A tattered notebook lies open at the edge of the spotlight. Your lips are pressed to the silver mesh of the lone microphone. The light blinds you to the expectant eyes and ears out in front but you know they are there. You draw in a deep breath like a starter’s gun and, as the first words drip from your tongue, a little smile sparks at the corner of your mouth.
Spoken word poetry, also called performance poetry, pre-dates its written sibling. Before Dickinson, Blake and Wordsworth wrote their contributions to the canon, poetry was an oral tradition alongside folk song and storytelling. Through recent reinventions of its presentation, most notably the rising popularity of slam poetry events, spoken word poetry is reconnecting with its audience again.
While written poetry can be (wrongly) perceived as the preserve of the educated elite, spoken word poetry occupies a more egalitarian space. It is accessible, entertaining and at heart encourages everyone’s involvement. Deep-down, the open mic seems to call, we’re all performance poets looking for our stage!
So how do you get started writing a spoken word poem?
Well, first a little relief: your spelling doesn’t matter! Because the written form of a spoken word poem is not the product, no-one else may ever read it. Instead, they’re going to hear you read it, so as long as it makes sense to you, how you choose to actually write it down is totally up to you!
Starting can be tricky, so it might be helpful to read about how others approach writing. Natalie Goldberg has some fantastic tips on writing practice, but the truth is that to start writing poems, start writing! Read poems too, discover what you love about them and then keep on writing! Before you know it you’ll have a notebook full of lines itching to be spoken.
What should you write about?
Write about anything that you feel passionate about or interested in. Many spoken word pieces are personal and political, others are humorous observational pieces, but really anything goes. And when you’ve written something, read it out loud as it helps you choose what sounds interesting, grabs you or simply feels great to say.
So you’ve written some lines, but now what. Because writing a spoken word poem is only part of the story. Now it’s time to think about how a spoken word poem is performed.
Spoken word poems are as concerned with the music of the words – how they sound – as with their meaning. With this in mind, I think it’s helpful to think about your poem as a musical score. Your words then become the carriers of playful rhythms and aural colour that bring a depth to the experience of hearing them.
Starting to think this way means the poem will grab the listener and make them want to keep listening to you. Imagine the opposite: a dry, monotone speech where you have to fight to stay attentive to what’s being said. This is not how to think about a spoken word poem, it should be playful, unpredictable and musical.
So with this in mind, feel free to surround your neatly written words with personal notations and margin notes, such as where to pause or where the poems climax is. These notes should help you lift the lines off the page and send them into your enraptured audience.
You’ll probably do one of these naturally, and thankfully it’s a vital one! Showing yourself when to breath is very important, and thankfully we have commas, and full stops to do just that! (You can also use your own notation or more complex punctuation if you like!)
How else do we find the music of the poem? Rhythm is crucial and breathing is a huge part of that. Where we breath is a rhythmic choice that helps you convey the meaning of your words. It creates emphasis and anticipation and allows you to highlight the lines that matter most.
For inspiration on how rhythm can be played with in a poem, read any of the Beats poets. Drawing influence from B-Bop and jazz, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the rest focussed on making their poems rhythmically interesting and to be fully appreciated you must read them out loud!
Equally, listen to contemporary poets like Kate Tempest and we can note the influence of MC-ing and hip-hop. Again, the innate understanding of the musicality of the words keeps us engaged and makes the performance textured and playful.
It’ll come as no surprise that spoken word pieces are presented in all sorts of ways. Some are sung, in part or in their entirety. Some are spoken over music or a beat-boxed rhythm. Some performances are as physical as they are textual – it really is up to you.
The boundaries between these forms are delightfully fluid and often dictated by how the poem itself needs to be performed. Hearing a performance poet work with the full range of their voice’s potential is a really enthralling experience!
Spoken word, at its best, is a visceral, exciting and touching experience for performer and audience alike. It often knocks down the fourth wall and let’s the audience flood into the poet’s experience.
All that’s left is to find an open mic near you and grace the stage and be sure to submit your poetry to The Talent Bank. Writing your name on the entry sheet will be the scariest and most wonderful thing you’ll do that day!