There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping people fall in love with poetry. For those located near me in the Tweed region, NSW, here’s your chance to join the most comprehensive poetry course I’ve created yet.
SLAMCRAFT is a unique course in writing and performing powerful poetry. Over 4 weeks, you will create new, authentic poems and gain skills to perform them with confidence. Learn creative strategies to unlock ideas, build your writing skills, and explore your voice in a safe and inclusive setting. SlamCraft is not just for slam poets; it is for anyone who wants to connect with themselves and others through their words. Developed over 15 years of practice and research, this is the most comprehensive SlamCraft course offered to date.
SlamCraft runs for 4 consecutive Sundays from 2-4pm at the Frances Mills Education Centre in the Tweed Regional Gallery.
Course outline: Oct 27 – Week 1. Love your materials. Nov 3 – Week 2. Writing for the ear. Nov 10 – Week 3. This is my voice. Nov 17 – Week 4. Taking up space.
Cost: $155 / $135 Beginners are most welcome. For an enrolment form or more info, contact Sarah: Ph: 0428 256 531 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
What people say about SlamCraft:
“This is the first creative writing workshop I have ever attended. I came thinking I’m not a poet; I’m leaving with a poem I’ve written and am proud to perform. Thank you.” – Dee Milenkovic, SlamCraft participant 2018
“I’ve never been so moved by my own poetry. This experience is with much thanks to Sarah for creating and facilitating a workshop which helps people to connect with themselves and others through their spoken words.” – Gabrielle Journey Jones, spoken word artist and author of ‘Spoken Medicine’
“Sarah Temporal’s SlamCraft is a much-needed excavation of the components behind successful spoken word poetry. Sarah uses an in-depth study of successful spoken word artists and the form’s hip hop origins to educate those wishing to hone their writing for the stage.” – Elliot York Cameron, Word Travels Program & Education Officer 2018
Hi friends! I’m very excited to announce that I’m offering SlamCraft as an online course for the first time.
SlamCraft online course with Sarah Temporal
Oct 26 – Dec 6 2019
SLAMCRAFT is a unique course in writing and performing powerful poetry. Over 6 weeks, you will create new, authentic poems and gain skills to perform them with confidence. Learn creative strategies to unlock ideas, build your writing skills, receive detailed feedback, and explore your voice in a safe and inclusive setting.
is not just for slam poets; it is for anyone who wants to connect with
themselves and others through their words. Developed over 15 years of
creative practice and research, SlamCraft excavates what it is that
makes live poetry powerful by breaking down the techniques used by the
world’s best spoken-word poets.
At least 3 spoken-word poems
Detailed feedback from Sarah and other course members
Understand spoken-word form and techniques, such as flow, memorisation,
Find your unique, powerful voice
Creative strategies to unlock ideas
runs for 6 weeks using a private Facebook group, so you can complete
the activities at any time in the week. Each week, you’ll receive
videos, examples, and instructions for a writing or reflection task.
Upload your new poems-in-progress as video so we can experience them as
spoken-word performances. The next week you will give and receive
constructive feedback on the poems while exploring another aspect of
craft or creative practise.
is the first creative writing workshop I have ever attended. I came
thinking I’m not a poet; I’m leaving with a poem I’ve written and am
proud to perform. Thank you.” – Dee Milenkovic, SlamCraft participant
“I’ve never been so moved by my own poetry. This experience
is with much thanks to Sarah for creating and facilitating a workshop
which helps people to connect with themselves and others through their
spoken words.” – Gabrielle Journey Jones, spoken word artist and author
of ‘Spoken Medicine’
“Sarah Temporal’s SlamCraft is a much-needed
excavation of the components behind successful spoken word poetry. Sarah
uses an in-depth study of successful spoken word artists and the form’s
hip hop origins to educate those wishing to hone their writing for the
stage.” – Elliot York Cameron, Word Travels Program & Education
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.
Like what you’re reading? See more in the SlamCraft series here or buy the book.
