Most poetry gigs in Melbourne have an open mic, even if they are also featuring poets. This is absolutely a good thing, as it gives everyone the chance to hear voices that might otherwise go unheard, and allows those new to poetry to discover what it is like to perform your work. Open mics are a great place to hone your skill, as you learn what audiences do or don’t like about your work.
Performing also lets you really hear your own work properly, often for the first time; Carrie Brownstein, in her recent Wheeler Centre interview, said that ‘performance adds a certain emotionality to something… when you read it, that’s when you realise the emotional impact.’ So even if you see yourself as a ‘page poet’ rather than a ‘stage poet,’ performing at open mics will be good for your poetry, and hopefully good too for those listening, as they enjoy hearing your words and ideas.
However, there can be too much of a good thing, and my problem is this: open mics have the potential to be addictive. You may find yourself hooked on the buzz and performing at every single one you attend.
If you read at every open mic, it is easy to spend the first half of the event running through your poems in your head whilst gazing at the poet currently onstage without hearing a word they are saying. Finally, your name is called, and you stand up on shaky legs and make your way to the microphone. For a few minutes, you control time, and the emotions of everyone in the room. And then you get offstage and have a huge adrenaline rush and spend the rest of the evening buzzing, delighted when people compliment your poetry, hyped to do it all over again at the next opportunity. This is not a terrible thing by any means. The only issue is that if you go through this routine every time, you are no longer involved to listen as well as perform, and shut yourself off from enjoying everything on offer that evening.
If you actively plan on reading at every open mic, and work on poems specifically for each event, this can definitely increase your poetic productivity. But what if you didn’t plan to read, but once you’re there and someone asks you, you can’t resist? You have enough poems you know by heart to be able to leap at this opportunity. And you do. However, once you’ve done that piece (the current one you do that the crowds seem to like, that you would be able to recite backwards if necessary) you wait for the rush, and instead feel a kind of bored disgust at yourself. As if a sarcastic little voice is saying ‘Well done, you did it again. Snaps for you.’ And you sit down, smiling, but thinking ‘Wow, I really need to write some new stuff.’
So then, what are the benefits of stepping offstage for a moment?
First and foremost, it will mean you can actually listen to others, without being distracted by thinking about your own performance. This gives other poets the respect and attention they deserve, creating an atmosphere in which we all listen just as much as we talk.
Listening is so important. Especially listening to those who have different writing or performance styles to our own, or those with different backgrounds and experiences, or simply different points of view. Listening increases empathy and understanding, and inspires and motivates you. Even if you disagree or dislike a piece, it is important to listen and think about why it is you don’t like it, and if you feel the need to respond, to take the time to do that in a respectful manner.
Another benefit of a break from performing is that your own poetry may well be refreshed and invigorated by it. Give yourself, and everyone else, a little break from your classic pieces so that no one gets sick of them. You don’t want to repeat pieces so often that they lose all original meaning! If you focus less on poems you already know well, you can move on from them emotionally, and spend more time working on ‘new shit’.
Or, if you are someone who doesn’t usually do ‘classic pieces’ but rather tries to come up with something new for every open mic, taking a break from performing will take the pressure off you, allowing you to spend more time editing and refining your pieces. There may be less instant gratification but far more satisfaction in the long term; like going on Twitter vs. reading a novel. This way your work will be worth the wait for the audience.
Most of all, taking a break from open-micing mania might help you remember why poetry and spoken word is important, why it matters – not for the thrill you get from the applause, but for the art that can be created when you put in the time and effort, and the genuine connections that can be formed between people via the medium of poetry.
Yes, the point of open mics is for people to get up there and do their thing; however, it is also necessary that there are people listening to said thing. Spoken word should be a two way street, not everyone driving in the same direction without even glancing to the side at each other.
So sometimes it is good to step back from the mic, and pull up a chair, and listen, actually listen, to the poets onstage, without worrying about when your turn will be or which poems you are going to perform. You may find yourself leaving inspired, or with the phone number of that girl whose poem you were able to really engage with.
And if you take my advice and then feel you’ve missed out by not performing? Don’t worry about it. After all, there will always be another open mic.
Photo by Brendan Bonsack