Checklist! 8 Things to Keep in Mind When Writing Slam Poetry
Have you ever sat down to write or work on your spoken word poem only to find out that you're deeply derailing yourself because you just don't have the focus you need?
I put together this quick little checklist to help you writers and poetry performers out there keep yourselves in line.
I wouldn't say this is a full "how-to" on writing slam poetry, more like some peripheral ideas you may want to keep close by while you're writing your piece.
I think these ideas can help you ensure you're staying true to yourself, your style and your message as a slam poet. So, here you go - a quick checklist of things to keep in mind when writing a slam poem:
1. Your slam poem is just that - YOURS!
If you're at all like me, you LOVE slam poetry (and I'd think nothing less than that if you're even reading this post).
You've probably spent considerable amounts of time in front of YouTube chasing the recommended videos and viewing slam after slam.
I've definitely been guilty of doing this while burning the midnight oil, hardly realizing the sun was about to come up (and shit, I gotta go to work!).
If you've been there, that's awesome. But as poets and spoken word artists, we have to be careful.
Although many of the slams on YouTube are great and are delivered by excellent performance artists, there is a significant amount of emulation that takes place. YouTube is a breeding ground for slam poets (which I do think is wonderful because it spreads the art).
But if you really want to be a top notch slam poet, authenticity is going to be core to your work.
Its very easy to take some ideas and 'borrow' some performance techniques from other artists you see - but ask yourself: "Does this really make me a game-changing poet?"
I guess this boils down to what you desire from your poetry.
Do you want to be the kind of slam poet that blends into the crowd?
One who can probably get some applause and maybe even take first prize on a given night, but isn't truly doing something to help yourself, help the culture, or command change or action from your audience?
I'm not. If you've ever seen my performances (YouTube or live), you'll probably note that I don't sound like most of the people who perform in national poetry slams.
I don't think there's anything wrong with how or what they perform - but I know that their delivery just doesn't fit me.
My style is predicated on the life I've lived, the person I am and the message I want to carry.
I don't care if people hate my poetry or its delivery; it just might not be for them.
What I can say is that I spent considerable time in places like shelters and rehabs, and in those scenarios, my poetry helped people. It connected people.
It made races color-blind; all religions sat equal for about 3 minutes; age saw no numbers.
My poetry inspired people to want to be better people. And that was what made my slam poetry mine.
So think about who you are. Think about what you want to get out of being a slam poet or spoken word artist. And make sure those core beliefs resonate throughout your work.
2. You are writing a poem that will be performed
All that being said in point #1, you should keep in mind that you're writing to perform and someone is going to hear you (and hopefully listen to you).
All this means is that after you finish your piece, you should take the time to read it out loud a whole bunch of times.
Listen to the flow of your words, listen to the poem's rhythm and understand how each stanza, each line and even each syllable leak into the proceeding components.
Poetry should sound...well, it should sound poetic.
It shouldn't sound like an essay; if it does you're going to bore your audience to death.
The point of performing is you want to carry a memorable message and entertain & delight while doing so. A strong performance is persuasive. Being persuasive doesn't mean doing what everyone else does because you might have thought someone's message resonated with you. Being persuasive means finding your own niche and riding it to help connect with your audience.
When you walk off stage after performing a slam poem, the audience should feel like they just got punched - with reality. Keep that in mind when you're putting the finishing touches on your piece.
I also wanted to share my personal perspective.
I've never written a poem for an audience. I've never written it with a target persona in mind. I've always written slam poetry because I was inspired by some trigger event or emotion.
HOWEVER, once I wrote my piece, I would then tune it up to be performance ready. That kept my credibility and legitimacy in check while still allowing me to perform a truthful and meaningful piece.
3. The best way to project honest emotion is to paint a vivid picture
Its really easy for me to tell you I was sad at some point in time - heartbroken even.
But when I paint you a picture of what its like to sleep on the floor of an A Train, wake up to the smell of being covered in piss, sit up, look around, realize I'm starving and alone and start to cry without caring who was on that train...well, I don't really have to tell you I was sad...or alone...or heartbroken.
I painted those feelings for you using descriptive and vivid imagery.
I aim to help the audience actually feel what it was like to walk in my shoes (albeit wet, dirty, old shoes with holes in them). I didn't have to use the word "sad".
Using imagery to convey emotion is a skill that slam poets have to work at.
In all honesty, it takes time and effort. It often takes seclusion - some personal time to sit back, reflect and re-feel the moment that you're describing in your poem.
If you really want to pursue your slam poetry, this exercise is worth the effort.
