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.

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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.

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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.

SLAMCRAFT: Tell the truth

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.

Like it? Read more in the SlamCraft series or buy the book


Exercises

3 pens on a composition book

Leslie Richards, 3 pens on a composition book.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

Like it? Read more in the SlamCraft series or buy the book

*Featured image: Xpicta_aNight by SeRGioSVoX licensed CC BY 2.0

A turning point for spoken-word poetry in schools

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:

PLUS:

  • 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.
  • Spoken-word poetry events, like slams and open mics, have already been shown to increase young people’s engagement with poetry beyond the classroom. In the USA, young poets are credited with initiating the highest percentage of poetry readership in more than 15 years. This is good news if our aim in teaching is to inspire a lifelong love of language and literature.
  • 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.

MINUS:

  • 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.

INTERESTING:

  • 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.

 

*Featured image source Youtube: Outloud Australia channel

The Image

My most exciting find this week was hearing Lynda Barry talk about the “image”. Not just visual images, or imagery in poems, but the image which is ‘contained by a form’ in any kind of artwork. To me, this is exciting because it makes sense of what goes on in the process of trying to make a poem or anything creative: we are trying to find a form, or make a home, for an image.

For Barry, the key question is, “What is an image?” She says an image is the thing that is contained by anything that we call art. An image is something spontaneous, it’s alive, it’s private, and it’s specific; as she explains:

So this kind of explained something weird that keeps happening for me recently. I have trouble sleeping, and just as I’m trying to drift off, I’ll get an idea for a poem. It feels like a really good idea; I can see the poem; I can feel the concept, shimmering in its beautifully balanced and energetic articulation. I have to get up with my notebook and write it down. But there is nothing to write! It’s a poem that doesn’t have any words yet. This sounded so mad in my head that I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long while. I assumed it just meant that I’m a really crap poet.

But listening to Lynda Barry, I started to see it differently. It’s true that my poem-making skills are not up to scratch when it comes to finding poetic forms in which to house my ideas. But that feeling of being struck by something spontaneous, private, and alive, might be a fairly common experience of ‘the image’.

I like the term ‘image’ better than ‘idea’. An idea suggests something that can be articulated or communicated; an image often can’t. It hangs around, waiting for you to find somewhere good enough for it to live, some form that fits. It is specific, and it is picky. Interestingly, I still have images in my mind for poems I’ve already written, and I know the image is not fully realised by the form I’ve given it.

Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience of the creative process. And if we want to make a poem, an artwork, an object, or anything, the gap between image and realisation is an inevitability we just have to live with.

“For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. […] This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”

Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Hence, we get the sage advice, ‘kill your darlings‘. It’s the only way to get anything done.

For Ben Lerner, however, there is something extra problematic about poetry as opposed to other forms of art. In his excellent essay, “The Hatred of Poetry“, Lerner argues that poetry holds a special place in humankind’s tendency to idealise what we can’t realise, precisely because, as he bluntly reminds us, most people hate poetry. In fact, “many more people agree that they dislike poetry than agree on what poetry is”. The poem is always an attempt to meet that ‘transcendent impulse’ that calls upon us to sing; but the actual song is always compromised, always limited, never fully realised; like a dream upon waking. And because poetry dares to tread this territory, attempting to say the unsayable, it is always haunted by imperfection. We can imagine, behind every imperfect poem, the ‘ideal poem’, which does not exist, and never will.

So the ‘ideal poem’ to me sounds a little like ‘the image’. The ‘image’ seems to be something that artists experience, and audiences can also see when the art is doing its job well. On the other hand, Lerner’s ‘ideal poem’ seems to be something that audiences perceive as overshadowing the actual poem, whether the poem is great or terrible. There is resentment for what we cannot grasp, even while we praise the poet for pointing us in that direction. I wonder if the ‘ideal poem’ is the side we struggle with, while the ‘image’ is the thing that drives us to make a poem in the first place.

 

*Image ‘eyes in an abstract……2017-06-19‘ by wintersoul1 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0