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
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!
I’ve been interested in using spoken-word poetry in high-schools since I was a student-teacher. There are so many benefits for students. The NSW syllabus has caught up somewhat by offering two ‘performance poets’, Kate Tempest and Luka Lesson, for HSC study to inspire students’ own writing. However, Australia is a long way behind the USA and UK, where youth spoken-word programs in education have been operating on a large scale for over a decade, and making a big impact on student learning outcomes.
I was curious to know what we can do at a school level to bring the benefits of spoken-word into our classrooms. I briefly reviewed the available research on spoken-word poetry in education, youth spoken-word programs, and poet-educators from the USA, UK and Australia.
The following advice appears frequently:
Teachers should participate on equal basis with students in writing activities:
“whenever I’ve been in a class where…the teacher has shared what they’ve written… something vulnerable or personal, the respect between teacher and students becomes so equal and solid. Vulnerability is a tool that is sometimes undervalued by teachers.” (Luka Lesson cited in Xerri 2016)
Collaborate with professional poets to benefit both students and teachers:
“Writers often address the very same aspects of writing on which teachers may be working, and yet the effects can be radically different… their very living relies on their craft, and this clearly makes some important connection with pupils.” (Owen and Munden)
Cultivate a writing community beyond the classroom and extend opportunities to publish and perform into that wider community:
“the objective… is to make young people realize that their voice is important and that it has as great a value as any president’s, prime minister’s or anybody… once they’ve grasped that, you find that even the most nervous children often will get up and perform.” (Chelley McLear cited in Xerri 2017)
When students encounter a poem, ask “What do you notice?” rather than “What is it about?”
“the teacher’s role is… to find entry points into poems that echo students’ personal stories.” (Jon Sands cited by Nozica)
Have students engage in a regular practice of writing before introducing techniques, and wherever possible, show them the techniques present in their own writing:
“The skills of comprehension and analysis of form and language choice will develop over time, through the process of repeated composition and through exposure to a variety of texts.” (Nozica)
To sum up, there seems to be a lot of valuable teaching strategies here; but it might require a bit of a re-think of our usual practice. I know personally how difficult it is as a classroom teacher to invite vulnerability into our practice; when in the same role we are expected to convey authority and firm boundaries. It’s also difficult for many schools to invite professional poets in to work with students, due to tight budgets and schedules. However, I think there’s a shining opportunity to partner up with spoken-word and poetry groups in your community. Live poetry events bring together semi-professional and emerging poets, many of them young and interesting. What better way to get your students inspired than by bringing them in touch with a real poetry scene?
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.