Standards in Spoken Word

What makes effective spoken-word or slam poetry?
By Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre

One of my favorite activities to do in a workshop or class is just brainstorming around what makes effective spoken-word or slam poetry. We all have different standards, and since spoken-word is so new for so many people, sometimes those standards vary wildly. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for debate, and I think that that debate is a very healthy, necessary thing in our community. Here are the standards that I use, forged in those discussions and hardened by my experiences in the slam scene, in the arts education scene and elsewhere.

1. Context matters. Just because you scored a 30 in a slam doesn’t mean that your poem will succeed at a rally, in a high school classroom or even at a different slam. Spoken-word doesn’t have to be able to work in a vacuum—it’s okay to write with a specific performance venue in mind. Know your audience. A good poet uses this knowledge to hit as hard as he or she can in a particular scenario.

Paul

2. Substance over style. For me, spoken-word is more than pretty art—it’s an opportunity to say something to an audience. Too many poets waste that opportunity. I’m not saying that every poem has to be a grand political manifesto, but the best spoken-word is powerful and ultimately transformative because of what it says, not how it says it. Of course, form brings content to life, and good writing will give a poem’s message longer legs, but at the end of the day, pretty words with no meaningful foundation ring hollow.

3. Challenge the audience. The best art doesn’t tell people what they want to hear—it pushes them out of their comfort zones. It doesn’t repeat the slogans and platitudes that the audience already believes in; it helps them to see things in a new way. At the same time, remember point #1. A poem that is cliché for one audience might be revelatory for another.

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4. Do not manipulate your audience; do not exploit your subject. A poem can be sad, a poem can be angry and a poem can deal with heavy subjects. But if there isn’t some kind of deeper point to all of that raw energy, you run the risk of simply toying with people’s emotions in order to get them to cheer for you. So if a poem is going to be about dead babies or domestic violence or genocide or whatever, it damn well better have a message that goes beyond “wow war is sad” or “murder isn’t good.” I like calls to action. I like poems that toy with the relationship between personal and political.

5. Being original and memorable is more important than being “good.” What new perspective do you have? From what new angle can you attack a given target? If you’re going to cover well-trod territory, how are you going to make your work stand out? Remember, any idiot can write good poetry. Creative Writing programs around the world churn out would-be masters every semester. Your challenge is not to “write well;” it is to slap your audience in the face with something meaningful, powerful and memorable. Again, good writing can help you do that, but it should never be your only goal.

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7. Be specific. A poet is like an archaeologist. You don’t walk for miles with a metal detector, picking up bottlecaps; you find a little three-foot by three-foot space and dig as deep as you can. Less-effective poets often want to write a single poem that addresses everything that’s wrong with the world—“war is bad, racism is bad, poetry is good, we should save the environment,” etc.—and the result is a watered-down laundry list of social ills that doesn’t really say anything. Instead, turn abstract concepts into concrete images. Don’t write about “war,” write about a specific person in a specific war dealing with a specific problem. Don’t write about “love,” tell a detailed story about a specific moment in your life when you felt loved.

8. Study the art of poetry. I know a lot of these points have forced “good writing” into the background, but it’s important to note that while I believe you can write a brilliant slam poem that isn’t a brilliant capital-P Poem, good writing is generally a very important tool for bringing a message to life and making a spoken-word piece more palatable and interesting. So don’t just get up on stage and rant and rave. Understand dynamics, structure, metaphor, imagery, assonance & consonance, rhythm, concrete vs. abstract language and all of the little things that go into making what is traditionally considered good poetry. Even if you want to break rules, you should be able to do so intentionally.

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9. Perform to the audience, not at the audience. This is a subtle point, but one that’s been very important for my growth as an artist. A good spoken-word poet doesn’t beat the audience over their heads with words and ideas; instead, he or she attempts to create a real connection between speaker and listener. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this is done, but good poets use everything—not just words and voice; it’s in the approach to the mic, the posture, body language, eye contact, use of negative space and more. It’s about manipulating the energy that exists in a room to draw the listener into the piece.

