Voice Alpha

about reading poetry aloud for an audience

learning from open mics

23 Comments

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.

Flexibility
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.

Camaraderie
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.

Role models
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

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Author: Carolee Bennett

poet / artist / crankypants

23 thoughts on “learning from open mics

  1. Absolutely on the money, all of this, Carolee. Useful stuff, both for the novice and the practiced reader. I’d only add that, where the linked nouns singer/songwriter usually sit comfortably together, reader/poet doesn’t always work as well and, for the sake of the excellent poem that really ought to be out in the air, some poets should be forcibly restrained from reading their own work! Maybe a small rescue squad of skilled, sensitive readers should always be at hand when it is widely feared that wonderful stuff might be lost in the mouth!

    • or perhaps a squad of trainers could ambush poets and perform “makeovers” and we could all watch the transformations in a new reality TV show. :)

      i’m joking, but did want to ask, do you think some readers just can’t develop the skills they need? or won’t?

      i’d like to think everyone could improve enough to read their own work successfully.

      • Can’t? Or won’t? An interesting question…maybe the answer lies in the poet’s attitude about his/her own work. If they feel it is “lowly” to read at open mics (I’ve met some people with this attitude), then it is won’t. If they are not confident about what is on the page, then maybe it is can’t.

        And thank you for including the link to the Miller poem – I read it this AM and thought it was a perfect poem for Voice Alpha!

  2. Pingback: diversionary tactics, poem-a-day interruption, part 2 « carolee sherwood

  3. This is so fantastic…I’m glad you tackled this topic!

    I tend not to read at open mics–I prefer a set reading, where I know I’ll be reading a certain number of poems. I think it’s my own nervousness about the variables you mention.

    I also like what you say about risks…it’s a good reminder for me. Thanks for this piece!

    • it’s fun to be the feature or the reader of a set, for sure. but i also love the feeling of community from a forum like an open mic that is a coming-together of a little bit of something from everyone.

      and i never would have had the courage to do it without the open mic practice. and also — i probably never would have had the opportunity. open mics are good for networking!

      i love these discussions b/c they are leading us to more discussions: like how do “the rules” change as the set/performance time gets longer? what do you do differently when you read 2 poems compared to when you read 12 or 15?

      • Another interesting discussion would be reading new work at an open mic as opposed to polished work. I almost always bring new pieces to open mic to hear how the audience responds, but some people either refuse to read or “apologize” for newer drafts, as if they are not valid poems if they are new.

        This also speaks to the fake issue – when do you decide as a writer that your poems are “ready” to be considered public art?

  4. Enjoyed this post so much, and have learned some of the same things and/or witnessed a lot of it!

    Like Donna, I am intrigued by the “can’t” or “won’t” issue. I did open mics when I was younger (in bars and coffeehouses, learned to wear lipstick for aid in lip reading, but that’s not a “risk” most men will take, nor would I take off my shirt to show my bra!!), and have been the “featured” reader since in various venues, learning that audiences basically want to hear and see and additionally want to have fun and be wowed! So I try to do that while being true to myself and my poems. Some of the “won’t” might be a fear of seeming fake if reading well, or fear that if the poems sound good, somebody out there will think they really aren’t good, on the page, an attitude that does exist, alas. But fear is a poor motive for so many things, and uppityness likewise a poor attitude. Easy solution for “won’t” is don’t go, don’t do it, don’t say say yes when asked! Easy but harder-to-do solution for “can’t” is what you suggest, Carolee: watch, listen, and learn! Take risks, experiment, and give it a try!

    • kathleen, you really struck on something here that maybe i should write about in more detail sometime: the fear of seeming fake. that was a huge hurdle for me: worries about being seen as the imposter, the fraud. i think that’s a factor in many areas of life, but certainly when we try to say, “i am an artist and here is my work. i am here because it is important to me.” it’s loaded with psychological challenges for a lot of people, and i’m sure it affects the delivery of spoken word.

  5. & open mics as rehearsals for the coveted featured reading someday, & as a way to try out poems, see how they work in public —
    A guy in a bra, sounds kinky.

    • yes to experimenting with new poems and seeing how they work for an audience! (and you are the guy with the bra poem; and now you’re famous … er, INfamous!)

  6. donna, i most usually read brand new stuff. in fact, sometimes i’ll write something new if i don’t have something i’m already working on.

    it seems to be our tradition, locally (other places, too?), that open mics are for new stuff, though there are times we love to hear our favorites from one another.

    • The corollary is those folks that apologize for reading something they’ve already read. Hey, the Rolling Stones always do “Satisfaction” don’t they? If it’s a good poem I can stand hearing it again, & until I can get your Collected Poems at the Library, go ahead, read it again, please.

  7. Re ‘can’t/won’t’, I guess the issue hinges on whether, with all the will in the world and an inspirational coach, even the most vocally disadvantaged of poets could make the grade. My experience is that, in the final analysis, whatever the will of the reader, it’s a matter of pipe-work and if the poem has to be filtered through tubing that has you sounding like a deflating balloon with the neck pinched or a laryngitic Louis Armstrong, you’re working against overwhelming odds!

