LITERARY ADVICE – JOIN THE OPEN MIC/SPOKEN WORD SCENE AND IMPROVE YOUR WORDPOWER
I’ve been reading my poems at open mic events for around seven years. It didn’t come easily at all. I was somewhat taken aback as in my day job I could get up and lecture over two-hundred students on the first day of the semester with no qualms, but faced with a room full of twenty or so friendly poets my knees would literally knock together. Poetry is so personal, it feels as if you are baring your soul, and you need a good organiser and a supportive open mic community to bolster you through the experience. In the UK open mic slots are generally very short, one poem or two minutes, compared to longer slots at US events. Many spoken word events welcome prose too. Flash fiction works well in the time slots available and some events feature writers who read excerpts from their novels/short story collections.
So why do we put ourselves through this literary torture? What are the advantages of these events?
David Leo Sirois is a Canadian-American poet who organised a regular spoken word event in Paris, Open Secret, for many years, and now hosts Spoken World On-line on Tuesday evenings. He says, “It has radically changed my work from being over-thought page poetry to work with a ‘singing” & “storytelling’ lyrical flow, with a skill for holding audience attention for extended periods of time. Now my poetry can be absorbed well when heard aloud and when read.” He is a great advocate for spoken word events and believes they are a great way to discover one’s own ‘voice’ as a writer, and strengthen it; to try new work out on a live audience, and see what feels right, while seeing live audience response which helps participants to gain confidence in performing and in sharing work.
You don’t have to be a performance poet to read your poetry at these events. In the UK there has been some tension between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poets at times but at these events the boundaries blur as everyone listens attentively whether it’s a performance/reading or mixture of the two.
Phil Hawtin, a regular at open-mic events, says, “Reading and practising my readings has made me much more aware of the rhythm and even meaning of my own writing, and particularly the importance of speed and emphasis – oddly enough, it’s made me more aware of the importance of enjambment. And feedback to a writer is very important and is mostly spontaneous and immediate at open mics. So hopefully my poetry has become more accessible, more rhythmical, more powerful.”
Julia Webb, a British poet who is part of the team organising Café Writers, a long-standing fixture of the Norwich (UK) Spoken Word scene, agrees, “It was great when I was making my first steps into the poetry world. Now I use it to try material for my up and coming books and give people a taster. “ She lists further advantages, “Practising or doing a first reading in front of a warm friendly audience; trying out new poems; making connections and being inspired by other poets. At Cafe Writers we sometime book a good open mic-er as a guest reader.”
I particularly listening to the featured writers at a spoken word event. Somehow even the most renowned poet becomes part of the gang, as if they are doing an extended open-mic session, albeit a brilliant one! You feel so much more connected to both the features and the whole event if you have a chance to shine too.
Heidi Williamson, a British poet and experienced tutor and mentor, remembers how important the spoken word scene was for her, “Reading at open mic events has been (and is) hugely important to my development as a poet. Hearing the words out loud, with witnesses, changes my perception of how the poem is working. It’s a good testing ground to see how the poem coheres and comes over. It’s a vital way of connecting with others and exploring the effect of the language you’ve been fretting over in isolation for ages.
“I remember my first open mic very clearly – wobbling up to the mic with my hands, voice and knees shaking. It was a huge milestone for me to stand alongside new and established writers, hoping I was one of them, seeing if I could do it at all. Becoming part of the conversation between poets was a major step for me and continues to be so.”
I was in the audience when Heidi first took the mic and can assure both her and you, dear readers, that nerves very rarely show. I was awestruck at her bravery and her beautiful words and it took many years before I felt courageous enough to do the same!
Phil Hawtin concurs, “I love the atmosphere of being at an open mic, the sense of being part of a community. Open mics also show themes that are important to people and how some are dealing with quite difficult situations, and even riding above them. It is such a great opportunity to see how different people approach a topic and the ‘voice’; they use to express emotions and thoughts.”
Julia Webb adds, “You have to be careful about length – too much open mic can be a bit much for the audience. You can’t control the quality.” This is so true and spoken word organisers work hard to create a good atmosphere while being aware that too long an event can lead to a loss of concentration and attention. Based on her many years’ experience, Julia adds the following advice to organisers, “Limit the number of poems or prose per reader. Have a limited number of readers. I read at a zoom event where they let everyone who wants to do open mic do it and it went on for hours – it has put me off going to that event.”
Many events have migrated to Zoom during the current pandemic. How different is the experience? David Leo Sirois says, “Open mics before a live audience give us the advantage of seeing, hearing, and feeling direct audience response, while an added advantage of virtual shows is real-time chat between audience members, or messages visible to all, plus the possibility of screen-sharing, so one can be both a reader and a listener, absorbing the writing at a greater depth. I genuinely feel there are no disadvantages to either.”
David takes his role as host seriously and always has insightful and supportive words for everyone who performs, ““As a host, to create a safe space of trust, I listen deeply and nonjudgmentally, treat all with respect, encourage group comments and support, and remain warmly welcoming, humble, encouraging and supportive. It almost goes without saying, but any outright disrespect, hate speech, etc. would not be tolerated.”
Phil Hawtin agrees, “What I find frustrating is that despite all sense of what is acceptable, some readers still get wrapped up in their words in an offensive way. Satire can be fun, poems denigrating/abusing say the royal family, religion, or named individuals – are not. I also dislike long preambles explaining a poem. The poem should be strong enough to stand on its own.”
It can be tricky to decide what to share with an audience. I always have three or four possibilities (most UK events have very short slots compared to US events) out of which I choose one or two poems for a two-minute slot based on how the event “feels” – it can be a really interesting intuitive process. Unless you are first up, of course, in which case, it’s up to you to set the tone you think is appropriate. I’ve often sat over pizza and beer before an event sharing poems with friends and collectively deciding what to read – a lovely experience and one I hope will resume soon as coronavirus restrictions ease. I will still go to zoom events though, one of the other advantages of having open mics via Zoom is that it has created a global community as people can set their alarms and zoom in from all over the world to an event happening in my home town!
So, my advice this month is to take your courage in both hands, and give it a go. Anything which helps your words develop is worth trying. The final word goes to Heidi, “It’s nerve-wracking because you care. It helps me not to think of myself as the focus, but the words I’ve worked so hard on are hopefully what people will be interested in. I’m the words’ best guardian and helper out into the world, and I try to be kind to them (and myself) in giving them an airing. And I try to remember to breathe!”
Find out more about Julia Webb’s poetry and activities and Café Writers events here:
and more about David Leo Sirois here:
Spoken World On-Line is affiliated to Spoken Word Paris at the Chat Noir, find out more here:
Here’s a flavour of Phil’s poetry:
and you can find out more about Heidi Williamson, including her latest poetry collection from Bloodaxe, here:
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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