Poetry & Spoken Word

By Guyleigh Johnson, author of Expect the Unexpected. Presented at the first OFOS writing workshop in October 2019.

What is spoken word poetry?

Spoken Word is “a broad designation for poetry intended for performance. Though some spoken word poetry may also be published on the page, the genre has its roots in oral traditions and performance. Spoken word can encompass or contain elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, and jazz, rock, blues, and folk music. Characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play, spoken word poems frequently refer to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community. Related to slam poetry, spoken word may draw on music, sound, dance, or other kinds of performance to connect with audiences.” Reference: The Poetry Foundation

Spoken word poetry, to me, is about liberation, freedom, sound, heart, mind, soul and connection. Connection to self, connection to others, connection to the universe.

Spoken word has 3 key elements:

  • Repetition in poetry gives important words or message impact. It helps the audience focus and remember what you’re saying.
  • Word play in poetry makes the audience think. It shows complexity in simple things and also shows the true talent of the writer. It means you think outside the box, and you’re able to tell many stories in unique ways.
  • Rhyming in poetry sounds melodic. It makes the poem sound in tune. It’s also catchy and holds attention. A rhyming brainstorm sheet can help you find rhyming words and develop ideas.

Tips for writing & performing:

1) Be authentic. Being true to yourself and what you believe in is how you will connect and engage with the audience. Especially when performing, people will know automatically if you’re faking it. Being authentic is also where you draw your emotion from. It’s what makes the piece raw and relatable.

2) Tell a story. While it’s good to say words that express how you feel and help you to release emotion, it’s empowering to create a story where people in the audience can close their eyes and visualize those very words you say as well as put a face to them. Having a narrative gives perspective and a view to the voice you will be channeling through out your poem. The two V’s are important Visualize and Voice. A brainstorm map can help develop ideas.

3) Say it out loud. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does allow you to make your piece your own. Sometimes how you write something isn’t always how you say it or pronounce it. By saying it out loud to yourself you are able to change the direction of your poem if need be. Practice will help you with being nervous and if you record it on your phone and play it back to yourself you are able to visualize your own poem as if you are the audience member. This too will allow you to make changes you could never have made if you hadn’t said it out loud or practiced.

4) Put yourself out there. Poetry is personal and your vulnerability can sometimes cripple you with fear. Never forget the impact of words and what those exact words mean to you because one day, one time, could possibly help the right person who needed to be reminded that they’re not alone. By putting yourself out there you are always breaking out of that fear and allowing yourself to not only be heard but seen. This will allow more people to connect with you in the future. Also, some nice tips for performing are eye contact, projection, enunciation, attitude, volume, facial expression, and gestures.

In summary….

  • Choose a topic/message.
  • Tell a story about that topic.
  • Create a voice with purpose.
  • Practice.
  • Be consistent.
  • Share your fears!
Alexa McDonough Institute Environment and Climate Change Canada Understorey Magazine