I didn’t start reading my poems in front of other people until June 2009 when some of my work had been selected for a local reading series. I had no idea what I was doing, except that I was terrified. But something else happened, too: I loved it. I came away from the experience determined to develop more confidence and better showcase my work.
My partner-in-crime, poet Jill Crammond Wickham, and I started putting local poetry open mics on our calendars. We laugh about it now, but at the first one we attempted, we didn’t have the courage to sign up. We lingered near the door, lost our nerve and retired to a tavern a few doors down. Albany is a small city, but it has a vibrant poetry scene. In any week there are two or three open mics to consider, and so second chances were abundant. We tried again in August 2009 and had a great time. We have been regulars on the scene ever since, and I have learned a lot about reading my work in front of an audience.
The open mic scene is a great training ground.
Oh, the horror! (Get over it)
When people describe the horrors of public speaking, they list standing up in front of people, fussing with the microphone, tripping over their words (or worse, their feet) and hating the sound of their own voices. Reading at open mics exposes me repeatedly to those elements, and they create less and less anxiety over time.
I have also developed a comfort level about walking into a space and adapting to its variables. Sometimes there’s a podium or music stand; sometimes there isn’t. Usually there is a microphone, but not always. Settings are diverse (bars, coffee shops, community centers, living rooms, outdoor parks, conference rooms and stages). There is background noise, and there are distractions. The audiences are attentive in some places and not in others.
Misery likes company, of course, and at open mics, we’re all in it together. While there are rare instances of grumbling, overall the scene is nurturing. It is a great place to support – and be encouraged by – fellow poets. I have learned to consider audiences as gatherings of friends (even when I don’t know them), and this has helped me quell my nerves. One simple way to establish rapport is to assume it exists.
Watching my peers read their poems has been invaluable. How long are their introductions? How do they engage with the audience? Are they chatty or business-like? What do they do with line breaks? Do they talk fast? Do they allow pauses? Are they apologetic or confident? In other words: what works and what doesn’t?
Another fabulous component of being a public-speaker-in-training at open mics is witnessing the risks people take with their work. There are poets who sing with their poems. There are poets who dance. On special occasions in our local scene, there is a poet who takes his shirt off prior to reading his “bra poem” to reveal he’s wearing a small lacy, white bra. Although my own boundaries are much more conservative, I am learning about stretching myself enough to execute the best reading for each poem. Perhaps the most basic manifestation of this is enthusiasm. I know that if I sound like I’m bored, my poems won’t stand a chance with the audience.
Trial and error
Readings are ephemeral. It is a skill to pay attention, not only when I am listening, but also when I am reading. I am learning to be in the moment with poems I hear whether they are in my own voice or in someone else’s. It’s extremely rewarding to be present with the work.
It’s also liberating to understand the fleeting nature of the open mic. While I want to do well each time I stand in front of an audience, I realize it’s no big deal if I make a mistake or have a bad night. Another open mic is coming up tomorrow or next week or next month. I can try again.
Self-conscious (in a good way)
I am not free from fear of public speaking, but it isn’t crippling anymore. It is no longer a hurdle, and I credit this: practice, practice, practice. There are still skills that require my attention if I’m ever to develop them – I mumble, for example, in daily conversation, and I need to do a better job remembering to enunciate and slow down when I am performing – but I have an awareness of myself that I couldn’t have achieved without participation in the open mic scene.
And lastly (in case you had any doubts!) check this out: The Ear is an Organ Made for Love