While there are countless classes and clubs for creative students to practice their craft, undergraduate open mic nights have proved themselves to be a fun and friendly way for people to share their work.
In a school with 38,000 students pursuing dozens of varying majors, it may be hard for students to find something that can connect them, despite their academic differences. But when a group of people shuffle into a coffee shop and bond through their love of creative writing over java and muffins, it shows that these communities are still going strong.
Just off University Boulevard, in a casual and cozy setting, performers and audience members gather in the lower level of a coffee shop on couches and around coffee tables. Along with coffee, there is hot chocolate, pastries and other refreshments for everyone in attendance. As undergraduate students munch on their snacks, they sit rapt with attention as their peers read original work.
This is a common scene at UPerk, where the first Monday of every month attracts burgeoning writers to the [Name This] Open Mic Night, a UA Department of English-hosted evening for students looking to share their creative work in a community of other artists.
Each performer has a maximum of five minutes, where they can share original or famous pieces in the form of poetry, song, rap or storytelling. The artists use emotions, body language and facial expressions to make their work come to life, and all hold their breath as they wait for the audience to clap, laugh or sit in wondering silence in reaction to their performances.
Brian Whalen, a creative writing professor, has been organizing this event for the past year.
“This is new for us, but we’re hoping that it becomes something that, 10 years from now, is still happening,” Whalen said.
While open mics are no stranger to Tuscaloosa, the more popular ones over the years have been dominated by faculty, staff or graduate students.
“We wanted to create something that was separate,” Whalen said.
While other open mic nights are held at Monarch Espresso Bar in town, Whalen sought out UPerk as his own venue to host the undergraduate open mics.
“It’s all about the community,” Whalen said. “There are creative writing classes and everything, but at such a big university, it’s hard to have a small community of people.”
While Whalen appreciates those who attend every once in a while, or because of a class requirement, he also pays special attention to those who repetitively attend and look forward to reading or listening each month.
“I like it when people come just to mingle, too,” Whalen said. “It’s kind of a space for creative writers to all hang out.”
Whalen referenced instances like what occurred that night, when one student decided to participate at the very end of the session, as his favorite memories from these events.
“Inevitably at the end, somebody is like ‘OK, OK, I’ll go!’” Whalen said. “It’s like, you knew that they kind of wanted to read, but once they see everyone else doing it and realize that it’s a friendly, supportive environment, they decide to go for it. That’s my favorite thing to see.”
Valerie Lawhorn, a junior majoring in English, is the president of the University’s Student Writers Guild. This organization is open to all majors and welcomes students with a passion for writing to join and grow their talents.
“We have workshopping days where we like to refine our writing abilities,” Lawhorn said. “It’s really a community for people to come together and work on their craft. We’re a close-knit group, but we’re growing.”
November is National Novel Writing Month, and Lawhorn is planning events for the Writers Guild to celebrate.
“We’ll be having a bunch of people come in to talk, and there will be candy and things, so if you want to get involved, now would be the best time to do it,” Lawhorn said.
The Writers Guild is also planning a service project to improve literacy in Tuscaloosa middle schools.
“I feel like I have been writing ever since I was talking,” Lawhorn said. “I always enjoyed reading and jumped into writing pretty quickly. I like writing a lot of poetry, but I do other things on the side, too. I like to keep my head in everything.”
Like Lawhorn, those who performed at the open mic share a passion for all sorts of work. From rapping Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from memory to sharing moving original work about love and loss, those who read kept the audience entertained the entire set.
Senior Samantha Bagwell was one of those readers. As a computer science major, Bagwell still enjoys expressing her creative side through these events. To offset the rigor and rigidness of her computer classes, Bagwell decided to pick up a creative writing course on campus.
“It got me back into writing, which I hadn’t really done since high school,” Bagwell said.
Bagwell shared an original poem at this open mic night, the third one that she attended.
“People have time to actually share their writing with others,” Bagwell said. “And even if they don’t read, they can get out and experience their writing from outside the classroom. I think that’s a great experience.”
Although Bagwell does not see herself pursuing writing as a profession, it is a hobby that she will continue to play with.
“I think it’s a good creative outlet for any point in your life, and it’s good to get out there and meet new people, because you can do that anywhere you go with writing,” Bagwell said.
PLAN TO GO:
UPerk Coffee Shop
Sign-ups take place on site.