First, credentials and disclaimer: I've been participating in open mic readings for more than 15 years, and regularly hosting them since 2002. I have seen opens ranging from surprisingly good to unreportably bad, and received enough feedback from our featured poets in the Spoken Word Series to believe that some of this is applicable everywhere. Also, we have a small open with a number of regulars who've been with us for 5+ years, and some of my comments come from comparing the good habits of my long-timers to some other poets I've come across over the years.
Assumptions: venue is general-audience, 2 short poems or 1 long (5 minute max),
- Pick your poems before you set foot in the venue. You should have decided what you're going to read before the event begins. Experienced amateurs can narrow down to a handful and make the final call based on the setting, the mood, and the readers that precede, but even in that case you should be picking from no more than 5 poems.
- Start with the title plus 10 words. All poems have a history. Many poems, especially by amateurs, have the same history. Most poems don't benefit from having their history recited immediately before they're presented. Aside: I know many people like to hear a little about a poem before the poem. I do, too, to an extent. But when the length of the intro approaches the length of the poem, you've presented too much. Far too much.
- Avoid research projects. It's very easy to get caught up on the significance of our special projects, especially when longpoems or poems sequences are in progress. And you shouldn't be bashful or embarrassed about talking about those projects if asked, but until you're asked a simple "this is from a series of poems about yakkity yak yak" is adequate. If it's an obscure subject, leave it obscure, don't use an open mic for a history lesson.
- Don't give a geometry lesson. If your poem has a structure on the page that is essential to its understanding, think very hard about presenting it at all; but if you really feel the need, please don't, don't, DON'T explain the shapes and spacings on the page before you present the poem.
- Respect the other readers. This has a lot of other rules rolled up into it: don't fiddle with your papers while others are reading, pay attention with eyes and body to other readers, stay to the end of the open no matter where on the list your turn falls.... if you want to understand poet etiquette, pay attention to how a featured reader behaves when he or she is not reading.
Yes, there's a story behind each of these rules, and some other rules that I'm sitting on for volume 2. While you're waiting for that, here's another remnant from a defunct journal; today it's The Ogalala Review, and the excerpt is from Michael Foster's "Seven Love Poems"
Between the peachtrees,
out of a ruined sleep,
wild strawberries grow.
This morning I watched you beside the fish pond
until you stood. Your reflection was riddled
with golden arrows.