This is the fourth in a series of interviews with some of the best open mic hosts I’ve seen on my informal tour of open mics across America.
The idea is to pull back the curtain on what it takes to be a host, what hosts want out of an open mic, and how to make an event work when you have no idea what’s going to happen. And maybe even hear a poem or two about open mics.
This week, it’s Madison Mae Parker: Touring poet, performance artist, and vice president at Write Bloody Publishing who, for a time, hosted a magnificent open mic and slam down in Bryan, Texas. You can find her at madisonmaeparker.com or on Instagram, and you can learn about her dance/poetry collective at onethousandproject.com.
Go long, I said. Give examples, I told her. Tell stories.
Tell me about the open mic you run (or have run)—the rules, the structure, the venue. How long have you been doing this? Did you launch it or inherit it from another host? That kinda thing.
I ran Mic Check Poetry, a 501(c)3 poetry event in Bryan, TX, from March 2014– October 2015 as President. I was involved in the operations of Mic Check since summer 2013, though. Mic Check meets at Revolution Café and Bar in downtown Bryan every Sunday night—mostly being an open mic, with one slam (the competition style of poetry) once a month.
Mic Check has been around since the early 2000s, but was turned into a nonprofit around 2010 by Chris Call and Amir Safi (who now runs a great scene down in Houston called Write About Now, which has a great poetry presence on YouTube). It went through a series of people, which eventually landed in my hands.
I had the honor of being the first woman president.
While running Mic Check, I found it important to train and give other people the experience of hosting. I firmly believe hosting can benefit your creative outlets and your stage presence while performing, but also aware that it is not for everyone. It takes a certain person to be a talented host.
A Little Flattery and Some Introspection
In my (evidence-based opinion), your open mic is one of the best I’ve been to. What do you think makes it great?
Wow! Such a compliment! Thank you!
First off, trial and error. I was TERRIBLY AWKWARD at hosting for a good while. I had to try out different hosting personas and see which one worked for me, finally realizing that the best course was who I naturally was (which, duh, but took me a while to get there).
I strive to create a welcoming environment and to not separate the poets from the audience. The poets are not better than the audience. The host is not better than the poets. Without the audience, if anything, we would just be a room full of poets, and how boring would that be?
One thing I loved about you as a host was the way you kept things light even when the poems got weighty. Like booing linear time when a poet got docked for going over and especially the dance parties you announced when the train went by. Is that something you always do or did I just get lucky that night?
I think I am always that way! …with the help of Red Bull as well.
As a natural introvert, hosting (although I do love it) takes a lot of energy out of me. Poetry is often very weighty. Most of us discovered writing when life hit the fan, and we needed a safe haven to turn to.
I believe it is the host’s job to respect and honor that space, but also provide breathing room between the weight.
I’ve been to maybe 30 different open mics and slams and so far, I’ve only seen 4 female hosts. Any idea why that might be?
Oh WOW! Do I have some feelings about this. I can’t tell you how common this is, sadly. It is the very reason why places like Women’s Open Mic Nights often happen. Why Women of the World Poetry Slam needs to exist.
When I first started even reading at Mic Check, I was one of the few women who would slam. Plenty of women would read at open mics, but slam? Hell no. There is a misconception that it is a “man’s game.”
Even after my first slam, I had a few men, who I loved and respect (and still love, despite the following things—patriarchy affects us all) tell me, “You are one of the best writers I have ever seen! But slam may just not be your thing.” AKA yelling things on stage is “unladylike.” Having an opinion—any opinion—is not becoming a woman.
Diversity in hosting is necessary. We consciously or subconsciously feel safe when we see ourselves in someone else. If only white people host open mics, your audience and poets will reflect this. If you only have straight humans hosting? Same thing. Only men? Only cis-humans? All of the same thing.
It is not only important, but the active responsibility for people who run art communities is to seek out different bodies and voices and training them to help host other nights. This is important in creating a safe space and for allowing stories and voices to be heard.
