11 Tips for Spoken Word Beginners Part 1

In 2002, I began touring and performing spoken word in a serious way, and I’ve been doing so ever since, earning a modest income from my gigs. Also, I teach workshops and classes on spoken word performance. I’m still learning and growing as a performer, but now, spoken word novices ask me for advice, and I’m always willing to provide whatever help I can.

Tips for Novices

Over the years, I’ve offered different kinds of advice, but here are eleven tips that I think every serious, spoken word beginner should know:

Attend lots of live performances. Check out the spoken word scene in your area by going to as many open mics, poetry slams, and other poetry readings as you possibly can. Every spoken word venue has its own vibe. When I was first starting out, I didn’t find a lot of open mics at which I felt “at home,” until I started attending Cliterati, an open mic in Atlanta. So, don’t get discouraged if a particular open mic or slam series doesn’t suit you. Rather, check out as many venues as possible, be open-minded, and see which events you enjoy the most. This is the best way to find a spoken word “home”—a venue where you feel safe and supported in your growth and development as a poet and performer. But once you find a home, be sure to continue to check out other venues, and give venues a few chances before you write them off. To find venues in your area, run an internet search or check your local listings. Also, if you do find a venue, then ask the host about other venues.

Connect with a spoken word community. Become an active participant in your spoken word community by developing friendships with other performers and audience regulars. Having a community of other poets and performers will provide you the much-needed support you’ll need to grow as a performer and to hone your craft. I met many of my poet-friends by becoming involved in different spoken word and poetry communities. Those friendships continue to nurture me, my poetry, and my growth as an artist and performer.

Study other performers. As you attend each event, pay attention to what other performers are doing: What kinds of choices are they making with their voices and gestures? Who are your favorite performers, and what about their performance or poetry do you find compelling? By studying other performers, you can begin to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Also, there are tons of internet videos of spoken word performances, and Youtube is an excellent source for becoming familiar with the national spoken word scene. Here’s a video of one of my favorite performers, Detroit poet Blair, performing “Little Richard Penniman Tells It Like It T-I-S”: Did you notice the performance choices Blair makes and the details of those choices? He varies his voice and commits to his gestures. Also, as a side note, you can’t help but notice that Blair is outside—in front of the Motown Museum in Detroit—with car traffic, rolling by. Not every performance has to happen at an open mic or on stage. If you don’t have a venue, then you can always use a street corner.

Develop a unique performance style. Always express your poetry in your own style. In my opinion, the biggest mistake a newbie can make is to imitate the performance style of others, and honestly, in a competitive spoken word scene, it’s not a compliment to be told you sound like [insert famous performer here]. Rather, such a statement most likely means that you’re copying someone else, rather than developing your own unique brand of spoken word. The tendency to imitate another performer’s style can happen in both conscious and unconscious ways, but try to be mindful of your performance choices, and be yourself. If you need some help in finding your own voice and performance style, then check out this article on how to develop a spoken word performance.

Try memorizing your poetry. Memorizing your poetry is a great way to stretch and grow as an artist. Also, in my opinion, it’s absolutely the best way to achieve a full and fulfilling performance experience. For me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of performing spoken word without the encumbrance of having to hold a piece of paper or a book. Also, if your aim is to compete in slams, then you should know that slam judges and audiences tend to like memorized pieces. While it’s possible to win a slam by reading a poem—plenty of poets have done it—it’s not often done at national slam events. If you need help with memorization, check out this article on how to memorize your poetry.

Or don’t memorize your poetry. When you first get started with spoken word performance, you’ll probably want the safety and security that reading your poem provides. Plus, there’s absolutely no rule that says you have to memorize your poems in order to give great spoken word performances. For instance, check out Suheir Hammad’s reading of “First Writing Since” on Def Poetry Jam:
Hammad doesn’t use dramatic, stylized choices for her voice or gestures. Rather, her choice to read—and it is a choice—means that all focus is on her words, on the poem itself. Significantly, this particular poem, like most of what I’ve heard by her, is thought-provoking and engaging; and in my opinion, it’s an excellent example of a political poem that really works. So, in this performance, Hammad’s poem stands on its own brilliance as a unique expression of her experiences and observations.