Open Mic Poetry Readings

Recently I’ve read at Leicester’s Shindig (organised by Nine Arches and Crystal Clear Creators) and Word! which both support open mic readings as part of their programme. Both these benefit from good organisation and having a core of regular attendees so it’s easy for a newcomer to feel welcomed and included.

Open mic events are good ways of reaching an audience, networking with other poets and can provide opportunities to indirectly promote your work. However, they are multi-reader events and each has their own brand and conventions. Keep in mind your audience will be other poets and/or poetry readers. They know your book won’t be available in the local bookshop and will seek you out if they appreciate your reading. Your poems are your best advertisement so present them to their best advantage.

Successful Open Mic Readers

  • Know how long their time slot is and stick to it
  • Rehearse
  • Check what facilities are available beforehand and turn up early (or at least on time)
  • Wear ‘quiet’ clothes – this isn’t about vibrant colours, strong geometric patterns, clashing tweeds or neon hair dye, but silk can rustle, leather squeak, bangles jangle and chandelier earrings chime, noises that might seem faint but can be picked up and amplified by microphones making it harder for your audience to hear your poem
  • Give some thought to how their poems should be introduced
  • Only read the poems they’ve introduced
  • If reading from a page, ensure they can do so easily and without holding the page directly in front of their face
  • If reading from a mobile phone or tablet, have checked the screen settings have been adjusted for the lighting in venue
  • If reading from memory, do so fluently
  • Acknowledge the audience – stand or sit so they can be seen
  • Take a couple of seconds to adjust the height of the microphone if necessary
  • Read poems appropriate to the time slot they have – in a short time slot it’s better to stick to individual stand-alone poems; if you really want to read from a sequence and isn’t time for the whole sequence, pick the parts that stand-alone and represent the sequence rather than two linking sections that need a long explanation before reading
  • Are aware of potentially distracting habits – no one stands completely still when reading, but if you over-do your arm gestures or try to act out your poem you might find the audience are watching you and not listening to your poem
  • Don’t beg the audience to laugh at jokes or dictate how to react or when to applaud
  • Remember they are not the only poet reading
  • Show the compere respect – checks beforehand about running order and event conventions
  • Check with the compere about acceptable marketing – some events run bookstalls, some events only allow the featured readers to promote their books. It’s fine to mention that the poems you’re reading at the event are available in your publication, but not to remind the audience after every poem and again when you’ve read your last poem
  • Don’t hurry off as soon as they have finished reading (unless they need to and have warned the organiser in advance)
  • Listen to the other poets reading while waiting their turn
  • Help promote the event

