Saturday, September 5, 2015

About Open Mics

Here in the U.S., this is Labor Day weekend, many schools opened on the 3rd (before Labor Day this year) and, despite the heat and humidity where I live, there's just a hint of autumn in the air. The summer blog "reruns" have run their course. In this corner of Poetryland, readings begin to pick up again after the semi-lull of summer, and I thought a post about poetry readings might be interesting.

When I posted the above video here on the blog, a few years ago, I thought it was one of the funniest reading-related videos I’ve seen. If you’ve been to readings, especially where there are open mics, you’ve probably heard a wide range of reading styles. Revisiting the video got me to thinking about open mics and what makes a good open mic experience for both the readers and the audience members.

We’ve all been to poetry readings that include open mics. Sadly, some of these become agonizingly drawn-out events. Some time ago, I read in a venue in which the open readers after the feature were allowed to read as many poems as they liked.  I read for about 20 minutes; the open reading went on for more than two hours. Enough said!

Assuming that you read in opens or attend readings in which there are open mics, it occurred to me that letting people know what isn’t appealing might be a good way to approach the subject.

The goal, of course, isn’t to be negative but, rather, to point out things that sometimes occur at open readings—things that leave audience members wishing they’d left right after the feature.

Having directed the Carriage House Poetry Series for seventeen years, I can say with complete sincerity that being a series director isn't easy. We all hope to create venues in which poets and poetry lovers can share in a welcoming and non-judgmental environment. To do that effectively, readers (both featured and open) need guidelines, and it's helpful to know what doesn't work.

Accordingly, I invited five reading series directors (who are also distinguished poets) and asked them to make a few comments in answer to this question:

What can ruin an open mic poetry reading?

 With my thanks to the poets below, I hope you find the following comments helpful. 


Bernadette McBride 
Director of the Farley’s Book Store Reading Series, New Hope, PA

If you are a poet who likes to read at open mics, a tip or two: realize you are not the featured poet—that status has been earned in some way and is given the bulk of time; remember that others want to read too and attendees have just listened to one or two featured readers—they're becoming “poetry-ed out” for the night.  Respect this. If you notice people shifting in their seats and rolling their eyes, sit down.  


Deborah LaVeglia 
Director of Poetswednesday at Barron Arts Center, Woodbridge, NJ

  • If it's too long
  • If it's vulgar/inappropriate/sexist/racist
  • When those reading in the open, don't come to the feature portion of the program. 
It's the host's responsibility to lay down the rules and make sure they are followed. However, even though you make an announcement, newcomers may not adhere to your rules/suggestions. It's difficult to cut a person off mid-poem. I try not to, but have had to do it once or twice. Usually, I approach the person afterward, privately, and explain things. That always works for me. 

I don't like when hosts make blanket statements about rude open readers at the beginning of an open. It turns me off. After all, everyone shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable because of one or two people. Everyone can work things out with a little bit of patience, direction, and kindness. It's a difficult position for the host. I am very grateful that it is rare at the BAC [Barron Arts Center]. 


Diane Lockward
Founding Director of Girl Talk and The West Caldwell Poetry Festival, West Caldwell, NJ

1. If you haven't been there to hear the featured poet read, do not sign up to read in the Open.

2. While the featured poet is reading, please do not sit in the audience and work on your own poems.

3. Regardless of how many poems you are permitted to read, do not ever read more than two, each of modest length.

4. Do not approach the featured poet after the reading and suggest a book trade.


Laura Boss
Co-director of the Montclair Library Reading Series 
and Co-director of the Poetry Weekend Intensive Retreats

Here's what not to say at opens when you are limited to one or two poems:

"Could I just read one more poem?"


