My university has a weekly open mic known as “Late Night Series” (Check out Late Night Series - Philly on Facebook to track upcoming features) or LNS for short, which is, as the host and MC phrases it every week, “a fine assortment of random shenanigans.” Usually running at about 65% comedians, 30% musicians, and 5% other assorted art every week, it’s a uniquely powerful space to perform.
I myself am a poet, and although I’ve been writing poetry as long as I’ve been writing sentences, the unique brand of poetry I read today began as a way to write about emotions I didn’t have any other way to talk about, during the fall of my sophomore year of high school. That spring my high school started having weekly Open Mics and I would perform my own strange spoken word poetry, a melodic and unrhymed mixture of sentence fragments and words tangled in metaphors and onomatopoeia, and of course, my favorite to read, line after line of alliteration, each sharply snapped syllable sent tumbling one after another off the tip of my tongue. At a time in my life when I felt absolutely powerless, standing behind a podium, and later a microphone, gave me the power to be myself. High school open mics however, were distinctly different from where I perform now. While then my poetry was a unique showpiece among a sea of the same sonnets and diamantes that most kids read, here my work is most certainly not flashy or different from anyone else, although I am the only poet who has routinely performed nearly every week this year. I am also only allotted the time to introduce and perform one piece, because I’m in a room full of people all aching to show the world what they’ve got to say. That’s the real difference. I tried to sum it up in a text to my mother once as the equivalent of sitting in the live audience of SNL where instead of a commercial break you get a news recap in the style of the opening monologue, then the sketches are actually first a stand-up comedy about drugs or sex or midterms or all three, then an indie guitarist with a one-word name playing an Oasis song (did anyone else know they had songs other than Wonderwall? I didn’t), followed by someone doing yet another stand up routine, but this one is about seeing someone on the street except it’s really about toxic social structures but we were all too busy laughing to notice the message until later, and then a four-piece band comprised of a girl with brightly colored hair singing, a boy with floppy hair on guitar, a quiet bassist, and an international student playing cajon (because no one has a drumkit in college) and they’re covering Green Day, and then finally you’re up. Despite a diverse cast of talents and approaches, the same blood is rushing through everyone’s veins, and it’s all saturated with adrenaline.
People ask a lot about stage fright, and the ones who know about the high school I went to (where I gave over a hundred oral presentations on every conceivable topic) make jokes about my desire to perform at LNS being a byproduct of being comfortable presenting, as if doing it a lot drove the inherent fear of public speaking out of me. This isn’t to say that other kids at my high school did not come in terrified and leave confident, I just wasn’t one. I came in confident and left with the knowledge that the only time I was anxious about presentation was when I was worried about the grade I’d receive, and the only time I could be cool and collected was when I was performing. Offstage I am nervous and loud and I use big words and swear a lot when I'm trying to explain things casually and I talk too much in general, but onstage I am a more composed and suave version of myself. The only cause of stage fright for me is when I have friends in the audience who haven't heard my poetry before and I get hit with the immediate zap of “What if they don't like me after hearing this?” I'm perfectly content to bare my soul to strangers. I genuinely enjoy being onstage, speaking in front of large crowds, the rush of adrenaline that comes with bounding up to a microphone, and the simultaneous vulnerability and power that comes from performing poetry in a silent room, all eyes on you and all ears on the words you speak.
In January while eating lunch with a close friend and having a strange conversation about rolled sleeves on lab coats amongst environmental scientists I said something particularly colorful about my opinions of gilled gastropods, and my friend stopped and told me “You know they say there’s no such thing as an original thought, everything you say someone else said before you. I think you might have just broken that. There’s no way anyone has said something like that about gilled gastropods before.” We had a good laugh about that, but the idea has stuck with me since then. “There’s no such thing as an original idea” immediately elicits two distinct responses in me. One, then I’ll be the first, I will break that, I will be the one to think an original idea. Two, if that’s the case, then I need to make sure I keep reading what I write, because someone else has to feel the same thing and know they’re not alone. Frida Kahlo wrote in her diary,
"I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you."
When I write I think of that. When I perform my pieces I think of that. I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you, and all of us are strange aren’t we? That’s what makes performing at a college open mic night so empowering, we all have a few shared characteristics, we’re artists, musicians, performers, and appreciators of art. We may not laugh at every joke, or clap vigorously enough to let you know how your song made us feel, but we appreciate you, the time you put into preparing material, the emotion in your delivery, and the fact that you too are just as strange as we are. The sound of applause every week is not why I perform what I write, but the power that comes from speaking to a room and knowing that even if it’s just one person, someone out there heard what I said and thought “Oh god I thought I was the only one.”