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I am often asked to advise froup-and-coming poets and writers on how to properly use “the o spoken word” or better themselves as spoken Word (i.e., performance) poets. Below is a short but essential list to get you started.
The best poets speak from an authentic experience or perspective. Don’t try to talk about something you know nothing about or can’t 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 you; before you can impact others, it must be true to you first.
Here’s a little secret. I don't particularly care for most poetry slams and many open mics. Why? Often, 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, manufactured anger, or assorted proclivities. The audience asks, “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 o,r at the very least,t not something of a detriment.
“Everything ain’t for everybody,” as the saying goes. Know your audience. Does the poem contain a lot of phrases or language that no one in the audience will understand or relate to? Are there a bunch of children in the audience or people whose first language is not the poem's language? Also…Respect your audience! The pI don’t frequent many poetry venues because I can only take but so many gratuitous uses of profanity, odes to past lovers (real or imagined,d), or obscenities under the guise of “a.”. I am not anti-profanity in a poem. Sometimes that is the “most real” and most appropriate way to relate the truth of a particular piece for some people. As a rule, I never use profanity in my poetry…ever. But most poets use profanity simply for shock value, usually due to a lack of creativity. Can’t think of a sophisticated word?…okay, “f this.” Can’t create genuine emotion and genuine anger in a piece?…okay, “bleep you.” I don’t consider 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 care for gratuitous foul language. It’s the nature of the medium…it’s a higher art form.
If you take a lazy approach to the art form, it will become 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 at your performance. Look at top singers and rappers, and you will see vast differences between them and those in your typical talent show. Even if there are onlyfive5 people in the audience (and since you are a PO, et that will be the case on many occasions,s), be professional and hone your craft. Study poetry. Read poetry. Look at performances of slam poets (though I don’t often care for their “poetry” of them, their energy is a clinic on good performance) 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.
You can improve your performance by ten by simply speaking slower. It’s not a race to the finish line. Poetry is not like listening to music,c where you can sort of veg out a bit and just “groove to the vibe.”. Poetry audiences need to understand what you are saying. There is no vegging out. YOU ARE 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,y 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.
3 minutes! That should be your time limit. People have a relatively short attention span when it comes to performances. This isn’t the 1970s, 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 an exceptionally energetic and rhythmic po, 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,s 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.
Spoken Word is PERFORMANCE poetry. This is performance poetry—spoken Word, by its nature, is a part theatrical performance and part monologue. If people wanted someone just to read poetry from a book with no emotion…no “umph,” they could do it themselves. That doesn’t mean you turn into an actor, rapper, singer, or comedian, though all of those elements may appear in your work. It means that you understand that you are bringing the words and feelings to life. But remember the earlier points of being “true to you” so that your performance doesn’t come off as a drama class exercise.
The most significant technical change I made as a poet was memorizing my stuff. It was so freeing! And since I incorporate a great deal of movement when I perform, it was especially beneficial for me to remember my poetry. I was no longer burdened by holding a piece of paper or standing in front of a podium. But even for people who are less physical on stage, memorizing your poetry does several things that benefit you:
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