I’ve been to maybe 20 open mics total, a dozen of those outside North Carolina, and at least a few of the ones I attended have moved or ceased operation. Nonetheless, and with awareness that my sample size is hardly representative and my premise rife with hubris, I’m making a list anyway.
But let’s be clear: this is not a stack rank, because open mics can’t really be compared. Each one is a product of the community of poets and other artists who re-make her every time they take the mic. Each one is bound to a venue—the layout of the room, the background noise, the hours it’s allowed to keep. That all factors into the event’s character, too.
And let’s not forget each one resides fully in her home city. Whatever lives in that city speaks to the writers and musicians who live there. The city co-creates the art with us—whether we dream and write about escaping or about staying put forever.
With all that, each open mic is defiantly, even if quietly, unique. But like I said, I’m making a list anyway…
Best Stage: Deep South, Raleigh
Owned by concert promoters and with a heavy focus on music, Deep South takes pride in its sound equipment. They don’t have a host, they have a sound guy who does a mic check for each act—even the poets—and tweaks the monitors to suit. So of course, they have a real stage, and that makes a difference in how you feel performing.
The stage curtain is an appreciably dramatic black, with bright red walls that have snippets of song lyrics—good ones—painted in white all around the room. Better still, there’s an upright acoustic piano AND an overhead disco ball.
Who doesn’t feel awesome under a disco ball?!
Quirkiest Venue: Tie — Logue’s Emporium, Nashville | Corey’s Grilled Cheese, Charleston
Since I was last there, Logue’s Night of Free Speech has moved from its magnificently gothic-appointed basement (complete with a no-shit carved throne) underneath a vintage clothing store. The new place was fixed up by the host, Honest Lewis, so it’s bound to be equally cool.
Corey’s Grilled Cheese is exactly what you think it is: A little diner-type space in a strip mall that serves gourmet grilled cheese. The space is a little bizarre, but they really make it work.
Best Host: Drew Law, Busboys and Poets, DC
Between his firm but positive approach to keeping time and the haiku commercials he used to create a little space between poets, Drew Law of Busboys and Poets embodied everything I most love in an open mic host:
- I felt welcome.
- All poets got a fair shake at being heard.
- And he kept the energy going all night.
Best Audience: Nuyorican, NYC
No matter the weather, people line up for the open slam at the Nuyorican more than an hour before the doors open. They pay attention. They snap, clap, laugh, hoot, and holler.
And they stay until the very end—more common, granted, at a competitive event when there’s glory or cash money to be had. But even so, most rooms begin to empty out as it gets on past 10 or so.
Most Diverse: Venue at 35th, Norfolk
Open mics are almost always ethnically diverse. They bring out people of all genders/gender identities and sexual orientation (as revealed in the poetry).
Except for slams, many are also artistically diverse, usually welcoming not just poetry but also fiction, comedy, and rants. You see plenty of rappers and other musicians, too. And at some places, even other performance acts—mimes, jugglers, whatnot.
What I don’t often see—again, especially at slams—is diversity in age. Hell, I am the generational diversity most of the time. Sometimes there’s one other poet over 30, but for the most part it’s all 20-somethings, maybe a teenager or two if it’s held somewhere they can get in.
Not so, the Venue at 35th in Norfolk, where performers and audience spanned four decades easy and everyone was regarded as relevant. Never seen anything quite like it and frankly, don’t expect to any time soon.
Best House Band: Green Mill, Chicago
Okay, so the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill is the only open mic I’ve been to with a house band. Whatever, they’re awesome.
What the Futz Band adds to the open mic and slam is a magical under-layer of mood. They can play something that matches your poem with nothing more than a hint of what you want—a word, a vignette, a color, an energy level. It pads the space between lines, gives a poet something to soar over, that punctuates, extends, deepens, gets you right in the feels.
Most at Odds with the Reputation of its Home City: Human Experience, Las Vegas
The Human Experience open mic is nothing like the Strip. The people are beautifully ordinary—urban ordinary, of course, but ordinary. They write and perform just like open mic goers everywhere else I’ve been. They just do it with a backdrop of glitter and gambling and tourists—subjects that, interestingly, never once came up the night I went.
Cleverest Name: Two Writers Walk Into a Bar, Durham
Okay, so this event isn’t even an open mic. Two Writers Walk Into a Bar is a reading series at a wine bar near my home city of Raleigh. But I don’t care, I think it’s genius.
Jammiest: Corey’s Grilled Cheese, Charleston
When the makeshift stage space comes complete with a cowbell and the host jumps in on box drum, when the list is chock full of musicians who happen to be friends and they’re willing to take a crack at songs they only half know, when the venue owner is a banjo player…well, you’ve got the makings of a damn happy jam session once they’ve made it through the official list.
Tightest Community/Most Welcoming: Venue at 35th, Norfolk
When organizers of the Venue on 35th post to their Facebook page, they don’t address their followers as performers, regulars or even my old favorite, “open mic faithful.” No, they call themselves family. These people support and love one another without pause, and yet open their arms and ears to new voices.
Across 10 states and the District of Columbia, this is the first and only place where the host hugged me when I left. Even if it didn’t have so many more wonderful qualities, I’d want to be part of it again some day because of that alone.
Best on a Slow Night: Deep South, Raleigh
Deep South runs two open mics each week—one amplified and one acoustic. Both often fill their lists super early, but not always. As a poet, I stick to acoustic night, which is the newer and so less well-attended.
One of my favorite open mic memories ever was the night I showed up with two musician friends and we totally owned the list.
What did I miss? What have I yet to see and experience?
Plenty, I’m sure. I always come to a new place with my most wide-open mind, looking first for reasons to love it. My goal isn’t to find fault or even really critique, but to listen and share and see what happens.
It’s not a pageant and certainly no one voted me judge, but whatever, I’m a list-maker as well as a poet. I can’t help it. I’ll revisit and update my list as it makes sense.