There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping people fall in love with poetry. For those located near me in the Tweed region, NSW, here’s your chance to join the most comprehensive poetry course I’ve created yet.
SLAMCRAFT is a unique course in writing and performing powerful poetry. Over 4 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, and explore your voice in a safe and inclusive setting. SlamCraft 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 practice and research, this is the most comprehensive SlamCraft course offered to date.
SlamCraft runs for 4 consecutive Sundays from 2-4pm at the Frances Mills Education Centre in the Tweed Regional Gallery.
Course outline: Oct 27 – Week 1. Love your materials. Nov 3 – Week 2. Writing for the ear. Nov 10 – Week 3. This is my voice. Nov 17 – Week 4. Taking up space.
Cost: $155 / $135 Beginners are most welcome. For an enrolment form or more info, contact Sarah: Ph: 0428 256 531 E: email@example.com
What people say about SlamCraft:
“This 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 2018
“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 Officer 2018
You have to celebrate the victories, right? Well, I spent a couple of months earlier this year sending out various applications to poetry events and publications. Of course this meant getting very cosy and familiar with the “thanks for your interest, but…” emails which then flooded back. I’ve always been told this is just part of the writer’s life, so, no biggie.
Today I opened another response expecting it to be the same old story, and found these unexpected and exciting words… “We would be very happy to include your event in our program this year…” Woohoo!
So I’m thrilled to announce that I will be presenting at Storyfest in Sydney this year.
On their website, Storyfest is described as:
“… a 3 day spoken word festival packed full of live literary mayhem
in the form of spoken-word, poetry, stories, lyrics and monologues.”
This is a massively exciting opportunity for me. Storyfest represents the ever-growing and strengthening community of spoken-word artists and audiences in Australia, and embodies the same goals I am passionate about. It provides a platform for people to come together in order to perform, share and learn about spoken word. It includes workshops, panel discussions, performances, and culminates in the unforgettable Australian Poetry Slam.
When I began performing in Sydney some 16 years ago, the spoken-word community was a small and largely ‘underground’ scene, very much sitting on the sidelines of other arts and cultural events. Now that I live, teach and perform in regional NSW, it’s an honour to be able to return to this same city, and contribute to the thriving spoken-word industry that we dreamed of then.
Keep an eye out for details if you’re in Sydney, October 12th-14th, for some kickass spoken-word magic coming your way. Follow Storyfest on Facebook for details, and while you’re at it, why not follow me for more on slam poetry, performance, and workshops.
In the Slamcraft series, I’m passing on some of what I’ve learned about Slam poetry (or any poetry which is performed live). Today I’m inviting you to consider the form that we’ve chosen to work in, and try to figure out where it is positioned in relation to other literary forms and movements. In straightforward terms: stick your head out of the box; have a look at what’s around you; take in the view.
Since the 1950s, innovative poetic practices have flourished. In his introduction to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Paul Hoover discusses the various avant-garde movements which have aimed to renew poetry through strategies which are initially shocking, but eventually replace mainstream approaches and become ‘normal’. Apprehending this pattern in the influence of the Beat poets, the New York School, Black Mountain poets and aleatory poetics, Hoover reasons that the recent “performance poetry and language poetry will influence mainstream practice in the coming decades”. 
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, another innovative practice has emerged in the form of spoken-word poetry. Spoken-word is a double agent, which simultaneously presents itself as an avant-garde movement and a nostalgic reclamation of ancient oral traditions. On the one hand, it presents a challenge to the academy: it exists outside the limitations of traditional print media, sidesteps editorial selection and evaluation processes, shoots straight for popularity and sometimes exceeds the reach of its print counterparts through new publishing avenues (Abe Nouk’s performance on The Australian Poetry Slam channel has over 33K views – what publisher wouldn’t be pleased with so many ‘reads’?). On the other hand, the materials of spoken-word poetry are as old as the hills, such that anyone and everyone can ostensibly engage with it. Some poets make explicit this project of reviving orality as a form of self-expression that they think modern society sorely needs, taking on the role of bardic storyteller, epic poet (as in Kate Tempest), or Carribean-influenced ‘toaster‘.
