Written by Ami Mattison
In 2002, I began touring and performing spoken word in a serious way, and I’ve been doing so ever since, earning a modest income from my gigs. Also, I teach workshops and classes on spoken word performance. I’m still learning and growing as a performer, but now, spoken word novices ask me for advice, and I’m always willing to provide whatever help I can.
Tips for Novices
Over the years, I’ve offered different kinds of advice, but here are eleven tips that I think every serious, spoken word beginner should know:
- Attend lots of live performances. Check out the spoken word scene in your area by going to as many open mics, poetry slams, and other poetry readings as you possibly can. Every spoken word venue has its own vibe. When I was first starting out, I didn’t find a lot of open mics at which I felt “at home,” until I started attending Cliterati, an open mic in Atlanta. So, don’t get discouraged if a particular open mic or slam series doesn’t suit you. Rather, check out as many venues as possible, be open-minded, and see which events you enjoy the most. This is the best way to find a spoken word “home”—a venue where you feel safe and supported in your growth and development as a poet and performer. But once you find a home, be sure to continue to check out other venues, and give venues a few chances before you write them off. To find venues in your area, run an internet search or check your local listings. Also, if you do find a venue, then ask the host about other venues.
- Connect with a spoken word community. Become an active participant in your spoken word community by developing friendships with other performers and audience regulars. Having a community of other poets and performers will provide you the much-needed support you’ll need to grow as a performer and to hone your craft. I met many of my poet-friends by becoming involved in different spoken word and poetry communities. Those friendships continue to nurture me, my poetry, and my growth as an artist and performer.
- Study other performers. As you attend each event, pay attention to what other performers are doing: What kinds of choices are they making with their voices and gestures? Who are your favorite performers, and what about their performance or poetry do you find compelling? By studying other performers, you can begin to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Also, there are tons of internet videos of spoken word performances, and Youtube is an excellent source for becoming familiar with the national spoken word scene. Here’s a video of one of my favorite performers, Detroit poet Blair, performing “Little Richard Penniman Tells It Like It T-I-S”: Did you notice the performance choices Blair makes and the details of those choices? He varies his voice and commits to his gestures. Also, as a side note, you can’t help but notice that Blair is outside—in front of the Motown Museum in Detroit—with car traffic, rolling by. Not every performance has to happen at an open mic or on stage. If you don’t have a venue, then you can always use a street corner.
- Develop a unique performance style. Always express your poetry in your own style. In my opinion, the biggest mistake a newbie can make is to imitate the performance style of others, and honestly, in a competitive spoken word scene, it’s not a compliment to be told you sound like [insert famous performer here]. Rather, such a statement most likely means that you’re copying someone else, rather than developing your own unique brand of spoken word. The tendency to imitate another performer’s style can happen in both conscious and unconscious ways, but try to be mindful of your performance choices, and be yourself. If you need some help in finding your own voice and performance style, then check out this article on how to develop a spoken word performance.
- Try memorizing your poetry. Memorizing your poetry is a great way to stretch and grow as an artist. Also, in my opinion, it’s absolutely the best way to achieve a full and fulfilling performance experience. For me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of performing spoken word without the encumbrance of having to hold a piece of paper or a book. Also, if your aim is to compete in slams, then you should know that slam judges and audiences tend to like memorized pieces. While it’s possible to win a slam by reading a poem—plenty of poets have done it—it’s not often done at national slam events. If you need help with memorization, check out this article on how to memorize your poetry.
- Or don’t memorize your poetry. When you first get started with spoken word performance, you’ll probably want the safety and security that reading your poem provides. Plus, there’s absolutely no rule that says you have to memorize your poems in order to give great spoken word performances. For instance, check out Hammad doesn’t use dramatic, stylized choices for her voice or gestures. Rather, her choice to read—and it is a choice—means that all focus is on her words, on the poem itself. Significantly, this particular poem, like most of what I’ve heard by her, is thought-provoking and engaging; and in my opinion, it’s an excellent example of a political poem that really works. So, in this performance, Hammad’s poem stands on its own brilliance as a unique expression of her experiences and observations.
