How To Write Spoken Word Poetry

How To Write Spoken Word Poetry

Before you can write poetry that flows as spoken word, you need to understand what makes spoken word poetry different from written poetry. Spoken word poetry is more than just reading a prepared piece of text or prose. Spoken word poetry is performance. Spoken word poetry is about taking your writing and making it come alive by giving it rhythm, tone, and emotion. To do this, you have to consider how you can adapt the techniques of poetry to spoken word performance.

Write something spontaneous and precious

Spoken word poetry is centered on the effects of words, spoken aloud. You just need to say something courageous. If you want to be a spoken word poet, then practice a skill that is completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. Get out your headphones and write a poem alone in a room. If you can keep working on it even if no one else is there, then you’ll give your spoken words lots of meaning. You should be 100% sure that when you speak, people pay attention. If you want to have a powerful spoken word, then your word choice and voice have to be perfect.

Improve your vocabulary

Spoken word poetry is meant to be performed, which means, of course, that audience expectation plays a huge role in its structure and effectiveness. The best performers are polished, rich in wordplay, and generally exude quick wit. This requires more thought in mere definition of what your word choices mean, and that can only be achieved by expanding your vocabulary. You don’t need to blindly memorize perfect diction, but if you familiarize yourself with bigger words in your niche — think of them like a culinary tastemaker — your performances will be much more informed and impactful.

Another important part of writing a powerful poetry performance is knowing the basic elements of a formal poem. Poetics, line length, and rhyme scheme make a great poem, and are essential elements of how to write spoken word poetry, too. Your spoken word poems should adhere to these basic aspects, which often consist of determination of standard line length, choice of poetic rhyme scheme, and how to define each individual line. Poetics change slightly from genre to genre and the most prominent variations in subgenres — like haiku, which only uses three lines instead of four — but they will set the pace for your piece.

Listen to the pieces over and over

Look for the continuity of the message, and listen for the ways the poet creates emotional effect through rhythm and sound. Specifically, notice breath control, enunciation, volume, resonance, pauses, and pace. Pay attention to the beginning and the end of poetry, and see how the poet has shaped each element of the piece. Sit back after listening to the piece, and think about what the poet wants to say. Consider the form the poem takes, and how the poet has used language to express the meaning.

Also listen for things that have nothing to do with the spoken word writer’s message. For instance, how is the poet’s friendly or abrasive personality coming through in her voice? Is she confident or bland? Precise or hurried? Is she clearly an experienced speaker, or is she still finding her footing? Consider any transitions in the spoken word poetry, and how the poet has brought them off. What sound effects are noticeable? Recite the poem again with an eye for inspiration, clarity, imagery, and insight. When you really analyze how a piece of spoken word poetry that you’ve listened to is put together, you’ll learn about its structure, its message, and from that, the secrets you need to know in order to write spoken word poetry.

Use a script to generate material

When you listen to rap or slam poetry, you probably feel a natural progression of thought. When words are spoken instead of written, you can create an exciting performance piece. But spoken word work is still poetry. When you set out to write spoken word poetry, it is important to use the same techniques as written poetry. Start by writing a script for the performance piece you have plotted out. The script will give you everything, down to each adverb, pause, and character action. One source recommends that you take an entire notebook page for each line of your performance piece. The script can serve as the beginning of the journey.

With your script in hand, start by reading it out loud. Try reading it to different people. They may pick up on things that you, the author, weren’t thinking of. Try inflecting your voice in different ways, to see how the text sounds. If you are not a poet or experienced with performing, it may be worth it to practice your piece. For many, feeling comfortable with the words before delivering them live will make a bad poem seem great. Do not be discouraged if you make mistakes while practicing. Mistakes are important— they teach you how to be authentic.

Record yourself

Take some time to record yourself reading a poem you’ve already written. This will allow you to practice speaking with the correct pacing and tone for the poem. It will also help you evaluate your writing style. Do you speak and write quickly, or slowly? Do you choose your words carefully, or are you a more conversational writer? The answers to these questions will help you develop a feel for what works well in spoken word poetry. After you’ve been practicing speaking to yourself, try recording yourself again, but this time with a partner, or with a small group of friends. Are they as raptly paying attention to your words as you imagine your future audience would be? Would a performance of this poem in front of other people feel unnatural or uncomfortable? If it would, it’s probably a good idea to rework the poem until it isn’t.

This step may seem like a no-brainer. Even so, many poets find it difficult to get into the habit of recording themselves regularly. You might not have a lot of time to waste this way, so make sure to carve a spare half hour out of your day, and keep note of how much time you’ve spent reading and recording every day. Before you know it, you’ll have spent an entire hour in a focused writing session, and you can start filling your notebook with new poems.

