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Opening Nights – Ian McLachlan on entering the Spoken Word scene

In the Logan’s Run world of spoken-word poetry it can feel like most of the opportunities are targeted at young poets, with 25 being the cutoff point or time of “Carousel”. If you’re over the age of 25 – a “Runner” – you’ll probably need to attend open mic nights if you want to develop your performance skills. Luckily, London’s open mic scene is flourishing, with events in all quarters. Entry prices vary: plenty are free or pay-what-you-like, while cover charges are usually in the range of £3-£8. Vibes are also variable, some nights running as fluently as a bicycle, others more like a brainstorm in the mind of the Incredible Hulk.
Image by Tyrone Lewis
The first open mic I ever attended was Poetry Unplugged, which runs weekly at the Poetry Café (Covent Garden). One advantage of this night is that no matter how many poets sign up, you’re assured of a slot. How Poetry Unplugged’s host Niall O’Sullivan finds time for sometimes 50+ poets to perform in the space of a couple of hours is a mystery to me. One tactic he employs is to shorten the five-minute length of performance slots to four minutes per reader once more than 25 poets have signed up. Slots at poetry open mic nights are usually five minutes long. At some events you can read as many poems as you like within this time frame. At others, such as Word Up (Mason’s Arms, Kensal Green), you’re asked to keep it to just one piece. (Word Up is currently on hiatus, but expects to make a triumphant return later this year. Sibling writing group Words Down is active, though, and runs weekly sessions at Rubio London, Harlesden). Some nights are more serious about time-keeping than others. At Spoken Word London (Vogue Fabrics, Dalston), host Hannah Gordon will ring the “Princess Diana bell” at four minutes 45 seconds to let you know you’re coming to the end of your slot, before turning on the sound system and blasting you off with loud music at five minutes. The three hosts at Boxed In (Box Park, Shoreditch) will converge on a performer, sometimes creeping forward on hands and knees, and staring at them until they stop. Boxed In currently offers the shortest slots I’m aware of: 1min 30s. Even so, slot demand often exceeds availability, so it’s worth arriving a bit early and getting ready for 7pm, when host Sean Mahoney opens the sign-up list. Regular attendees at open mic nights often cite as a minor annoyance poets who overrun their slot; it’s a good idea to time your poems in advance so you know how long it takes to deliver them. Another well-documented peeve is “poet voice” – delivering your poem in an artificial tone. A personal bugbear is the poet who announces at the start of their piece, ‘I just wrote this on my phone on the bus here,’ thus acknowledging that it hasn’t been edited (which is fundamental to good writing), or rehearsed (which is fundamental to good performance). Popular open mic nights often select readers by lottery, with would-be performers queuing up to put their names in a hat. Boomerang Club (Rutland Arms, Hammersmith) operates a double lottery system, with an online draw for those who sign up on the event’s Facebook page, and a second draw for those who sign up on the night. Worth noting that Boomerang Club founder Jake Wild Hall has recently teamed up with Amy Acre to launch Bad Betty Press.
Image by Tyrone Lewis
Spoken Word London operates a first-come-first-served policy, with 20 slots up for grabs, as well as a lottery-based reserve list. Unusually, at this event you (rather than the host) get to choose your performance slot from those available. Sign-up is at 7.30pm but the queue often starts an hour in advance. Come Rhyme with Me (Ovalhouse, Vauxhall), Spoken, not Stirred (The Broadway, Barking), and Word on the Street (Boondocks, Shoreditch) also operate on a first-come-first-served basis. At Come Rhyme with Me, you can order French-Caribbean food to go with your poetry. Spoken, not Stirred has a welcome relationship with the Poetry Translation Centre: in 2017, I saw both Sarah Howe and Daljit Nagra performing translations of Turkish and Somali work as part of the evening’s entertainment. The Chocolate Poetry Club (Brockwell Blend, Brixton) is another popular first-come-first-served event. In addition to its regular night in Brixton, it has recently introduced a new night at The Camden Eye (Camden Town). It’s always encouraging to see open mic nights expanding, and this doesn’t just apply to London events. In 2017, Danny Pandolfi (recently listed by Rife Magazine as one of the 24 most influential Bristolians under 24) brought his successful Bristol-based night Raise the Bar to London for a limited run of monthly events at Brick Lane’s Café 1001. On top of this, both Raise the Bar and Boomerang Club took open mic shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Image by Tyrone Lewis
Listen Softly London (The Royal George, Soho), Speak Easy (Phoenix Artist Club, Covent Garden) and Heartspoken Word (Ziferblat, Shoreditch) encourage would-be performers to sign up on Facebook/by email in advance. This obviously requires you to know about the night in advance, and for this purpose I have found the Facebook group Poetry in London very helpful for alerts about upcoming nights. Events are usually monthly, and last for two or three hours. Of course you’re free to leave once you’ve read, but if you stay and listen to those who have listened to you, it’s greatly appreciated. There’s nothing more dispiriting than spending several hours waiting to perform, going onstage, looking round the room, and finding the audience is now composed solely of the host and the bar staff. Spoken word nights are often photographed and filmed, which is, in my view, very necessary if the scene is to expand and attract a wider audience. You can find Tyrone Lewis photographing at Boomerang Club and Word Up, and Anthony Adams taking snaps at Spoken Word London. Tyrone Lewis’ Process Productions also films at Boomerang Club, while Abu B. Yillah’s BlaSpheMe (Black Supahero Media) films at Boxed In, and Thomas Owoo’s GhettogeekTV is at Word Up. The night I attended Come Rhyme with Me, Muddy Feet Poetry were on hand to capture the action.
Image by Tyrone Lewis
More information about the London open mic scene can be found by watching Tyrone Lewis’ film NEW SHIT! – The Open Mic Documentary, or by listening to some of the open-mic-related programmes on Lunar Poetry podcasts. It’s also worth checking out the Young Poets Guidebook, which includes a list of London open mic nights. You’ll notice this site contains a link entitled “Old Poets Guidebook” which is inactive; in the Logan’s Run world of spoken word poetry, “Runners” technically don’t exist. Ian McLachlan is a “Runner” on London’s poetry open mic scene. His pamphlet, Confronting the Danger of Art, co-created with Phil Cooper, is available from Sidekick Books. He tweets @ianjmclachlan and Instagrams at /ianjmclachlan


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