Etiquette for Writers: the Open Mic Night

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 ~

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5 Comments

  1. Ah Katie, this made me smile. I’ve also hosted open mic nights and am amazed at the number of readers who ignore the time allowed. There’s also reading very graphic sex poems. That goes down like an ice cube with the shy, fledgling writers who have come for the first time. And I did once go to an open mic event where a reader outed a member of the local community, who went beet root with embarrassment. Fine to out yourself as gay, transgender or whatever, but leave others to decide what they want to reveal. I also get fed up with mumblers. I’d far rather have the loud ‘poetic’ delivery – though I know that makes some people squirm. Most of the time open mic sessions are a delight, I should say! They always throw up surprises. Thanks for posting. C

    • Oh wow! Outing someone else is a very dramatic turn of events! But yes, I know what you mean about the gratuitously graphic sex poems… Not that I’d ever want to censor anyone’s writing, but sometimes it’s about knowing your audience.

      Another one I forgot to add to this list is: Introducing yourself as ‘a really good poet’.

      But yes, I totally agree – generally I love open mics. I love going in with no idea what surprises the night’s going to bring. 🙂

  2. Great constructive points here for all open-mickers (micers?). Given how popular poetry stand ups have become recently, it’s a great service you do to share these salient insights!

    I (ahem) run an amicable evening once a month in south London attracting a diverse crowd. Personally I love it when readers try to squeeze one more in, even tho the audience are obviously beaming “no more” thru their thoughts, the excitement of having a captive audience to share your latest hits, takes some practice to manage I know!

    One to add to your list might be “have some awareness that your voice needs to go thru the mic”: Each month at least 1 poet will move around near the mic, or sometimes stare – stock-still – deadpan out over our heads, whilst avoiding getting any sound out to the listeners past the first row.

    If you go thru the pain/turmoil of reading at an open-mic event, make sure you get heard…

    • Good point! My open mic is in quite an intimate venue so that isn’t usually an issue, but it’s definitely something I’ve witnessed at other open mics. I know some people who don’t like to use the mic, and just stand to the side of it, which is totally one as a performance choice – as long as your voice is strong enough to carry to the people at the back!

  3. Katie, I think I’m just seeing this because you retweeted it this morning. I attend an open mic regularly in Saint Augustine, FL which takes place in a medium-size theater. We have a few readers who mumble and others who speed read and as a listener, it is difficult to connect the lines at that point. There are a few occasional readers who go WAY over their time with no consideration for the event’s end-time and other readers who will not get to read because of their selfishness. One reader announced, “this took me about 12 minutes to read through last time…” (REALLY?!?!?!?) I have to say the worst experience was one reader announcing, “well, since I have the mic, you have to listen to me” and proceed along a terrible rant about politics, the environment, and various other topics getting very emotional and near chewing on the mic so it was difficult to understand.
    We have a generally mixed audience from so many different background and everyone is mostly welcoming and encouraging. There are the occasional “boos” and “hisses”, which anger me to no end because while I don’t agree with all of the views expressed, we should all be supportive of the artistic reading.
    Even with all of the complaints about etiquette, I enjoy every experience! My first time was just a few months ago and now I am addicted!

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