Sander Zulauf
Former director of the Great Swamp Poetry Series and former Director of the Distinguished American Poets Series and Bicentennial Poetry Readings at County College of Morris, Randolph, NJ

For starters, poet wannabes with more ego than poetry in them.  Those who read too long are definitely an open mic buzz kill. Everybody deserves a chance at the open, but in order for everybody to have a chance, the leaders of the reading should specify the number of poems or the time for each reader depending on how many have signed up.  And should warn the poets that they will be stopped if they cross the line.  Leaders have a responsibility as well as the participants.  I was once chastised while leading the open mic at the Gazebo in one Waterloo Village Dodge Festival by stopping a guy with his notebook who was reading a ten or twelve page hand-written Iliad when some young whip stood in my face and quoted Frost at me about "nobody should stop a song" or something, and I had to stand up to him by defending the rest of the people who wanted to read and who were being eaten alive and denied a time by the talentless quack.   People who write poems while the featured reader is reading and then stand up and read their tripe in the open.  I am no longer a fan of open mics—I believe they are gimmicks to build an audience for the featured poets, and they can quickly poison the poetry well. 



  1. Fantastic ideas for open mic readers and great to hear comments from 5 different series directors. I've been to readings where the open part is longer than the feature -- not much fun!

    1. Thanks, Jamie! I think most of us have been to those readings.

  2. This post reminds me of a time at one of your series readings when a woman got up to read in the open and announced that she would read an additional poem. You explained (patiently, I might add) that all poets must follow the same rule regarding number of poems in order to be fair to everyone reading in the open. The woman proceed to argue with you and to insist that she was going to read another poem. In a few seconds you let her know that she wasn't, and I remember seeing a few people in the audience silently applauding for you. Being a good series director means making rules and politely making sure all the open readers follow them. For the most part, I think open readers are respectful of the audience and of one another, but I've seen a few dillies here and there. BTW, the Carriage House Series is wonderful!

    1. Thanks for your comment, RL. I remember that night. I try to be fair—same rule for everyone. I'm so glad to know that you enjoy the Carriage House Series. Thanks again!

  3. Brilliant, Adele! Much-needed advice from people who KNOW!

    Some open mic readings after features are just plain awful.

    A big THANK YOU to the poets/directors who shared their ideas (Bernadette McBride, Deborah LaVeglia, Diane Lockward, Laura Boss, and Sander Zulauf).

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandy! I'll pass your comment on to those who contributed their thoughts to this post.

  4. That video is hysterically funny!

    A few years ago, I was visiting poet friends in NJ and went to Diane Lockward's Girl Talk reading. I was amazed at how she presented a couple of dozen readers so professionally and efficiently. There were no bios or intros, just an afternoon of quickly moving, wonderful poems. I hadn't started writing poetry yet and thought I might be bored, but hearing about 24 readers read one poem each was such a pleasure. The afternoon was anything but a long one, and I think everyone went home with a renewed appreciation of poetry. That's what a good program coordinator does!

    I enjoy your blog. I'm a novice poet and appreciate all the great ideas you post for getting the poetry process started.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jane! I've sent Diane Lockward a note because I know she'll be happy to see what you've written. And, yes, her Girl Talk is always a wonderful afternoon of poetry and sharing.

  5. I've attended readings hosted/directed/introduced by DEBORAH LAVEGLIA, DIANE LOCKWARD, LAURA BOSS, and SANDER ZULAUF, and they were all very professionally and efficiently run. I've also attended a number of readings hosted/directed by Adele (Carriage House Poetry Series) in which open readers are each invited to read a single poem of short to moderate length (no exceptions). Those Carriage House opens often include 15 or more open readers but they always move along quickly and enjoyably.

    This is a great post -- open readers please pay attention to the suggestions made by the "pros."

    1. Thanks for your comment Bob's Mustangs! I agree that the series directors/poets who contributed their comments to this post are all "pros" who have done much for poets and poetry over the years. Thanks, too, for your kind words about the Carriage House Series.

  6. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)September 8, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    This is very good advice to all of us who wish to read in open readings. My university has such readings from time to time, and I will take these suggestions to heart. Thank you to all who contributed to this informative post.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Amita! I hope you do begin to read at your university. I wish you all the best with your poetry!