Could open mics – spilling out of cafes and into pubs, art galleries and pop-up events – do for amateur poetry what it did for stand-up comedy?
On the first Tuesday of every month, a group of people gather at a pre-announced café. The crowd is a mix of the young and the elderly, first-timers and old hands. Software engineers, architects, doctors and college students. They chat among themselves before settling down, coffee in hand. A formal round of introduction follows.
One by one, people stand up, look into their smartphones, tablets, or good old diaries, and recite original poetry. Many are here just to listen. After each recitation, there is a smattering of applause, feedback and, occasionally, questions about the material. This is your average session of Poetry Tuesdays (PT). Usually, about 25 to 30 people turn up for it. But the past few months have seen significantly higher numbers: March saw as many as 70. Maybe it’s the summer vacation mood. Maybe it’s the fact that poetry groups are going beyond tiny unheard-of gatherings, and making themselves heard on YouTube, and reaching people via Facebook event listings.
But more than that, events and open mics for poetry and the spoken word are becoming more and more common in the city. A handful of poetry clubs and venues are bringing about this change.
One of the most popular and active groups, The Poetry Club (TPC), hosts monthly meet-ups at locations like Vakoloft, Vakola, and Chaayos, Lower Parel, besides activities such as workshops and performances. “We’re now seeing 20 to 25 new faces at every TPC monthly session,” says co-founder Ankita Shah (23), a chartered accountant.
It’s easy to see why poetry clubs are popular. There’s no competition, no judges, no points; just a circle of people to encourage you and give you feedback. Yaman Banerji (32), a freelance architect and visiting faculty at architecture colleges, and a PT regular, says, “I’ve been attending since their second meet-up (in July, 2011). Until then, my poems stayed in notebooks, emails, and some greeting cards. I was never someone who could read or present well. But the warm and unbiased crowd makes everyone feel welcome, and I’m definitely improving.”
For poets, looking forward to the monthly meet-ups also acts as an incentive to write more. “If I haven’t written in a while, and a PT event is coming up, I know I have to write something new… even if it’s on the bus ride to the session,” Banerji says.
Beyond coffee shops
Changing the traditional nature of an urban poetry meet-up, clubs are taking poetry beyond coffee shops. While regular (monthly, usually) sessions are still held in coffee shops, poetry- and spoken word-related activities now take place in art galleries, pubs, experimental venues, even at pop-up events such as the L’il Flea Market.
Launched last year, Words Tell Stories (WTS) hosts feature poets (curated names), monthly open mics, and workshops on performance poetry. Its founder, freelance writer Rochelle DSilva (32), says, “When I moved from Melbourne to Mumbai two years ago, there wasn’t much happening in this space.” DSilva decided to take the initiative herself. She’s held open mics at pubs like The Barking Deer, Lower Parel, and Ibar, Bandra. At times, musicians (rappers, DJs and indie singer-songwriters) open a WTS event.
“Bars are empty in the afternoons,” explains Raghavendra Madhu (30), founder of Poetry Couture, which organises meet-ups across Indian cities. He adds, “Two years ago, it was a tough task to get venues to allow a poetry reading. Now, commercial spaces have started understanding that these events bring footfall.”
TPC frequently ties up with art festivals like Artsy Affaire, and flea markets like the Kitsch Mandi and The Li’l Flea. Known for offering a mix of food and curios, poetry is hardly what people come to a flea market for. But Shah says they end up stopping to hear poetry, and end up staying for the entire session. “We want to make poetry mainstream. We want to take it to people who don’t find poetry interesting or feel they won’t get it,” she asserts.
“Social entertainment, where interaction is part of the package, is catching on. So, even poetry-related activities are doing well,” says freelance branding and marketing strategist, Anish Vyavahare (29), who founded Poetry Tuesdays in 2011.
And while venues and an audience helps, for poets, writing is about inspiration. And what better than art to spark a train of thought? Tarq Art Gallery in Colaba fuels poetry by sharing images of exhibited paintings with TPC. On the last day of the exhibition, poets from the club read what they’ve written, inspired by the painting. “It promotes both art forms and, in this way, we can reach out to new audiences,” Shah says. We’re also seeing more art galleries offer their space to poets: Poetry group PoShaK recently held a featured mic event called Mohabbat Night at aPaulogy, a cartoon gallery in Worli.
Now, it’s not just pubs and galleries. Travel company White Collar Hippie and TPC hosted a two-day camping-cum-poetry workshop experience in Utan, a coastal town near Bhayander, in March this year. Talk about taking poetry out of homes and cafés.
Take it online
With the popularity of social media and the culture of video-sharing at an all-time high, clubs are uploading their reading sessions on YouTube. In November last year, Vyavahare launched The Poetry Affair of India (PAoI), an online project. Videos of people reciting original poetry in various languages are uploaded on to YouTube. “We wanted a video archive of our poetry, and to be able to share it beyond the people who come to PT. Secondly, offline meets have the restriction of geography. By inviting poets from everywhere to be part of the PAoI, we see it as a natural progression for PT, like an inclusive open mic,” Vyavahare says. Words Tell Stories and TPC also upload videos of their events on to YouTube.
Poetry (at least in the sort of urban, informal set-ups we’re talking about) has lost its stiffness, and its snobbery. Being inclusive, most open mic events and meet-ups let you read original poetry in regional languages too. Form, too, is not a barrier — a haiku, a free verse and a shayari are welcome to share stage. Many even come just to meet like-minded, literature-loving people, and make new friends.
At times, the clubs have themes to keep things interesting. While it’s not compulsory for a poet to stick to the theme, it acts like a guiding force for those facing writer’s block. “A common theme also allows people to explore different perspectives on the same topic and compare notes on writing,” Vyavahare says.
Over the last few years, the open mic scene in Mumbai has created stars out of stand-up comedians. We won’t be surprised if poets polishing their skills today at an open mic rise to fame tomorrow as well.
Take your pick
List of poetry groups to join
The Poetry Club
Monthly meet-ups are currently being held at Chaayos, Lower Parel, and are open to only those who have original work to recite. All of its other events are open to all.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join the mailing list
Held on the first Tuesday of every month at a pre-announced cafe in Thane.
Join facebook.com/groups/maxsocial to keep track
Words Tell Stories
A mix of feature poets and open mics is held every month.
Like the page facebook.com/WordsTellStories to stay updated
A pan-India initiative, it aims to promote and create more spaces for art.
Email email@example.com to know about the next event
Beginner’s guide: Dos and don’ts at an open mic
>> Don’t preamble, and don’t make excuses – just read your poem.
>> While memorising your poem is not mandatory, it helps you connect with your audience.
>> Most open mics have a time limit. Adhere to the same.
>> It helps to time your pieces the way you would perform them.
>> Use your voice, gestures and sometimes even props to perform your piece.
- Rochelle DSilva, founder, Words Tell Stories
Poets Night Choice
What: An open mic, feel free to test out your poems.
When: May 29, 5.30pm
Where: Whistling Woods Andheri Base
Tickets: Rs 200 on bookmyshow.com
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to participate
What: Recite your work in a dark room. Yes, you read that right.
When: June 17, 7pm
Entry: Rs 150
Where: The Hive, Huma Mansion, Opp Ahmed Bakery, Khar (W)
Poetry on the Big Mic
What: An open mic is held every first and third Tuesday.
Where: The Hive
Register to perform: bigmic.in
Great Indian Poetry Challenge
What: Held every second and fourth Tuesday. Poets are given topics for the performance an hour before the event. You can register on the spot and perform in English or Hindi.
Where: The Hive