  8. Dick, and that’s why it’s always great to have and use a microphone. So if you/your hosts/the venue can arrange for a mic, it benefits everyone. I have heard wonderful poems by the shyest, most inexperienced readers in the oddest of places–and the poems spoke for themselves through it all, thanks to a mic allowing us to hear the words. Having to shout to be heard, or having to “project” without the apparatus or the training to do so, adds stress & strain…. It’s already hard to read poems aloud to a crowd of unknowns.

  9. This is a wonderful round introduction to speaking poems aloud Carolee. It is admittedly mostly foreign soil to me. Shy youth; habits remain. Long time didn’t even think (or read) poems with a verbal component included. Good and useful understanding in all you shared, however I’d add one element that I did come to experientially in even my limited exposure.

    Some years back on the event of my mother’s passing, came the eventual need to write then read publicly some few words (not all a poem exactly, but some). Once written I tried to read aloud just by myself: some practice that way. Try as I might (introspective) emotions kept stopping me. Long short story, I realized I needed to focus my attention outwardly upon the result I wanted to produce for the listeners, and not my own internal web of feelings. Mind, this was not to remove emotions at all, but direct the energy of intent in a direction other than internally. That made all the difference, even surprising me in result.

    This handled emotions, this handled delivery; no mumbling, stumbling or emotional breaks.

    More recently, and relevant, I needed to respond to a poem prompt – write a poem that IS healing in and of itself (not “about” healing, but healing itself). No clue at all when the idea came to me (was it even possible?), just a strong and practical desire for the result. After trying then dismissing reasonable thoughts, the spirit and mechanism both became clear to me. Healing includes a real and present physical voice, a real spoken voice aloud, real and actual “movement” – just ink was not enough. The resulting poem, “Read this poem aloud”, was precisely that, and would only invoke something real when spoken aloud. Rather an awakening for me!

    So you have my attention and appreciation Carolee. Practice, practice, yes of course, and listening too. And keeping in mind, the direction of my attention makes such difference. My thanks as usual. (Pardon this lengthy reply, but you found a resonance within new sense for me.)

    • hi, neil! so nice to see you here. reading poems that are deeply painful for us is another element of this conversation, for sure!

      in two seminars i attended on reading difficult poems in public — the kind that may make us cry or break down when we read them — is that if the poet can’t read it without falling apart, he/she shouldn’t. my “go-to” habit would have been to disengage entirely (check out!) and just read the words, but that doesn’t do anything for the poem or the audience, of course. the advice from the experts was to practice it 100 times (or as long as it took) until the poet is able to read it through without difficulty.

      the logic was — and this is important to us here — that a poet at the mic is there to give the audience something (an experience of the poems, for one) and that a weeping poet at the mic turns the tables and asks the audience to give him/her something instead. and everyone gets uncomfortable.

      i know that’s a little bit different than what you were talking about, neil, but it reminded me about it. and you have it right also when you say that a clear, strong reading of these kinds of poems can be extremely healing.

      • Reminds me of Jean Cocteau apologizing to his fellow actors for crying onstage one night. It was very moving for everyone when it happened–actors and audience alike, as I recall from reading about it–but he told his actors that he wasn’t supposed to feel but instead to allow the audience to feel, and that a certain restraint of his own feelings would encourage that in his audience, a very generous impulse. And a kind of professionalism that would help actors avoid self-indulgent performances. We poets could learn something from this, too!

  10. Volume is part of the process, Kathleen, I agree, and provision of a decent pa system should be a given at any venue larger than a broom cupboard. But arguably a poem vocalised is an unaccompanied song and its projection must be guided by the same kinds of techniques attendant on singing. This is true of the oral poem unplugged and the poem amplified (with very specific techniques applying to using a mic). These rarely come naturally, but, by and large, they can be taught and they can be learned.

    Here Neil’s comment has relevance. (Firstly, forgive me for interjecting, Neil, because you have directed your contribution to Carolee.) The reader’s will is so much an issue: s/he must want very much to share the poem with an audience him/herself. From that initial imperative all else – with a little technique-based tinkering – can flow (my somewhat sardonic observations in my previous comment notwithstanding!). Neil’s discovery of that shift from the poet’s intrinsic absorption in the poem as a personal statement to the extrinsic requirements of sharing it effectively with an audience is crucial. His particular epiphany describes the process movingly and with great clarity.

    • you may interject anytime! and you hit this on the head — and i love how you describe it — the difference between the poet’s “absorption” in the poem and the “requirements of sharing it.”

    • I agree that projection is a skill poets can learn and benefit from, like singers! I’ve noticed in the ongoing discussion that some poets will resist learning such skills, for various reasons. I’ve also noticed in various places–poetry readings, public events, panel discussions–that many audience members request that speakers use the microphone, even if they insist that they can project without it. So there are people in audiences who can’t hear even the trained voice, and so, if there is a mic, I use it.

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