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No Open Mic? No Problem: How to Organize Your Own Poetry Reading

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Written by Ami Mattison
In my previous article, “4 Reasons You Should Perform Your Poetry,” I discussed how performing or reading your poetry to others could strengthen and enhance your creative experience and could provide the artistic and social connections you need as a poet. Also, I suggested that you find an open mic in order to share your poetry with others.
But what to do when you can’t find an open mic?
Plenty of poets live in small towns and rural areas, which tend to have fewer open mics, if any at all. But not being able to find an open mic doesn’t mean you can’t perform or read your poetry to others.

Poetry Happens Everywhere

Poetry performances and readings happen in lots of different venues. I’ve performed my poetry on the streets and in homes, as well as in bars, restaurants, cafés, theatres, classrooms, stadiums, libraries, and hotel conference rooms.
Many of my performances have been paid, spoken word features, in which I was invited to perform. But I’ve organized and created performance opportunities for myself many times. I’ve organized spoken word shows, open mics, and more private affairs; and on several occasions, I’ve performed on sidewalks and in other outdoor areas.
So, if you want to perform or read your poetry, but you can’t find an open mic, then you can always take a little initiative and create your own performance opportunity.

Guide to Creating Your Own Poetry Event

Here’s a guide, based on my personal experiences, which might help you see the possibilities for creating and planning your own poetry events:
  • Organize a poetry or art salon. Invite some poet-friends or others who love poetry to your home and hold a poetry reading in your living room, basement, backyard, or wherever there’s space. Ask your friends to bring their original poetry or a favorite poem by another poet and to be prepared to read or perform. But you don’t have to exclude your other artist friends. Do you know musicians or other performers? What about prose writers and visual artists? Invite them to participate too.
Literary and art salons have a glamorous history, and when you participate in one, you’ll know why. They provide an intimate space in which to share poetry and art, to have lively discussions about it, and to commune with other artists and art lovers. I’ve organized plenty of art salons in my own home. The experience is always artistically invigorating, and when it’s all over, I feel emotionally replenished and creatively inspired.
  • Organize your own feature performance. That’s right. Organize an event that solely features you and your poetry. You can host it in your own home, a friend’s home, a coffee shop, or another local venue. If you organize it in your home, then create some special invitations and invite all your friends and family. You can even provide some snacks and refreshments to make the evening more casual. If you find a public venue, then in addition to inviting everyone you know, be sure to also put up some flyers around town.
Does creating your own opportunity for a feature performance sound too self-promotional or too vain to you? Then, it’s time to check your inner critic and ask yourself: What’s more important—maintaining social modesty around my art or creating an opportunity to grow in my creativity? It’s not vain to want to share your poetry. Ask a good friend or a partner. I bet they’ll be behind it 100%, and they may even help you organize it.
I once held a fundraiser for my CD in my basement. I invited my friends and gave a private performance. I’ll admit I was nervous and felt a little self-conscious when I was organizing the event, but my friends loved being invited to an exclusive event in which I was performing just for them, and they all gave generously. Plus, I felt humbled and inspired by my friends’ support and love. So, try assuming that your friends and family want to hear your creative work and to share in the experience of your reading or performance.
  • Organize your own public poetry reading or open mic. This option requires that you know other poets who are willing to share their poetry too. But if you know a handful of poets who are game, then ask around town for a free space to hold your poetry reading or open mic and paste up some flyers in places where poets and other artists might frequent, like coffee shops, art centers, or libraries. Also, it’s important that you promote your event by extending personal invitations to friends, families, and acquaintances and by asking the other poets to do so as well. Finally, you’ll need to commit to being the event host–welcoming attendees, introducing other poets, and keeping the proverbial ball rolling. Give yourself plenty of time to organize, get confirmed commitments from other poets to perform or read, and post a local listing.
I’m an experienced event organizer and promoter, and I’ve organized dozens of cultural, political, and community events. I can tell you that each part of organizing a successful poetry reading or open mic can be challenging, such as securing a venue, and promoting and hosting the event. So, it’s work, but it’s also very rewarding. Not only will you enjoy having created an opportunity to share your own poetry and to hear the poetry of others, but you’ll have the satisfaction of utilizing your creative and social skills in new ways.
  • Take it to the streets. In practical terms, this really is the simplest option. Yeah, you have to be courageous and audacious for a street performance, but its high risk-factor means enormous creative and personal rewards. Ask other poets and performers to join you, and be sure to tell your friends and family to show up. If you want to play it safe, most cities and towns have areas that are designated for public speaking. Finding these areas is as simple as calling your city hall and asking. Also, if you intend to collect donations, you’ll probably need a permit.
But I’ve never asked permission or gained a permit to perform on the street. Instead, I’ve just done it, and I’ve never gotten “in trouble.” On one memorable occasion, some performer friends and I put on a show on the front steps of a church in downtown Nashville. It was an artistic political protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We tried to gain permission to hold it in front of the church, but we received no response. So, we did it anyway. The Nashville police called the pastor of the church who showed up and politely waited for us to finish. Afterwards, he told us that he enjoyed the show, but perhaps could we get permission next time?
Sometimes, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. And sometimes, as an artist, you can’t play by the “rules.” You have to take some risks for your art and for your beliefs.

The Power of Poetry and Community

Regardless of when and where you perform, don’t let not having a venue keep you from the fantastic experience of performing your poetry. In fact, even if there are open mics in your area, you might try some of these options, just to add variety to your performance or reading experiences.
I think you’ll gain a new appreciation for the power of poetry and performance to bring together community; and that combination—poetry and community—is a powerful one.
To perform for others is to engage in the communal creation of poetry. And being an active participant in the cultural creation and communal appreciation of poetry is oftentimes so amazing that it’s indescribable.
But don’t take my word for it. Organize an event and experience for yourself the unique and empowering rewards of bringing together poetry and community.
Have you ever tried any of these options? What were your experiences? If not, then are you feeling game? If you have questions about organizing your own event, then feel free to ask. I’m here to help

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