Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Top tips for Open Mic Virgins

Yes, this image is indeed relevant.
I don’t normally like to write ‘instructive’ blog posts, but I was having a chat about the subject of Open Mic with a friend the other day. It got me thinking about the value of participating on the Open Mic and the various pleasures and pains that accompany this type of performance. The first one I ever did was at the tender age of nineteen, I’m not purporting to be an expert here by no means, but I’d like to share what I think works.
I’ve seen some rather cruel things written about Open Mic. Yes, we know that sometimes the standard is mixed; not everyone who gets on stage is either going to be an extraordinary slam poet or a serious candidate for the T.S. Eliot prize, but I don’t think that’s the point. It's a democratic experience; it gives people a chance to share their work, but it also gets people in through the door to events as well. It can also be rather educational. You might just surprise yourself when you perform to an audience and learn things about your own work that you never realized before as well as escaping your ‘comfort zone.’ Similarly, you can also learn from other people’s performances.

Ok, La List:

1. When an organiser says a reader has 3 minutes and isn’t allowed to go over and read more than 2 poems then you must absolutely stick to this, no ifs and buts. This is not the time for your 2,000 line epic on the reformation of the Church of England, written in iambic heptameter. " It'll only take 20 minutes, okay 30, no one will mind," you say. Er, no. You want a few friends in the audience, don’t you?

2. Have you actually read your work before the event? I mean out loud, even if it’s to a row of teddy bears in your bedroom? Have you figured out where the stresses should be and how your voice could be used effectively?

2 a) just because something is a ‘page poem’ doesn’t mean you can’t do a lively and stimulating reading, in fact it may work in a much more subtle and effective way. This is better than doing a foghorn impression of what you think is a ‘performance poem.’

3. Look up now and again at people, don’t just clutch a sheet of paper in front of your face, this works better if you have followed no.2 in this list.

4. Punctuation – use it! Respect your full stops, pause when necessary, don’t pause when it isn’t required. I recall once losing the thread and staring into space for a second, that killed my ‘flow.’ Dingbat. You live and learn. (4a - you're only human.)

5. Can you read your own handwriting?

6. Don’t overdo the intro, if it takes you 5 minutes to introduce a six line poem then you have to wonder if the poem actually works by itself. Don’t tell the story first, have a bit of mystery, but by all means mention – briefly – what your audience may be interested to hear.

7. Out of courtesy, if you are going to mention ‘other stuff’ i.e. a fab new comp you’re running, tell the organiser first.

8. What’s the event? Poetry? Oh so, you’re going to read an extract from your novel instead? Our survey said, ‘I don’t think so.’ At least ask the organiser, some places are more flexible than others.

9. Don’t offend people please… they don’t like it. I once had to endure something bordering on misogynistic, it was awful. I didn’t clap, not many people did. Avoid arrogance, people don’t like it either. They like confidence though and clear delivery.
9a. As much as arrogance is a pain, don't be all coy and apologetic. Avoid saying things like 'this is a crap poem,' just read the darn thing.

10. Enjoy! It’s your space. You can make friends and be part of a supportive crowd. Also, you never know who’s listening…

Please comment if you have any thoughts on this.


  1. Sound advice Maria and well written. I think at you have covered a lot of good points.I would add that slowing down is a good thing, i.e not reading too quickly(unless you are good at it and it is part of the performance). The issue of ofending people is interesting as the offending reader may not know that their veiws are offensive. If any misogynistic poets are out there planning to perform, please drop me a line me know as I am willing to break my 'no heckling' rule for you.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Roy. I think reading slowly and carefully is number 11 on the list. With regards to offensive readers, I'm just reminded of a man who thought the women in the auidence were merely there for his sexual gratification.

    My 'tips' are based on what I've observed. If I had a pound for very trembling set of hands...

  3. Gary’s Further Top Tips for Open Mic Virgins

    1.Try and visit the event as a spectator only at least once before. Each event has its own character and modus operandi. Your ability to fit / make an impact will be enhanced.

    2.If you nave not visited the event as a spectator before, ask to be placed towards the end so that you can get a feel for proceedings first.

    3.Have a selection of material ready. If you can capture, or challenge, the zeitgeist of the evening, that may help you to prosper – and you can never anticipate what the person before you may just have read.

    4.If you need to wear glasses to read – wear them.

    5.The stage can be dark, large fonts on scripts are good.

    6.Either mark the pages on the book from which you are to read clearly, ideally with protruding coloured adhesive labels, or print off individual numbered sheets, one page per poem. The rising panic in the voice of the poet who gasps, “I know it’s in here somewhere” benefits neither the poet nor the audience.

    7.If you are going to use an e-reader, make sure that you can work it beforehand.

    8.No poem, however good, is any good , if it cannot be heard. Ideally , ask a friend to sit at the back to signal you if you are too quiet (or too loud).

    9.Open mic venues often have irregular seating. Make a point of addressing various parts of the room. If you are not interested in them, do not expect them to be interested in you.

    10.One good poem is enough to be appreciated by the audience, who will anticipate subsequent appearances by you with enthusiasm. Attempting to deliver your collected works in three minutes rarely succeeds.

    Oh, and be nice to the organiser!

  4. Hi Gary, I think 1 and 2 on your list are absolutely spot on. I would say that my list is a beginner's one whereas yours is the 'advanced' one. The experienced open mic-er knows how to respond and adapt their work to different audiences. I also think a little bit of devil-may-care is important; you are an individual so you're entitled to do what you want, but delivering it in the ways both lists have outlined is helpful too. BTW the next Nine Arches shindig is on Monday 22nd August, so hope to see you there, Gary!

  5. Maria,thanks, and I second your "Devil -may-care" observation, although choosing when to go with the flow, and when to challenge it, is an inexact science!

    I hope to be with you on the 22nd in the company of author David Calcutt.

    Your blog is always a pleasure to read.