When you’re learning a new craft, it’s usual for the teacher to lead you through an exploration of your materials. Getting to know your materials, becoming familiar with them, learning to wield them.
If you’re learning to draw, you will experiment with charcoal, pastels, pencils, pen and ink. You will shade and rub and outline. You’ll find what feels right. If you’re learning to play an instrument, you will first learn the notes, where to place your fingers, perhaps play scales and arpeggios and chords. These are your materials.
But in learning to make poetry, we don’t have the habit of considering materials first. Perhaps it’s because our materials (words and language) are so commonplace, and used so frequently, we assume we already know what to do with them. But how many of us then end up sitting in front of a blank page? Getting to know your materials means you love spending time with them, playing with them, using them.
Annie Dillard reminds us that we should feel something for the materials:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”
So we’re setting out to fall in love with words. In this series, I’m sharing what I know about slam poetry (or performance poetry or spoken word or whatever you want to call it).
Let’s consider: What are our materials?
What kind of words?
Words that are spoken, words that are heard.
Are they different to words read on a page?
Yes, I believe so. Spoken words are:
- Temporal – they are happening in time. As listeners, we surrender to the flow.
- Ephemeral – they can’t be held or captured for later. Unless you’re recording as you go, everything you say instantly ‘disappears.’
- Evanescent – they only exist as they are going out of existence.
- Immersive – they fill our sense of hearing like water; you can’t stand back or choose what to see as you can when looking at a picture.
- Tonal – it’s impossible to say anything without tone. Even a flat, unemotional tone conveys something.
- Communal – spoken words are often the way we communicate most comfortably in social groups. They have a much longer history than the written word. Oral forms allowed knowledge to be passed down through generations in pre-literate society.
So what does all this mean? As a material, spoken words have certain qualities we should take notice of, because we can use them. We can use the flow, the way listeners want to get caught up in it. The infinite tones available to you. The fact that you are bound with the audience in a moment in time, but not after. The materials allow you to make this poetry more personal in all sorts of ways, because it will be your voice, no one else’s, that enacts it. The moments you share in a live performance become unique, unrepeatable acts.
The materials also impose certain limitations, in the same way that using ink limits your ability to erase. You probably aren’t going to subject your audience to something the length of a novel – your materials aren’t effective on that kind of timescale. (Actually, I kind of hope there’s some radical experimenter out there thinking, ‘spoken-word novel…now there’s an idea!’). Play with the limits as well as the possibilities. A confession: it has taken me 10 years to realise that extended metaphors usually don’t work in spoken–word: it’s better to say what you mean! I’m still getting to know my materials, I guess.
Now, time to play with your materials.
Here are a few exercises to get you started:
- Make a list of words you love the sound of. Say them. Say them slowly, quickly, loudly, softly, delicately, aggressively, lovingly.
- Make a list of words of words you hate. What puts you off about them? Where did they come from? What sort of person uses them?
- Find a poem you love and read it aloud to someone you trust. Have them tell you what happened in your voice, breath, face, and body, as you read.
- Try reading aloud this sound poem by Cliff Crego. How do you enact an italic? Or a quotation mark? Or wide spacing?
- Try performing this poem for a friend, or with a friend. What did you do to bring it to life?
How do you feel about your materials? Do you like spoken words? As always, I’d love you to let me know how this worked for you, and don’t forget to share using the button below.
See more in the SlamCraft series on writing poetry for performance.