SLAMCRAFT: Love your materials

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microphone” by TOM81115 is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Text added.

When you’re learning a new craft, it’s usual for the teacher to lead you through an exploration of your materials. Getting to know your materials, becoming familiar with them, learning to wield them.

If you’re learning to draw, you will experiment with charcoal, pastels, pencils, pen and ink. You will shade and rub and outline. You’ll find what feels right. If you’re learning to play an instrument, you will first learn the notes, where to place your fingers, perhaps play scales and arpeggios and chords. These are your materials.

But in learning to make poetry, we don’t have the habit of considering materials first. Perhaps it’s because our materials (words and language) are so commonplace, and used so frequently, we assume we already know what to do with them. But how many of us then end up sitting in front of a blank page? Getting to know your materials means you love spending time with them, playing with them, using them.

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Shakespeare’s words” by Meg license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Annie Dillard reminds us that we should feel something for the materials:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

So we’re setting out to fall in love with words. In this series, I’m sharing what I know about slam poetry (or performance poetry or spoken word or whatever you want to call it).

Let’s consider: What are our materials?

Words.

What kind of words?

Words that are spoken, words that are heard.

Are they different to words read on a page?

Yes, I believe so. Spoken words are:

  • Temporal – they are happening in time. As listeners, we surrender to the flow.
  • Ephemeral – they can’t be held or captured for later. Unless you’re recording as you go, everything you say instantly ‘disappears.’
  • Evanescent – they only exist as they are going out of existence.
  • Immersive – they fill our sense of hearing like water; you can’t stand back or choose what to see as you can when looking at a picture.
  • Tonal – it’s impossible to say anything without tone. Even a flat, unemotional tone conveys something.
  • Communal – spoken words are often the way we communicate most comfortably in social groups. They have a much longer history than the written word. Oral forms allowed knowledge to be passed down through generations in pre-literate society.

So what does all this mean? As a material, spoken words have certain qualities we should take notice of, because we can use them. We can use the flow, the way listeners want to get caught up in it. The infinite tones available to you. The fact that you are bound with the audience in a moment in time, but not after. The materials allow you to make this poetry more personal in all sorts of ways, because it will be your voice, no one else’s, that enacts it. The moments you share in a live performance become unique, unrepeatable acts.

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RAW : BOLD Sydney Showcase” by rawartistsmedia licensed (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The materials also impose certain limitations, in the same way that using ink limits your ability to erase. You probably aren’t going to subject your audience to something the length of a novel – your materials aren’t effective on that kind of timescale. (Actually, I kind of hope there’s some radical experimenter out there thinking, ‘spoken-word novel…now there’s an idea!’). Play with the limits as well as the possibilities. A confession: it has taken me 10 years to realise that extended metaphors usually don’t work in spoken–word: it’s better to say what you mean! I’m still getting to know my materials, I guess.

Now, time to play with your materials.

Here are a few exercises to get you started:

  • Make a list of words you love the sound of. Say them. Say them slowly, quickly, loudly, softly, delicately, aggressively, lovingly.
  • Make a list of words of words you hate. What puts you off about them? Where did they come from? What sort of person uses them?
  • Find a poem you love and read it aloud to someone you trust. Have them tell you what happened in your voice, breath, face, and body, as you read.
  • Try reading aloud this sound poem by Cliff Crego. How do you enact an italic? Or a quotation mark? Or wide spacing?
  • Try performing this poem for a friend, or with a friend. What did you do to bring it to life?

How do you feel about your materials? Do you like spoken words? As always, I’d love you to let me know how this worked for you, and don’t forget to share using the button below.

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

What comes first: rhythm or words?

I had a great question from a punter after my performance at M-Arts last weekend. (You can watch the live performance here).

“When you’re creating a poem, do you start with the words or the rhythm? Do you write something and then make it flow, or does the flow dictate what you write?”

The answer, of course, is not straightforward, and that’s what makes it an excellent question. I have had so much fun investigating this very problem that I wanted to share it with you.

Many of the great slam poets around today, such as Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, and Kate Tempest, came from a hip-hop background. These extraordinary wordsmiths can tell you loads more about ‘flow’ than I can; they have spent countless hours, weeks and years honing their skills rhyming, freestyling, laying words over beats or vice-versa. When they deliver a poem with only their unaccompanied voice, they bring an expert sensibility of rhythm and flow, which makes their work so much more complex and compelling to listen to.

It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy:

there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in.

I didn’t come into poetry from hip-hop, but I grew up learning music from a young age. I’m sure that has had a big impact on the way I use language to compose poetry. As a kid I spent equal amounts of time every day practising guitar, which my mother taught me to play, and burying my nose in books. So by the time I discovered slam poetry at the age of nineteen, the fusion of spoken language with the qualities of music just made sense to my music-trained brain.

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Like many writers, I keep copious notebooks, which no one else reads (see Natalie Goldberg for the value of letting yourself write junk, and lots of it). I’ll comb through these when I’m looking for ideas, and often what jumps out is something that has an interesting sound, as well as an interesting sentiment.

There’s sometimes a weird moment when I realise that some little line I’ve written has lodged itself in my brain like a catchy guitar riff, pestering me to make a whole poem so that it will have somewhere to live!

So when I’m composing (and ‘composing’ may be a more apt term than ‘writing’), I’m focusing as much on the sound and rhythm as I am on the meaning of words. When I speak a line of poetry out loud, I’m trying to become aware of the physical sound of the words: the cadence, the tone, whether it seems to burst forth with explosive energy or coil slowly around the tongue; whether the line wants me to take my time or get carried away. It’s not always simple. Sometimes the meaning is clear but the rhythm isn’t working. Sometimes too much rhythm diminishes the meaning. And sometimes the particular mood or energy of the piece just takes a really long time to reveal itself.

The challenge for any poet who performs is to strike the right balance of sound and sense.

There’s no point having lots of verbal tricks if you’re not saying anything meaningful; and likewise, no point in performing a great poem if there’s nothing for the ear to enjoy. It’s a fine balance, challenging, occasionally maddening, but ultimately so rewarding when you share it with a live audience.

If you’re interested in trying slam poetry yourself, please sign up to follow my SlamCraft series. If you’re nearby, watch out for my workshops in the Northern Rivers. Subscribe below or follow me to hear about it first.