Sixteen Tips for New Open Mic Poets

I had a good poetry week. Well the end of it was good. I couldn’t make a couple of online events due to work commitments – I am now recruiting in the US as well as The Netherlands, Germany and UK – luckily the only role I was working on in Australia has been put on hold, and my Singapore assignments have been completed, so it’s not quite as challenging from the perspective of time zone management as it has been previously.

But on Friday I was able to join my regular poetry group, which was enjoyable as alway. Good conversations with friends who have a similar love for words and poetry, but very different writing styles and subject matter. I feel privileged to have been invited to join this group around ten years ago.

And on Thursday I read at the first non-zoom Front Room event in Portsmouth for over two years, at the Hunter Gatherer coffee shop in Southsea. I had forgotten how wonderful these events can be. Music, spoken word (both prose and poetry), good conversation, smiles and laughter. One thing Covid has done is helped remind me how important events like these are. I was originally going to have a three minute open – mic spot, but due to someone else having to pull out was upgraded to a ten minute slot.

I carefully planned and timed what I was going to read, (including poem introductions), and then changed half the poems, partly due to finding out what others were going to be performing before me.

Timing can be difficult – it always takes longer than you think, and having hosted events before, I know how annoying it is for the host when people overrun the amount of time allocated. A couple of minutes here or there and it really does add up. I’ve seen poets waiting patiently for an open mic slot be unable to read because of someone else’s earlier excess.

On Thursday I selected 6 poems and read 5. It made a big difference, in that I was able to take more time over each piece, introducing them properly. I was more relaxed, knowing I shouldn’t overrun. It was fun, and I am sure I read better than I have ever done when I’ve tried to squeeze something into every moment. It seems that less really is more.

I’m not a performance poet. Firstly my material doesn’t really fit the genre, and secondly I’m not sure that I can really ‘perform’ in that way. Although maybe I should try – I know that the Arvon Foundation have run courses on performance poetry previously. Something to consider perhaps? Having said this, I never seem to be able to remember any of my work with more than three or four lines in it!

Sixteen tips for open mic poetry spots

  1. Relax. Don’t compare yourself negatively to anyone else. Do you think a non-league footballer worries before a match that they aren’t going to be able to play as well as Lionel Messi?
  2. Be polite and respectful to others at the event you are going to. Don’t walk out for a cigarette or drink whilst someone else is speaking. Don’t talk through their performance. It’s incredibly rude, and you’ll need the audiences’ support later – or if you’ve already read, at a future event. And yes, we do remember.
  3. Take more poetry with you than you intend to read. If you’re planning on reading a poem about climbing a mountain and there have been ten other poems read so far on the same subject then you might want to switch your poem for something else.
  4. Conversely, if someone else has read a poem about the same subject as one of your poems that you weren’t planning to read, you might consider switching this poem into your set as it could add a nice counterpoint to the earlier piece.
  5. Don’t feel you have to use up every second of your allocated time. The person who hosts the evening will be delighted, (someone else will probably have overrun badly, there’s usually a late attendee who would like to read, plus a microphone malfunction or two). You’ll perform better too. Two poems read well will always be better than three rushed through badly.
  6. Practice. It will help with timing. Listen to the sound of your voice. Think about the pace you want to use. Fast and furious? Or slow and methodical? Where is the music in the words you have written? What lines, words or sounds do you want to emphasise? Think about the spaces between stanza, lines and words.
  7. On microphones. If one is being used, try to keep to the same distance from the microphone whilst reading if possible – it’s easier for the sound engineer to manage the output volume that way.
  8. On microphones part 2. You don’t need to use it if you think your voice will carry. Obviously ignore my advice if you are performing at the Albert Hall. Though if you are performing at the Albert Hall why are you here!!
  9. On subject matter. Think about trigger warnings. Do you need to mention one beforehand? If so, should you be reading it at all? This isn’t straightforward, because one of the great things about events is the wide range of subject matter and emotions generated. But it’s worth considering. There are a couple of poems in Landings that I no longer recite publicly for this reason.
  10. On subject matters part 2. Think about your audience. Your explicit, swearword laden performance piece about how you shagged your way across London might go down well with some audiences…but this one? Another good reason to bring more poems with you than you are planning on reading! You are unlikely to be up first so will have time to change what you are going to read to something more appropriate.
  11. On subject matters part 3. Dark is good. But so is light. Particularly if you have a longer slot, think about the emotional range of each poem. Do you want them all to have the same impact? Or do you want variety. Do the poems you have selected work well together? You can overthink this – sometimes it is good to have completely different types of poems next to one another – it can jolt the audience in a good way. But make this a deliberate decision rather than a crass error. Think also, about how you want the mood to change. Finish on something uplifting, or something with devastating impact? It’s up to you. But it is your choice, so make it part of your selection process when deciding what to read.
  12. First poem. Try to start with something you know well, that is easy to recite. Get into the flow. Don’t stumble straight away with a complex tongue-twister!
  13. Applaud everyone else. Do I really need to say this? Yes I do, unfortunately. These are collaborative environments. Support others, and you will be supported back.
  14. Smile, breathe in deeply before you start, and go for it!
  15. Be authentic. Be yourself. Be brilliant. And if you aren’t? Don’t worry about it. There’ always next time.
  16. Oh, and don’t overrun. Did I mention this before? You do want to be invited back don’t you?

