I was speaking the other day with a fellow spoken word poet about our favorite “celebrity” slam poets, and we fell into a conversation about what makes a good spoken word piece. Our preferences differed and revealed an interesting divide which I think may derive from our different artistic trainings.
This poet was trained in theatre and had recently transitioned into spoken word. His model of a good spoken word poem is, the way I see it, more akin to a storytelling model. The ideal poem contains some sparkling gem line set against a solid foundation, but not each line will be genius: this is to ensure that when brilliant lines are dropped they wow the audience and stand out. These poems generally have more narrative formats: they are stories told poetically using some poetic devices. Likely due to his theatrical training, this poet is a highly engaging performer, laying out stories for the audience to eagerly follow. One of his favorite performers is Shane Koyczan, the Canadian spoken word artist who is masterful at this storytelling-poem format (“The Crickets Have Arthritis” is a brilliant example). While Koyczan’s emotionally poignant work is certainly growing on me, I initially didn’t want to categorise it as poetry, since it felt more like prose performed well onstage: it lacked many of the typical rhythmic, stylistic markers I would normally use to categorise a piece of work as a poem.
I had shared with him some poems by by my favorite spoken word artist, Andrea Gibson. She has some poems with narrative structures, but many of them are more abstract, harping on an idea or a metaphor rather than spinning a tale (“Jellyfish” is an example of one of her more abstract pieces). While he appreciated her work, he commented that since each line was dripping with symbolism and since her poems are usually fast-paced and quite intense, it was almost too much. It felt like overload to him; since each line was brilliantly honed, there were no single lines that stood out within the poem. He also perceived this as an American trend in spoken word.
I’m of two minds about these two models. Since I was trained in writing print/page poetry before I entered the spoken word scene, I was always urged to make every word count: that surplus bits should be deleted and that good poems often required multiple readings to be fully appreciated (although they shouldn’t be intentionally incomprehensible, in my opinion, and sometimes clarity at first reading is a good trait). I was taught to inlay each line with nuance, to use symbolism to its utmost, and to avoid any repetition that was not integral to the poem. Because of this training, I’m hard-wired to remove any unnecessary filler in my poems: to make them as clean and tight as possible.
However, as my fellow poet pointed out, this doesn’t always work so well in spoken word. The audience will only hear the poem once, and they need to understand the gist of it in the first hearing. The narrative (if there is one) must be well-established, and transitions clearly made. Gibson’s work is brilliant to me because she writes in highly symbolic, evocative metaphors, keeping the writing tight, but also manages to maintain a clarity to her work and a narrative when one is applicable.
Both models of poem have something to teach about how to construct good spoken word poems; they also illustrate the range of spoken word styles which appeal to difference audiences (it’s worth mentioning that I’m constructing a bit of a false binary here as both Koyczan and Gibson have poems ranging from abstract/dense to more narrative/drawn-out). I’m working on developing my storytelling skills with spoken word and resisting the voice in my head that tells me to “cut all that filler!” because the “filler” is essential in this format for a smooth, grounded narrative to develop. Reading my own work aloud as I compose has been useful for this practice, as has workshopping it with others to ensure I haven’t cut out bits essential to audience comprehension.
Poets: Which model of spoken word poem do you tend to appreciate more? Which style you feel that you perform in? Do you think this is a product of the kind of literary/theatrical/artistic training you received?