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
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.
When people ask me, “How should I memorize my poems?” there are a few tips I have to offer.
Write a memorable poem. Not all poetry is ideal for live reading. The good news is, if it works for performance, it will probably work for your memory too. Before you finalize your lines, experiment with your voice and gestures. If the words flow better in a different order, then let them flow.
Get up. The body is a learning tool. In order to get the poem stuck in your brain, you are going to learn it with your whole body. So pick a private space and get up, move around, sway or stomp or wildly gesture your way through the words until they come to life.
Use rhyme and rhythm. The musicality of poetry in its more traditional forms makes it easier to memorize. Who remembers rote learning “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or something like it? You couldn’t do that with modern free verse. Rhyme will cue your brain to remember the next line; and rhythm will help you settle into the flow. Remember, rhymes don’t have to follow a strict scheme.
Be authentic with your voice. You may feel that slam poetry or spoken-word has a certain style to live up to; that you need to be bold, loud, or have lots of street cred to pull it off. That’s bollocks. Your voice will sound and feel real when it is your own; in fact, it’ll be harder to memorize your work if you don’t listen to it.
Re-write, re-write and re-write. If you’re feeling inspired and the poetry ‘just comes’ to you, then you’re lucky. But most work that feels worthwhile to me takes a lot of writing. The process of writing makes certain choices clear: it has to be this word not that word; it is this thought that follows upon that one. And that also makes the poem live in my memory; because the choices make sense.
Rehearse. I’ve been lucky as spoken-word poet because I got my training as a musician. This taught me not only about rhythm and lyricism, but also the discipline required to get work ready for performance. A good rule of thumb is three-in-a-row. First break the piece down into short chunks, and rehearse each chunk until you can do it flawlessly three times over. Then do the same for a whole piece. Leave enough time to rehearse every day for a week before a performance, and you’ll be set.
I like the old phrase for memorization, “learning by heart”. There is a process of letting the work settle into the heart. It can be hard work, but at the end of the day it should still feel like your poem; a direct connection to the heart. Learning your own poems shouldn’t feel like a chore or a brain-teaser. If it does, use this as a chance to check in and ask, “Do I want to say this differently?”
There’s more fascinating discussion to be explored on memorization, poetic techniques, and the way our brains process and retain information. I happen to subscribe to a not-very-popular view of education, that rote-learning of poetry or patterns can have benefits for the student. There’s even evidence to suggest that it might help us become more creative: check out a brief read on the art of memorization by orators in medieval culture. As Alan Jacobs summarises, “Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.”
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.
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.
Welcome to the new year! Here in the Northern Rivers, we’re getting pummeled by fat, drenching, subtropical rain, and then by riotous, skin-searing sun – in fairly equal proportions. Plant life is springing forth like nobody’s business; lettuces pop up in the lawn from stray seed and then burst into seed themselves just a short time later. It all feels like a recipe for renewal to me.
So, since new beginnings are a good time to make new stuff, I thought I’d share with you my pick of the best writing exercises to start the year. Whether using them myself or with students, the only measure of a good exercise for me is that it makes new things happen: new images, new voices, even new memories you didn’t know you had. Everything we need in order to write is right here. Use it!
You don’t need any writing experience to have fun with these. They are designed to bypass what you think you know, and dig into the fertile soil of imagination and association. I’ll be honest with you, when I go to the page to try and write some new stuff, often I never get past doing exercises. Why? I’m kind of fickle when it comes to ideas, I don’t like to commit to them. But when exercising, there’s no role, in fact no room, for commitment. You just open up to what’s endlessly possible.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
– Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind
So get your pen ready…
Memory is always a rich source of inspiration, but sometimes we need a nudge to make the most of it. In one of the simplest and most effective exercises I know, we take the words ‘I remember’ as our starting point. Go to the exercise.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife”… and a blocked writer must be in want of a prompt! Try using the best first lines in literature to create something new. Go to the exercise.
In this exercise, new material is generated by re-purposing a piece of found text into an unusual writing prompt. Like all the best exercises, Re-sentencing is both challenging and liberating, and you might be surprised by what comes out. Go to the exercise.
If you have tried any of these exercises and created something new, congratulations! If nothing emerges, keep trying. Whatever happens, don’t throw away your first attempts, even if you see nothing of value in them yet. Just put them aside for later. As with gardening, in creative life we sometimes need to rest our garden beds in order to let the nutrients back in. If we turn over the soil too often we might disturb the seeds that begin to sprout, unnoticed. So do your exercises, close your notebook, and look forward to the next step – figuring out what to do with the raw material. But that’s another post for another day.
Happy New Writing to you in 2018. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!
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.