With its demotic culture appealing to mass audiences, spoken-word poetry has either been ignored or heavily criticised by academics. Consequently, we have a developing or partial academic vocabulary at best, with which to discuss it. One of my aims as an honours student in 2006, and as an emerging poet now, is to develop a more complete poetics of spoken-word. I am interested in the conditions, techniques and poetic devices of spoken-word poetry, which I often find to be intriguingly different from the page-oriented approaches which have dominated scholarship. We cannot come to an understanding of the significance of spoken-word poetry, in relation to contemporary movements, without the critical tools to apprehend it.
To return to Hoover, I do not believe that spoken-word, if it is a new and innovative form of poetry, poses any threat of eventually replacing ‘mainstream’ approaches. However, I do think it has the potential to enter and enhance the existing schools of poetics, which are already so varied in Australia. Spoken-word deserves a legitimate place alongside other contemporary movements, if not merely for its popularity, then for its fascinating combination of the ancient with the avant-garde.
Sign up to read more on the poetics of spoken-word and slam poetry techniques.
See more in the SlamCraft series on writing poetry for performance.
 Paul Hoover, introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, pxxv.
To me, the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’ has always seemed like a really sexy story. Think about it: there’s a young girl, growing up alone, an adolescent coming into maturity. She’s trapped in a tower without window or door, and the only way to reach her is to climb up on a luscious rope of her beautiful, long hair. Her only companion is the evil fairy or sorceress who keeps her imprisoned; until the day a Prince learns the way in, and spends many nights alone with Rapunzel in her tower room. Whenever I pictured Rapunzel, I saw her as a creature full of many desires: desire for freedom, desire for love, desire for sex, desire for experience of the world she never knew.
So when I was given the opportunity to perform in The Vagina Conversations in Byron Bay, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. I knew it had something to do with Rapunzel’s journey toward freedom, even though it is extreme and non-realistic as fairytales always are. I knew that sex and desire were at the core of it, although vaginas are – not surprisingly – never mentioned in ‘Rapunzel’. And I knew that I somehow needed to convince hundreds of strong, alternative, liberated, Byron women, that fairytales still have an important role to play in our collective narrative of the feminine.
I spent the next week or so journaling my thought process, which was basically variations on a theme of “Oh my god, what have I done!? Talk about vaginas? Me? No way! I’m not bold enough, radical enough, sexy enough, feminist enough, empowered enough, to do that… I will end up making a fool of myself, or filling my poetry with cheap tricks which aren’t authentic to my inner world.” The truth is, I had already been writing the ‘Rapunzel’ story for a very long time – I had started about 7 years prior, and it had been resting (presumed dead) for at least 5 of those. But despite, or because of, its early failure, I must have carried that idea around with me until the time was right to revive it (as it turns out, this is good advice on what to do with an idea.)
It’s fascinating the way ideas emerge where they are needed. Through writing for what I knew would be an almost-exclusively female audience, I found that the ‘Rapunzel’ story started to reveal the little secrets that I felt it had always been hiding from me, indeed from the world, in its many incarnations as a children’s classic. And yes, one of those secrets genuinely was to do with vaginas!
‘Rapunzel’ goes back many centuries, and like all the fairytales we know today, was kept alive by people re-telling it orally to the next generation (mostly women, according to Marina Warner). Four versions are immortalised in my well-used copy of The Great Fairytale Tradition. In all of them, the story is initiated by a pregnant woman’s craving for a type of bitter herb or lettuce called ‘rapunzel’, which was so overwhelming that her husband was forced to steal some from an evil fairy’s garden. This reflected popular superstitions of the time, which held that one must grant a pregnant woman anything she desires, for fear of being punished with ‘a reddening and swelling of the eyelids’ (1); what a delightfully specific curse! Rapunzel was named after the herb, suggesting that the cycle of desire and punishment was in motion before she was even born. The fairy claimed the new-born child as retribution for the theft, took her, and vanished.