Sarah Temporal performing ‘Rapunzel’ at 2018 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup.
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!
Have you ever found yourself completely immersed in some activity, so deeply absorbed that time seemed to disappear? You might have described that experience as being ‘in the flow’. Have you thought a poem ‘flowed beautifully’, or heard about a rapper with excellent ‘flow’?
The concept of flow is important to spoken-word poetry, but it is difficult to define. Flow is based on the sound of a poem passing in time (one of the conditions of spoken word). Many ‘traditional’ poets and poetry academics would dismiss ‘flow’, although it bears a strong resemblance to other familiar poetry terms, such as meter. The reason I think ‘flow’ is the right term, and worthy of discussion, is that it is more than just a technical device: it also encompasses a desired effect on writer and listener, and intertwines poetry with creativity in our daily lives.
In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on three aspects of flow:
The act of writing as a flow state
The act of listening as a flow state
Flow as a poetic technique.
Writing as a flow state
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, coined the term ‘flow’ to describe an optimal experience. Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
It’s a state that’s familiar to writers, athletes, chess players – in fact, anyone who becomes deeply immersed in some task. As a teacher, I see it most frequently in the visual arts classroom, where a rare atmosphere of quiet sometimes reigns while students are absorbed in their work. Opportunities to ‘get in the flow’ are increasingly valuable, given our modern environments are increasingly characterised by disruption, multi-tasking and instant gratification.
For obvious reasons, a flow state is ideal for writing. Neuroscientists have linked it to a process called transient hypofrontality, which triggers a loss of the ‘inner-critic’ which can impede our creative processes. We don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike in order to access a flow state; we can encourage it at any time using a few simple strategies. A focus on quantity, not quality can trigger it: set yourself a time limit (10 minutes) or a page limit (3 pages) and simply write anything that comes to you, without stopping, until you reach your target. You should also remove any rules or expectations that hinder your creativity – spelling and grammar, for example. Some people like to write to music or with a sensory stimulation they can return to, like a scented candle or a set of rosary beads.
While writing as a flow state is by no means unique to spoken-word poets, I do believe that flow is uniquely embodied when poets perform their work. Because every performance is a deliberate remembering of the writing process, spoken-word poets engage their listeners in their own sense of urgency, determination or excitement as the words emerge. It might be the hundredth time for the poet and the first time for the audience, but both are intimately connected through the experience of flow.
Listening as a flow state
The experience of listening to a spoken-word poem can also be described as a flow state. As listeners, we surrender to the flow of words in the moment. A page poem is made to happen by the reader, but a spoken poem happens to the listener. This condition has been described as “getting lost in language that surges forward, allowing the mind to wander in the presence of words”. There’s a beautiful interplay as the mind falls open and receives the words, while paradoxically becoming more aware of its own thoughts and movements in response.
The moment of intense engagement with a live poet is one that many people, in my experience, find moving and transformative when they first encounter it. It’s described perfectly by Luka Lesson in his poem “Moment to Moment”:
And I’ve realized that I’m not longer writing poetry I’m setting up good silences
I’m leaving space for you to fill in the gaps
There are many ways that the audience-poet connection of live performance shapes the craft of spoken-word. As well as helping us tell the truth, a live audience also reminds us of the intense pleasures of the act of listening.
Flow as a poetic technique
Finally, flow can also be seen as a technical device used in spoken-word poetry. There’s a strong connection between the history of spoken-word poetry and hip-hop music, which share many of the same roots. In hip-hop, ‘flow’ describes the way words are constructed over a beat using patterns of stressed syllables. Because hip-hop uses the voice to create rhythm, which is usually left to percussive instruments in other music genres, a rapper with strong rhythmic cadence is said to have good flow. While the beat is absent in spoken-word poetry, many poets create flow in their use of rhythm and careful construction of cadence, which engages the listener expressively and aesthetically, as well as aiding in memorisation and performance.
