The first time I ever went to a poetry reading was on campus when I was an undergraduate student at the University of West Florida. I don’t remember the particulars of the night. I do, however, remember being impressed and cowed by the writers I met that night. They got behind the mic with a confidence that eluded me. They read their work with practiced authority. They became their words.
I’d heard of open-mic readings before that first one I attended, of course. I associated open-mics with hippies and goatees, berets and espresso, vaguely European snobbishness and angst. When I finally read my work at a reading, I donned an over-sized denim shirt (an unsuccessful attempt to hide my girth) and a pageboy cap, a hat I donned because of my love for Stevie Ray Vaughan, who wore one (when he wasn’t wearing his trademark fedora). Reading a chapter of a novel-in-progress, I tried not to let my nerves show, despite the reticence I felt. My insides shook, but somehow, my voice stayed steady.
Afterward, several of my friends and professors congratulated me on the strength of my work. I was quietly elated by their compliments. Saying nice things about a peer’s work is one thing during workshop, a classroom method that by then I was getting used to. This was outside of the classroom. This rug had been ripped away: no classroom niceties, just me, the mic, and a crowd that could have booed me off the stage.
Since that night, I’ve read at countless open mics and benefits, sometimes headlining, usually playing second fiddle to a better, more well-known writer. And since that night, I’ve heard and read all kinds of dismissive commentary about open mic nights. The work is awful, some complain. The writers suck, others say. Open mic nights are magnets for creepy old guys who want to read their racy work to a captive audience. Open mic nights are forums for wanna-bes, poetasters whose work will no other audience.
No doubt, some of these things are true. It would be dishonest for me to say that all the work I’ve heard at open mic nights is good. A lot of it is awful. I’ve seen some young poets stagger up behind the mic and slur out, “I just wrote this on a napkin” before reading some god-awful piece of pseudo-poetry.
Just as often, however, I’ve seen writers blossom during open mic nights. I’ve seen my own students, shy about their work in class, suddenly become another person as they read their work. I’ve seen the boost that their peers’ confidence gives them. The literary magazine I advise, Pegasus, stages monthly open-mics on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. These events have grown in popularity over the past semester. The house was packed at the August open mic, and I was thoroughly impressed with the literary community at the small state college that pays my bills. Not all the work was high quality, of course. Very little of what I heard was publishable quality. And I don’t think that’s the point.
Instead, at least for me, an open mic gives writers the opportunity to engage with a community of those who value what they value. Let’s face it: writing is a lonely business. The writer sits at a keyboard (or with pencil or pen in hand) and stares at a white page, wrangles with language, seeks the perfect combination of words, and endures all of this alone. What impressed me about my first open mic reading so many years ago back at UWF is what impressed me about our modest readings here at ABAC: the community of writers and artists, all who come together in the name of art. For many beginning writers, just knowing that they’re not alone in their struggle is more of a gift than they ever realized. Even for a veteran open-mic denizen like me, I still enjoy standing behind the mic and reading to a crowd who came not to see me, but to hear another writer's words.
O for a muse of fire,