In the 15-odd years I’ve been organising spoken word gigs (Jesus, that explains a lot), I’ve been asked on occasion how to successfully book the right performers without upsetting or alienating various people who feel hard done by or disrespected. Short answer is, of course, you can’t.
And in the 20-odd years I’ve been a performer in various art forms (good god, what’s wrong with me?), I’ve been asked how one is meant to put it all out there and not feel shit, slapped and artistically shaken when overlooked for a spot or a shot you wanted bad enough to cause tooth decay. Again, real short answer, you can’t.
You can try, nobody gets into running gigs or publishing poetry to piss people off, and you can be as open and transparent as you like, someone somewhere will take issue with your choices.
So here’s a little cheat sheet for all you would-be warriors of the word on both sides of the curtain from an idiot who just can’t stop.
Firstly, to the gig. Now, each gig is as disparate and diverse as each poet. The longest running gigs have become that by delivering to the audience they are aimed at a high quality lineup of writers and readers the target demographic has come to hear and grown to enjoy. The one-off and semi-regular gigs make their mark with diversity and the musical dichotomy of styles available in this vibrant community. To the gig runners and the venue hustlers and the money scrimpers and chair stackers, we salute you. None of us would have a shot to spit and shine if you guys didn’t do all this for dumb love of words and a willingness to kiss pavement. Steady as she goes, I’ll not be telling you how to shave a cat. But to those wanting gigs and open mic slots and recognition and praise, listen up.
There really is no magical formula to getting where you want to be. It’s a fairly cut and dry approach, tried and true. Firstly, you got to get out there and support this community as often as you can. That means going to gigs with no expectation of anything other than hearing poetry. It means buying raffle tickets or paying the door charge. It means supporting the venue that is allowing the space to be used by buying a drink or 6, a meal, a novelty “I Heart Footscray” tshirt, 2 coffees and a chocolate orange muffin, whatever blows your hair back. If you can afford none of those things, sit quietly and applaud loudly for the readers you enjoy. For the ones you don’t, sit. Quietly.
Secondly, listen and ask. Introduce yourself to the twitching, nervous, darting-eyed human bundle of anxiety in the room. That’s either the main performer or the gig runner. They both appreciate a “hello”. If it’s the MC and there is an open section, get the deets. Is there space? How long? A theme? Any content or language restrictions? And here is the real easy thing to do after that. You know those deets you just got? The rules the organiser just personally verbally handed to you? Yeah, follow them.
It sucks if you’ve come a long way and the open is full. Find out if you can book ahead next time you’re in the area. It sucks if you’ve just plopped a cherry on top of the 12 page glory you’ve been banging various body parts against for 7 months but the open has a 3 minute limit. Read your fave page as a teaser. Or read a different poem. Even if it’s not yours. Just credit the poet, clearly.
It sucks that you have 4 poems with you and can’t decide which is best or think they only really work as a quartet. They shouldn’t only work that way or they aren’t 4 poems, they are one long one so look up to what I just said.
And if the reading is on a Tuesday afternoon at the North Meadow Waters Community Library, that may not be the place to shout out your new epic “F*ck Me In The Ar&e Like You Bloody Mean It!”, maybe leave that one in the folder today.
If you get a spot, throw down. Be nervous, be apprehensive, be confident, be funny, be emotional, be whoever you are and bring it. You wanted to share this, own it. Bring the good shit. Be undeniable. Earn the applause, look for feedback or praise, connect, speak, share. Then get off.
I’ll say it again.
This isn’t a trick, this is how you get booked for featured slots and paid gigs. You impress, you win over, you are there often and you’re good at what you do.
You show growth and depth and diversity in your writing, you attract attention and the audience begins to know you, look forward to hearing from you. Wants more. Around 20 minutes more. Don’t ask for gigs unless you’ve already been approached by the organiser saying they would like more. Don’t put a deadline on when you expect that to happen. Maybe you’re a slow burn and the dude who runs the show hasn’t caught fire yet. Maybe you’re an awkward fit and the lady with the pen and the power to ask you hasn’t found the right slot for you yet. Don’t give up and go home and tear up poems and swear you’ll never go there again. Go again and be polite, professional and undeniable.
Most people I’ve met who run these shindigs want nothing more than to put on a cracking show. They are open to any style or subject matter that gets the audience revving engines, stomping feet and waving lighters. If it fits at all, they’ll find the right time to let you take the stage.
But you have to respect that stage. This person booked it, found the space, negotiated the use of it and wants to use it again. Be thankful they did. Reading into a mirror does little for creative growth and can conjure dark spirits of the underworld. Be grateful to the audience and polite to other open mic readers. Listen. Garner lines and ideas. Scribble in your moleskin. Clap. Nod. Enjoy it. It’s bloody poetry.
And when the opportunity arises for you, be happy.
And when the opportunity goes to a rival or compadre, be happy and get back to work.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing this 3 weeks or 529 years, you’re gonna not get booked for things you want. This does not mean you’re unloved or ignored or the wrong gender or colour or creed or height. It means you weren’t right for this one. This One. There will be others if you support the gig.
I’ve booked people whose work I’m not too big on because the sit well as a foil to others on the bill. I’ve looked past heroes and literary marvels because they couldn’t bring a different voice to a lineup. There are a myriad of reasons you’ll get skipped over, down to plain old forgetfulness. If you’re not out there, being undeniable, showing people your best shit, you may slip from our minds. Perhaps never our hearts, but from the here and now.
Because sometimes, the bookish page poet Uni lecturer with a voice like dry cornflakes who looks as though he was cut from this morning’s fresh tweed will elicit an unexpected laugh and turn the personality dial up to 4. Or the young socialist radical catches a glimpse of global unimportance and turns the spotlight inside to show a heart hurt by another who didn’t care enough about one person.
Or the brash hip-hopasauras looks back at the bones he’s standing on and delivers a villanelle en point and to form.
And then the gig just soars. It’s everything and all of us and you were there to see it because you were there. Supporting this absolute madhouse we call spoken word.
Photo by Brendan Bonsack