You can see how a background in hip-hop helps poets develop a mastery of flow, in this example from Luka Lesson’s “May Your Pen Grace the Page”. He personifies the ‘pen’ as a ‘she’, while shifting into a continuous rapid flow:
All I’ve done here is marked out the stressed and unstressed syllables using a traditional analysis of poetic meter: U = unstressed and / = stressed. You can see that a continuous pattern emerges, made of a repeating 4-syllable motif: / U U U. Perhaps most impressive, this whole section spins off the natural rhythm of the word “potentially”. Although they break across the lines on the page, these motifs form a compelling rhythm when we hear the poem. The flow is emphasised by the repeated “o” sound of “coffee”, “rocking”, “rolling” and “uncontrollably”. As a poetic technique, this particular flow is a great choice for Lesson’s comparison of the act of writing with the act of lovemaking; which is also best when we’re in the flow! Here’s the full poem live:
This example illustrates an extended, continuous flow. Spoken-word poets also break, alter, and complicate the flow for effect. Unlike hip-hop emcees, poets are relieved of the expectation to keep the beat going, so there is room for flexibility in the choice to follow or depart from any established flow.
Now I’ll show you how I’ve used flow in one of my pieces:
In my poem, “Sleeping Beauty“, I used short, sharp phrasing with a driving beat to convey the message concisely. Sometimes it’s useful to think of poetry as music. If you listen closely, you can hear a 4/4 beat created by the pattern of stressed syllables, even though the meter changes:
The 4/4 beat helps to drive the poem forward with greater urgency than I could create with, say, the more traditional iambic pentameter. But at certain moments, I wanted to arrest this movement so that the words would hit home more forcefully. In the chorus, I built up a semi-regular motif of 3 unstressed syllables after a stressed: / UUU. Because it’s still following a beat, the extra syllables crammed in also increase the pace and heighten tension:
When I break the pattern by landing awkwardly on “she wasn’t” U / U, it almost feels like a stumble, and stops the flow. It’s followed by a pause of a full beat to allow that revelation to skin in. Flow establishes expectations in the listener. When we hear a pattern we expect it to continue, so breaking that pattern can cause a powerful shift which enhances meaning.
How have you used flow in your writing? What’s your favourite poetry or music for listening in flow? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. You can always contact me with your ideas too.
If you want to delve more deeply into flow, print some lyrics from your favourite poets, listen along, and mark up the text with beats or stressed and unstressed syllables. You might find some interesting patterns.
Practice freewriting to music. Make sure it’s flowing enough to be in the background and there are no lyrics.
Take one of your own poems and mark the meter. Are there patterns, suggestions of rhythms or beats?
Note places where you want the poem to ‘flow’, and where you might want it to ‘break’ in order to create impact. Play around with different flow at these points.
Reflect: how does your own personal poetic language emerge? Do you start with rhythm or words?
This post addresses an aspect of SlamCraft I noticed quite early on in my attempts at live poetry. I had become hooked on the instant positive feedback for my first few poems, and I now started to write specifically in anticipation of that live moment, the meeting of minds between poet and audience. I started to notice that some of my lines didn’t ‘feel right’. But despite having written and rehearsed carefully, I didn’t know the lines weren’t right until I spoke the poem to an audience.
That moment of realising something doesn’t feel right became one of my most reliable tools.
Words aren’t just words; they are actions. Some of my favourite poets acknowledge that words spoken publicly and witnessed by others have real power to effect change. Our words state our intentions and compel us to follow through.
Why else do we make our vows of marriage, national allegiance and public office out loud instead of writing them down?
It seems that the bonds of human connection and reciprocity treat the spoken word as inherently more trustworthy and binding than the written.
What I had noticed in those early poems was my physical responses telling me when something I had written was untrue. As soon as I hit upon the ‘right’ thing to say, it felt different – my body relaxed, my chin lifted, my voice opened up and projected out. In fact, it was physically easier to read something aloud once I had found the right words.
