The Bogeyman Is Alive and Well

…and at a writer’s open mic near you. I’m risking my own karma for writing this post, I’m sure, but there are some things that need to be said, first and foremost out loud to myself, but secondly communicated to other writers and authors who would venture to an open mic, and lastly, to the innocent public.

The poet Michelle Tea got started by attending with great intensity and frequency the open mics of San Francisco, which, to be sure, are aplenty in that market. So she has become, for me at least, the exception that proves the rule—if you read in public often enough, you will become super famous. So don’t pipe up right now and tell me you’ve never heard of Michelle Tea.

Again, as I’ve said before, my goal is not to be famous, even if I do harbor a fantasy or two about appearing on Ellen’s show or in an interview with Stephen Colbert. My goal is write well, create stories that have taken hold of my mind, and focus on audiences who are often left out of the publishing world but who I know buy a boat ton of books every year.

It helps to read one’s work to an audience, especially when one is writing humor, as I am. Where are the laughs coming from, which lines? It’s also good as a confidence boost, in great part because it’s something accomplishment-ready, even if one is in the middle of a long romance, or feels like their short story will never really be finished.

But let’s check into Reality Hotel here for a second, okay? There is a lot of nonsense at open mics. I’ve attended these events in Syracuse and Manhattan, New York, DC, Philadelphia, and now Emerald City. I’ve seen queer-only open mics—thus crushing up on the concept of “open”—ones that drew a big science fiction crowd, and ones that seemed to pull in people of all stripes. And yet the same gamut of personalities showed up in every instance.

America’s Next Ann Rice is always there—even though Ann Rice herself seems to have moved on, to some degree. There is always some older guy in a velvet robe, and let me be far from the first to suggest, gently, that velvet robes don’t look good on anyone and haven’t since 1564. Maybe if one is performing at their local Medieval Times restaurant, willing to lance another college student with a smoked turkey leg, but even then it’s dodgy.

There’s the person—usually a woman—who reads poems about her latest love, and I wind up feeling like I need a strong astringent afterward. This is often followed by  a person—usually a woman—reading a poem about some awful ex-love. Upon hearing this, my visceral response is generally similar. Maybe it’s the way they stand, petulance embodied, as they read. Or the intonation of a poet who watched Slam one too many times. Hey, not everyone needs to be Saul Williams or Marc Smith, and while I appreciate their work, I would also suggest that pushing mediums, not repeating them, is more interesting.

Last night, I went to the Hugo House’s Works in Progress open mic, bringing a bit of my memoir with me. It works on a lottery system, with each wannabe tossing their name into a bucket, Goblet of Fire-style, only there’s no Ralph Fiennes waiting for any of us in the bushes. Then I sat down with Susanne and a couple of friends I’ve met out here, and readied myself for some storytelling.

Yes, there were good pieces, ones that included turns of phrase or a lyricism that held my attention, but there were a lot of dogs in the ring, too. One man got up and said he had three pieces of poetry inspired during a heavy metal concert. I prepared for something good—images of older men with rounding bellies still trying to get their collective groove on, or something else. Maybe I shouldn’t have pictured Spinal Tap, because what came out of his mouth was as unlike that satire as anything could have been, rants regarding one’s ex-lover included. He described a small girl laughing as she is slashed to death by a monster.

Look, some ideas are bad ideas, and need to find the bottom of a junk drawer. If he’d have been a student of mine back when I was teaching writing and rhetoric, I’d have passed his poem by the counseling staff. One of my friends remarked that she glanced up to check where the exits were from the building. Three people clapped, because we were stunned into silence.

Next, my name was called. Oh, great. Either everyone would be so shut off they wouldn’t even hear my writing, or I’d be a big fat relief on the stage. I think it was the latter, as I got my laughs, some in places I didn’t expect, and like that, my 5 minutes elapsed.

While I don’t consider myself the Best Writer Ever, I’m glad I dish out better items than my memories of being a peeping Tom. Note to writers: Don’t read things in public that are illegal in 38 states, unless you’re okay with being interrogated afterward by the authorities.

Sure, I’ll do an open mic again, but after hearing some of these deeply personal, sometimes troubling, tales from people, I may sit closer to the back of the room next time.

Photo credit: SimonDeanMedia on Flickr
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