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Expert Advice on Writing Spoken Word Poetry

Think of spoken word poetry as performance art using words. As with traditional poetry (that is meant to be read rather than heard), it is full of word play and poetic devices, but goes a step beyond into aspects of phonaesthetics, or the aesthetics of sound. The poet then becomes a performer, choosing tone and timing as part of the poem's appeal.

If you're unfamiliar with spoken word poetry, here's a great example, provided by spoken word poet, Sarah Kay.

As a "catch-all" term for any poem that's read aloud, spoken work poetry is the more formal term for Slam poetry or Jazz poetry. Although seemingly a new poetic form, spoken word poetry began in Africa long ago during prehistoric times, with hunting poetry, along with elegiac court poetry that was commonly performed in the empires of the Nile, Niger and Volta river valleys.

In its modern form, spoken word poetry attracts a wide audience, who enjoy the performance aspect of sharing one's writing and hearing what others have to say. With that in mind, if you're interested in writing it and are unsure how to begin, try these tips.

Start with a line to draw your audience in

Poetry needs a hook just like an essay. Think of it as your best chance of catching the attention of your audience—right at the very beginning—and then playing off of that hook throughout the rest of the piece. It might be something as simple as a statement for comedic effect or it could be deeply personal, but be sure that it connects with the overall theme of your poem.

For example, let's say you're writing a poem about the things we all have in common that make us human. You might start with a line like, "I know all your secrets" to hook your audience, and then continue with a poem that focuses on the things we try to hide about ourselves that others have felt, too.

Tell a story

While a spoken word poem doesn't have to follow the same plot pyramid as a novel (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution), it should tell a story. It might be a story about an experience you've had that altered your outlook or made you realize something important. It could be a story about a song you heard or an encounter that left you inspired, hurt, or changed.

You can, however, adapt the plot pyramid to fit spoken word poetry if you choose. This is especially true if you plan to use the poem to tell a story about your childhood, or maybe something strange that happened to you when you visited a certain place. Keep in mind that the exposition should be kept to a minimum and the focus of the poem should be on the climax and resolution, as these are the most dramatic parts of the plot pyramid and spoken word poetry is indeed dramatic.

Use intense imagery

Spoken word is known for its use of intense imagery. Sometimes, poets use it to shock their audience. At other times, the imagery is what breathes life into the poem and makes it memorable, long after the performance has ended.

As you can see in the examples of spoken word poetry included in this article, the poets aren't afraid to use imagery that incorporates a lot of metaphor and symbolism, and this imagery is often repeated multiple times to give the poem momentum.

Read it out loud

You can't have true spoken word poetry without reading it aloud, so after you've begun a draft of your poem, it's important to read through it aloud as you fine tune it. You'll find that some words flow better than others in this context, and maybe even some words that you end up get tongue-tied over that seemed perfect on paper but just don't translate well when spoken aloud. You'll never find these better, replacement words and passages until you practice reading them out loud, multiple times.

Adapt it for performance

After deciding on the best words to use, the final stage of writing your spoken word poem is to adapt it for performance. Perhaps there's a part of the poem that has more effect if it's read quickly and staccato? Or maybe a part of it that you want to slow down, so that your audience focuses on each word carefully and thoughtfully?

This stage is so important because this is where your poem will evolve from words on a page to a performance piece. For example, consider this wonderful spoken word piece by Anis Mojgani. Notice how he changes his tempo, tone, and vocal volume at various points to build a dramatic effect.

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