There’s nothing unusual in this. The physiological responses we have to truth-telling and lying are well-known. If asked to deliberately tell a falsehood, most people will notice that their breathing and heart rate increase, they start to fidget, and find it harder to speak or maintain eye contact. The body processes lies in a completely different way than it does the truth.
But telling the ‘truth’ really isn’t easy. Most poets either slave toward this goal or suspend the idea of ‘truth’ entirely, accepting that all we can hope for is a fractured, subjective approximation. Shane Koyczan gives the highest possible praise in his endorsement of Luka Lesson’s ‘The Future Ancients’: “Luka Lesson is the kind of poet other poets want to be. Other poets want to be honest.”
I would suggest that spoken-word has a different relationship to truth-telling than other forms of poetry. By sharing our work with a live audience, we become attuned to the resonance in our own bodies, as well as the responses of others, which will indicate whether the poem is hitting its mark on a deep level. We know that we can’t cover up for bad poetry with good performance. I’ve always argued that performing poetry is definitely NOT acting; being such a poor actor is probably what allowed me to enter into poetry in the first place. But UK poet Joelle Taylor said it best on her recent Australian tour:
Performance is not acting. It is remembering why you wrote it.
This also means that our fear of speaking in front of others can be turned to our benefit. Instead of asking, “what will they think of me?” we can ask, “how do I feel saying this out loud?” Do you feel the special kind of butterflies-in-the-tummy we all get from sharing something deeply personal, real or true? Or are they the kind of sticky-squirmy moths that suggest this isn’t really what you wanted to say after all?
It’s interesting that what feels right to say often takes us far beyond the notion of ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’. As soon as we speak publicly, we find ourselves inhabiting a complex socio-political landscape, in which our positions of relative power and marginalisation strongly play into the perceived validity of our utterances. We should always recognise our privilege in that space. As an example, I’ve seen young men speak at poetry open mics about difficult break-ups; but instead of being honest about their feelings, they are honest about how much they despise their ex-partner, using the stage to attack her personal habits or appearance. Such rants bear traces of misogyny they probably weren’t aware of until they aired it in a public space in front of women, and often they are gently re-directed by the experience.
When we become aware of our responses in front of others, we can use them to direct us toward more significant and generous forms of truth-telling. For me, this has meant moving away from the kind of honesty you’d find in a teenager’s diary, and into the honesty of universal experiences that are not always acknowledged. My poems addressing women’s empowerment and mental health feel so much stronger for being shaped among a community of listeners, who are also the bearers of the same story, spoken or unspoken. On the other hand, I have written poems that I wouldn’t choose to perform because they don’t enact the kind of truth I want to put out into the world. While they may be true for me, I also want the poems for performance to have purpose; just like making a vow.
There’s the truth you want to tell, and the truth that wants to be told. Can you tell the difference?
Read or listen to my poem about truth-telling here.
Telling the truth in your writing is a deeply personal and individual journey, so I’m not going to be too prescriptive here. You will find your own signals to guide you in your process. You might like to try these reflective questions as a starting point:
When you have a complete draft, find someone you trust and ask them to be a listener. They don’t have to give feedback, just receive your words. Read slowly and pay attention to the sensations in your body. Where did it feel right? Where did it feel ‘sticky’ or awkward? Did you notice different feelings to when you wrote it? Did your voice seem to flow more easily around certain ideas? Did your intention become clearer?
Consider the purpose of your piece. Are you writing it to remember, to inspire, to heal, to investigate, to confront, to articulate, to dream? Be careful of subconsciously seeking approval – it’s addictive, but unfulfilling for both poet and audience.
How do you hope the audience will react? Do you want them to join you in a journey, remember their own joys or pain, feel motivated or moved? Have you allowed them to feel these things through your words? Is there room for others in your piece?
Consider others who have a similar experience to the one you’re expressing in the piece. Do you feel your voice opening up in their presence? If not, what’s the sticking point?
