Although it’s taken a little while, here is the promised post on how to throw your very own Open Mic Night!   No matter where you find yourself, open mics are a great way to bring communities together and generate creativity.  College campuses are especially good places since there are often lots of places to hold open mics and/or venues with sound equipment already there.

But before I get ahead of myself….

The workshop, part of Split This Rock and led by poets Dan Wilcox, Toni Asante Lightfoot, and Reuben Jackson, included a suggested timeline for throwing the event, an equipment list, and a Q&A with the poets.  Hopefully the advice they gave will help you better bring together art and activism on or off campus.

Very quickly, what is exactly is an Open Mic, just in case some are unfamiliar? Open Mic (short for “microphone”) refers to an event, a gathering really, where people can share their art; most often it’s poetry, spoken word or readings, but open mics can include anything from songs to performance art as long as it’s cool with the organizers.  It’s referred to as “open” because anyone and everyone can sign up so long as there’s time.  People sign up on a sheet before the event starts (or email the organizers depending on the event) and then are called up to perform.

Now, on to throwing one!

Here is the suggested timeline for an open mic event (keeping mind that a “feature poet” is someone more well-known who can attract folks to your event, and that this timeline is meant to be helpful for those on and off college campuses):

2 Months Before:
Set date with Feature Poet
Arrange for site to hold event

4-6 Weeks Before Event:
Submit grant application to appropriate college sources or Poets&Writers
Make fliers (full page and 1/4 page size)

One Month Before Event:
Get bio information from Feature Poet
Draft press release (see below for vitals of a press release)
Assemble other press materials, such as photos
Assemble/verify availability of equipment (see below for equipment list)
Prepare labels for mailing (although so much is digital these days…)
Attend other events and distribute your 1/4 page fliers

3 Weeks Before Event:
Send out press release (may have to be sooner for monthly/less frequent publications)

1-2 Weeks Before Event:
Send out first email notice

1 Week Before:
Put up fliers on kiosks
Send out second email

Day of the Event:
Call media (see below for suggested media outlets)
Send out final email blast
Check equipment list and equipment
Prepare sign up sheet
Set up space
Wait for the crowd to descend!

Given the awesomeness of the event, open mics are relatively easy to throw.  However, they do require supplies, so here’s an…

Equipment List!
Clipboard (for the host to hold the list)
Sign up sheet
Feature Poet bio introduction
Marker pen
Sound equipment
-Mic and mic cable
-Mic stand
-Power cord
-Extension cord
Music stand
Tape (duct, masking, etc.)
Books, tapes, etc. for sale
Tape recorder, tape (or digital recorder)
Camera (film, flash, and/or digital)

Hooray! Although you can now throw a great event, just in case, here are the Q’s and A’s from the workshop.  They make some finer points and can hopefully assuage some concerns.

Where do I hold my Open Mic?
Location location location!  Since the goal is to gather people together, it’s important to invite people to a space that will be conducive to sharing and generating community.  A place that already has equipment is great, as is (if you’re hard up for amplification or a mic) a place that might not need to be amplified. Small is usually better than large, since you want the event to be cozy.  Good places include coffee shops, cafes, common rooms, jazz centers, museums, art galleries, and libraries.  A shout-out to students, make sure you apply for those grants and use equipment you can borrow from your university or AV group!  Get creative – if there’s a place that speaks to you, give it a shot.  When describing an outlandish idea of his own, Jackson chuckled, “why not?  The worst they can say is no.”

How do I advertise my Open Mic?
The bigger you want your event to be, the more advertising you’ll be doing.  Here are all the ideas for publicity, but pick and choose for what will be most effective for your community.  As suggested in the timeline, a great way to advertise for your own event is to bring those 1/4 fliers and attend other poetry events in the area.  You have your audience right there!  Make sure to write to your local papers, often especially by email.  A press release only needs to include the following information: who, what, where, and how much your requested donation is.  Make sure to follow up your press release with a phone call to the newspapers.  Call your community cable station, get folks on the radio, and tack up fliers on local bulletin boards.  Drop choice phrases into your advertising literature like “nonviolent,” “community-centered,” “youth empowerment,” and “creative.”  Make sure you have someone write up an article also after the event happens.

How long should each poet read?
For an event with about 20ish performers at approximately 2 hours, people should read for 3-4 minutes.  But, given that virtually no one is going to time his/her poetry, saying “one poem” with a 2-page max is usually a good bet.  Remember to write, “Please print” on the sign-up sheet so that the moderator will be able to read it.  Also good to have written at the top of the sheet is “might not read in sign-up order” to shake up the lineup so that people who want to read will stay and those who perform at the end still have an audience.  The order ‘open mic,’ then ‘feature poet,’ then ‘open mic’ is generally a good set up.  Last piece of advice here is that it can be helpful to have some folks with ‘poetry cred’ around to tell performers to wrap up if they’re running over-time.

How do I get a mic or a music stand?
Mics are good to have because they focus people’s attention on the performer and mics and amplifiers often come together for not too much (poets noted some good ones for ~$200).  Music stands can be found second hand (ask school band programs, or borrow them) and often times you can use a performer’s equipment if you clear it ahead of time (young musicians are especially good for this).

How much do I pay my feature poet?
This depends, check out their website or ask around if you’re curious.  Wilcox said that he pays ~$25 (and collects donations ahead of time and also passes around a hat during a break in the middle).  He suggests first paying the poet and then splitting the remaining donations with the house if you have a paying arrangement with the venue.

So our first event was great, but how do I get people to come back?
Hopefully your event lit sparks in your audience and they’ll keep coming back for more.  But in trying to hold on to your audience and get more readers, here are some suggestions: “gimmick nights” (e.g. writing on a theme, timed writing, object writing, banned poetry, poetry of a specific country, political poetry, etc.), collaborations between different artists (e.g. poets teaching visual artists and vice versa, freestylers teaching poets, etc.), bring a friend nights, and nights devoted to famous poets or poems.

Phew.  Hopefully this is more empowering than intimidating, although I recognize that it’s a lot of information to take in.  Use these lists, suggestions, and pieces of advice as you need them.  I’ve hosted and performed in many open mics and they are incredibly rewarding experiences.

Let the prospect of throwing your own Open Mic inspire you. Best of luck and comment with any questions.