Readings and open mics: a beginner's guide
Extraordinary to be sitting in the sun, in a T-shirt, watching blackbirds nest-building in the hawthorn. This time last year it was snowing. A poet friend of mine, Zoe Walkington, says poetry is a winter sport. I think she’s got a point. Always nice to see open mics and workshops start to fill up in September/October, and keep buzzing through the dark, grey months. Which is the most tenuous of pegs on which to hang a post about open mics. My apologies. Still, here we go.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the BBC programme about Ted Hughes that featured Simon Armitage, among others. There were things that snagged and irritated, like the contemporary obsession with not trusting the word or the still image, with snipping the fabric of things into bite-sized portions, and with laying an instrumental backtrack behind every bit of speech you might prefer to attend to. Since I’ve recently lost about 50 per cent of my hearing, I’ve learned that I can’t hear the words through the aural fog of ‘background’ noise. And yet, despite all that, despite there being no Mexborough or Lumb Bank, and no ‘Remains of Elmet’, I was very happy. Because Frieda Hughes was a joy. And then there was Simon Armitage sitting in the Hebden Bridge Picture House, telling me about how he was taken there as a sixth former to listen to Hughes give a reading. The way Hughes would sort of shuffle on, and without any drama, make the hairs of the neck stand up and the blood quicken, and the whole world become more alive … by reading poems. I saw him in a big auditorium at York University in the 1980s. Exactly the same effect, those vowels, the cadences, the passionate energy.
Simon Armitage said that it was revelatory, that it taught him why poetry was important, essential. He said it was why he was a poet, that without Ted Hughes he probably would not have been. I have to say that listening to Hughes, after all those absorbed years of reading him, had the effect on me of confirming that I would never write poetry, because what would be the point. I got over that 20 years later, and it was Tony Harrison who put the idea in my head that I wanted to write poetry. But what really did the job was the business of reading my own poems aloud to people I didn’t know all that well, first in writers’ workshops, and then at open mics, where I learned to enjoy having an audience (in a way that being published doesn’t quite do it), and enjoy other people enjoying having an audience.
So, today I’m going to write a thank-you letter for every open mic/reading session I’ve ever been to, and for the circumstances that led me to be organising (with my mate Bob Horne … an Undiscovered Gem) live poetry readings every month at The Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. And to write a newcomer’s guide to open mics. Me being the newcomer. I intend it to be light-hearted and to cause no offence. But I have to say I have a bit of a history when it comes to not meaning to cause offence. Fingers crossed, then.
Sometimes it’s like this, isn’t it, see right. A few faithful souls gathered (or huddled) on hard stacking chairs in a bland space. This one seems to be without heat. It’s not unknown.
Or more comfortably, a few faithful souls, in a nicely carpeted library, or a bookshop …
and if you’re extravagantly lucky, it’s in a well-lit space with a nicely balanced mic, a big audience and picture windows looking out to the dark sea, pictured below.
But whatever the circumstances, the rules are the same, and I’m going to riff on what I think they are. To put it in context, I’ll say thankyou to some models and mentors, and then share a couple of anecdotes and exemplars. Models and mentors first: There are three readers in particular I’ve learned from. Kim Moore, for teaching me about the business of rhythm and breathing right. Clare Shaw for her pacing, the clarity of her diction, and for her passion. Steve Ely for insisting with every syllable that what he’s saying matters. All three for their absolute, unapologetic belief in the import of what they’re doing.
One: I have always enjoyed reading at the Red Shed in Wakefield. John Clarke, of the Currock Press, and Jimmy Andrex make sure that a reading is an event. Everything is purposeful. The open mic segment is run like a well-oiled machine. Egos are left at the door. And, an absolute revelation, Currock Press sell the guest readers’ books from their own book table, so you don’t even have to fish around in your pockets for change, and you get the chance to take to people who want to talk to you.
Two: I once went a long way to be a guest at one place where the audience was scattered aound a big space, the open mic went on first, and went on. And on. Then there was a break in which several open micers put their coats on and went home. The place shut at 10pm. I started my reading at 9.50pm. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen Kim Moore give up the ghost because there was a couple in the small room of the pub who simply went on talking loudly, regardless. But, you get the picture. So what can be done? It’s mainly common sense, but what I’ve learned is mainly as a result of, among other things, being a drama teacher.