10. Poetry—especially spoken-word—is about communication. At the end of the day, you’re not up on stage to celebrate how brilliant you are; you’re up there to open up lanes of communication, to say something that might get someone else to think or feel something, to build community—artistically, intellectually and physically. We are all extremely privileged to be a part of this movement, and as artists, we are regularly given platforms that most people don’t have access to. Make it count. Be extraordinary. Do not ever settle for a first draft. Be tireless in your pursuit of the truth that can only be spoken through poetry.

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Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion. See www.guante.info for more information.

6 Responses to Standards in Spoken Word

  1. Pingback: Standards in Spoken Word, Call to Arms « Minnesota Microphone

  2. Guante says:

    So yeah. Thanks for posting. I hope people reply with some comments on THEIR standards for spoken-word. I realize a few of my own could be pretty contentious– particularly #2. I just want to emphasize that these are my personal standards, not necessarily the ones that I think everyone should use. There are incredible pieces out there that break almost all of these rules.

  3. Todd says:

    This is good, I’ve been trying to codify what I value in a good slam poem and being able to agree or disagree with your points has been really useful.

    I think I have the most objection to #2, but even that’s not a complete objection. I really agree with what you have to say about stylistic poems with little substance, how they may be great to listen to, but it’s an experience that fades more readily than a poem with a significant message.

    However, as far as substance goes, the poems I don’t like in slams these days generally err on the side of too much substance rather than too much style. When the message I’m supposed to take away from a poem is too obvious or too bluntly phrased, I feel a little manipulated, or if not manipulated, then passive. I don’t like poems that feel like journalism, and I’m a guy who likes his journalism, i just prefer to keep the news in the AM with my coffee. I like to interact with poems more personally, so I like it when poems are a little more subtle around their message, and let me uncover it for myself, or give me some room to give it personal meaning. I think substance is important, but an emphasis on substance risks breaking rules 4 and 9 by manipulating the audience and/or talking at them.

    Also, about being “good” in number 5, I think “good” should mean whatever we try to do better to improve as poets. The idea of “good” for slam poetry is extremely amorphous, and lists like yours are working towards finding that meaning. I think it think the best poems are the ones that are the best written, but by that I don’t mean that those poems are well written with all the conventions of the printed page in mind. There are many things that make a great written poem that don’t mean shit in a slam (enjambment, complex ideas that take more than 30 seconds to resolve, endings that encourage rereading).

    Just like you said of assonance and alliteration, we need to find the rules that make good slam poetry so we can know how to break them intentionally.

    I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m headed to the Soap Boxing Slam on Monday. Hope to see you there.

    -Todd Anderson

  4. Kamillah says:

    Im doing a speech on spoken word in school. I am a new spoken word artist but have been writing poems since 7 th grade and I’m 25now. If any one can help me out on where i can get info on the histry would be great. Maybe some names of some books or magazines. Thank You! This website was helpful.

  5. Hey Kamillah,

    We can give you some background on the history of slam poetry, but the history of spoken word isn’t really a history that people can accurately tell, as it’s as old as language. As long as people have told stories by firelight, as long as peoples have told their shared history, “spoken word” as an art has existed.

    -Cole

  6. Mike Mlek says:

    While I may come back and comment on this more fully, I have one very important standard to add to the list.

    11. Be clear. After hearing your poem once, virtually every audience member should be able to walk away and describe or explain your poem in one simple sentence. Your poem can be complex and layered and detailed (and should be), but it should leave one dominant taste in your audience’s mouths.

    Some examples: Guante’s “Family Business” is a poem about a janitor who plays chess and thinks of himself as a pawn. Sierra Demulder’s “Mrs. Dahmer” is Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother talking about her relationship with her son. Shane Hawley’s “Love You Like That” is a poem that hilariously compares love to pop culture icons. Khary Jackson’s “Her Name” is about an old man with Alzheimers who can’t remember his wife’s name. Michael Mlekoday’s “Starspangled” is about being Polish and losing your cultural heritage in America.

    Obviously, these examples oversimplify the poems and miss what makes them so great. However, that might be how a typical audience member remembers them, what they walk away with, and it’s important that they are able to articulate clearly what it is that you just shared with them.

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