Tips for performing at poetry and spoken word open mic nights
Advice on how to make your poetry reading debut go well
This article is from 2012.
Reading your own poems out loud to a room full of strangers might sound terrifying. Having done it a few times myself, I can confirm that it is. But with the number of poetry open mic nights in Scotland increasing, sometimes eclipsing their musical cousins, there must be a reason why so many people put themselves through it. So if you’ve penned a few verses and are considering taking the plunge, what should you look out for?
‘Open mic attendees are probably the most open-minded folks you could ever hope to meet,’ says Claire Askew, fellow open mic veteran and now Shore Poet, who blogs poetry advice at OneNightStanzas.com.
Harry Giles, a spoken word performer and one of the organisers of Edinburgh’s Inky Fingers open mic, agrees. ‘Open mics are usually supportive, encouraging places to be. Like many writers, I'm not the best at fitting into communities, but the spoken word community really welcomed me when I first started six or seven years ago, right from the get-go.’
Supportive and open-minded your audience may well be, but that’s probably not going to calm your pre-performance jitters completely. So how should you prepare to read poems that have barely seen light beyond the underside of your mattress, let alone a pub filled with expectant poetry fans?
1. Pick the right night
Firstly, make sure you’ll be going to the event that’ll be most appropriate for your writing. ‘If you can, find one that's all poetry or spoken word -- no music,’ says Askew. ‘ I once had to read my poems after a set from an apocalyptic punk band. Somehow it just didn't quite work!’
The Magic Carpet Cabaret is the go-to regular poetry open mic event in Glasgow, while in Edinburgh you can take your pick from Inky Fingers, Blind Poetics or the upcoming Wince!, which encourages you to read your awful first drafts and cringe-inducing teenage diary entries to an audience. Like all good open mics, it’s part literature, part social event, part therapy.
Most spoken word open mic nights will do their best to make newcomers feel at home. ‘We [Inky Fingers] put a lot of effort into supporting first-timers as much as possible,’ says Giles. ‘We'll make sure the audience gives you a big cheer and a round of applause, and we'll encourage people to give you helpful feedback on your work.’
2. Take a pal
Nothing is more confidence-boosting than a fan club. Askew says it’s important to pick an event ‘in a place and on a night that your friends can make it along to. These things always seem way less nerve-wracking with at least one friendly face in the audience.’
And you never know what you might learn about your nearest and dearest if you convince them to be your poetry groupies. I once brought a reluctant friend to an open mic, promising her I’d buy her a pint afterwards. She was so taken by the atmosphere of come-and-have-a-go creativity that she penned her first ever poem during the interval and read it on stage in the second half.
3. Time your poems
‘You're probably going to be limited to a time slot,’ says Askew. ‘Running over at an open mic is generally seen as pretty rude.
‘I always advise doing at least one run-through of your whole set before you get to the mic. You may feel like a bit of a twit reading poems aloud to yourself in your bedroom, but nevertheless, I still swear by it.’ Poetry open mic is performance like any other, and performance needs practice.
4. Be prepared to laugh
I once had a reading interrupted by a gang of wandering accordionists bursting into the pub, taking it upon themselves to do some musical heckling. Another time, as soon as I came off stage, a drunk man asked me if I would kill a baby to save my own life. Open mics tend to attract eccentrics, so it’s best not to take yourself too seriously before you read, as the evening can quite easily slip into the absurd.
But then, at other events, I’ve been given a free mince pie, met some great friends and been asked to send some poems to be published in a magazine. You can never quite know what to expect, and for many readers, that’s all part of the open mic charm.
And finally, the golden rule…
5. Don’t leave as soon as you’ve read
It’s considered the height of rudeness, akin to insulting the other readers to their faces. But if you prepare well and stay til the end, bringing with you a support team and an open mind, after your first stint on stage you might just find you’re a convert. Reading out loud to a roomful of strangers might sound like torture, but a brave few embrace the challenge. When you do finally get up on stage, Giles’ advice is simple: ‘Remember how to breathe. Do whatever it is you do to relax. When you get to the stage, smile, say hello, check your sound levels, and give it everything you've got.’