But you can’t fit much into a slam poem, and unfortunately I had to leave out this evocative prologue to get to the story’s core: the girl in the tower. What had originally resonated for me was the feeling of being trapped, and knowing how that would be really, really boring. Sure it’s also horrifying, but with no great urgency – you would have a sense of all the things you could be if you were out there – but meanwhile you are in here. I first became obsessed with this fairytale when I was, so to speak, trapped in a relationship, and couldn’t see any way out – it felt like being in a tower with no windows or doors. I went through all the creative ways I could keep myself entertained from within the confines of the relationship, but in the end, it had to give way. Later, I was able to see that this is part of the power of fairytales – they have the capacity to reflect universal experiences, partly because they are told with such broad strokes that we easily see ourselves within their structures. The tower reflects all kinds of traps that endanger the autonomy of young women in our society: poverty, discrimination, abusive relationships, glass ceilings, gender stereotypes. We are all familiar with it, as I point out in the poem:
Girls locked in towers.
Girls locked out of reach of their own powers.
While around the edges of their minds run stone-cold rings of doubt, like,
‘If only I were normal, they would surely let me out’.
The doubt I felt in the mind of Rapunzel was in part about sexuality. With her burgeoning womanhood, there must be a strong desire for intimacy and companionship; although this element is conspicuously absent from the picture of a patient, blonde innocent which so commonly appears in storybooks today.
And indeed, earlier versions of the tale do acknowledge the girl’s very natural sexual curiosity when it comes to the surprise entry of a young man into her tower, albeit couched within the necessary behaviour expected of a lady: “And the negotiations went so well that the prince received many nods in exchange for his kisses, smiles for his bows, thankful glances for his kind offers… and after they became more familiar with one another, they decided to meet at night when the moon plays hide and seek with the stars”(2). The consequence is that Rapunzel (Petrosinella in this version) becomes pregnant, and soon her swelling belly reveals to the evil fairy that she has been deceived: her adopted daughter is not the obedient child she had wanted, and must be punished.
Clearly, the Italian storytellers of the 1600s had no problem with the idea of a heroine enjoying consensual sex with a male partner. (Incidentally, this version comes from a collection called Lo Cunto de li Cunti; which isn’t actually a pun on a certain word for female anatomy, although it sounds like it). But by the time the Brothers Grimm got hold of the story in the 1800s, they believed that pre-marital sex was far too raunchy for their audience, and got rid of it. With no pregnancy, they instead had Rapunzel give away the secret of her relationship in a weirdly contrived dumb blonde moment: “…one day Rapunzel blurted out, ‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are so much heavier than the prince?'”(3). In one swoop, the young woman’s desire and the natural functions of her body have been erased from the tale; replaced with this humiliating slur on her mental competence.
So with all her sexuality and sensual power removed from her story, Rapunzel becomes the patient victim, demurely awaiting her fate. She is thrown out of the tower after the fairy has cut off her long hair, the tool of her transgression, and left to fend for herself. The most severe punishment is reserved for her lover, who on his next visit, finds no sweetheart but a very angry Mother Gothel awaiting him, and jumps off the tower in his grief. He is blinded by the thorns at the base of the tower, and wanders the wilderness in misery searching for his lost love.
What does a tale like this mean for women, I asked myself, after writing and re-writing these scenes many times? What lesson can we take from it? There is no vagina in the story, but if there is, it leads to Rapunzel’s downfall and much suffering. This is a self-loathing story for a woman to tell. Or is it? Returning to the girl in the tower, I began to see an alternative narrative, one barely peeking through the patriarchal strands. Without wooing the Prince, Rapunzel may never have escaped from her endless imprisonment, or seen the outside world at all. If she weren’t such a ‘bad girl’, with such a curious vagina, she would still be trapped, without a story to tell.
Rapunzel’s hair stands in for her sexual power. It is a metaphor which seems to have lost most of its potent meaning in the tale. Historically, hair has always signified sensuality, intimacy, and the body, as indicated by monastic practices of shaving the hair, or not allowing women to enter a church bare-headed. For Rapunzel, I wanted the hair to have an added dimension of fate: it is because she was trapped that the hair grew so excessively long. The unused energy, untapped potential, and wasted days of her stopped-off life literally overflow into the strands of hair, that won’t stop growing. Eventually, after re-writing the story inside-out and upside-down, I realised the key element that made this a powerfully feminist tale: Rapunzel’s hair has been growing into the outside world since she was born, literally providing a way to escape.
the hair grew so long it reached from the tower and all the way down to the ground
because her body was intelligent enough to find a way out.
