Literature competition Open Mike Fireworks with the Buddha

Open Mike 2012; ©
Open Mike 2012 | Photo (detail): ©

The Berlin ‘Open Mike’ entered this year its twentieth edition. For the first time the competition for young German prose and poetry took place in its home port of Neukölln – but it arrived long ago.

Not only geographically but also virtually, Open Mike has changed. At the newly created blog, first anecdotes gathered during the second weekend in November alongside photos, lists and favourite sentences.

An idea that worked

As before, the physical meeting is at the center: editors, literary agents and journalists are among the 400 mainly young visitors at the Saturday competition. ‘Open Mike is more than merely fireworks’, says Thomas Wohlfahrt, who as director of the Berlin Literaturwerkstatt (i.e., Literature Workshop) launched the competition at the beginning of the 1990s. ‘And I’m very glad that, thanks to the Crespo Foundation, we’ve developed a procedure that really fills the whole year.’

For Open Mike continues right after the competition itself: the four newly selected winners set off on reading tours to Frankfurt, Vienna and Zurich. In February 2013 all the finalists met again for a text workshop. Perhaps this makes Wohlfahrt recall to himself how it all began.

‘In the United States, in spring 1992, I witnessed such Open Mikes’, says Wohlfarth. ‘You could put your name down on a list, the mike was open and the audience responded immediately, whether with applause or boos. This form couldn’t be simply transferred to a German context. But when I returned, I had an idea.’ An idea that worked. Between 600 and 700 writers under 35 years of age and without book publications apply each year for a starting place at Open Mike. Six publishers’ editors sift through the manuscripts and make the invitations. At the competition each participant reads for fifteen minutes before he is stopped by the clamour of an alarm clock.

Two days with the Buddha

While one of the attractions of the Klagenfurt Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize, the other major reading competition in the German-speaking world, is that the texts are reviewed after their presentation by literary critics, the jury of Open Mike is constituted by writers. And they have their say only at the awards ceremony. ‘You can’t discuss a text right after having read or heard it once’, says Wohlfarht. ‘Therefore the jury keeps its own counsel at first. They really sit there for two days, like the Buddha.’

One of the three jurors in 2012 was Thomas von Steinaecker. The award-winning author of novels and radio plays knows how it feels to be on stage at Open Mike; in 2003 he was among the finalists, though he was not awarded a prize. But it is not only for many of the 60 winners that the competition serves as a springboard into the literary world: some of the other finalists also later produce books of prose or poetry.

The talent competition has changed little in its first 20 years, but, thinks Wohlfarth, looking back on the beginnings, the relationship of the writers to the audience has: ‘Back then, the older participants made it into an insult to the audience. They came here because there was money. And how you presented yourself didn’t matter. This wasn’t everyone’s attitude, but it was that of quite a few.’

Wohlfarth’s thesis about young authors today: ‘Today there is a respect and appreciation towards the audience, almost humility – “They’ve come specially to see me!”’ Nonetheless, Open Mike must regularly put up with criticism: young writers are now so alarmingly professional, their texts so dismayingly uniform. At the same time, the competition offers a flood of premières, a ballroom-filling view of works-in-progress – including literary discoveries that will inspire audiences twenty years hence.