If your piece mentions other people, whether as individuals or types, consider how you would feel about them hearing it. It’s probably ok to criticise the wealthy and powerful in the tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’, but it might not be ok to criticise your parents or your ex-lover. If you’re talking about anyone you’re not – like other genders and gender identities, races, cultures, sexualities, ages, and abilities – ask yourself why you feel the need to speak on their behalf. Can you turn that story around and show what it reveals about you?
Have you been as honest as you can about the difficulties and limitations of trying to write this idea? How can you invite us further into the process?
When you share your work at live events, develop a habit of reflective practice. If you can jot down what worked and what didn’t within a couple of days of your performance, you will already be improving for next time.
All of these questions are best considered once you have re-written and thought carefully about what you are writing. They shouldn’t be applied to a first draft. No matter what answers you get, you should never take it as a sign to abandon a piece or stop writing. Instead, use your learning to guide a change of direction or try out new ways of expressing the idea. The best pieces have many layers of thinking and re-thinking behind them, so this process is all part of becoming a better poet – and possibly, a better person.
For the first time in NSW, ‘performance poetry’ is now part of the English syllabus. Two poets have been listed for study in the Higher School Certificate: Kate Tempest from the UK, and Australian Luka Lesson. When I’m not writing and performing, I teach secondary English on the north coast of NSW, and I’ve been watching the developments of spoken-word in education closely in recent times.
Here’s my PMI analysis of the current turning point for spoken-word poetry in schools, at least in NSW Australia:
Spoken-word poetry is a form which shows high levels of engagement among young people. With its connection to hip-hop, inclusive demographic and often direct language choices, it appeals to the ‘reality’ and relevance students may feel is missing in other curriculum.
Spoken-word uses an entire suite of alternative writing methods and poetic devices, providing opportunities for students’ creative development in new and substantial ways.
Having spoken-word poetry on the new HSC syllabus instantly signals its value, not just as engaging texts but as respected literature. This may eventually facilitate greater awareness of this new form among teachers, parents, and the broader community.
With the digital communication revolution, poetry has become far more accessible and available, and spoken-word poets have been at the forefront of the change. Youtube has become an abundant public library of live poetry, giving teachers instant access to a huge range of texts and playlists to suit their students.
While there are many more possibilities that teachers may not yet be aware of, the poets featured on the new syllabus are very well-chosen. I myself would have picked those two names, after 15 years immersed in spoken-word. Kate Tempest’s hypnotic vision re-animates the art of oral storytelling, with an uncompromisingly youthful twenty-first-century perspective. Luka Lesson has established a successful career on the back of many years teaching and mentoring young people to write, and as such his genuine understanding of the school-age audience is unparalleled.
Although you could argue that oral poetry has been around for a long time, spoken-word poetry is still fairly new. Teachers may not have had the chance to study it themselves at tertiary level and certainly not in their own schooling. In order to teach it effectively, they will need access to strong resources, ideally covering the history of spoken-word, its cultural impact, various forms, and literary devices.
Because spoken-word has always embraced those aspects of performance that don’t easily translate to the page, scholars and teachers have previously found it difficult to study. There is a very limited scholarly discourse around this form, compounded by entrenched views of what ‘proper poetry’ should be. I started investigating the technical devices used in spoken-word poetry for my Honours thesis in 2005; I was amazed that academics hadn’t covered it yet. More than ten years down the track, there’s still a fairly large gap in the literature.
There’s always potential for a great move in curriculum to backfire; in this case, my inner pessimist worries that a new generation of young people might grow up hating spoken-word poetry because they ‘had to do it in school’. Thankfully, teachers tend to be tenacious, passionate and ever-curious bunch, so that probably won’t come to pass.
While many poets have grown weary of the ‘page vs. stage’ debate, in the classroom this could spark some real insight for students. Spoken-word is not in competition with ‘page’ poetry, but some may find one or the other more appealing for interesting reasons.
Spoken-word gives us lots of opportunities to teach language as play. Just look at the concept of rhyme – younger children do it spontaneously, and hip-hop artists use it as elaborate improvisation through freestyling. Rhyme can open up new ways into writing for those students who dread putting pen to paper.
