Sunday, December 6, 2015

Open Mic Night

The scene is the café on the main floor of the student union at Geneseo. Two dozen people are seated, drinking coffee and eating oversized chocolate chip cookies purchased via the flex points on their meal plans. The couches are all turned to face a makeshift stage in the corner, where a live microphone waits on a stand. A rail-thin, too-tall kid with bushy black hair, baggy jeans and a gray collared shirt that’s at once too baggy and too short for him stands, his voice projected across two speakers, too big, and turned up too loud for the café so sound permeates the rest of the Union.

That kid—that voice—is me at 20 years old.

“I need for everyone to move their hands up and down like this.” I bob my whole arm like someone who has never seen a basketball before trying to dribble one—or, as my mind projects, in my best approximation of what Marshall Mathers would get an audience to do.

And, against any discernible rhyme or reason, the limited masses go for it, from my friends, to the freshmen girls, to the guy pouring coffee behind the counter.

Before they can stop—before they can conceive of what they’re really doing, I rattle off, “This is ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem, as performed in the voice of Kermit the Frog."

There’s laughter. Some of it in synch with the absurdist humor I’m aiming at, some of it on the spectrum between uncomfortable and bewildered. The choruses go reasonably well, when I'm familiar enough the both the cadence and lyrics to not have to look at the lyrics sheet I printed that afternoon. The verses are rougher--the first far from stellar, the second downright bad and when I look up to face the audience on the proceeding chorus they've stopped waving their hands. Some have, mercifully, stopped pay attention to me altogether. The looks of bewilderment have spread like wildfire.


I performed in a lot of open mic nights in college. I read poems and excerpts from short stories. I sang songs--a call and response version of Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," a Kermit-voiced rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" that ultimately led to my 8-mile gaff. There were failures, few as abject as the "Lose Yourself" incident. And I had my share of triumphs. Moments that were remarkably gratifying for fledgling artist and performer, desperate for some form of validation of my work.

But all the more so, these open mic nights at various Geneseo locales marked the discovery of a community. Sometimes on a big scale when as many as 30 to 40 people were there as audience members, as performers, and as new friends to talk to when the performances were done. Sometimes on a more intimate level, when only a half dozen people showed up and we each read or sang three or four times and hung around to drink coffee and talk about the rest of our lives.

The open mic scene--particularly the scene that I frequented, skewing toward literary endeavors over acoustic guitars--have a mixed response. I've met folks who object to open mics because they feel like amateur hour without any semblance of quality control. I've met others who balk at them as pretentious and too consciously artsy. But I think that I always loved the scene for the flip sides of those criticisms. That without quality control, amateurs in the purest sense of the word get the opportunity to share their work and to learn from people who are more experienced (I know I did). That an artsy scene need not be pretentious or ironic--it can be about people earnestly offering to the world their work.

After college, I went seven years without attending an open mic night before friends from my grad program at Hopkins had started a literary 'zine and started a monthly open mic, ostensibly to promote it, besides cultivating the writers' community in Baltimore.

I went to my first one, a little trepidatious, and sipped whiskey and coke on the sidelines before putting down my name to read. I hadn't written much poetry in the interceding years, and I always found lengthy prose pieces to be a drag in this setting--difficult to engage the audience with, and often too long. So I read vignette from one of my early posts on this blog. And rather than reiterating the calamity of "Lose Yourself," it seemed to work. I read more excerpts in the months to follow, and even settled into a loose habit of writing poetry again, more or less for the purpose of reading it in this setting.

But better yet, I heard from others. Peers from my grad program I'd never read much work from, people from another grad program based in Baltimore, an unabashed alcoholic who said he didn't write like Bukowski, but thought that he might one day.

And I savored this scene. These words. These people.

But I retired my Kermit the Frog voice.

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