Next month, I will be judging the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud in Iowa. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest where high schoolers choose a selection of canonical poems to perform from the stage to a live audience.
I’ve done judging and coaching for POL in several states, and I’ve given most of my adult life to the study of spoken word. I intend to keep doing this as long as the various state arts councils allow me. I think it’s time I declared my biases and offered some coaching, so competitors know what they’re getting into.
First, a bit of rhetoric. Poets are people. Audiences are people. Poems are tools for disseminating ideas—logical, emotional and ethical—among people.
Who are your people? Who’s in your audience? Regardless of what the author intended (I’m very firmly in the “the author is dead” school), what do YOU intend to get across with this poem? What’s the central conflict/tension of the poem? What’s the core message? If you could assign your audience one “takeaway,” what would it be?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, all the technical performance work in the world can’t help you. Voice, breathing, dynamics, whatever—they are tools, not goals in themselves. They only work when you’re using them do the work of poetry—to get your ideas into somebody else’s head.
Of course, research can make this easier. If you read all the poems POL has to offer, and read them deeply and out loud, eventually you’ll know which poems speak to you best, and can best be translated by you to a live audience. Do not choose based on what you think people will like or what you think sounds like an important poem. Choose with your heart. Which one of these feels like it could/should be yours?
Next, lose the ridiculous distinction between poetry and song. There is none. A spoken poem is a song with particular choices in pitch and timbre. Your choir teacher/vocal coach has just as much to offer in this process as your English teacher, and might be willing to help. Use your resources, and SING!
With these two ideas in mind—1) that poetry comes alive only when it is treated as living communication among real live humans, and 2) that the mechanics of spoken word are breath for breath the same as the mechanics of song—you are ready to begin.
Print out the poem, double or triple spaced. Get a pencil, and mark it up. What are the natural dynamics (louder and softer parts) of this poem? Where does the tone change, and what should your voice/body do to reflect this? Where do you stumble, and need to put in extra work? What’s the core message, and how does each part of this poem contribute?
Remember, the poem should take your audience on a journey. If you read it the same way from beginning to end, the journey won’t be very interesting. Pay attention to what you’re doing in any given moment, how it’s related to all the other moments, and what you’re doing to bring the audience through these moments with you.
Also remember that I asked you to use a pencil. It’s likely your performance will grow and evolve as you practice. Don’t be afraid of this process. Embrace it, and keep pushing for something better. One end writes; the other end erases.
THIS IS THE ONLY ALL CAPS SENTENCE IN THIS ESSAY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! People don’t like to be yelled at all the time. People don’t even like to be talked to all the time. Have you ever seen a score of sheet music without any pauses?
Take your pencil, and mark all the natural silence in the poem. Remember that the words you’re using are drawn on a canvas of silence. Some poems are busier, some poems are quieter, but all poems have silence in them, and that has to be respected.
Now you’re ready to begin.
Stand up. Make sure there is room around you. Put your arms straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your body.
It is likely you did this with your palms down. Everybody does. In fact, this exercise wouldn’t work if you hadn’t.
Leave your arms where they are, and rotate your thumbs 180°, so that your palms face straight up, and your thumbs point behind you. Push your arms back, following your thumbs, until your hands are just behind the plane of your body.
If you did it correctly, this action should have pushed your sternum up and out, and your shoulders down and back. Whatever happens for the rest of the poem, keep you sternum out and your shoulders back. This is the only way your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to do their job.
Keep your sternum where it is. Lower your arms.
Your body is now prepared to breathe, so breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Take deep, slow breaths. Feel the energy flow in and out of your body, in balance with the air around you.
It’s not actually energy—it’s oxygen—but it has the same effect when you’re delivering a poem.
Now, on an out breath, begin your poem. Pay attention to all the dynamic and tonal markings you made on the page. Keep mind, body and spirit open. You should imagine yourself as an instrument. Don’t mute that instrument. Open.
This will be hard to maintain. I know this, and so does ever other working spoken-word artist on the planet. This is why we rehearse.
Now that you understand the poem, and you’ve begun using your body to correctly sing it, make space in your life to rehearse. Begin rehearsals early, and hold rehearsals often. Get as many live audiences as you can, and find microphones and stages as frequently as possible. The closer your rehearsal is to the actual conditions you’ll perform under, the better.
If there is an all-ages open mic near you, go there. If you happen to write your own poetry, and can find an all-ages poetry slam in your area, go there too. Even if you don’t write, find your local poetry slam, and sit in the audience. You can learn a lot just by watching.
As you rehearse, continuously google “Poetry Out Loud,” “poetry slam,” “spoken word poetry,” etc. Look up the great contemporary artists, like Shane Koyczan, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad, Anis Mojgani, and others. Locally, get all the audience you can find, and ask them to reflect back to you what they see, and where you can improve.
If you’re brave enough, record yourself, and watch the tapes.
As with any other sport or art, the more preparation you put into this, the better the results.
And now, at the end, come back to the beginning. When you step out on that stage and see me in the judges chair, when you see all your friends and teachers and their friends and family in the audience, when you see a sea of faces out there all looking back at you, waiting to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth in the next few minutes—remember that we are all human, and that there’s nothing humans want more than a good story.
Use your poem to give us that story.