Here in the northern rivers, we’re in the middle of slam season – when a bunch of big competitions roll through town, and many poets try their luck for the chance to win big prizes.
One of the challenges for anyone who’s new to slam poetry is timing. Most slams will have a strict time limit of 2 or 3 minutes per piece, with contestants losing points for any time surpassing that limit. But some competitions make it harder still: the Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup gives poets 8 minutes but deducts points for going over OR under time. In the finals, where poets sometimes gain equally high scores for craft and performance, a few seconds timing could make all the difference.
Some writers may wonder what all the fuss is about – why worry about a time limit at all? Doesn’t it restrict creative expression?
In this post I’ll explain why timing matters, and how it can enhance, rather than detract from, your creative process. In part 2, I’ll look at how to hone your timing.
Firstly, why time your poetry performance? Well, if you’re entering a slam, that’s simple: good timing wins the prize. It’s very hard to come out on top if you’re losing points. In any competition there needs to be some constants so that the work can be judged on an equal basis. It’s no use pitting a 10 minute poem against a 10 second one. Instead you have the same frame of opportunity to show what you can do.
But it’s not just about competition, it’s also about generosity. New readers who don’t have a sense of how long their poem takes to read aloud have also missed a chance to truly gift the audience their words, because listening requires focus and attention that most people can’t sustain over long periods of time. Instead of demanding or expecting that people listen to page after page, why not select the best words, the most precious poem, and give it to them with all your energy? Keeping your performance under 2-3 minutes, even at an open mic, usually ensures your listeners won’t wander off.
Timing is also an aspect of craft, and like any craft, it can be mastered and used to great effect. Sure, it’s by no means the most important thing, and the scoring in slams reflects that: timing only counts for a small part of your final score. The craft of timing is not just apparent in the total time of your poem however, it is also at work in your delivery. Pacing, pauses and flow are all part of perfect timing. When you craft your poem to an exact time limit, and unintended benefit may be that you perfect your delivery in the process.
But the fact remains that some people feel indignant about the very idea of timing a poem. Surely a poem is as long as it needs to be – why impose limits on someone’s creativity? I believe one of the reasons behind this reaction is that it shatters a long-held illusion about poets: that we are romantic misunderstood geniuses, and that our words spill forth unbidden from some kind of divine inspiration. Okay, that might seem to hold up the first time you hear a great poem – but if the poet comes back and does the same thing the next night, in exactly the same way, with exactly the same timing? Then you realise you’re watching a carefully crafted, rehearsed performance, and a little bit of the magic slips away. Being able to replicate a reading means it cannot have been spontaneous or ‘natural’. But crafting something that seems effortless is part of the hard work for any artist, in any creative medium. Good timing for poets, just like musicians, actors and comedians, does not mean we become robots who recite without feeling. It’s about having the sensitivity and control to respond to our audiences and create a genuine connection in that moment.
And let’s face it, slam poetry is not the first form of poetry to impose an apparently arbitrary restriction on the way we shape our words. Print journals have traditionally limited poems to a length that fits conveniently on a page: usually 40 to 50 lines. You still find this restriction in place even in online publishing, where there is theoretically no limit on space; is it just there because people are used to reading works of a certain length? (By the way, this is one of the publishing barriers that slam poets face, since a 2 minute poem will be longer than 40 lines). The 2-minute limit is just another way of saying you can ‘publish’ your work on stage if it fits this one criteria – making it much more inclusive than almost any other avenue to get your work heard.
Apart from length, poets have often chosen to work within the limitations of various forms because it improves their craft. Following the strict parameters of rhyme, number of lines or syllables in sonnets or haikus may feel restrictive at first, but after a while you become aware of how every tiny decision impacts your piece. For this reason, even arbitrary limits can improve your writing process. I recently wrote a piece where almost every word had to start with the same letter, and it led me to create word combinations and descriptions I would never have come to otherwise.
I’ll soon have the chance to explore and challenge my own feelings about time limits, when I sit on the panel of judges at this year’s Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup (as is tradition for the winner of the previous year). With poets working to its famous (or infamous) 8 minute limit, I will be interested to see how timing impacts on the performances of some of the country’s finest spoken-word artists. No doubt there will be some difficult decisions!
Next week, I’ll share the secrets of perfect poetry timing, using the poetry of Kate Tempest as an example. In the meantime, I’d love any performance poets out there to weigh in!