Unsuccessful Open Mic Readers

  • Turn up unprepared – the hurried shifting through a file full of poems, telling the audience “I’ll read this one, oh I’ve not got it with me, I’ll read this one instead”, the running out of breath because the caesura in line five was ignored, over-running because of the assumption that the time slot refers to reading time and doesn’t include time wasted searching for poems or introducing them.
  • Forget or ignore their time slot so either overrun or have to be told to stop reading
  • Lack of rehearsal – it is glaringly obvious to the audience if you haven’t read your poem aloud a few times before your open mic slot. Reading aloud should be part of your drafting and writing poems. Showcasing that poem you scribbled on the back of an envelope on the bus on the way to the venue is not going to give a good impression of your poetry. Most of your audience will be writers and/or readers of poetry so will know the difference between a good yet-to-be-published poem and a rough draft
  • Fail to check what facilities are available and complain about the lack of a lectern or other equipment during their time slot
  • Wear noisy clothes – jewellery that clashes, squeaky leather or textiles that rustle, especially when the reader tends to sway or shuffle about when reading
  • Introductions are hasty, ill-thought out or too long. A gabbled introduction is worse than no introduction, an introduction that focuses on the layout of the poem or the formal structure used in the poem isn’t much use to an audience who don’t have a copy of the text in front of them. If your introduction’s longer than your poem, it’s too long.
  • Talk about poems they’re not reading – the audience doesn’t care if you decided not to read your poem scribbled that afternoon or that poem you wrote for an anniversary if they can’t hear these poems and you’re wasting valuable reading time
  • Insert their poems in glossy folder inserts so the text is obscured by reflections from overhead lighting
  • Produce scrappy bits of paper where some of the ink/handwriting has rubbed off and the reader has to pause to work out what word was supposed to be there
  • Read from a mobile phone or tablet without practicing how to scroll through a document and keep reading at the same time, thus leaving the audience trying to figure out which pauses are intentional and which are unintentional and forgetting entirely about the actual poem
  • Squint at their poems because they haven’t thought about the font size in relation to their eyesight or have forgotten their glasses or are wearing the wrong glasses
  • Hold their page/device in front of their face so it’s impossible to lip read and creates a barrier between audience and reader as well as making it more difficult for the reader to project their voice
  • Begin to read from memory but lack of rehearsal or nerves mean there are frequent pauses while the reader tries to remember the next line or the poem is abandoned part-way through because the reader didn’t bring a printed copy to refer to
  • Don’t acknowledge the audience – if you fail to look at the audience, mumble, stand or sit so you can’t be seen easily you’ve lost the audience
  • Fail to adjust the height of the microphone – you can’t read properly if you’re cramped over a microphone that’s too low or balancing on tiptoes because the microphone’s too high and if you don’t use the provided microphone, your audience might not be able to hear you (even if you shout; one academic was finally persuaded to use a microphone when an audience member who was hard of hearing complained she couldn’t lip read the academic’s accent and couldn’t use the hearing loop because it depended on the microphone being used)
  • Don’t read poems appropriate to the time slot – either by trying to cram in a long poem to a short slot or not selecting stand-alone poems when there’s no time for a whole sequence. Don’t think you can cram more poems in by reading them faster: your audience won’t have the text in front of them and, especially if it’s a poem they’re not familiar with, will struggle to keep up
  • Beg the audience to laugh at jokes or tell them not to clap or when to clap – it’s not the audience’s fault if they don’t get your jokes and it’s not up to you if the audience want to clap or not
  • Behave as if they are the only poet reading – if you want to do a solo performance, arrange your own
  • Fail to respect the compere – start their slot by criticising what the compere’s said or complains their name has been mispronounced (because they didn’t check with the compere first), doesn’t leave the stage if asked to or complains about the venue or the running order
  • Fail to check what marketing is acceptable and wastes most of their time slot trying to sell their books rather than reading.
  • Hurry off as soon as they’ve finished reading. If you do have to leave, e.g. to catch public transport or because of a family emergency, try to tell or warn the compere or tell someone in the audience or make explain afterwards
  • Fail to listen to other poets but shuffles through their poems, reads through the poems they intend to read, fidgets distractedly, heckles or otherwise deters others from listening. If you can’t be bothered to listen to others, why should others listen to you?
  • Fail to help promote the event. Most open mic events have a regular audience but also need your support in keeping and expanding that audience. You may not be able to drag friends and family to every event, but you can tweet, post links and tell people about the event

Can you think of anything I’ve missed are there any good or bad points you’d like to add?

By Emma Lee

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4 Responses to “Open Mic Poetry Readings”

  1. Open Mic Poetry Readings | Poetry News | Scoop... Says:

    […] Recently I’ve read at Leicester’s Shindig (organised by Nine Arches and Crystal Clear Creators) and Word! which both support open mic readings as part of their programme. Both these benefit from go…  […]

  2. direcleit Says:

    Reblogged this on e-poetry/d-lights and commented:
    Much of what is written here applies to any literary presentation…and makes all the difference for the audience…

  3. jaynestanton Says:

    A comprehensive list, Emma.
    Further to your point re keeping within the time allotted, always leave your audience wanting more. If you’re a regular at a particular open mic event, you want your listeners to look forward to hearing you next time.

  4. Abdul karim Baryalai Says:

    Sound and gesture combination eye to eye contact is unavoidable presending poem irrespective of the listener seriousness.


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