In fairytales, all tyrants come equipped with the seeds of their own undoing, and impossible escapes are manifested by something that was there all along. Rapunzel’s hair attracted the Prince, who then climbed up, declared his love, and bound himself to her. The supposed disgrace she then found herself in released her from the confinement of the expectations of her pseudo-mother, the evil fairy, and through suffering she began to forge her autonomous identity. The tale ends, in most versions, with the lovers re-uniting by chance in the wilderness, where Rapunzel’s tears of joy magically heal the prince’s blindness. The twin children she has given birth to in the meantime, rejoice at meeting their father, and after a few more magical obstacles are overcome, the family finally reach safety. If the story implies that Rapunzel’s power was forged by her incarceration, it explicitly states that happiness is forged in suffering: “[The prince] was now extremely happy because he had been so unhappy, and he loved Rapunzel more than ever before and she him because they had lost one another.” (4)
In the process of uncovering or creating new layers of meaning in the Rapunzel story, I arrived at an understanding of why fairytales can be powerful tools of identity and political action. A story which has survived for centuries, through blatant patriarchal agendas and constant revisions, has a power which new stories don’t have: it bears the traces of thousands of women’s voices, if we know where to look. Even though the power of women’s bodies, their ingenuity and desire, may have been hidden beneath metaphors and good manners, it still exists in an enduring form:
that power echoes across centuries
that power has been shrouded in mystery
that power has been hidden beneath obscure symbols
that power has been smuggled into childhood through dainty illustrations and archaic phrasing…
So finally, ‘Rapunzel’ was for me a chance to revive a vital part of our cultural heritage, while reminding women everywhere that the most important action we can take with the fairytale is to re-tell them in our own way. It has never been a sacred artefact. Instead it always reflects the values of the storyteller her/himself, and it only endures through the centuries because of its capacity to evolve. I wanted to bring back the feminine power and sensuality which I saw was missing in the story; other tellers will revise it in more radical ways. There is so much to be done; after all, this remains a hetero-normative vision where older women are evil and a young woman’s greatest reward is to have a husband and children. I can easily see that this ending is just another type of imprisonment, one that will be revised by the many strong, ingenious women I am meeting every day.
It has been the greatest privilege for me to be able to share this poem with hundreds of women, live at the Byron Theatre and online. Slam poetry really does bring me closer to others. When women approached me to share their thoughts on it, their own experience of identifying with fairytales and their ideas for the stories we should be sharing with our children, that was the most rewarding part of the whole experience. If you were one of those women, I thank you. You have inspired me to create a new women’s writing workshop about re-telling our children’s stories, which I hope to run this year. Please sign up for information on these and other workshops in the Northern Rivers. And if you haven’t yet, please get in touch and share your thoughts on the Rapunzel poem or the story you want to tell. The more we share our stories, the stronger we are.
Zipes, Jack, ed. (2001). The Great Fairytale Tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, New York and London. p475.
Basile, Giambattista (1634). “Petrosinella”. Published ib id. p475.
Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob (1857). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.491
Schulz, Freidrich (1790). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.489
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.
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?
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.
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.
I’m excited to start a blog project that’s been swimming around in my mind for a long time now: SLAMCRAFT.
Over a couple of months, I’ll be sharing with you a whole series on how to create a Slam Poem. But not just for slam poets – this is for anyone who writes and wants to know how to read in front of an audience. It’s for performance poets, spoken-word artists, songwriters who want to go a-capella, students, whatever. This is about making your art out of words for a live audience. It’s pretty damn exciting.
In my own little art world on the Northern Rivers, a lot of surprising opportunities have got my attention. One of the most exciting is a slam poetry workshop; the chance to share fifteen years of spoken-word experience with anyone who wants to give it a try. Maybe you’ll catch a workshop with me soon and we can play with these ideas together.
We’ll start by exploring materials, move to exercises, writing techniques, performance tricks, and go right through to polishing your piece ready for performance.
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.
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. Subscribebelow or follow me to hear about it first.