I started bringing a tripod with me to events I’m performing at, because I need to get *any* video of myself performing, if I want to be able to apply for spoken word grants. Here’s a video from the SlamMN! slam in Minneapolis this past month- obviously still some things to work on, but getting better:
Someone I met on the train this summer wrote to me about getting into spoken word, and asked for performance advice. As I’ve said a number of times, performance is my “most improved” quality, and yet definitely the quality that I need to improve even more. It’s good sometimes, though, to write these things out and know exactly what one is trying to do, and how they’re trying to do it.
“Here are some different ways to work on it.
1. Practice in front of a mirror- figure out if there are some parts of the piece that want specific gestures- it is both easier to remember your performance and remember the piece if you have specific gestures that go with specific parts of the poem. Some people make little home videos of their performances, I make audio recordings just using my laptop just to hear it and feel like I understand what’s going on with vocal qualities- it’s weird and uncomfortable to watch/listen to yourself sometimes, though, so mirrors are good to watch yourself, but sometimes it’s good to actually *hear* what you’re doing.
2. Perform at open mics- try the pieces out on friends, get to the point where any embarrassment or nerves you have are something you are used to. It might not go away- mine has lessened greatly over time, but I still have huge nerves sometimes- I’m just so used to it, I’m the only one who knows it anymore. Performing your pieces in front of friends or at open mics also gets you used to the ways people might respond to your work- if you have something in there that’s funny and you didn’t know it, you will learn how to time yourself properly to roll off the joke without letting audience laughter make your next line hard to hear (Start too soon, and the audience is going to be hesitant to respond again, for fear they will miss more of your piece, wait too long, you’re going to lose their energy and feel unnatural.)
3. Mutter your pieces to yourself all the time- the closer they are to memorized, the more you’re going to be able to connect them to the audience and feel comfortable performing them. I’ve only got one piece *completely* memorized, because I’m not good at memorizing, but the more memorized I have a piece the better I perform it. I’m also not embarrassed to bring paper up on stage- I’m personally going to perform better with my poem in hand than I will getting up on stage half-afraid I’m going to forget something.
4. Do a close reading of your writing, and think about the way the words sound and the meanings they have, and how the different ways you say words gives them different meanings. I have a couple of poems that have the word “bruises” in them, and in one I say it offhanded and nonchalant, with no specific emphasis, because it’s about being tough. In the other poem, it’s about domestic violence, and I emphasize both the “br” sound, letting it sort of fight its way between my lips and the “oo” sound, to give it an almost hurt quality.
a) Think about the rhythms you establish in your writing, and how much you want to use them- if you write a lot of rhymey poetry with a really easily identifyable meter (more hiphoppy sounding), the rhyme and meter will keep the pace going well and keep the audience engaged with the pace, but too much of that and they lose the meaning of the words and the emotional flow of the piece. On the other hand, a free form piece with a conversational tone is much easier to understand and connect with the story, but the times when rhyme and meter (or other qualities like consonance, sibilance, and assonance) are present, they should be emphasized to give the audience a better connection with the piece as a poetic piece and not just a random speech.
b) Think about the words and lines in your writing that are the most important to the piece- think about how you will do them justice without going into complete theatricality. The goal of doing readings or performances of written pieces is *not* to somehow read them without putting your mark on them- there is no unmarked reading as if a person had picked up a book and were reading the words with their own internal impressions- a live performance of a piece with no emotion or emphasis is not blank- it *strips* any existing emotions from the writing.
5. Not every word or line needs a gesture. It’s going to feel unnatural, but when you perform your piece- unless it’s really big and crazy, you want to be very still. Watch for rocking back and forth on your feet, either foot to foot or heel to toe or bouncing. Know what your arms are doing- if you’re not doing an intended gesture, you need your arms to be *still*.
6. Don’t worry about it too much. You’re going to mess up sometimes. You’re going to trip over words, you might forget a line or forget a gesture. I forgot the last 6 lines of my favorite poem at a national competition on stage in front of some of the top poets in the country. It sucks, you feel bad for a little while, but it’s okay, especially if you go on and finish with grace. Try not to freak out on stage or swear or make a show of the fact that you’ve messed up- 90% of the time, no one will know it except for you, and the other 10% of the time, you’re really the only person who will be disappointed- the more graceful you are about your mistakes, the better things will go. When you’ve messed up, make sure you perform in front of audiences as soon as possible again. If you compete in a poetry slam? The judges will not necessarily like your work as much as it is deserved- it’s okay. There are other people in the audience, and even without scorecards they count just as much as any judge. The audience might LOVE your poem, but the judges might not give you a great score- it’s okay. Not every poem is for every person out there.
7. Finally, make friends with other performers. Go to workshops and invite people to your dorm or apartment or house to practice with you. Take turns giving each other constructive feedback- don’t try to *change* each others’ poems, but try to see what options there are and take criticism willingly- try out what people suggest you to do, even if you don’t think it will work- be open to changing what you’re doing.”