This Writer's Life

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



Step Up to the Open Mike


Everyone in the café heard me clear my throat into the microphone, my “hello” startling me through the loudspeaker. Fifteen years old and wearing a dress I’d made from an Indian bedspread, I delivered a quavering version of “Cameroon,” my favorite Miriam Makeba song, accompanying myself on guitar. Three minutes later I left the stage, having just performed at my first open mike.

I’ve attended hundreds of open mikes since that first time. I’ve heard amazing poetry and dreadful drivel, often on the same night. The open mike is an equal-opportunity performance alternative: anyone can sign up and read whatever they have with them. No criteria exist beyond showing up with a poem, song or joke.

Reading at a microphone is harder than it looks. We’ve all watched a reader adjust the mike for his or her height, never quite getting it right. Tall people like me stoop, while short people stand on tip-toe to reach the mike. Some hold the mike too close to their mouths, resulting in unpleasant clicking and slurping sounds, while others stand a foot away, rendering themselves inaudible.

I’ve seen people read poems neatly typed or handwritten on a sheet of paper, or inked on their hands, or from their phones, tablets or laptops. Some recite from memory (and occasionally go blank, start over, go blank, and give up). Some step up to the mike and then search their pockets for that elusive poem, never finding it. The audience generally forgives these lapses, as they can and do happen to everyone.

Not everyone is well behaved at the open mike. Some use it to air their favorite political viewpoint, or to advertise something. Some launch into a friendly but increasingly pointless conversation with the audience. Some read work that’s inappropriate for the venue (i.e., explicitly violent or sexual poetry at the public library) and some go on for way too

DSCN0865long. So it goes in the territory of citizen-performers. I’ve sat through open mikes where everyone was friends with everyone else and freely commented on each other’s work, both negatively and positively. I’ve read at open mikes where no one clapped (or snapped, a la the Beats). Most of the time, however, the open mike is a source of enjoyment, and sometimes, delight.

The open mike can change a person’s life. I’ve heard the beginnings of brave new voices in the tentative poems of strangers who got up the courage to read in public, often for the first time. Plenty of famous people started out at open mikes: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres among them.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a huge variety of open mikes in just about every town. Go out and find one, and boldly share your work. You never know what might happen.

2 replies »

  1. Yes! Open Mikes are where many of us bloom as poets – where we finally immerse ourselves in the consciousness of an audience, and begin to see our work effect others. The words become little windows, open on both sides. Thanks! Terry A.

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