Stage of life: An open mic night slam dunk


As he walks up to the stage everyone yells: “You-have-been-chosen!” Photos: Jade Murray

As the door swings closed, the sounds of passing cars and music from local nightclubs are hushed. It’s a dark, grungy venue off Brunswick Street, and its open mic night.

Two women sit at the bar stirring their drinks, talking quietly to one another. The bartender, a tall man with a dour face, stares as I approach him. The room is empty and quiet – where’s the stage? Maybe the poets just haven’t arrived yet. Is this the right place? Not wanting to look lost, I ask for a pint.

“I’m looking for a spoken word event?” He puts some glasses under the bar. “Oh right, that’s just upstairs,” he points to the small staircase in the corner, “but you can wait down here.”

Phil Norton explains how the theatre of slam keeps poetry alive. “There’s this image of poetry as, it’s inaccessible, it’s boring, it’s hard to understand,” he says, “but if they’ve been to a slam, they love it.”

I’m not a poet, or at least not one who performs. Clinging to my notebook, I’m quite happy to leave these words unspoken on the page. I have no great desire to get up on stage, but here I am, waiting to share at my first open mic night at the centre of Melbourne’s slam poetry scene. I wasn’t planning to do this before today. Now that I’m here I regret not preparing earlier, but I only realised this afternoon that if I don’t get behind the mic, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a spoken word artist.

At the top of the stairs is a short hallway leading to an open door. Inside the room, a man with a fedora and grey vest is hunched over a table sorting change, a young man in a chair by his side. There’s no hiding they are father and son. On the table sits stacks of books, CDs, an orange kettle and a beer jug stuffed with cash. Shit, do I need to pay?

The man greets me with a smile and a warm, deep, “Hello!”

“Hi! Do you have an EFTPOS machine?”

“No, we don’t, but the money is just for the raffle tickets if you’d like to participate,” he says as he taps the beer jug. “And if you’d like to share tonight you can put your name in here,” he gestures to the orange kettle.

Chairs have been placed before the stage in rows. There are 20 or so people here, aged in their 30s and 40s, huddled in groups. Some wander between crowds, giving and receiving hugs. Their faces light up as they chat and giggle. I’m younger, an outsider, with my notebook for company.

My eyes adjust to the dark lighting. The walls are royal blue and the lights throw a red sheen over the threadbare carpet floors. Once plush red velvet curtains are draped behind the stage, one has a gaping tear. Their colour has long since faded, and they’re coated with dust, the residue of glamour and grime. Above the stage is a large, vintage mirror. It hangs at such an angle that you can see the top of the performer’s head when they’re on stage. Tucked over the shop front, this room sits cosily inside the gable roof.

A man wearing a cowboy hat is on the decks, playing inconspicuous party music. An old man alone in the corner is huddled in a brown blanket. He’s wearing a striped beanie and black fingerless gloves. I suspect he’s just escaping the cold. There is a guy with long brown dreads and faint blonde eyebrows and a woman with bright blue hair. There are lots of leather jackets around. The music fades and cowboy hat man runs to the front and lunges on stage, seizing the mic.

“Twenty years ago, on this very stage, there was Babble.”

He tells the story of a group of 20-something-year-olds in the 2000s who wanted to make wonders on stage. He points out people he recognises in the audience. Most are veteran spoken word artists. I get a flash vision of me running back to the orange kettle and digging out the paper with my name on it.

He then introduces this evening’s special guest: Dr Babble, who has performed at the Sydney Opera House and on the TV show Spics and Specs. My ears pick up. Onto the stage marches award-winning spoken word artist and singer-songwriter Philip Norton. Applause erupts. It’s the man from the front table, the one in the fedora.

Cowboy hat man presses play on a background track. A steady drumbeat plays from the speakers, accompanied by a bare, four-note melody on the keyboard. Norton stands still, grasping a little roll of paper like what goes in an EFTPOS machine. He stares into the audience with his shrill blue-grey eyes, framed by small, black circular glasses.

