I started going to open mic nights regularly when I was 18 and at university. Every week or two, I would catch the train into London and read at Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. It was a friendly and encouraging introduction to the open mic scene, and I became more confident performing my work to a bunch of strangers.

Since then, I’ve lost count of how many open mic nights I’ve been to. I’ve read in open mics at festivals, in bars, and in cafes, across two continents. I even run one every month at Penrith Old Fire Station.

Most of the time open mics are enjoyable and a fun way to spend an evening. But now and then, things happen. The balance tips, and writers start behaving badly. Sometimes, it’s a subtle thing that some of the audience may not even notice. Sometimes it’s so obvious it becomes a talking point for numerous open mic nights to come – a kind of writerly water cooler moment.

Guerrilla Poetry at Deptford Lounge

All of the following are based on real encounters at real open mic nights over the years:

HOW NOT TO READ AT AN OPEN MIC NIGHT:

  • Go over your time. Everyone has been asked to stick to 3 minutes, or 2 poems, and everyone obediently does. Not you though – you sneak an extra poem in there, and double your time. Nobody will mind, right? Not when your stuff is ‘so much better’ than everybody else’s?
  • Read an epic. It’s your pride and joy and took you years to complete – surely that means everyone else should sit politely through all 17 pages of it?
  • Stand up, announce that you’ve only ever written one poem but would like to take this opportunity to share it – then proceed to do so for the next 45 minutes.
  • Scroll through your phone and catch up on social media while other people are reading.
  • Have a chat in the middle of someone else’s set.
  • Leave as soon as you’ve read your poem.
  • Put your name down to perform, then leave without telling anybody before your set.
  • Keep your phone on loud. If you get a phone call in the middle of someone’s set, well that’s ok – your social life is much more important than their poem.
  • When that phone you forgot to put on silent does ring out: answer it, then have a conversation about how you can’t talk now, because you’re at an open mic night.
  • Heckle (unless you’re 100% sure that it’s the kind of night that allows this, and that the performer expects this). You think the performer is an ‘arrogant sod’? Well, why not shout out and tell him so in the middle of his next poem?
  • Film the performers without asking them first – especially if you’re not the organiser.
  • Use the last bit of your set to plug your own open mic night, which is ‘better than this one’.
  • Go to the bar in the middle of someone’s reading, especially if the bar is on the other side of the performance space, and you have to physically move the performer half way through their poem, in order to get past.

And that’s about it! Any other open mic horror stories to share? I’d love to hear them – share in the comments.

~ dates & details of Word Mess open mic night in Penrith, Cumbria ~