Performed poetry requires more than just performers. Staging a poetry event also allows students to learn to be active audience members, judges, timekeepers, organisers, and team members. Better yet, let them take ownership and direct the event they want.
Poets who work with schools have often commented that in order to really inspire students’ writing, teachers also need to be willing to take part and make themselves vulnerable as beginner writers. Candy Royalle and Luka Lesson in their roles with Red Room Poetry both felt that students gained more respect for teachers who took this risk.
The new syllabus includes performance poetry in a new module called ‘Craft of Writing’. Students study exemplary short pieces of writing and then develop their own craft by imitating, experimenting, editing and polishing. How will examiners assess skills a student has learnt through spoken word, such as flow, dynamics and vocal delivery, in a written exam?
It’s certainly an interesting time for education as well as for spoken-word. You can hear more by signing up for updates from this blog, or following me on Facebook.
For teachers, you can also hear me present on this topic at the ETA Annual Conference. Are you planning to use performance poetry with your classes? Please share your thoughts below or contact me – I’d love to hear what you’re up to.
When people ask me, “How should I memorize my poems?” there are a few tips I have to offer.
Write a memorable poem. Not all poetry is ideal for live reading. The good news is, if it works for performance, it will probably work for your memory too. Before you finalize your lines, experiment with your voice and gestures. If the words flow better in a different order, then let them flow.
Get up. The body is a learning tool. In order to get the poem stuck in your brain, you are going to learn it with your whole body. So pick a private space and get up, move around, sway or stomp or wildly gesture your way through the words until they come to life.
Use rhyme and rhythm. The musicality of poetry in its more traditional forms makes it easier to memorize. Who remembers rote learning “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or something like it? You couldn’t do that with modern free verse. Rhyme will cue your brain to remember the next line; and rhythm will help you settle into the flow. Remember, rhymes don’t have to follow a strict scheme.
Be authentic with your voice. You may feel that slam poetry or spoken-word has a certain style to live up to; that you need to be bold, loud, or have lots of street cred to pull it off. That’s bollocks. Your voice will sound and feel real when it is your own; in fact, it’ll be harder to memorize your work if you don’t listen to it.
Re-write, re-write and re-write. If you’re feeling inspired and the poetry ‘just comes’ to you, then you’re lucky. But most work that feels worthwhile to me takes a lot of writing. The process of writing makes certain choices clear: it has to be this word not that word; it is this thought that follows upon that one. And that also makes the poem live in my memory; because the choices make sense.
Rehearse. I’ve been lucky as spoken-word poet because I got my training as a musician. This taught me not only about rhythm and lyricism, but also the discipline required to get work ready for performance. A good rule of thumb is three-in-a-row. First break the piece down into short chunks, and rehearse each chunk until you can do it flawlessly three times over. Then do the same for a whole piece. Leave enough time to rehearse every day for a week before a performance, and you’ll be set.
I like the old phrase for memorization, “learning by heart”. There is a process of letting the work settle into the heart. It can be hard work, but at the end of the day it should still feel like your poem; a direct connection to the heart. Learning your own poems shouldn’t feel like a chore or a brain-teaser. If it does, use this as a chance to check in and ask, “Do I want to say this differently?”
There’s more fascinating discussion to be explored on memorization, poetic techniques, and the way our brains process and retain information. I happen to subscribe to a not-very-popular view of education, that rote-learning of poetry or patterns can have benefits for the student. There’s even evidence to suggest that it might help us become more creative: check out a brief read on the art of memorization by orators in medieval culture. As Alan Jacobs summarises, “Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.”
You have to celebrate the victories, right? Well, I spent a couple of months earlier this year sending out various applications to poetry events and publications. Of course this meant getting very cosy and familiar with the “thanks for your interest, but…” emails which then flooded back. I’ve always been told this is just part of the writer’s life, so, no biggie.
Today I opened another response expecting it to be the same old story, and found these unexpected and exciting words… “We would be very happy to include your event in our program this year…” Woohoo!
