SLAMCRAFT: Timing part 2

 

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.

KateTempest-'Icarus' timingbreakdown

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

candyroyalleNPPWC

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.

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.

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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