Tell an engaging story

The art of spoken word poetry is more than the skill of delivering lines methodically. Poetry should be enjoyable to listen to, not only in sentiment but in flow as well. Aiming for production quality in a recording can demand choices on your part that will affect each of the six elements of a poem. How you pronounce each word and how you shape the oral rhythm of each line drastically changes how the words land in your listeners ears. How loud you deliver each line affects whether your poetry has the visceral, physical power of music or the subwoofer punch of a movie trailer. How you emphasize certain words changes the emotional subtext of your message. How you pace your delivery changes how your audience consumes your work. Ultimately, you want to focus not only on the meaning of your words, but the sound they produce as well.

The next major step is structuring how to write spoken word poetry so that each stanza translates to a memorable sound image. If your poetry is multisyllabic, the best way to give each word equal playing time is to expand your line length. Simultaneously splitting your work so that every tenth line is repeated is a strategy in creolizing your work. At the very least, aim to manipulate the pacing of your delivery to the rhythm or cadence of your work. Whatever you do, don’t be lazy by reading lines mechanically and equally. Delivering every line with equal stress provides a good baseline to work from, but you can easily change that with inflection and timing. Once you get a sense of how the vocal performances work against each other, start looking deeper into how to write poetry that harmonizes with this layering.

Develop your rhythm

Rhythm is an essential part of spoken word poetry. The best poetry sounds like music, and rhythmic poetry has an even deeper urgency and clarity. With so much variation in cadence and pacing, how can you possibly write words that you want to be read aloud in the way that they’re supposed to be read? 

First, think of poetry as musical notes. Each word is like a drum beat that signals a pause, or the flow of a letter or phrase. Now, fill out your rhythm. Listen for repeating patterns and phrases in your narration, and let them influence the rhythm of your poem. These repeating phrases don’t even have to be exact — different combinations can add to your overall rhythm and help focus your attention. Listen to how rappers and musicians work with rhythm to increase their flow — and then steal it shamelessly.

Not to insult your originality at all — there are not enough readers for your poem already? You’re probably not the first one to write it. Mimic other people’s wording and writing styles from your favorite authors and play with how you approach the rhythm of your poem. Make sure to switch it up and make it yours — everyone else is already taking from others, so why not take from yourself? Experiment writing your poetry first in line breaks, and then in true stanza form.

Set your poems to music

Spoken word poetry is generally a performance art form, which means that ideally, you’ll want your poems to be written in a rhythm that lends itself to the natural stopping and starting of sentences. If you have perfect rhymes and alliteration and you are sure your poem fits in a speech format, a metered iambic pentameter can be helpful in creating a rhythm that will work in spoken increments. But if you’re not quite sure your poetry will lend itself to a mouthful of a sentence, set your poems to music to get a feel for how the words can be broken down. For instance, if you’re writing about body image, play with how many times you must pause and include a “heavy beat” phrase before you can “breathe” again and then start for a new line. You’ll find interesting rhythmic opportunities that will help create the rhythm of your poem.

The goal for written spoken word is to set yourself up to properly pronounce every single word. The words, their structure, and their order need to be presented so that the listener understands, even when they are in a competition with the din and the music of other open mics. To reach as many ears and as many voices as possible, practice and rehearsal is a must. No one will want to hear you stumble in J.S. Bach’s mighty prose.

Play with technique

Without hooks to hang visuals upon, you want to find other ways to make your poems stand out with their delivery. One effective approach is to read with a different vocal technique in every poem. In one, you might slow down to savor every syllable. In the next, you might focus on making an impression with a series of rhymes and sound plays. Another route is to strike a different attitude or personas for each poem — creating a distinct voice for each piece. Another way to harness the power of spoken word poetry is to study the kinetics of sound itself. Depending on the poem, you could bring in everything from simple rhythm and rhyme, to complex musical techniques, polyphony, and maybe even opera. Teaching yourself vocal percussion, melisma, and other techniques for making sounds, years before you even know you need them, will make mastering the art of oral poetry that much easier

By blending and varying the different way you speak, you’ll end up with a more impressive concert of poems than if you had just read them one way. By constantly drawing from a diverse palette of vocal techniques and speeds, you’ll be much better-equipped to handle anything that happens in the hall that night, or to wow your readers when you put the book together. This not only makes your poem stand out. It also gives you a greater range when it comes to how you can form your poems. If you’ve already performed a poem with a certain method and style, it’s a great constraint to work within when you’re writing it.

The key, of course, is practice. The more comfortable you are with injecting rhythm and poetry into your normal speech patterns, the better. Start small, with your friends and colleagues, and work up to larger venues. It takes time, but once you get the hang of patterns and rhythm, you’ll see how you can make your spoken words stand out more. One thing to always keep in mind is tone — you can write any number of great stanzas that achieve your desired emotions, but if your poem doesn’t sound natural, your readers will be turned off. As you continue to write more spoken word poetry, you will learn to better balance content and delivery to create pieces that silence your audience. Then you can add music and other elements to take your art to the next level, so you are ready for public performances and broad publishing. And if all goes well, the world will someday be listening for your voice.

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