Anything else? If anyone has other suggestions, feel free to comment. I know most of my regular readers will be regular performers anyway, but on the off chance that someone new to performing their own work happens to stumble across this blog, then I hope it helps.

The first time I read my poems live, it was at a launch of South Magazine. I was last up. By the time it got to me, I was shaking so badly, I could hardly see the words on the page. But I got through it, and, hopefully (!), have got a little better with practice. So will you.

In view of it being Mental Health Week here in the UK, I’ll finish with the last poem I read on Thursday (which I have previously posted here, though it was a couple of years ago). FWIW It took me about a minute and a half to two minutes to read including introduction.


Darkness will take your palm,
hold it gently in-between
the strobe from occasional cars;
patterns made and unmade
until you can no longer see
the hand in front of your face.

The shifting dislocation of dusk,
a near-roost of starlings swirling,
as if shoaling shared memories;
will you redact a well-lived life,
the wrinkling of your skin
in a swoop of passing stars?

I knew a man who thought he had it all,
but time gnawed into an abscess
that just wouldn’t let him be.
Some live their lives as strangers
chasing somebody else’s dream;
their days just slipstream through.

Dusty candles on a mantelpiece,
ornaments without a future,
a warm glow that will never flower;
no fluttering petals of light,
no guttering to get the wax weeping,
no joy no sadness no love.

Yet see the way that midnight turns,
when illuminated by sublinear traffic.
The arcing sweep of a headlight beam,
your face reflected in a roadside pool.
Hold that moment, that rippling smile;
hold it tight and drink it in.

So nurture your future, feed it well;
don’t hunker down as the window panes shake.
Open the door and run into the street;
this storm will pass as they always do.
Catch the rain on your fingertips,
the sheen of beauty on your skin.

2 thoughts on “Sixteen Tips for New Open Mic Poets”

  1. Another good poem, Richard. A sound distillation of all you’ve learned about open mic reading. I recognise everything you say!

    There’s one other cautionary note I would add, which is about being prepared when reading outdoors. Even apparent stillness can carry with the slightest of breezes – and loose sheets can blow away (as I discovered at the Hot Walls one time). The best option, of course, is to know your material by heart. Like you though, I struggle with this. One could use a plastic binder but – at A4 x2 – this is unwieldy and a barrier between reader and listener. Alternatively, depending on the strength of your eyesight and at the risk of being mistaken for a young person, you may use your mobile – if you trust and can manage the technology. Litter notwithstanding, I prefer the idea of ripping each poem from an A4 clipboard when it’s done, then letting it loose into the wind. Brings a new dimension to the idea of ‘found poems’.

    It is also quite problematic to hand-hold a microphone effectively if managing printed copy with the other. Better to leave the mic in its stand, although this does mean you can’t walk among the audience, if that’s what you want to do.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for this – I still remember with some discomfort a reading I gave on Southsea Common for a local friends of the earth event. About 8 people in chairs listening to me read some not very good and very earnest, depressing poems about climate change. The plastic binder didn’t help, but the quality of poetry and delivery was a bigger hindrance!

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