So you want to try your hand at open mic spoken word or poetry for the first time and you’re either too nervous or don’t know where to start or have never done it before and are just curious on the best tips/advice to do it without making a fool of yourself?

The good news is that there are always so many more people trying it for the first time and as Hamish Danks Brown says there’s a 100% survival rate for performing, you’re not going to die on stage and will probably want to get up again.

That said, here’s some handy tips for performing on the open mic for the first time or times.

  1. Pick your gig
    There are a lot of open mics and places to perform. You could go to a lot of them or you could find your home in one gig. Gigs like Bar Oussou and Passionate Tongues are great for first time performers, there’s gigs that tend to have different styles or create spaces for groups of poets like for women poets or poets of colour, so it’s worth going to a couple to see where you want to settle. Some poets recommend finding your favourite and sticking to it, others say read as widely as possible. But if you go to one and it isn’t quite your cup of tea, the good news is there’s many more to try out instead.
  2. Follow the rules
    Generally all gigs have a time limit and a way of signing up to perform. If you don’t know, check with the gig host. It’s a good idea to not go overtime (less is often more) and to respect your audience and the space created. Usually time limits either 3 minutes or 5 minutes. Sometimes there’s a theme or certain types of poems of encouraged or discouraged, you want to check whether your content fits, e.g. some places might not want swearing or adult themed content. Some open mics have limited spots and so it’s a good idea to turn up early or time to get a spot. If in doubt, ask the host.
  3. It’s ok to be nervous
    Being nervous is normal, even poets that have been performing on stage for years still get nervous. The trick isn’t to get rid of the nerves but to work with them. Some people try and drink or two to settle them. Or avoid alcohol all together. You can try going with a friend or look for a friendly or familiar face in the crowd to feel comfortable. If you’re memorising, maybe bring paper as backup. Practice reading the poem out loud at home. If you make a mistake or slip over a word, just reread or continue you on, don’t make it more obvious, you probably notice it more than the audience does and the audience doesn’t care, half of them have been in the same position before.
  4. Speak clearly
    Speak clearly into the mic by stepping back a little bit and projecting. Take your time to adjust the mic stand so it’s comfortable for you or get the MC to help if you don’t know how. Generally, people read faster than they think they’re reading so remember to pause and take your time. You want to give the audience the best chance to hear and digest your poem.
  5. Listen to other poets
    Before and after you get up, take the time to listen to others. Open mics are an exchange of performing and listening. You’ll learn from others but also just appreciate the work of others. If you want people to take the time to listen to you, you owe them the same courtesy so leave time to stay for at least most of the event and don’t leave once you had your turn.
  6. Your poem doesn’t need to be perfect
    They don’t need to be perfect or memorised or finished or literary or ‘slam’ enough or anything at all. Poets perform works in progress, change poems after they’ve performed them, you can read a tightly edited published poem or something you wrote on your phone on the way to the gig that you want to test out.
  7. Don’t apologise
    Related to the above, don’t apologise for not being as good as the person before you, for it being unfinished or new or too personal/weird/cliche or sell your poem short before you’ve even performed it.
  8. Don’t over explain
    If you need to explain the poem, it should be in the poem not in the intro. It’s usually in the poem already and you’re giving it away and doing the work the poem does itself. If you need to introduce something, do it briefly.

The last bit of advice is to try it again, practice makes perfect and you’ll get used to things, better, more confident as you do it more. The good news is that there’s plenty of chances to keep trying. Check out all of the open mic events that are on during The Melbourne Spoken Word & Poetry Festival.

Photo by Brendan Bonsack.

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