You'll realize what you've done when someone comes up to you after hearing your poem, puts their hand on your shoulder, and says "Fuck. You made me cry. I've felt like that too."
Someone told me that once. He was not someone I could ever picture crying...
4. Concrete language is vital for hitting your audience in the gut
Let's set your actual poem aside for a quick second.
I want to ask you to think of a scenario where you were in a debate, an argument or even just a conversation, but somewhere in that conversation, you said something that was so on point, so direct and resonated with so much blatant truth that whoever else was involved was just like: "Shit. Yeah. You're right."
Its that moment that makes someone tilt their head, slow their role and realize that there actually might be something they hadn't thought of before. It's that moment you say something so ingenious...well, so ingenious that its actually poetic.
99/100 times in that scenario, you were using concrete language.
You weren't being overly abstract or completely cryptic. You were more than likely being direct.
I can think of quite a few of these 'epiphany' moments I've had throughout my life (and they were often gratifying, admittedly), but I thought you'd probably rather see one in a more entertaining fashion - how about this for an example, the moment when Kyle makes a really simple, blatant and solid point to Stan using concrete language.
"If it needs to be seen by everybody, then why don't you put it out on the internet for free?!?!"... notice the pause from Stan after the statement. That is the reaction you want from your audience. You want them to agree with you whole-heartedly.
5. Poetic devices & poetry tools are your friend
I've written full posts about the types of poetic devices you can use in slam poetry in the past. I really can't stress enough how important these tools are. Its the crux of what separates a poem from just being an essay. You can click here to visit the page on poetic tools, but here's a quick bullet list of some of the most pervasive and easy-to-implement devices to spice up your slam poetry:
There are certainly more poetic devices than I've listed here.
I can say for sure that if you're incorporating even a few of these into your poem, it's going to sound more poetic than it would without.
A lot of these tools help with the emphasis of certain lines and points; they also help an audience feel what you're describing rather than just hear you.
6. The content of your slam poem can (and should) outweigh your performance style
Don't get me wrong here - delivery is a huge part of slam poetry.
But stage performance is not paramount unless you're delivering something special.
The best performer in the world could probably get on stage and talk about a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, and even if its cool in the moment, its probably not going to affect my life too much.
On the other hand, if a poet delivers words that actually mean something to me it's going to stick.
Its really that simple.
When you're writing a spoken word piece, you should be focusing all of your effort into each word - into each syllable even - to ensure you're putting out a quality poem that is representative of who you are. If you're truly doing that, the performance should fall into place more naturally for you.
7. Your slam poem should have a point and a purpose beyond just your observations and feelings
Ever ask yourself why you're even writing and performing slam poetry?
If you're doing it strictly for fame or street cred, you could probably spend your time more creatively to accomplish that.
I doubt its actually the case for most of you; you probably write slam poetry for one or more of several reasons:
1) you just love poetry and you always have;
2) its a creative outlet that allows you to be yourself;
3) confiding in a pen is easier than confiding in a friend (whoa... I might use that line in a poem);
4) you truly desire to touch lives and make a difference;
5) you have a story or message that you want heard.
There are definitely other reasons you write, but most are likely along these lines. That's great. That means you're headed in the direction of accomplishing what you're looking for.
But when writing slam poetry I air on the side of caution and ask myself this: Am I being shallow right now?
What makes slam poetry so good is that you remove the audience from their norm. You add a layer of perspective and the best way to do that is to go really deep on your subject.
Use your poem to create a journey and make sure that you have a purpose. Keeping that purpose in mind and not losing sight of it while you're writing will help keep your poem 'tighter'; more focused on conveying your message.
It's wonderful to talk about how you felt or the emotion you might have experienced. But draw on and from those emotions. Make conclusions. Relate those emotions to other aspects of life.
Think BIG. You'll write better for it. You'll perform better for it.
You'll probably look back and consider yourself a better poet for it.
8. You'll need to memorize it
Finally, as your scripting your masterpiece, keep in mind that you're writing something to share with people.
When you share something meaningful, its important to connect with your audience.
Eye contact, that real connection, will deepen your poetic verses and further emphasize your words.
Memorizing your poem will make it so you can have that connection you need. If you're reading off a sheet of paper, you won't be able to read the room. You'll lose sight of whether or not people are paying attention. If that happens, you're probably not going to be remembered (at least not in the kind of way you want to).
So memorize your poem. Please. Then you can see how people react and adjust your body language and mannerism to accommodate that while you're performing.
I guess that's all I have for today. Keep on writing and keep on supporting the art of slam poetry. And with these 8 tips in mind, just one more thing to say: SLAM MOTHERFUCKER, SLAM!