The room stills as people tune in, and he starts nodding his head to the beat. He matches the rhythm by pulling at the paper like a toilet roll. At every second drumbeat, he pulls it a little further, letting it curl up in a pile at his feet. Then he starts to speak, reading the words scribbled onto the scroll.

The tales keep on telling,

And the sales keep on selling,

The screams keep on yelling,

And the sins keep on helling.

Norton agrees to meet me. A week later we’re sitting in the courtyard of a café in the city. He divides his spanakopita into meticulous squares using his knife and fork. He talks about his high school years. He recalls writing his first poem during a German class.

“It was in a small room, with no windows, always over-heated and I would get really sleepy and didn’t want to be there.” One day he started writing in the margins of his notebook out of boredom.

Oh that I might leave this place. To fly. To be free. But no. No. No. I cannot. Why? My life.

My destiny. Not shaped by myself. I must … Perhaps.

A student sitting at the desk behind him looked over his shoulder and saw him writing, “Tom* was on the American football team. A foot taller than I was. He reaches over, grabs my notebook, and says ‘What are you writing Phil?’” Norton recalls his stomach dropped as Tom read his poem. “I thought oh no, he’s gonna read it. He’s gonna make fun of me. I’m gonna get beat up. I’ll be ‘poetry boy’,”

Norton holds out a phantom notebook. “He hands it back, five stars on the top of the page and says, ‘nice poem Phil, I want another one tomorrow’. That’s how I started writing poetry.”

On the stage as Norton performs, people in the audience click, clap and call out their appreciation as he finishes his performance. He brings up the orange kettle from the front table and sits it on a bar stool next to him. It’s filled with squares of paper that shuffle about inside. He explains the rules.

Every time a name is called, we must shout ‘you have been chosen!’ Norton sticks his hand inside the kettle and stirs. From it, he plucks a piece of paper and leans into the microphone. He reads out a name. A tall, rotund man emerges from the audience.

As he walks up to the stage everyone yells: “You-have-been-chosen!”

The chosen one recites his poem with a hand in his pocket.

“I didn’t want to go on, I wanted to give up.”

My eyes widen and the room is silent. I hope he’s doing ok. A smirk then appears on his face, and he continues.

“Then I turned to my lord Jesus Christ in a dream.”

The audience cackles as the tension dissipates. I smile uneasily – was he kidding? Then, a woman is called to the stage. She looks into the mirror hanging above.

We sing out, “You-Have-Been-Chosen!”

She grins at us from the stage and says, “this mirror gives you a better view of my tits huh?” The audience giggles and some, like myself, look up at the reflection.


The woman with short, electric-blue hair stands with her chest forward and chin up. She’s wearing a black corset, choker and skirt. She reads a line from her poem. “I could tell you about the time I kissed Nick Cave?” She pauses to look up at us. Raising an eyebrow and smiling slightly. She kind of looks like she has.


Blanket man hurls on stage, the brown fabric flailing behind him like a cape. He grapples the microphone and bends towards his paper. He reads a list of words.

“Gruel. Cruel. Shmuel. Gruel. Carpool.”

He sways his body and raises a hand, relishing each word.

As he finishes, Norton joins him on stage and adds to the list. “I love that! Mule, duel, drool … Alright, time to pick our next performer.”

He holds the orange kettle in front of blanket man, who sticks his finger in and traces the rim of the circle pot. He yanks a piece of paper and holds it up to his face. He squints and rotates it 45 degrees. Phil looks now also. My throat stiffens as I watch them, knowing I wrote my name diagonally and in small bubble letters. It was a lot more fun to clap and giggle with the audience than be the one walking on stage. The chatter distils as people listen for the next name. I jiggle my knee and stare at the floor as blanket man leans into the mic.

Inside the city café, office workers start swarming in for their lunch break. Norton sips his coffee and places the cup down on the saucer with both hands. He explains that the drama he conjures on stage for spoken word nights is deliberate. “It’s about the theatre of it.”