So I’m thrilled to announce that I will be presenting at Storyfest in Sydney this year.
On their website, Storyfest is described as:
“… a 3 day spoken word festival packed full of live literary mayhem
in the form of spoken-word, poetry, stories, lyrics and monologues.”
This is a massively exciting opportunity for me. Storyfest represents the ever-growing and strengthening community of spoken-word artists and audiences in Australia, and embodies the same goals I am passionate about. It provides a platform for people to come together in order to perform, share and learn about spoken word. It includes workshops, panel discussions, performances, and culminates in the unforgettable Australian Poetry Slam.
When I began performing in Sydney some 16 years ago, the spoken-word community was a small and largely ‘underground’ scene, very much sitting on the sidelines of other arts and cultural events. Now that I live, teach and perform in regional NSW, it’s an honour to be able to return to this same city, and contribute to the thriving spoken-word industry that we dreamed of then.
Keep an eye out for details if you’re in Sydney, October 12th-14th, for some kickass spoken-word magic coming your way. Follow Storyfest on Facebook for details, and while you’re at it, why not follow me for more on slam poetry, performance, and workshops.
In the Slamcraft series, I’m passing on some of what I’ve learned about Slam poetry (or any poetry which is performed live). Today I’m inviting you to consider the form that we’ve chosen to work in, and try to figure out where it is positioned in relation to other literary forms and movements. In straightforward terms: stick your head out of the box; have a look at what’s around you; take in the view.
Since the 1950s, innovative poetic practices have flourished. In his introduction to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Paul Hoover discusses the various avant-garde movements which have aimed to renew poetry through strategies which are initially shocking, but eventually replace mainstream approaches and become ‘normal’. Apprehending this pattern in the influence of the Beat poets, the New York School, Black Mountain poets and aleatory poetics, Hoover reasons that the recent “performance poetry and language poetry will influence mainstream practice in the coming decades”. 
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, another innovative practice has emerged in the form of spoken-word poetry. Spoken-word is a double agent, which simultaneously presents itself as an avant-garde movement and a nostalgic reclamation of ancient oral traditions. On the one hand, it presents a challenge to the academy: it exists outside the limitations of traditional print media, sidesteps editorial selection and evaluation processes, shoots straight for popularity and sometimes exceeds the reach of its print counterparts through new publishing avenues (Abe Nouk’s performance on The Australian Poetry Slam channel has over 33K views – what publisher wouldn’t be pleased with so many ‘reads’?). On the other hand, the materials of spoken-word poetry are as old as the hills, such that anyone and everyone can ostensibly engage with it. Some poets make explicit this project of reviving orality as a form of self-expression that they think modern society sorely needs, taking on the role of bardic storyteller, epic poet (as in Kate Tempest), or Carribean-influenced ‘toaster‘.
With its demotic culture appealing to mass audiences, spoken-word poetry has either been ignored or heavily criticised by academics. Consequently, we have a developing or partial academic vocabulary at best, with which to discuss it. One of my aims as an honours student in 2006, and as an emerging poet now, is to develop a more complete poetics of spoken-word. I am interested in the conditions, techniques and poetic devices of spoken-word poetry, which I often find to be intriguingly different from the page-oriented approaches which have dominated scholarship. We cannot come to an understanding of the significance of spoken-word poetry, in relation to contemporary movements, without the critical tools to apprehend it.
To return to Hoover, I do not believe that spoken-word, if it is a new and innovative form of poetry, poses any threat of eventually replacing ‘mainstream’ approaches. However, I do think it has the potential to enter and enhance the existing schools of poetics, which are already so varied in Australia. Spoken-word deserves a legitimate place alongside other contemporary movements, if not merely for its popularity, then for its fascinating combination of the ancient with the avant-garde.
Sign up to read more on the poetics of spoken-word and slam poetry techniques.
See more in the SlamCraft series on writing poetry for performance.
 Paul Hoover, introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, pxxv.