Reading on open mics is a great way to establish a presence in the literary world before you’ve published extensively. It can be useful as a method of troubleshooting poems and getting constructive feedback on your work. In order to make a good first impression, here are a few ground rules to keep in mind.
Stick to the time limit. Most open mics are squeezed in before, after, or between featured readers. The features are why the majority of the audience is there. There is typically a line of people who want to read on the open mic, so usually a three to five minute window is allotted to each person. Failing to stay within that range implies an ego that is disrespectful towards the other readers and the audience, which is not a great way to earn support from your peers.
Know what you’re going to read. Within the limited amount of time mentioned above, it doesn’t make sense to spend the first thirty seconds of your set flipping through twenty pages of work to select which poems to read. It’s usually best to bring roughly five pieces to choose from, then read about three of them. Choose before you walk up to the mic.
Say thank you. You know your work is that of a genius yet to be discovered and acknowledged by the literary world, but the audience and organizers do not. Show gratitude for the opportunity to be heard by expressing your thanks to the listeners, readers, and hosts.
Read something you just wrote. The idea of sharing a fresh, unadulterated moment of pure creativity is sexy, but it doesn’t play out well in a reading. Editing is crucial. New work that hasn’t been rehearsed often causes stumbles and hesitations in delivery, which obscures the quality of the work. Plus if you’re anything like me, reading your own handwriting is a significant obstacle.
Give more backstory than content. A lot of poems are understood more vividly when given context, but especially with shorter works, it doesn’t make sense to spend three times as much time on introduction as actual poem. Give the poems the context they need, but nothing more.
Ramble. We would all love to think that we can arrive in front of an audience and be spontaneously witty and charming. About a quarter of us are correct in that assumption. It’s amazing how often readers talk themselves into a corner and then struggle to bring the banter back to the poem they wanted to read. Know what you want to say to transition between poems, and stick to that. If you’re not sure, err on the side of just reading the poems. Good work should speak for itself.