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A Verbal Aesthetic: Notes on Spoken Word Poetry

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Written by Ami Mattison

I’ve written and performed dozens of spoken word poems, yet I can’t tell you in easy steps how to write any kind of poem, much less how to write a spoken word poem. Poetry, generally speaking, defies those kinds of recipes and instructions.
Plus, there are no hard-and-fast rules for spoken word poetry. Like poetry in general, spoken word poetry can’t be boxed-in.
Still, how to write spoken word is a concern for many would-be performers. So, I want to offer some notes, or general observations, on spoken word as a poetic style and form that tends to exhibit some particular artistic qualities.

The Importance of an Audience

Spoken word simply doesn’t exist without a live audience. In that sense, it depends upon its audience in a way that written poetry does not.
Slam, which is a popular and competitive form of spoken word, exemplifies this dependence. For a slam competition, random members of the audience are chosen to judge the quality of the content and the performance of the poems.
As such, slam is a democratic art form. The success (or failure) of a spoken word poem and its performance is how well it speaks to any random person and not necessarily someone “schooled” in poetry or even in spoken word. Slam, then, strives to speak to a wide range of diverse audiences.

The Power of Accessibility

Because spoken word relies so heavily on a live audience, it must somehow manage to speak itself in a way that makes its various images and metaphors easily apparent, or accessible to a listener. Sure, a lot of spoken word poems need to be heard several times to appreciate all the nuances of meanings. But its success depends upon being able to convey its meanings in a single performance.

Common Forms

While spoken word, like any poetry, takes on many different forms, it commonly relies on first-person narratives, or stories told about the poet’s personal experiences.
But it can use any form of narrative, such as third-person stories about other people’s experiences or persona poems, in which the poet takes on the guise of a different person.
Consider this poem by Minton Sparks who is well-known for her style of story-telling:
While narratives are a common form,spoken word isn’t limited to just stories. Poems that focus on general observations about people and events are also common.
For instance, this poem by Ernest Cline drives home its political and social critique by making humorous observations about human nature:

The Personal as Political

So much of spoken word is driven by the poet’s personal experience as well as by their political views. In that sense, politics as a personal issue is a common theme.
For instance, Meliza Banales utilizes her intimate experience to demonstrate a personal history of social and political oppression:
Spoken word, then, often personalizes politics in order to gain empathy from an audience. But it also often uses commentary about current political events in less personal ways, such as this poem by T. Miller:

Style

As T. Miller’s poem suggests, spoken word often, though certainly not always, utilizes complex and interesting rhymes. In this respect, it bears much in common with hip hop—so much so that very often audiences, drawing upon stereotypes of hip hop, often perceive spoken word to be narrower than it actually is. In other words, often people think of spoken word as primarily consisting of beats and rhyme which is not necessarily the case.
Yet, spoken word can use rhythm in some surprising ways.
Listen to this poem by Blair:

Stage vs. Page

Blair’s use of precise gestures and onomatopoeia begin to suggest the crucial ways in which spoken word poetry hinges on live performance.
As such, spoken word poems don’t necessarily translate well to the page, just as poetry written specifically to be read from the page doesn’t necessarily translate to performance poetry. This isn’t to say that spoken word poets aren’t concerned about how their poems look and read from the page, but to suggest that this isn’t necessarily a foremost concern.

The Performance of Spoken Word

As a verbal aesthetic intended for live audiences, spoken word poetry demonstrates a broader range of characteristics than I can discuss here.
While the poetry itself is complex, spoken word is a simple and raw form of performance as the poet emotes his or her original writings. Thus, it’s unique from other forms of stage theatre.
Commonly performed solo and without music or props, the performer is left with only his or her body, voice, and breath to convey the meanings of a poem.

Spoken word, then, is both a verbal aesthetic as well as a specific kind of performance art. And it’s only when these characteristics combine that one can make spoken word.

Writing Spoken Word

So, how do you write a successful spoken word poem? In many ways, you don’t write spoken word as much as you hear spoken word.
All poets have an inner voice that guides them in writing their poetry. Spoken word poets must be especially attune to this voice and attempt to make it interesting and compelling when spoken aloud.
If you want to write spoken word poetry, then the best place to begin is by listening to your own voice and to the voices of others.

In the simplest sense, spoken word is your own inner voice spoken aloud.

So, try to listen for natural rhythms and tones as well as those more stylized. And write from that place of deep listening.

What are your observations about spoken word poetry as an art form?

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