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: 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.

Spoken-word poetry in education: Best practice guide

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)

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A teacher shares her poem with students at a writing workshop, Sydney 2018.

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?

 

You can read more on teaching spoken-word poetry at my page for teachers. I will also be presenting at the ETA conference soon. Please contact me if you’d like more resources.


References:

Nozica, Narcisa. “Spotlight on poetry.” Metaphor 2 (2017): 24-29.

Xerri, Daniel. “‘Poetry does really educate’: An interview with spoken word poet Luka Lesson.” English in Australia 51.1 (2016): 18-24.

Xerri, Daniel. “Inspiring young people to be creative: Northern Ireland’s poetry in motion for schools.” New Writing 14.1 (2017): 127-137.