SLAMCRAFT: Timing part 1

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.

stopwatch-Moonez
stopwatch by Moonez CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

14-Sarah 13
Sarah Temporal at Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup 2018. Photo credit Marie Cameron.

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.

issa haiku
Kobayashi Issa, from ‘The Soul in Words’

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!

Click here to read Timing: Part 2

What do you think about timing? Share your comments below. You can also read more in the SlamCraft series here or buy the book.

31-Gail M Clarke with Peoples Choice Award winner Zac Simmons and 2018 cup winner Sarah Temporal
Left to right: People’s Choice winner Zac Simmons, Organiser Gail M. Clarke, and winner Sarah Temporal at 2018 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup. Photo credit Marie T Cameron.

On my way to the state finals…

This year has been full of good news, but I’ve been a little selfish – or lazy – in keeping it all to myself. There was the birth of my gorgeous, healthy baby girl in April; and the success of the poetry events I started running in February. More on these later – I promise to keep you updated – or at least better informed than you were!

The latest good news is that I’m on my way to the NSW STATE FINALS of the Australian Poetry Slam! On the weekend I slammed with 16 super-talented poets in Byron Bay, at an event that’s become a yearly must-see for me in the Byron Writers Festival program. I won the slam with my piece “My Vagina is Fucking Huge” – yes it’s true, pregnancy and birth give you lots of new ideas to write about!

Sarah & Sahar - Byron APS heat winners
Sarah Temporal (1st) and Sahar Salahshori (2nd), winners of Australian Poetry Slam 2019 Byron heat.

This poem was my first attempt at writing a humorous piece of ‘doggerel’, and I was kind of surprised by how well it turned out. It’s not exactly a factual account of my birth experience, but it is an honest response to the ridiculous pressures placed on women to be perfect calm birthers, to never talk about their private bits, and to value tiny vaginas while blokes brag about their enormous dongs. I’ll have the video to share with you soon.

But enough about me (and my massive vagina…) The slam was heaps of fun! It was wonderful also to see my husband nearly scrape into the top two with his piece ‘I’m that white guy’. Others explored a wide range of experiences in their moving pieces. The judges, chosen at random from the audience, were very moderate and fair, reflecting the high standard of entries in their scores.

My personal highlight was performing for one of my poetic mentors Tug Dumbly – Australia’s unofficial poet laureate of satirical and humorous verse. Tug’s open mic night ‘Bardflys’ lit the spark of spoken-word for me in the early 2000s. It was extra special to have him in the audience, and to be able to make him laugh – a gift he’s given freely to thousands of delighted listeners through his poetry over the years.

The first and second place winners of this heat now get to compete in the State final at Customs House in Sydney, on October 18. So we’re going to pack our bags and do our first airline travel as a family to enjoy a weekend of words. Part of my prize is a ticket to the 5-day spoken-word festival, Story-fest, which culminates in the National final of the Australian Poetry Slam. I also get to share the trip with my poetry comrade Sahar Salahshori, the second place winner of the Byron heat. Like me, Sahar forged her poetic identity in the spoken-word scene of Sydney and then made a seachange to the northern rivers, so it’s something of a return to familiar turf for both of us.

If you’re in Sydney at this time, look out for me and say hi! It’s going to be a blast poetting it up with some of Australia’s best. Wish me luck!