In 1987 Norton was living in Chicago, looking for somewhere to share his poetry with like-minded people. That’s when he was introduced to local poet and construction worker Marc Kelly Smith. They started to perform at a nearby jazz bar on Monday nights. They’d take over the space once the bands stopped playing. But Smith wanted more than to simply read poetry to an audience.

Norton expands on Smith’s ambition. “He wanted to do something that would get more people interested and make it more engaging for non-literary-minded people. So he came up with the concept of the slam and started it at the Green Mill in Chicago at this jazz club.”

Slam poetry is more performative than spoken word. The slam is in the competition. The stakes are raised and therefore the ‘theatre of it’ is intensified.

Smith would get on stage and say – “My name’s Marc Smith!” and his audience would reply in unison – “So what!?” The audience was conditioned to clap and click when they liked a poem, but also to be vocal when they disliked one. Smith would ask them to do the ‘feminist’s hiss’.

“He’d go, ‘the women will now demonstrate’,” recalls Norton. “And all the women would go ‘hisssss’ like a cat hiss, and then he’d say to the men, ‘if it offends your masculine sensibilities, do the masculine grunt,’ and the guys would go ‘huuumpf’.”

Norton explains how the theatre of slam keeps poetry alive. “There’s this image of poetry as, it’s inaccessible, it’s boring, it’s hard to understand,” he says, “but if they’ve been to a slam, they love it.”

“The slams were instrumental in changing people’s opinions about poetry, because the idea was, because it’s a competition, don’t bring your crap poem, you gotta bring what you think is really good, you practise it so that you can go to the next round.”

Smith approached Norton one day and said he wanted to quit his job as a handyman to pursue slam full-time and try to take it to a wider audience. Five years later Norton was in San Diego on a short-term study exchange. “I remember going into my hotel room, turning on I think it was CNN, and the first thing I see is ‘next after the break, mud wrestling with words! Poetry slams taking over the nation!’” Poetry slams had grown exponentially and were soon seen across the world. “And that was all because of Marc, because he started it and said ‘I think this is a good thing’,” says Norton.

Blanket man murmurs into the mic. “Jude? Jude Murray?” Phil takes a closer look at the bubble print. “Jade Murray!”

I clench my notebook and rise to my feet. I feel eyes turning to me.


I manage a meek smile and walk onto the stage. The studio lights shine on my face. I clutch the mic in my left hand, my pencil sitting firmly in my grip. The audience looks like a blur of faces from up here, I can’t make out any expressions or defining features of the room.

“Hello, my name’s Jade …. This is my first open mic night.”  The room erupts with woos and applause.

“I’m not a poet. Uh, and I wrote this today in class.” A woman standing in the crowd shouts with two hands by her mouth, “You are now!” I smile, grateful for the acceptance.

Let me squeeze those pink lady cheeks.

Did you wear sunscreen today?

Have you been drinking again?

You’re wearing too much rouge.

I feel my face burn red in the heat of the downward light. I flip over my notebook to see the second page. I take a second to breathe.

Don’t you know she likes you too?

Just look at her face.

She’s nervous, she likes you!

Just look at that red face.

It’s over in a blur. I see smiles. Everyone is clapping. My arms shake slightly and I feel the adrenaline pulsing through me. My cheeks are pinned back in a smile. Suddenly my slapdash poem doesn’t matter, I’m just proud I shared something.

“You’re kind of sharing your way of looking at the world or how you’re feeling,” Norton tells me later. He describes the afterglow of performance, “when I do that, I feel I’ve connected with some people and it can be very affirming in that sense”. Everyone should get a chance to feel like this.

“I think one of the points of slam poetry and Babble, where we’re trying to bring regular people in, is that we’re saying, ‘you don’t have to be a writer’.”

Norton has made it his mission to invite more people to enjoy and share at events like this.

“I want to show new people how great words are.”