It's Tuesday night at the Poetry Cafe, a cramped, anonymous looking establishment in one of Covent Garden's few quiet backstreets.
In the basement a dry, hangdog circuit veteran has just finished reading a piece of droll poetry, and next a relative rookie tentatively steps towards the mic to deliver an energetic poem about government cuts.
Then a first-time reader is announced, the host hollers: "Next up, a Poetry Unplugged virgin!" and a roar of approval spreads throughout the intimate audience, a cheer louder than anyone would rightfully expect to emanate from 50 people.
Over the last 15 years Poetry Unplugged has arguably become the most successful open-mic night in Britain, becoming a hub for developing talent in the process.
Punters can expect to hear a wide range of styles, and visitors and performers have included Scroobius Pip, Pete Doherty - who at one point plotted to become the main host of Unplugged - Forward Prize nominees Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, and Annie Freud and Glen Matlock, a list as diverse as the night itself.
The present host Niall O'Sullivan remembers his first time as a reader back when he had a day job working as a gardener for the council.
"My preconceptions were that I'd come here and it would be a traditional poetry crowd," he muses, "a room filled with duplicates of my English teacher."
But upon hearing a variety of raucous poems amid the more traditional material he relaxed slightly, but not so much that he could do any more than read his poems while crouching on the floor.
"Though this being the '90s, people were impressed with my artistic presentation," he splutters, still laughing at the misinterpretation.
An Unplugged regular for many years before he eventually became the evening's host in 2004, Niall has gone on to become one of the many graduates of the night to achieve success and earn a full-time living from poetry, but he clearly remembers his first nervy steps well enough to make a sympathetic MC.
"It's a supportive crowd," he emphasises. "I make sure first-time readers get a huge round of applause. Most people on the scene will say you should read here before anywhere else, when you're really battling your nerves."
On one of the evenings I visit, it seems to be something of a hub for international poetry visitors as well, with tourists and immigrants trying their hand at self-expression in this live format. This diversity has produced memorable and unpredictable results in the past.
After September 11 2001 Niall remembers that there were mixed feelings about the fact that some audience members wanted a minute's silence. "A few felt indifferent to it because they were from countries that had been bombed heavily themselves, and at that time they were huddled together in buildings while houses up the road from them were being destroyed. Nobody held a minute's silence for them. I'm glad that's what Unplugged is, it can have a bit of a Speaker's Corner element to it. We've had pro-Palestine and pro-Israel readers here in the past as well, in the same evening."
Unsurprisingly, after seven years of hosting such a diverse and ideologically varied night, he has little time for people who argue that poetry is an elitist artform. "To call it elitism is insulting to working-class people, because it insinuates that they're intellectually incurious. When I was digging holes for a living I read poetry with references I didn't understand and I'd go the library and find out about them, and nowadays people can easily use the internet.
"The kind of elitism I think does exist is in mainstream poetry - or what is called 'mainstream poetry,' which is written by TS Eliot Prize nominees and Poetry Review regulars, but read by very few people. Their response to the government cuts, the Occupy movement and the summer riots has been nothing, but then none of it touched them. The only vocalisation you get is from Carol Ann Duffy doing a poem about Arts Council cuts, rather than about the people who handed the cuts down to the Arts Council," he continues disgustedly.
In this sense, the contributors to Unplugged are usually more tuned in to the realities of day-to-day living. Niall believes that it's one of the few poetry evenings which acts as a leveller, where caretakers and lawyers talk freely with each other at the end of the evening, united by an interest in literature.
If this is the first glimpse most aspiring London writers get of live poetry, perhaps that can only be good for the future of the form.
Poetry Unplugged runs every Tuesday at the Poetry Cafe at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2. For more from Niall O'Sullivan visit www.niallosullivan.co.uk