Written by Ami Mattison
Developing and rehearsing a poem for spoken word performance can be as rewarding as performing it in front of live audiences. For me, the development of a performance is an ever-evolving process through which I come to understand and appreciate my poetry better. Performance is a kind of bonding experience with a poem—with the experiences and sentiments it expresses. This bonding is a creative process for me, in which I lift the words from the page and nurture them into life with my body and breath.
Plus, developing a poem for performance is fun. It gives you an opportunity to experiment with your body and your voice, to find new meanings in your poetry, and to express yourself in new, creative ways.
If you’re just starting out, it’ll take time, patience, and lots of rehearsal to learn to develop your poetry for confident and successful performances on a consistent basis. These tips, however, will give you a head start on some simple practices that work for me.
- Find a rehearsal space. A physical space in which to develop and rehearse your poem, alone and uninterrupted, is ideal. This should be a place where you are free to be yourself and to experiment with your voice and your body movements without worrying about disturbing others or being overheard. However, finding such a space can be challenging, especially if you live with others. If that’s the case, then let them know what you’re doing, ask them not to disturb you, and try to tune them out.
- Memorize your poem. Certainly, you can develop a great performance while reading your poem from a book or the page, but dropping the paper and memorizing your poem frees up your hands for gestures, allows you to make good eye-contact, and creates a “barrier-free” zone between you and your audience. In other words, memorization provides a foundation for developing an intimate interaction with your audience. If you have trouble memorizing, then don’t worry. Instead, check out this article on memorization.
- Love your poem. Learning to memorize your poem gives you an opportunity to truly love it, to feel passionate about it and to appreciate it for what it is—an expression of your unique creativity. If you somehow manage to memorize the poem and don’t love it yet, then take some time and consider its strengths, why it’s important to you and why it’s important to share with others. If it’s not important to you, then it’s unlikely to be important to anyone else. So, cultivate some passion for your poem, and love it.
- Be Unique. Hopefully, you’ve memorized your poem in ways that are natural to your own speech patterns. But it’s also likely that your recitation sounds rote, canned, and imitational in places. What you’ll want to do is to develop your poem into a unique expression of you, rather than imitate someone else. In my opinion, one of the greatest creative mistakes a newbie can make is to focus on imitating another performer, rather than taking the time to experiment with their own speaking style, rhythm, breath, and gestures. While beginning artists often learn through imitation of the “masters,” imitation creates limitations and nurtures habits that are difficult to unlearn. Check out this video of a poem by Taylor Mali, mocking how some poets present their poetry in a stereotypical and unoriginal way:
So, avoid imitation. Audiences want to experience your performance—your style, your voice, and your gestures. While you might learn from others, be sure to focus on developing your own unique brand of performance.
- Find your own voice. How do you find and develop your own voice? First, recite your poem, go with what feels natural, and really listen to what’s unique about your style of speaking. Remember that the poem needs to develop and grow into something unique to you and interesting to audiences. Once you’ve carefully listened to your natural speaking voice, try experimenting. Vary your pitch, rhythm, speed, and volume. Play around with emphases on different words. Try singing, yelling, or whispering. The point is to start making some interesting choices with your voice and to commit to them. As you recite and listen to each line of your poem, consider carefully the meanings and determine the best way to enhance those meanings with your vocal style.
- Breathe. Without breath, there is no voice. It’s important to consider when and where to inhale and exhale. Again, go with what feels natural. If you need to breathe, then breathe. But you can also begin to make choices around your breath. You may want to use breath or breathing for a dramatic effect; or you may want to get to the end of those run-on lines before you inhale again. Just remember that breathing is an important part of any vocal performance.
- Add gestures and movement. It’s best if the gestures and movement you employ in your performance have specific meaning or seem natural and spontaneous. The key to strong gestures and body movements that enhance your performance is to make interesting choices and commit to them. If hand or body movements don’t enhance what you’re saying, then try to stand still, let your arms relax by your sides, and focus on your voice instead. If you want to make dramatic, stylized gestures, then be bold. There’s a saying in stage theatre circles: If you’re going to make a mistake, then make a BIG mistake. In other words, commit whole-heartedly to the gesture or movement, and make it big and noticeable, as small gestures often go unnoticed in stage performance. If your piece is conversational or quiet, then use gestures and movements that are natural mannerisms for you. Also, try to avoid canned, predictable, or stereotypical gestures (unless that’s your point). Most of all, don’t be afraid to move. Use your whole body—your arms and legs, your face, your hands and feet. Play, experiment, and find what feels natural, spontaneous, or meaningful. Through this creative process, you’ll discover new ways to express yourself and your poem.
- Rehearse. Rehearsal is foundational to offering solid performances on a consistent basis. Once you’ve made interesting choices with your voice and movements, keep working on them. Hone your performance. Try performing in a front of a mirror so you know what you look like and can see the impact that your gestures and movements make. Also, try recording your voice to hear what it sounds like to others. Using these tools, you’ll be better able to hone a solid performance. And be sure to rehearse an adequate amount of time. Nervousness and anxiety play a big role in the live performance experience; but if you know your piece, then you’ll be able to focus on executing it well, rather than being distracted by the reactions of the people watching, listening, and forming opinions about you and your poetry. There’s also such a thing as over-rehearsing. Try to find a nice balance between knowing your poem and running it into the ground until it sounds canned again. Try to keep it fresh.
- Perform for your friends or family. Before you run off to that open mic or some other performance opportunity, try out your poem in front of others who you trust and who will give you positive and constructive feedback. Ask for suggestions, consider any advice given, and bask in the positive praise you’ll surely receive.
- Perform for a live audience. Finally, you’ve developed your poem. You’ve adequately rehearsed it, and you’ve gotten feedback from loved ones. Now, you’re probably ready to perform. You’re also probably a little nervous, which is an important and necessary sign that you’re taking a creative risk. If you’re not at least a little nervous, then something is wrong—you’re not taking a risk, you’re not in touch with your emotions, you’re bored, or you just don’t care. In this case, you may not be ready to perform. A great performance hinges on passion, risk, and the honest and authentic expression of emotions. So, for your performance, get in touch with your emotions and focus on delivering your poem to the best of your ability. Probably, you’ll get positive and supportive feedback from the audience. At the very least, you’ll have the significant reward that comes with sharing your work, your thoughts, and your passion with others.
- Evolve and grow. Keep rehearsing, and keep performing. Learn what works and what doesn’t from audience reactions. Let your performance evolve and grow over time. Keep it fresh by making new choices. Leave some choices open-ended, and let yourself be surprised by what you do when you’re actually performing. With continued rehearsal and live performance, your poem will grow and evolve into a whole, new creative experience.
All of these suggestions are intended to be helpful. If you don’t find them useful, then experiment with your own method of performance. The most important thing is that you find a way to creatively express yourself and to deliver your poetry in your own unique style.
What’s your experience in developing poems for performance? Do you use certain methods to offer a unique performance? Who are your favorite performance poets and what about their performances are unique?