Hello Wordsmiths! Last week in Timing part 1, I shared my thoughts on time limits for poems and how timing can actually enhance, rather than limit, your creativity. Today I’m going to explain what I’ve found works when it comes to perfecting your timing.
Lately, my thoughts are with the entrants to the 2019 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup, which is only 3 weeks away. Not only do they need to write and memorise 8 minutes of mind-shattering, heart-stopping poetry, they also need to prepare to perform it as close to the time limit as possible. They will lose points for going under or over 8 minutes. For anyone used to the Chicago-style slam (previously a 3-minute limit was common, now it’s usually 2) or just open mic, the precision required in this competition is an added challenge.
I first got curious about the secrets to perfect timing when I was writing my fairytale poem Sleeping Beauty. I had a lot to say but I wanted to squeeze it into 2 minutes so that I could enter the piece in a slam. As there are elements of story in it, I asked myself, how long does each little ‘chapter’ of narrative take? How many chapters fit into 2 minutes?
To answer these questions I studied Kate Tempest’s poem “Icarus”. Like mine, it is a retelling of a traditional tale with contemporary characters and issues; it also needs to move through a narrative sequence in a short space of time. Here’s her performance:
You can already see that this clip is right on 3 minutes. I’m not sure if the piece was created for a slam, but it would certainly work well in that space. I also noticed the repeated phrases which make up a kind of chorus; so I looked a little closer to find out how the structure worked. What I found was kind of amazing.
Not only is the total time spot on 3:00; each section is exactly 30 seconds long. It’s now clear that we’re looking at the lyrics of a song, not just a poem. Tempest writes verses and choruses with a control of craft that is so precise she can evoke a narrative in short bursts that give us exactly the picture we need, and no more. It’s also a superb example of how spoken-word can do all of its work in a single iteration, and yet make us want to listen again and again for the sheer beauty of it.
So besides being a great songwriter, what else can you do to time your poems with this kind of accuracy? Here’s the 5 tips I’ve found to work best.
1. Break it down
Tempest’s example shows the value of working in short sections, and knowing exactly what purpose each of them serves. But even with a much looser structure than this, breaking your piece into sections will help narrow down what is essential and what can be cut. Sections might be based on narrative progression, repeated images or phrases, or different moods you want to create. Break down the total time available and give each section a time value that reflects how long you want the audience to linger in that mood.
2. Less is more
It’s always going to stress you out if you know that your poem only just fits into the time limit. Rather than cramming in every line and speaking fast, be brutal about what you can lose without damaging the piece. You will get more value from taking time in your delivery and allowing space for listeners to soak up your words.
3. Use the structure
We’ve looked at verse-chorus structure, but there are lots of poem structures available that can help keep the timing of your performance on track. List poems, or those with a refrain, can be great to anchor your delivery in a well-known rhythm. While you will probably also have a dynamic arc that builds in energy where you can potentially get carried away, the refrain will bring you back to awareness and control of your performance. It’s a technique used masterfully by the late and much-loved Candy Royalle in her winning 2012 performance, with the refrain “I am my grandfather’s memories”. Watch it here.
4. Rehearse with intention
This point may seem obvious but it’s worth saying. Your timing can only be consistently accurate if you rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Do it to death. You might reach the point where you think “I hate this piece, it has become utterly meaningless.” What’s on the other side of that wall? If you can remember why you wrote it and inhabit that feeling in every rehearsal, your timing will be better. It’s one of those weird paradoxes I don’t quite understand… When I’m fully feeling a piece, I can actually perform it with robo-style precision.
5. Replicate the conditions
You’ll probably hate me after I tell you this secret, because it seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. I did not go into the Nimbin World Cup with a perfectly timed piece. I used all of the strategies above and felt like I’d done my best. I rehearsed my piece twice in the car on the drive there: one was 30 seconds under, the other 30 seconds over. I did not expect to win, or even get close. So how did I manage to nail it on the night?
I’m more than willing to concede that luck probably played a part. But what I think really did the trick was the process of the competition itself: with a heat, a semi-final and then the grand final, I got to perform the piece three times in two days, in the same space. And for me that was the real key to honing the performance. Living and breathing it with a real audience did more for my delivery than any amount of rehearsing at home could have. By the time I took the stage on the Sunday night, I was so sensitive to the feel of its timing that I even knew how much to compensate when I had to stop and clear my throat a few times. (I’d been cheering on my fellow poets all weekend and nearly paid for it by losing voice!)
You can watch the performance in all its scratchy-voiced glory below, but I’d really like to hear from you now. How do you time your poems? Is it a matter of luck or perseverance when you get it right? Please leave me a comment or get in touch.
Sarah Temporal performing ‘Rapunzel’ at 2018 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup.