Some Background Information
People spoke poetry long before they began to write it. Audiences have judged the poet’s performance for just as long. Spoken word poetry competitions have taken many forms in many places across the world for thousands of years. Today spoken word poetry is most commonly experienced in competitions call Poetry Slams. The first Poetry Slam was held in 1986 in Chicago. Since then these competitions have spread throughout the world. Although spoken word poetry is performed and enjoyed in noncompetitive venues, the Slams have had a large effect on the way spoken word poetry is written and performed.
Slam poems must be performed in 3 minutes or less and the performer must read a poem he or she has written. Today, most spoken word poetry conforms to these standards. The other Slam rule is that no props or costumes may be used. This rule is not always followed outside of Slams. While some poets feel costumes and props distract from the poetry others feel they enhance the poetry and use them in performances that are strictly for entertainment purposes. Likewise, outside of Poetry Slams background music and sound effects are sometimes employed.
Do Your Research
If you haven’t experienced much spoken word poetry, you should begin with some research. Watch YouTube videos of spoken word performances, read published spoken word poems, and most importantly find spoken word performances in your area and attend them. The National Poetry Slam website (www.PoetrySlam.com) has a search feature for finding poetry slams but Google works just as well for finding poetry events in your area. Many universities host spoken word performances and spoken word poets often perform in local bars and coffee houses on open mic nights. Watch the poets. Meet the poets. Talk to the poets. The best way to learn about spoken word is to experience it.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Think of spoken word poetry as a two part project: the writing and the performance. These parts are equally important and although you might be more drawn to one than the other neither should be ignored. There is no limit on the number of poems you can write or the number of times you can perform them, so get started early and practice regularly. Information can only take you so far, skill must be built through practice. The following sections consist of tips for beginning spoken word poets to keep in mind as they start practicing.
Tips for Writing Spoken Word Poems
- Do write your poem. Literally, write it down. On paper. Use line breaks, use indentations, and use punctuation. Make the poem look the way you want it to sound.
- Do use poetic sounds (rhyme, assonance, alliteration…, ect.) but don't feel compelled to adhere to a particular structure. Most spoken word poetry is free verse.
- Do remember all of the elements that make poetry strong and affective (such as sensory details, vivid imagery, conflict, and purpose). They still work and should be employed.
- Do consider the speaker (or main character) of your poem and whether or not you will be able to perform in his or her voice, but don't be afraid to push yourself.
- Do consider the length of your poem. Keeping it around three minutes when read aloud is a good rule of thumb, although you might want to start with shorter poems.
Tips for Performing Spoken Word Poems
- Do memorize your poem. The performance is always stronger when you know what’s coming next and don’t have to look at a piece of paper.
- Do look at your audience, but don't be distracted by them. Focusing on a spot in the back of the room, just above the top of your audience, can help with this.
- Do speak loud enough to be heard but don't shout everything. This is a common mistake. Vary the volume and tone of your voice.
- Do perform with emotion and passion but don't go over the top, unless you are intentionally conveying silly or overly dramatic behavior.
- Do be aware of your facial expressions and body language. You want to use them to deliver a complete performance, but don't fidget or jump around without purpose.
- Do practice. Practice in front of a mirror, in front of friends, family, and anyone who will pay attention. Then sign up for an open mic or open slam. Repeat this process with every poem.
Links About Spoken Word Poetry
- All About Slam Poetry
A hub specifically about Poetry Slams.
- A Brief Guide to Slam Poetry- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
A short description with references to more information.
- Poetry Slam, Inc.
Poetry Slam, Inc. is dedicated to expanding the art of spoken word.