For organisers of readings and spaces
Look after your readers. It seems obvious, but not all organisers give their readers proper directions, or, for that matter, get there in time to welcome them.
Make sure they know how long they will have to read. And, for my money, make sure they read before any open mic session. I’ve read at an event where the open mic was first. It went on and on, and afterwards a significant number of them went home without waiting for the guest reader spots. I’ll not be going back there.
Make sure all your readers are the focus of attention.
Use lighting intelligently; if there are spotlights, don’t have them shining in anyone’s eyes. If you don’t have them, then see if you can just light the reader. It’s nice to read into a darker space. Tealights on tables are nice … easy to do.
If you can’t manage lighting you can always manage the space. If the audience is sparse, then make sure they’re sitting together. Make them feel like it’s a crowd. Organise your seating so that you don’t have part of your audience outside the reader’s peripheral vision.
If you have tables that people sit around then put flyers for your next event on the tables you want people to be sitting at. Whatever you do, create the illusion that it’s full.
If you have a mic please check the sound levels. Find out the optimum distance from reader to mic. Show your reader how it works. Remind your reader that tapping mics. to see if they work is a crime punishable by death. You will, of course never restrain the ones who instantly take the mic out of the stand and pretend they’re in Guns and Roses. Say the serenity prayer. There are things no one can change. (slams are different; but I’m not writing about them).
And, for goodness sake, at the very least have a whip round for your guests. Travel is not free.
For readers. Reading
Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.
Know exactly what you want to do. Do not faff about in a reading with stuff like "Now, what shall I do next?". You should know.
My personal preference: if you’re reading from more than one of your books or pamphlets, make copies of the poems you will read in one folder … plastic pockets … in the sequence you want. Then you don’t need to be picking up and putting down and casting about. And a personal thing - please don’t for any reason read from a phone or a tablet. The light they throw makes it look like you’re in some strange communion. The text isn’t big enough. You faff about with scrolling. It’s horrible. Like I say, it’s a personal thing.
When you rehearse, it pays to read at a fractionally slower pace than your normal conversational speech. Slower is better.
You don’t have to be loud to be heard. Quiet makes people listen. But it only works if you give the words their full value. Hit those consonants, especially the end consonants. It slows you down a bit, it does justice to your poems, and you can’t mutter when you do it.
If you’ve not done it before, remember this. You’ve been invited to be there; you have a right to be there. Don’t be apologetic about it.
If you think the seating could be better (see above) then say so. Learn the ways of the mic. Do NOT tap it.
When you get up, take a couple of moments to look round the audience. Just leave a little space of silence that says ‘I know why I’m here. I know what I’m doing.’
Thank them for being here, say thank you for the invitation. Say something nice about the support if you have one, or about the poet you’re there to support.
If you’ve books to sell, tell them at the beginning. Make sure they know you are published. Not showing off. It’s context. They listen differently.
Know how you’ll introduce the poems; rehearse your anecdotes till you think it’s spontaneity. That’s to be part of your time allocation.
If you have a small group of poems in the set, then say that’s how they’ll be read, and not to clap till the group’s done. It’s worth deciding if you want applause along the way, anyway. But tell them. Avoid uncomfortable silences. While we’re on with that, think about how you end a poem so the audience knows it’s finished.
Wear a watch. Check your time. Think ahead if you’re looking like over-running and decide what you’ll drop from the set. But whatever you do, make sure you have a poem that will be an obvious finisher. If you mainly do bleak, like me, give them one that makes them smile. Or laugh.
Tell them they’ve been great. Thank them for having you. It’s not rocket science.
If you’re the compere ...
(and let’s be clear about this: I’ve been doing this for no time at all, but I know when it works and when it doesn’t. How do you learn? From watching people who are good at it. And from things you can learn from teaching drama)
Find out what your guests would like you to say about them in their introduction; you might think you’ve done your homework, but ask anyway.
I’m assuming you know how to be mine host, and how the mic works, and how to make everyone feel happy, but just a couple of things about open mic segments. This is stuff I learned from Winston Plowes of the Hebden Bridge Shindig, and I’ve faithfully followed his example.
Make the rules clear.
