Ever ask what makes a particular slam poet so outstanding?
Slam poetry has been going strong for a few decades now.
It's changing, as do most things with time, but I'm happy to report that its spreading like wildfire (oh wait, you're poets - here are some metaphors and similes: it's growing faster than high school libidos; it's growing like the US deficit; it's spreading quicker than gossip on the playground...).
More youth are getting into the poetry slam movement with groups like Brave New Voices and other local youth spoken word programs (there's pretty much one or more in every major city now, including in Canada).
These kinds of organizations help breed new talent and elevate existing talent - they teach, they encourage, they promote and they share - that's what's going to keep slam poetry going strong.
My site is dedicated to helping people increase their potential with slam poetry.
I write and perform (though I'm admittedly not the best), so I consider myself part of the culture. And because of my love for spoken word, I desire to see it grow from its now established roots in a positive way.
So for all you emerging and ambitious slam poets out there, here are 7 characteristics you should embrace that will help your spoken word skills reach new heights:
1. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary
The best slam poets have an astonishing knack for turning ordinary experiences into fascinating tales with underlying story lines and messages.
To improve your skills in this area, it's important to focus on becoming a strong storyteller.
When you scrutinize one of your life stories and really put some effort into thinking about it in a different way, cryptic messages tend to reveal themselves.
For instance (and this might be a good idea for your next slam poem), we've all been driving in a car when we thought someone else on the made a stupid move. Generally, we call that person an asshole. But to me, that's a moment that needs deeper thought. Take it somewhere (I'm not going to tell you where - it might be the subject for my next slam).
2. They have an elevated knowledge of their subject matter
When I see a slam poet on stage who really captivates me, it usually goes beyond just their skills in the art of spoken word. It seems that they have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the particular subject matter.
Whether you're tackling a social issue or a personal story, its vital to dig deeper than you thought possible.
When the audience hears something they didn't already know, they hadn't imagined, or that shows how passionate you really are about your topic, you've climbed another rung on the slam poetry ladder.
Your passion imparts to your audience through the beads of sweat from your forehead in fantastic performances.
The best slam poets are experts in deeply exploring the feelings, emotions, stories, topics and messages they convey.
3. They have superior and precise vocabulary
If you want to be a really compelling spoken word artist, it may be time to switch up the words you use and up your vocab game.
By that, I don't mean to blow away an audience with language they don't understand. If you use words no one knows, the audience ends up getting snagged on a particular word or phrase and the rest of your poem falls on deaf ears. They'll probably miss the meat of the whole thing.
I use tools such as Thesaurus.com and WordHippo, along with a few others I've alluded to before.
Also, I catch a lot of awesome new words on TV and radio. Shows, movies, sportscasts, even the news - they all use what I used to call "50 cent words" or "S.A.T. words" - essentially its not your everyday jargon but its used in a context that makes it understandable.
So whenever you're watching TV, keep a pad or your phone nearby so you can constantly pick up new words and phrases. Its a surefire way to become a better slam poet.
4. They are disciples as much as artists
My last point feeds into this one: Always be a student.
You should always be observing and making note as you glide through life, whether its mentally or physically.
I like to keep a slam poetry journal (which has now become a living, breathing document that exists in the cloud). In that journal, I keep note of the things I want to write about, ideas and topics for new poems, rhymes, lines, interesting thoughts, etc. This can become your spoken word bible in a sense - so don't lose it!
5. They study and research other slam poets
Speaking of being a student... research is one of the keys to elevating your slam poetry writing and performance skills.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery - but I'm not saying to exactly mirror another artist. Observe, respect and learn.
I have learned from hundreds of other slam poets, each of whom I am slightly envious of. They have, over time, taught me how to carefully deliver verses, how to stop myself from overusing certain poetic devices, how to carefully pick messages that resonate, etc. Being a slam poetry student is ongoing and its fueling the proliferation of the spoken word movement.
Remember, a famous playwright, Wilson Mizner, once said “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal ideas from many is research.” :)
6. They have learned to transform themselves
The best slam poets out there know how to take on a character - especially when that character happens to be a previous portrayal of themselves.
When you let that feverish furor take hold, its infectious.
Your passion should bleed; your thirst to be heard should tickle the throats of the audience - you must be a fierce presence and a booming authority.
That doesn't mean you have to yell or perform loud, angry poems (though I do on occasion) - it means you have to be convincing.
Your audience should feel your words and your lines in their gut.
You should be whisking them away like a 5 star movie, but for 3 minutes.
A good idea if you really want to be a top performing slam poet is to take a short online acting class that teaches stage presence.
7. They come up with razor sharp lines (at least one per poem)
This is a skill that I really can't teach. In fact, I can hardly explain it.
Coming up with those lines - you know those lines - the ones that make the audience snap, the lines that make people say "oh shit!". Coming up with those razor sharp lines is part art and part luck.
What I can tell you is that by following other advice about slam poetry (i.e. keeping a journal), churning out those lines has become less of a challenge.
I've got hundreds of example of these killer lines that really make certain slam poets stand out.
Here's one example from Sierra DeMulder where the first few lines have a twist and you can't help but say, "Damn, that's powerful..." - the poem goes on to leave the audience in awe; this is a performance by one of the best slam poets I've heard.
So from everything I have seen and studied within the slam poetry movement, its apparent that the best slam poets out there stay true to most, if not all seven, of these traits.
If you're having trouble with writing or performing your slam poetry and you want to learn a little more intimately about how to get to the next level (or if you just want to send some feedback), feel free to give me a shout.
And, as always, slam motherfucker, SLAM!