people with similar interests. Jen discusses how she started and organised an open mic night in Dundee.

How Hotchpotch Happened

by Jennifer Cosgrove

Some may say reading a book ­– or writing one, if you are so inclined – is a solitary activity. But one thing I have discovered is a love of words has the power to unite.

I moved from Dundee to Edinburgh to work as a journalist in 2008 and immediately became involved with the Capital’s buzzing literary scene. Home to the world’s largest book festival, Auld Reekie was named the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004 and also houses organisations such as The National Library of Scotland, The Scottish Poetry Library and The Scottish Storytelling Centre. As you might well imagine, there was no shortage of things to do literature-wise, with author events every other week and evenings such as the monthly City of Literature salons for writers and people working in the publishing industry, and spoken word events such as The Golden Hour at the Forest Cafe and Writers’ Bloc.

When I moved back to Dundee the following year, there was a burgeoning literary scene that had started to emerge while I was away thanks to the creative writing department at the University of Dundee. While I missed the opportunities I’d had in Edinburgh to meet new people and discuss writing, the monthly salons organised by Literary Dundee and held at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) were proof that people in the city wanted to come together to share a love of literature and conversation. One thing Dundee appeared to be lacking, however, was an open mic night – an opportunity for people to share their own work with like-minded folk in a welcoming and encouraging setting.

Hotchpotch Event. Photo by Anna Stewart

It was something I had considered trying to organise for a few months (having been to a number in Edinburgh), and the first time I spoke to a group of people about creating such an evening – there had been a Literary Dundee salon in DCA and a few of us had convened in the downstairs bar for chips, drinks and conversation. Sitting at the table were the two established Scottish novelists who had been appearing at the salon; Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh. I remember being struck by how interested they were in what all the people at the table did – and also what the literary scene was like in Dundee.

I started talking to Zoe who, as well as being an author, also taught creative writing at the University of Glasgow. I asked her how easy she thought it would be to set up an open mic night and her advice was to start small – it would gradually grow, she said, as the months progressed and word spread.

She was incredibly encouraging about it and when Louise overheard what we were discussing, she too agreed it was worth a try. I decided there and then I was going to give it a go and I asked people at the table to write down their names and email addresses. That’s how the mailing list began.

Jen Cosgrove at Hotchpotch. Photo by Anna Stewart.

After scouting out a venue that I could book at no cost and that could provide a set of speakers (I had a mic and mic stand from previously being in a band!), I came up with the name Hotchpotch one morning while I was getting ready for work.  In the dictionary, the definition of a hotchpotch is: ‘a confused mixture, a jumble’ and since I had no idea who would come along, it seemed quite apt.

To get the word out, I set up a Facebook group page and also sent an email out to the people I had spoken to at DCA. I made some small flyers on my home computer and distributed these in cafes and other venues, and with the help and support of Literary Dundee, the word got out to the wider literary community.

While all of our members have access to email, not all have an account on the social networking site Facebook, so I always make sure I send out general announcements via email. The Facebook site is useful, though, as it is a forum for people who want to share views about Hotchpotch and writing in general, and it certainly adds to this sense of community.

The first Hotchpotch in March 2010 at Braes Bar got off to a great start with a number of people reading, while others just came along to see what it was all about. The event was also bolstered from the outset by the kind support of Literary Dundee, which still sponsors the first two bottles of house wine, enabling early birds to have a glass on arrival. Any up-coming events are announced during the welcome at the start of the evening.

After the first Hotchpotch, I received a lot of positive feedback and many people said they were pleased it took place and were anxious to discover if it would happen again. From then on, there has been one every month, with the exception of major holidays and also adverse weather. At times when my life is busy, Hotchpotch can seem like a lot of work, but all that has to be done each month is a booking confirmed with the venue, regular Facebook message updates and email reminder to the mailing list a week prior to the event.

On the evening itself, I go early to the bar to set up the room and I host the evening ­– making announcements about other literary events and co-ordinating people who want to read to make sure everyone gets a turn at the mic. Sometimes the only thing I wish I could do is not be in charge for one night, so that I could enjoy Hotchpotch from the perspective of a participant as opposed to an organiser. While I still read my own work from time to time, I always feel I am responsible for the smooth running of the night, and I can’t really afford to let my attention slip.

I did make a point of letting my hair down a little for the first birthday party in March 2011, however. I thought it would be worth the while having a celebratory theme, so I checked with staff at Braes it was acceptable to have a wee party and then put out an open invitation for people to bring along savoury and sweet treats. I had fun at the supermarket buying all kinds of silly “First Birthday” paraphernalia, including balloons, a candle in the shape of a number one and streamers.

Although it wasn’t really someone’s birthday, it did feel as though we had a genuine occasion to celebrate – a year ago, something had been born and we had all played a part in helping it flourish. In retrospect, I suppose it was a party to say ‘Thank You’ to those who had been supportive throughout the year. After all, there is no Hotchpotch without the people who come along to read or listen. To thank us for our loyalty, Braes was kind enough to open a couple of complimentary bottles of fizz and that, along with the wine sponsored by Literary Dundee, a mountain of food and – as always – some great readings, meant it was rollicking good fun all round.

As Hotchpotch approaches its second anniversary, there is still much growing to be done. While it has a core of loyal members, it’s important to keep welcoming new faces and new voices, especially since some members are transient to the city due to further education or employment opportunities.

Dundee is rich with talent and filled with exciting stories and voices, whether they be local or international. Still, one of the nicest things for me is to look at people chatting at the end of a night while I am dismantling the mic stand and taking down the posters. It is then that I realise the majority of those conversing met because of Hotchpotch. It’s a real pleasure to know such a thing can bring people with an interest in words and writing together and there is great power in that kind of unity.

Hotchpotch generally takes place on the last Monday of every month and is held in the basement of Braes Bar on Perth Road in Dundee and admission is free. To keep up to date, join the mailing list: hotchpotch.dundee@gmail.com or “Like” Hotchpotch Dundee on Facebook.

Watch a video about Hotchpotch made by local writer Rob Currie.

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2 thoughts on “Industry Insider Jen Cosgrove

  1. hi, would just like to say hi to shortbread people from Sydney Australia…and wishing you all a wonderful 2012 with good writing and good friendships. I lead a very busy life but- my new year resolution is to apply myself and send some contributions in for you….

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