I am often asked to provide advice from up and coming poets and writers on how to “do spoken word” properly or ways to better themselves as spoken word (i.e. performance) poets. Below is a short but essential list to get you started.
1. Be True To You!
The best poets speak from an authentic experience or perspective. Don’t try to speak on something that you know nothing about or can’t really relate to. It will come across as being unauthentic at best and pretentious and self-serving at worst. Poetry is something you feel. It is organic to your soul and before you can have an impact on others it must be true to you first.
2. Have Something To Say
Here’s a little secret. Most poetry slams and many open mics I don’t particularly care for. Why? Much of the time the poets focus too much on shock or catering to the lowest common denominator. I don’t care about your real or made up sexual exploits, your manufactured anger or your assorted proclivities. The audience is asking the question “How does what you say relate to my life?” How are you empowering me or shining a light on society? How are you celebrating beauty or art? How are you reminding me of our humanity or our inhumanity to others? Your poetry should be something of value or at the very least not something of detriment.
3. Respect and Know Your Audience
“Everything ain’t for everybody” as the saying goes. Know your audience. Does the poem contain alot of phrases or language that no one in the audience will really understand or relate to? Are there a bunch of children in the audience or people whose first language is not the language of the poem? Also…Respect your audience! Part of the reason why I don’t frequent many poetry venues is because I can only take but so many gratuitous uses of profanity, odes to past lovers (real or imagined) or obscenities under the guise of “art”. I am not totally anti-profanity in a poem. Sometimes that is the “realest” and most appropriate way to relate the truth of a particular piece for some people. As a rule for myself I never use profanity in my poetry…ever. But most poets use profanity simply for shock value or more usually due to a lack of creativity. Can’t think of a sophisticated word?…okay “f this”. Can’t create true emotion?…true anger in a piece?…okay “bleep you”. I don’t consider that respecting the audience. People are giving you their eyes and ears. Respect that. Don’t vomit on the mic. Most people who like good poetry don’t particularly care for gratuitous foul language. It’s the nature of the medium…it’s a higher art form.
4. Take Poetry Seriously
If you take a lazy approach to the art form it will come across amateurish at best and boring and annoying at worst. If you care about your work the audience will care about you enough to listen to what you have to say. It will also help you to have a professional look to your performance. Look at top singers and rappers and you will see a huge difference between them and those in your typical talent show. Even if there are only 5 people in the audience (and since you are a poet that will be the case on many occasions) be professional and hone your craft. Study poetry. Read poetry. Look at performances of slam poets (though I don’t often care for the “poetry” of slam poets their energy is a clinic on good performing) and practice. Practice in a mirror. Look at how you move (or don’t move). Think of what you do as a craft and become a craftswoman or craftsman.
5. Slow Down!
You can improve your performance by a factor of 10 by simply speaking slower. It’s not a race to the finish line. Poetry is not like listening to music where you can just sort of veg out a bit and just sort of “groove to the vibes”. Poetry audiences actually need to understand what you are saying. There is no vegging out. YOUARE THE MUSIC! So take your time and also pause appropriately. There’s nothing like a strategically placed pause that allows the thought just completed to marinate a bit. Most performance poets spit out their words too quickly and you lose people when you do that or cause them to WORK TOO HARD to keep up with the NASCAR driver of Spoken Word.
6. Under 3 is Key!
3 minutes! That should be your time limit. People have a fairly short attention span when it comes to performances. This isn’t the 1970′s where you can have a 12 minute song. This isn’t Jazz where the quartet will perform one piece for like 22 minutes where everyone gets a solo. Even I won’t listen to a 12 minute poem! Most of my poems are in that 3 minute range. Because I am a particularly energetic and rhythmic kind of poet I can get away with an occasional piece that approaches the length of a modern pop song (4 mins). If you stay under 3 minutes you maintain the audience’s attention and you don’t start to bore or annoy people. Note: In Slam poetry your time limit is 3 minutes with point deductions coming for every 10 seconds over time.
7. Perform, Perform, Perform!
This is performance poetry. Spoken Word by its nature is part theatrical performance and part monologue. If people wanted someone to just read poetry from a book with no emotion…no “umph” they could do it themselves. Spoken Word is PERFORMANCE poetry. That doesn’t mean you turn into an actor or rapper or singer or comedian though all of those elements may appear in your work. It means that you have an understanding that you are bringing the words and feelings to life. But keep in mind the earlier points of being “true to you” so that your performance doesn’t come off as a drama class exercise.
8. Memorize Your Stuff
The single greatest technical change I made as a poet was to memorize my stuff. It was so freeing! And being that I incorporate a great deal of movement when I perform it was especially beneficial for me to memorize my poetry. I was no longer encumbered by having to hold a piece of paper or stand in front of a podium. But even for people who are less physical on stage memorizing your poetry does several things that benefit you:
- You can see your audience and therefore connect with them.
- Connecting with your audience through eye contact allows them to see your emotion better and relate to you.
- The paper and the mic stand create an unwanted barrier between you and the audience.
- It removes a “crutch”. You don’t have that paper to fall back on and makes you a stronger poet.
- It removes an obstacle. How many times have you seen a poet flub or skip a line because they missed their place?
There are only a handful of poets that I have seen who use paper and it doesn’t hurt their performance in the least and all of these are older poets with a great deal of life experience oozing from them that makes you forget the paper. Most of you reading this are under 40 so chuck the paper!