You know how many open micers you can usefully deal with. You know how much time you have. A simple sum. If you have 12 signed up for the open mic and you have an hour-plus, then you can happily allocate them four minutes apiece, have time to say something in introduction and a bit after each open micer. And you can have a short break. Because if you don’t, no one’s going to be listening by the time we get to number 10 and 11.
Have some sort of signal so they know when they’re coming to the end of their time. Winston Plowes does a one-minute warning via the discreet use of a swanee whistle. I was very much taken with that the first time I saw it.
Look after first-timers. Make them feel good about it, especially when they finish.
Give each reader a bit of feedback before you introduce the next one. When you thank them, say why … quote them a line you especially liked. Keep notes. Prove you’ve listened to THEM. Use your notes when they come again. Use them when you introduce them, remind the audience what you liked about their last performance. Encourage them to bring new material. It takes no big effort, but it’s what I learned from teaching drama. Kids don’t know that they’ve learned to do or understand something when they’re doing drama. You need to tell them what it is, so they go away knowing what they’ve achieved. It works in drama teaching. It should happen in all teaching. And believe me, it works with open micers, many of whom have never been given any feedback. They’ll come again.
The rest of it is formalities. You don’t need telling. But I have to remind myself, every time, what my job is. It’s to make people feel good about themselves. And here’s the thing; praise that shows you’ve listened makes people try harder. It makes them raise their game. It does. It truly does.
Well, I’ve been watching you and you’ve concentrated and you’ve made notes, and you’ve nodded, or smiled, or frowned, or shaken your heads a bit, and in so many ways you’ve given me the feedback I need. Thank you. So you can put your notebooks away and I’ll tell you a story.
Once upon a time I wrote a poem called ‘Folk festival folk’. It was in a Poetry Business writing day when Peter Sansom invited to us to write about any recognisable group of people we chose. The only rule was that every line should be a cliche, a stereotype, and exaggeration or a downright lie. The group I chose were the ones I got to know at folk festivals. It used to go down well in folk clubs. I got to wondering if it were possible to do the same thing for an open mic poetry reading, and if it might be done without causing offence. Tell you what. Let’s find out. Here we go:
A big room, and a good-sized house
I’m not that late, and get signed up.
We’ve got such a lot. Of readers. Super. You
may. Have to wait a. While till it's your. Turn.
She clipboards off.
The mic is something they’re not quite used to
Throughout the afternoon it slips towards
the floor as if it’s nodding
Still. Not quite on the dot, and someway off-mic
we’ll give a warm poetic welcome
for reader Number One
who drops on stresses as if by acc-Id- ent
and does a dragg-ING rap that's all A-bout
hand-BAGS and something world-weary on hoped-for
passion and hibiscus and missed kisses
It’s hard to know when a poem
and the next starts. Her pauses give no clue.
No one seems quite sure if clapping is the thing or even if she’s finished.
There’s scattered tentative applause but in the end we settle for
the closed-eyes inward smile, the appraising nod. And a collective. Mmmh.
As if we’ve made our minds up which of Betty’s choice of scones we’ll have.
Number Two: is immaculate; her poems should wear pashmina.
She en-un-ci-ates, weighs up
every single consonant. At each poem’s end, she sighs, resumes,
a world of china, trays and tea, and sun on lemons
in a copper bowl. Still lives. DEFAULT response, nod and mmms.
Number Three is unused to microphones.
The agitated lectern goes knock-knock-knocking on the cantilevered arm.
Knock knock. Who’s there. Who knows. Could be the new Liz Lochhead,
but no one can hear.
DELAYED APPLAUSE, and slightly muted mmmm.
We break for tea.
We have poems with hearts of diamond,
and hearts of gold that rhyme with old and bold,
and mermaids and white horses. Which is nice.
Pamela muses on the plight of women
who have gone in for childbirth overlate in life,
and on what other people’s dreams are like.
We hit DEFAULT for nods and hmms. And so it goes; the line
will stretch out to the crack of jaws.
In sympathy with the microphone
one chap has quietly gone to sleep.
It can’t be long before my name’s buzzed out on the drooping mic.
I slip out unobserved. Give it a miss. You never know who’s listening;
people at these do’s can be so critical.
I’ve seen some taking notes.
They can be really bitchy, poets