Poetry: Slam & Spoken Word

Slam poetry and spoken word poetry have entered more of the mainstream poetry sphere, but what is it exactly? How do I find more of it? How do I write it for myself? Here’s what I’ve learned as a slam poet myself, and how I broke into my first scene.

What is spoken word poetry?

As you may have guessed, spoken word poetry is designed to be, well, spoken. It’s also called “poetry for the stage” as compared with written poetry, called “poetry for the page.” There’s plenty of overlap in both mediums, but the key difference is the delivery of each poem.

Spoken word has a heavy emphasis on cadence and wordplay like alliteration (a series of words that all start with the same sound) or rhyme, and poets can accentuate their verses with their speaking volume and gestures. Another term for spoken word poetry is “performance poetry” because you get to interact with your audience on multiple visual and sound levels. You’ll find different words used because they’re pleasing to the ear or fun to say, or even purposefully difficult to say. Think of spoken word poetry as lyrics without the music – the focus is on how words sound out loud instead of only what they mean.

What’s the difference between spoken word and slam poetry?

The main difference is that slam has an added level of competition. Poets can compete with each other at poetry “slams” where they’re rated on different criteria and then can pass through rounds of judging until someone is crowned a winner or “slam champion.” The circuits range in levels of formality, everything from open mic communities having a friendly competition all the way to tournaments where titles, prizes, or even cash winnings are on the line.

That sounds scary, do I have to do slam poetry if I’m interested in spoken word?

It can be a bit intimidating at first, but there are plenty of outlets for spoken word poetry without any competition involved. Plus, there are growing virtual communities for poets, on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, so if you want to give performances a try you might not even have to stand up in front of an audience! There are all levels of engagement with the poetry community, and whether or not you share what you write is entirely up to you.

How did you get started with spoken word?

I started listening to and watching spoken word in high school but I had crippling stage fright so I figured I’d never be able to perform myself. But the more I watched, and the more I wrote, the more I realized that I just had to try it. So today I’m a full-blown slam poet and, despite years of performing, I still get stage fright. And that’s okay! I still write for both the page and stage, and I haven’t performed since before the pandemic shut all of my favorite venues down, but I’m hoping to get back to performing at some point. I’ll be writing plenty of poems in the meantime 🙂

Okay I’m interested, where do I start?

My advice is to start with finding and listening to spoken word and/or slam poetry, to get a feel for what kinds of poems you like. There are tons of performance videos on YouTube, and channels like Button Poetry (they’re also on Instagram!) are great resources for if you’re not quite sure where to start.

Once you’ve gotten a feel for the genre, then you can start writing some poems of your own! Start small, and play with different types of wordplay. Here’s an exercise you can try.

Spoken word poetry exercise

Start with external rhyme (rhyming at the beginnings or ends of lines), and see what you come up with. It doesn’t have to be long, but try to get a few lines that you can work with.

Once you’ve got something you like, try reading it out loud and test a few different things:

  • What does it sound like if you start out slow and then finish each line speaking faster?
  • What about the reverse?
  • What does it sound like if you add or take away natural pauses in the sentence (any commas, etc.)?
  • Where do you naturally need to take a breath?

It’ll be awkward and clunky at first, but I encourage you to play with it as much as you can to test the limits of your chosen poem. Make notes if you find lines or phrases that looked good on paper but didn’t sound right or were too hard to say.

Once you have your practice and notes, and you’ve gotten to know your poem a bit better, then ask yourself if there’s anything you wished your poem did differently. Check for things like:

  • alliteration
  • internal rhyme (rhyming in the middle of lines)
  • the number of syllables in a line or phrase
  • anywhere you ran out of breath or where you could have kept speaking
  • lines or phrases that don’t fit the cadence of the rest of the poem (too slow, too fast, etc.)

Once you’ve done all of that… congratulations! You have successfully workshopped a poem! It’s up to you if you decide to edit your original poem, or if you’d rather try again from scratch now that you have a better feel for the process. If you decide to continue exploring your spoken word style, my advice is to write as much as possible and let yourself play.

And if you want to dive deeper into spoken word as a poet, my most crucial piece of advice is to consume as much of the genre as you can. Whether it’s watching YouTube poets perform at a slam or just considering the musicality of the lyrics to your favorite song, consider how you already listen to spoken word. Then, you’ll be able to translate it to your own writing. Once you know about it, it’s everywhere, which is a pretty cool place to be on a poetry journey. Don’t you think?

One final note

My next few posts will dive more into different types of poetry, and then on April 30, 2023 I’ll be hosting Author Rescue’s second author workshop, which is all about poetry critique! It’ll include things like best practices, what to take away from both giving and receiving critiques, and resources for finding groups to practice with. I’ll provide more details as we get closer to the date, so stay tuned!

-Katy

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