I could go on for a while about this very thing, but I shall refrain and just say that we desperately need more non-men voices (women and gender nonconforming) to be creating spaces in our community to break the bro-fest that so often happens.
Let’s Get Deep and Personal
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of an open mic?
Open mics are (in their, hopefully, most pure form) a safe space. A place to be reminded we are not alone. To find a community of people and artists who can challenge you in life, in politics, in activism, and in art.
Do you have a philosophy or a manifesto as a host?
When I am hosting, I am not there for me. Hosting does not mean that it is the “Madi Mae Show: Starring Madi Mae!” A host is not there to uplift the host.
The host is present to bring a spotlight to the poets and artists performing. This is their time. Their space. A host is a facilitator of people and art.
What would you say are the 3 biggest keys to success—by which I mean longevity—for an open mic?
- Community — The poets and the people need to be there for each other. Not saying that everyone has to be best friends, but we are all on the same team. Your victory is my victory. Your loss is my loss. Being able to confront and challenge our art forms and our activism.It is not about me writing a better poem than this person. It is about us believing in the art form together. Getting people involved who care about the growth of the scene and not just their own art form. Understanding the growth of the scene is the growth of their art form.
- Good venue — This is both a working relationship with the venue and the scene and a mutual respect, as well as a space that can fit an audience and the kind of audience you want to attract.
- Features — Features show your local poets and your audience what poetry can do. Bringing people in from out of town challenges the writing style of the city and reminds them poetry exists outside the walls of your current town.
Have you ever written a poem about open mics? If so, is there a link or video I can share?
I have written a poem dedicated to Mic Check after I moved away as a goodbye poem. I used a lot of Van Gogh imagery, as the venue Mic Check meets at has a rendition of “Starry Night” on the wall.
I read the poem in my livestream feature at Write About Now, but this is my whole feature, and not just one poem. Ha. (NB: Mic Check ode starts at 28:40.)
As far as a poem about open mics in general? I have not!… but that may be the next goal of mine.
Tell Us a Story (or Two)
What’s your idea of a Damn Great Night of open mic—in terms of talent, audience, or anything else?
Oh, hmm. That’s a good question. A tough one too.
I think audiences impact way more than they realize. If an audience isn’t interactive or maybe feels disengaged/disconnected, it throws off the whole vibe or presence of the night.
As far as talent and poets go—I would prefer raw authenticity than years of experience and self-perceived “talent.” I have been to open mics where the poets did the same poems they had been doing for years, which were inherently good poems, but they did them for the sake of personal gain and show, versus giving the audience (or, in my opinion, their own hearts and souls) what they truly needed—honesty and authenticity.
I would rather see 5 pairs of shaky hands, tear-streaked faces with poems that could be considered mediocre on an academic level than watch poets just spit back and forth for their personal egos.
What’s the most bizarre or magical thing you ever saw on your stage?
Bizarre? It was an erotic poetry night. Which already (as you’d expect) makes for an interesting night. A person got on stage and read an erotic poem, where in they baa’d like a sheep or a goat every other line. No context. No reference. Just a lot of farm animal noises.
The whole audience was unsure if we should laugh or cry or be aroused or somewhere in between.
Magical? My first exposure to poetry, honestly. I was not an open mic, but a free performance in my college dorm in 2010. I saw Anis Mojgani read and was immediately enraptured by both his words and presence.
It was not that anything that unusual or uniquely spectacular happened, but it has completely changed my entire life and journey.
Got any open mic superstitions or rituals when you host or perform?
I have different rituals before having a feature, but not so much hosting. Hosting is still a performance (at least for me) in a way, but I view it as an exaggerated part of my personality. I am already quite loud and quite goofy, so I just take these parts of my personality and heighten them on stage.
