* Photo not from an actual poetry gig

When many poets around Melbourne recollect their first open mic experience, the first time they got the guts to get up and read, many say that it was some stranger, some new friend, that came up to them and congratulated them, complimented them or gave them some tactful feedback that kept them coming back.

Many people also say that the thing that makes reading poetry live special compared to its antithesis (sending out poems to journals with no reply) is actually being able to interact with people and the idea you’re not just writing into the void. Sometimes it’s worth reflecting back on that again and thinking about what makes a good audience member.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a feature, an open micer, you just go to poetry gigs to watch (and increasingly there are people who just come to watch whether they get to perform or not) or you just want to sit out this one and watch. If you’re at a poetry gig and you’re not currently on stage, you’re part of the audience. You’re the bit that makes a gig a gig and not a poet just talking to themselves.

No matter where you stand on the clicking debate (and there could be a whole article about that), if you’re in a bustling pub or a quiet theatre, audience members are not passive, and often have an active role in the mood of the night, how the poet reacts or performs, and what impressions we give to that new person who got up on the open mic for the first time.

Are we thinking that we want this person to come back or is the only important part of your night when you get to perform? Is there something we can learn from another poet? Does the audience listen to the new person in the room or just cheer their friends and talk through the rest? Does a feature stick around and listen to the rest of the open mic? I always remember when they do.

Can people pick when it’s good to make an encouraging heckle at the end of a piece, get into the chaos of a piece or when its time just to be quiet to give the poet room the breathe? I’ve been to gigs where poets cannot hear themselves speak, each audience member in their own conversations and I’ve been to gigs where there’s pin drop silence. The conversations happen after, the compliments on someone’s poem, which gig are you going to later in the week, can you come to my feature?

I look for the people in the room when I’ve let myself be brave and vulnerable enough to memorise my poem and make eye contact. It helps if there’s an audience there on the other end. I look for those with attentive faces, a smile of encouragement, the thoughtful glance or even the look off somewhere else in concentration. It can give energy to my voice if it’s there, or if it’s not, it can make me rush through my words, take on a monotone.

I like the clicks in the right places. I like a laugh at the right time. I appreciate when someone new, still working their way through a poem, is given the respect of trying because it means they might not give up after the first time.

Just as much as keeping to time on the open mic, speaking clearly into the mic and other etiquette that says you respect the space when it’s your turn to read, when it’s not your turn, it says a lot about a poet who respects the space when they’re not taking it.

Photo by FreeImages.com/Brooke Duckart

Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah is a writer, poet, spoken word artist, activist and the Director of Melbourne Spoken Word. He grew up in Western Sydney before calling Melbourne home in 2008, where he's performed since 2010 around Melbourne's regular spoken word and poetry nights including Passionate Tongues, The Dan Poets, Voices in the Attic and House of Bricks as well as the NGV and White Night. He's released a chapbook, broken bodies, and two spoken word albums, Duel Power with Santo Cazzati and The World Doesn't Make Sense EP.
Benjamin Solah

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