Five Minutes

(That’s a total of five minutes, including introductions, commentary, tuning a guitar, and / or fumbling with the mike.)

 How to determine the duration of one’s program?
Practice it!
Time it!
It’s what the professionals do.  Why not me and you?


Rules of thumb:

5 minutes = 350 words (approximately 5 rushed sonnets, 4 properly paced sonnets, 2 pages of iambic pentameter, or 1 page of prose  –  include intros and comments in your word count)

5 minutes = 1 song  (Not 2 short songs.  That never works.)

But, really, do not go by these rules of thumb.  You owe it to your audience to practice while running a stop watch: know your times.


Nobody gets the hook.  We do not run a timer during your performance.  You are on the honor system to be respectful of the time limit.

However, we will resent you, deeply, if you go 5 minutes and 30 seconds, or more.


Practice with a time piece.  

Get it right.

Occasionally a curator will judge the sign-up list to be short enough to permit slightly longer time slots.  She or he will tell you.  If your curator does not give permission to go a little long, please do NOT take it upon yourself to make the decision on your Curator’s behalf.

If you say to yourself, “My work is so good, it’s okay to go long.”  your are blessing others to say the same thing to themselves.  So even if it is true that your work really is that good, constrain yourself to the five minutes.  If you have a nine minute piece that you are just itching to say to us, tough shit. Not here please.


Munro has written all of the above.  Now Munro will switch to the first person for the sake of a testimony:

I used to think to myself that my work was good enough to justify going long.

When I first started coming to NorthEndForum, Jed used to tell us to just let the reading be organic, to go short or long or in-between depending only on the beauty of the moment and one’s sensitivity to that moment.  I used that guideline to justify giving myself permission to abuse the time of the listeners.  I was certain the beauty of my poems made everyone in the room glad that I had allowed myself to go long.  Then, at other times in the evening, I would wonder why the fuck so-and-so was up at the mike, droning on for-fucking-ever.

I needed to learn that this is an open mike, NOT the Peter Munro show.  I needed to learn that if I want listeners to pay close attention to my work then I had to respect the contract between all of us.

The contract is simple: I listen to you and you listen to me and we will all keep it to five minutes.  Fair is fair.  More importantly, the five minute limit protects us from those artists who are bad enough at what they do to make three minutes feel like twenty.  For such artists, I can be magnanimous and compassionate and enjoy the beauty of the person, if not their actual art, for five minutes.  By 5 minutes and 30 seconds I’ve shifted over from being loving and forbearing to wanting to commit bodily harm or, worse, stop paying attention.

It has been a long, hard learning process for me to realize that I needed to truly bear down on myself and keep it  brief.  Sadly, I do still blow it every once in awhile, breaking the five minute mark despite having practiced with a timepiece.  But I do, always, practice my program with a timer for several days prior to the open mike.  Sometimes I already know the times of my pieces before I start practicing.  In such circumstances I still practice with a timer for several days before stepping up the mike.  The most natural performances by any performing artist are the result of huge investments in practice.  (If you don’t practice, it will still sound natural, of course, just naturally crappy.)

As a poet and as a performer, I am enormously better off for having learned this brutal truth about open mikes:  The only model is to stand up to the mike, light it up immediately, hit hard, and sit down.  There is no time for fucking around.  It is a very good skill to have.  (Not that I’ve got it all the way down yet.)  Even if performing in an invited or featured reading, where you have time to stretch out and go long, it is very useful to be able to turn up the heat at will and then turn it down.

I still think my work is good enough to justify going long.  The great majority of my poems take much longer than five minutes to say and my best stuff takes 12 to 30 minutes.  Worse, I am constantly hungry to bring my best stuff to our open microphone, despite it being too long.  Thus I find the 5 minutes a very big challenge.  Nevertheless, I have become quite happy to passionately enjoy the benefits of keeping within that 5 minute limit.  Every time I make myself respect that limit, I am better off.

And thus ends the testimony of Munro.

Finally, here is a useful list of guidelines for making sure a reading goes well:  Why Most Readings Suck And How To Fix It  (including the wonderful phrase, “Time is a thing, fuckface”).