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Open Mic: Sign Up Sheets, Structure, Time Limits

by Bob Holman



Most poetry open mics use a SIGN-UP SHEET, a piece of paper with numbered slots for the number of readers who can fit in during the time span of the reading. The sign-up sheet, generally available 10 or 15 minutes before the Official Reading Start Time, is often on a clipboard; some series use a bound blank book and voila, you’ve got an icon! Use the sheet or book to keep track of your Instant Community.

Generally no one wants to go first at an open mic. As an open mic scene develops you may find a poet who will volunteer to be the Eternal First. And then, because poets are notoriously late, it may happen that the last one in is the first to the stage. It is also not unusual to add slots as people sign up late, in hope that there will be time at the end to squeeze a few more poets in. Of course it’s also possible that there won’t be enough poets to fill up the time, in which case you may want to institute a round robin.

While the sign-up sheet is by far the most common organizing tool for open mics, there are many other ways to structure (or unstructure) an Open Mic. Here are some:

  • RANDOM SELECTION adds a sense of event. The O’Debra Twins at their renowned “Show & Tell” (every Monday night at 10 at the Bowery Poetry Club) have a Colander of Collaboration: everyone who wishes to perform/read places a slip of paper with their name on it in the C of C and at the top of the evening names are selected and read out, people sign in, with certain slots carrying ritualistic power (the last person becomes “Lucky Lottery #11,” e.g.). As names are called, the poets/performers line up –- in essence becoming a linear chronology of what will unwind as an evening of ecstatic poesy. (See the complete “Show & Tell” rules on the last page of this article.)

  • Even more dramatic is IMMEDIATE SELECTION, with the next poet being called after the previous poet reads. Because no one knows who’s next, this eliminates a lot of paper shuffling -- poets notoriously wait to get ready until right before their turn to read.

  • Other tools of RANDOM SELECTION:
    a Wheel of Poets is spun;
    poets read in alphabetical or birthday order;
    a computer is used to generate a random order.

  • ANARCHY! Our Unorganized Reading Series (OURS) at ABC No Rio has no host, no list, no limits. After a poet finishes, there is a mad dash to the mic by all those who want to read next. Whoever ends up at the mic goes till they want to stop.


Many readings now have a set number of poems you may read, generally one or two. Just as common is a time limit, usually between three and ten minutes, or just “Not too long, please.” Sometimes you’re given a warning as your time approaches, and there’s a funny noise or a dinger or something to indicate, It’s time. Ginsberg used his Australian talking sticks to clack the end of your five minutes at Naropa open mics. If you refuse to leave the stage at your three-minute limit at the Alternative New Year’s reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, flags will wave and the sound of an A Bomb will be heard, drowning the poem. The mic can be cut off. And when Howard Stern sent a ringer to the Manhattan Monologue’s 30 Second slam at the BPC, George the door guy just picked him up and escorted him outside. Where he continued the poem.


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