Want to destroy the morale of your honest and virtuous employees at the coffee shop? Have an open mic night. It's not poetry. It's not profound. It is horrid mind-shit, the likes of which might be a sampling of what runs through the mind of sterno-drinking street loonies.

I have stood witness to the most vile atrocities to decency, rhyme and reason and worse yet watched them go unpunished. This is a concept that should be banished from existence. Its where decent folks get conned into shakily performing bad poetry; forcing all their friends to lie to them and tell them how "deep" and "meaningful" it was. It is the reason the music got turned off. You cannot think, you cannot carry on conversation, you are being invaded by the poorly structured ideas of amateur closet poets in generally disastrous displays of their mentally monotone propensities.

Dammitall! That was hard!!!!

I've been doing speeches since I was five and I always thought I was cool. Mind you, it's been a long time since the point where I was doing them regularly, but I've given at least three or four this year. Reading poetry in a coffee house? No sweat.

Sweat. Cold, clammy sweat and a twitching in that one foot I didn't keep firmly planted like it was going to shake right off the vibration was so hot.

I forgot every grace of public speaking in fifteen seconds and never varied my tone and never looked up from the crumpled bubble-jet printout in my hands.

I thought about my other friend who got up there and her perfect cool, her nonchalance and her projection of comfort. And realize she's someone else up there when she's reading. Me. I never read something I gave a shit about before. Physics results and ramblings about the injustice of racism, that's easy. But this wasn't just something I'd made up to fit an assignment or a theme. For once, it wasn't even for money or a grade; maybe it should have been easier.

She turned into another person who could pretend what she'd written didn't matter - just another character in her pantheon of clowns. I was still me -- more me than I'd ever been in public before.

An open mic night is an event where anyone who wants to can get up and perform. There may or may not be an actual microphone involved. Some open mics allow any kind of performance at all; others only allow music, or only spoken word, or things people have written themselves, or ukuleles. By their nature, they are a mixed bag, and you should be prepared for any given night to have at least one or two really terrible performances - but having said that, my experiences of open mic nights in Edinburgh were always overwhelmingly positive, with surprisingly few stinkers. It varies a great deal from one night to another, though; some nights are especially welcoming to newcomers, while others attract a crowd of intimidatingly polished regulars.

Most open mics will have a sign-up sheet where you can put your name down to perform on the night, and a compère will sometimes point it out if there are still slots to fill. Some open mic nights fill up all their spaces before they actually start, though, so you need to come early to put your name down or even sign up online, well before the event itself. A good open mic night will feature an attentive and relatively tolerant audience of people who are there to see the performances and maybe do a turn themselves - others take place in venues which are busy with people who are there for other reasons, and do no favours to their audiences or performers.

Open mic nights provide a precious opportunity for people to try their hand at public performance in a relatively low-pressure context, and an interesting, usually free chance to see performances from people who are often inexperienced but talented. They are also a social space where performers of various sorts, at different levels of experience, get to interact, talk about what they do and maybe collaborate. Besides that, it is more common than you might expect to see acts that are really, really good.

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