Transferable Skills: How Slam Poetry Experience Helps in “Real Life”

Last week I posted on how dance training and experience helps one in professional pursuits (acknowledging that the performance of dance alone is a professional pursuit). This week I’m going to discuss how skills developed though the practice of slam poetry are also useful in pursuits outside of that craft. Many of these skills are similar, such as the value of disciplined revision, but some are especially relevant in the practice of slam, and I’ll discuss those here.

Performing slam poetry is, frankly, terrifying. It means getting onstage in front of a crowd of mostly strangers and performing by heart (usually) personal material written by you with specific rhythms, rhymes, and choreographed motions: and on top of that it’s timed and judged! Performing slam has to be one of the most trial-by-fire ways to get rid of stage fright. It forces one to become comfortable onstage, to relax and let words flow, to trust the preparation put into the performance. And preparation is vital. Slam poets work hard to write, rewrite, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse their work until it is stage-ready. That level of discipline is important in itself, but the additional skill of making a slam poem appear natural, as though it is flowing organically in the moment, is even more challenging. It’s not enough to rattle off a perfectly memorised poem: one must also breathe life into it and make the audience believe it. These skills—rehearsing, being confident onstage, and appearing natural—are all important for professional presentations. Since I began performing slam, I have felt more at ease teaching and presenting academic work. Like theatre and other verbal performative art forms, practicing slam poetry is excellent training for public presentations and effective communication with audiences.

Adaptation and flexibility are also important for the slam poet. He/she must be able to change decisions about which poems to perform based on the context of the audience and event, adapting the performance to the venue and tone of the evening. For example, if I prepare three poems to compete with at a slam but I sense that one of them is not well-suited for that crowd on that evening (ie a racy poem at an event with children present), I need to be flexible and capable of shifting my decision at the last minute (necessitating having multiple prepared poems in the arsenal). If the poet is performing a set rather than competing at a slam, he/she must also be able to organise the pieces into a narrative progression and construct dialogue to engage the audience between pieces. Crafting an arc to a set which brings together potentially disparate poems (a skill also required for compiling a print poetry collection) means understanding how to build transitions and guide the audience on a sort of journey: a surprisingly difficult skill I’m still developing in my own practice.

The poetry slam is also a contest where each poem is judged, yielding winners and losers. It may sound overly simplistic, but learning to be gracious in the event of victory or loss is a very important skill no matter what professional pursuits one undertakes.

Since many poets choose to perform confessional poems, an important element to performing this work is the framing of material. Performing a piece about an intensely personal memory has to be done carefully in order not to make the audience (unnecessarily) uncomfortable. Ideally the poem should still be relatable to the audience, so framing this confessional material means being able to sense whether the work is too intense, thus alienating the audience, or at an appropriate level of being engaging and relatable. Obviously some discomfort on the part of the audience can be healthy, but there’s a line between emotionally moving the audience and making them switch off. Again, the framing of material and sensing the audience’s willingness to engage is an important skill when presenting any kind of work.

These reasons and more explain why slam poetry is increasingly being used in schools as a tool to improve students’ confidence and public speaking abilities, as well as to offer them an outlet for creative expression. A slam poetry practice can hugely improve a young person’s communication skills and ability to articulate complex feelings to others, and so it can be a useful pedagogical technique for teachers seeking to draw out these qualities in their students.

Poets: What are some ways in which your practice of performing poetry has improved skills in other areas of your life?

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