A feature is quite different. I have to get into my poems, individually. Remember why I wrote them. Remember why they are important. Run through all my lines (I have an awful memory, in full disclosure—remembering my poems is always a struggle). I usually cannot eat a whole lot before hand for nerves. I avoid dairy products all day and drink lots of water and hot tea to prepare my throat. I must stop talking to other humans and get into a meditative state at least 30 minutes prior to a show, which is hard at times if you need to talk to a host, sounds person, audience members, merchandise people, etc.
Has your open mic been the catalyst for creative collaboration among your regulars or semi-regulars?
Oh, without a doubt. I have seen so many group poems, music/poetry collabs, touring duos, and more come out of open mic communities. I think open mic communities are crucial for both personal growth and artistic growth. You learn where your strengths and weaknesses are in communities. Rubbing up against people in close quarters serves as a sharpening tool for life.
Let’s Talk Rules and Technique
How hardcore are you when it comes to open mic etiquette?
It depends on what we are talking about here.
On nights that I host? I stick pretty closely to starting on time, ending on time, keeping people within their poem time limit. I want to respect the audience and their time. I view their attention as a gift they are sharing with me. I want to respect the list of people who I have signed up. I want to respect the venue that we are in and the employees working that evening.
If someone is on the mic and threatens the safety or triggering aspect of people in the audience or someone is rowdy in the back and disrupting the poet on stage? Oh, hell no. Mama bear comes out. I am still respectful, but firm—especially as a woman, which is a whole other conversation—to tell the people to either respect the poet on stage or leave if they are being loud in the back. If necessary, I have even involved bar staff to help out and quiet rowdy audience members.
If it involves a triggering or problematic open mic reader, I will sit with them at break or after the night and explain to them what they said was an issue or damaging to some potential members of the audience.
Now, if I am attending an open mic and I see some major issues with the way the open mic is being managed? Phew, still an issue, but sometimes I just have to put my feelings aside to just be present, understanding that it is not my scene and everyone has different views on how nights should run.
What’s the most effective way you’ve found to encourage good audience and stage behavior?
Kindness on and off stage. I try to make an effort to let people know I don’t just care about them the 5 minutes they are on stage, but I want to go up to them afterwards and say, “Thanks for coming out. I enjoyed your poem. What was your name again?” And encourage that amongst the audience too. Tell audience members to go tell poets when they enjoyed their work. Communication is key for building any community.
What’s your strategy on nights when, for whatever reason, the list is really thin? Say, fewer than 5 performers.
The struggle is real with this one. I always keep poetry books on me. It drives me crazy when a host reads more than 2 poems. (Again, this night ain’t for you. A feature can get anywhere form 4-8 poems, and you are going to read more than that?!… I digress—obviously I got some strong opinions on this. HA).
On slow nights, I will be slower with my announcements, bring more cheesy jokes in, etc. I will also read covers of some of my favorite poems/poets between open mic sign-ups. Call up a poet or two—read a cover—repeat. It’s a struggle, but it helps.
Reading covers is also just good at reminding poets to simply read other poets. It helps enhance their writing, as well as show new audience members who are nervous to read that they can start out reading covers to get comfortable on stage too.
Show Me Your Wishlist
Any plans to modify your format or otherwise tweak your event?
I am not running a poetry scene at the moment and am just focusing on my personal craft. I do help host a local scene in the Midwest (where I now live) once a month, but am not in charge of the overall organization, like I previously was in Texas.
What I hope for my current scene though and what I see happening from our current leader and promoter? Community growth and development in challenging art and even simple friendships.
If you could perform at (or just attend) any open mic, slam, or other poetry event in the United States, all expenses paid, which one would it be?
I haven’t experienced a lot of poetry scenes out of the northeast! Hoping to get to tour that area within the next year or so.
Are there any questions you wish I had asked?
I wanted a way to slip in how much I love my cat, but couldn’t figure out where it was applicable so here we are. My cat, MeowZaki, is probably cooler than you.
She’s definitely cooler than me.