- Perform as much as possible. On a regular basis, sign up to read or perform your poetry at open mics. If you’re first starting out, I don’t recommend signing up for a slam competition until you have a bit of experience because slams can be harrowing for a newcomer to the spoken word scene. But hey, if you think you’ve got the chops and a thick skin, then go for it! The more you perform, the more comfortable you’ll become in front of audiences, and the primary way to hone and grow in your spoken word craft is to perform again and again…and again.
- Rehearse. Speaking of performing again and again, rehearsal is fundamental to consistent and successful performances. Find a rehearsal space where you can be uninterrupted and can feel free to experiment with your voice and gestures. Definitely, work on developing your poems—make choices, commit to them, learn them, and do them consistently. When I first started performing, I would rehearse like mad, and that rehearsal paid off when I was in front of audiences. The performance of my poems was second nature to me, and I could focus on enjoying the experience, rather than worrying about my next line or next gesture. But, there’s a balance between knowing your poems and running them into the ground. So, rehearse, but don’t be so compulsive about it that your poem no longer sounds fresh.
- Don’t explain, and never apologize or make excuses. If you have to explain what your poem is about, then it’s simply not ready for others to hear it. Also, offering elaborate explanations about your poetry suggests that you don’t really trust the poem to convey what you’re trying to express, which probably means that you’re not ready to share it yet. Plus, long explanations drag down your audience and the vibe of the show. The audience is there to hear spoken word, not explanations about your poetry. Once you’re more experienced, you’ll learn appropriate ways to introduce your poetry. Also, at Cliterati, we came up with one rule: Never apologize. That’s right, never say “I’m sorry” in reference to your poetry or performance when you’re on stage. Also, there are sneaky ways of “kinda, sorta” apologizing by making excuses for your poem: “I just wrote this today.” “It’s not finished.” “I’m not sure if I’ll remember this piece.” You get the picture. If you have to make excuses for a poem, then either it’s not ready to be shared with an audience or you’re not ready to share it. So, unless it’s an event that encourages rough drafts and offers feedback, then save those unfinished poems until you’ve made revisions and feel confident about them. That, or just read your poem without explanations, apologies, or excuses.
- LOVE your audience. If I could offer only one tip to a serious spoken word novice, this would be it. It’s a privilege to share your poetry and to be seen and heard by an audience of strangers. The audience is there to hear spoken word, and when you’re on stage, that means you have a unique opportunity to connect with them—to “feel” them and their vibe. When we perform, we want something. Perhaps, we want praise or the validation of applause. Or maybe we want to share our creative gifts, or simply have someone else listen to the poetic passion we’ve wrenched from our lives. Regardless, I believe that every performer has a personal and/or professional agenda when they perform, whether they’re conscious of it or not. But here’s the thing: When you perform, it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. The audience is the most important element of your performance. As I’ve told my students: you are, as a performer, only as good as your audience. And I believe that’s absolutely true. So, have some humility, and always remember that when you’re performing, the main thing you’re doing is sharing and giving to your audience. They are the center of your performance world. Respect and love them by giving them everything you’ve got to give in your performances. And, if your experience is similar to my own, you’ll receive the praise and the applause that you seek; someone will always be listening; and you’ll gain the satisfaction of knowing that you shared your creative gifts and that they were graciously accepted.
- Don’t take it too seriously. Finally, spoken word is supposed to be fun and fulfilling. If you’re performing and not loving it, then something is wrong, and if you’re taking it too seriously, then you might need to pull back some and really examine your underlying desires and motivation to perform or slam. Plus, when you’re first starting out, it’s crucial to experiment and play with different choices and styles. That’s one way you’ll grow as a performer and develop your own unique brand of spoken word. So, perform, experiment, play, and let yourself have some fun!