Niche Editors Write: “Poetry Out Loud: Writing for Performance”

by Katie Cantwell

Despite the fact that the tradition of poets performing their work aloud for an audience is not new, as poets as far back as Homer have been doing it, it still seems to be considered revolutionary by people outside the poetry community. It makes sense then that there’s a thriving species of poets who are writing today with their main priority being to read their poem aloud for an audience gathered for the very purpose of hearing poetry. This new practice is aptly called ‘spoken word,’ since, literally, it’s poetry meant to be spoken, and not just read from a book. For the poets, they’re not just reading a poem out loud, they’re performing their poem or ‘spitting a piece’ as it’s called in the most colloquial context. While, it’s not unusual for a spoken word poet to publish their work on paper or online and to encourage people to read it, they write with the intention of a vocal reading.

So how are the poems of poets who identify as spoken word poets different than those of the writers who identify as normal poets? It’s hard to tell on paper. We’ll focus on the poem, Blue Blanket, by Andrea Gibson, who has published her work in the form of books and albums, and has placed at many state, national, and international poetry slams. 

When reading Blue Blanket, a couple things stand out as they do with any poem on the page: line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization, etc. Then there’s the rhyme scheme: the poem is not controlled by a central scheme. When reading it, the lines seem to unpredictably change from free verse to rhyming then back to free verse, and even when the lines do rhyme, they don’t always rhyme in uniform ways throughout the poem. Still, the emotion in the poem comes across, through strong syntax, and uses of imagery that will stay with the reader long after the poem is read. 

However, when you listen to it, Blue Blanket seems to be a completely different poem. Gibson’s breaths fill the gaps between words where silence would have been, and bring across all the energy she performs with. The way Gibson uses her rhythm on stage is similar to her use of the rhyme scheme on paper in that it is eloquently inconsistent; her rhythm has stops and starts, building in tempo early in the poem only to pull in the reins and pause on and then repeat the word, “stop” in the first half. When she starts speaking again, her voice is softer, but you fall back into her rhythm once more as it increases, her enunciation impeccable despite the emotion remaining thick in her voice. The varying rhyme scheme, or lack thereof since the rhymes don’t seem to be scheduled, suddenly becomes the rhythm that carries the poem through changes in tempo. The internal rhymes are far more pronounced, and rhymed lines and unrhymed lines cooperate in a way that’s unpredictable. The poem is simply not the same poem on the page as it is on the stage. 

Spoken word poetry doesn’t just change how the poem is received by the audience; it also changes how the poet thinks when he or she is writing. I wrote spoken word poetry full time for two years when competing in poetry slams, and now go between both spoken word and poetry meant more for the page. From my experience, the writing process changes between the two just like the experience each gives; priorities change, and so does the method of writing. With spoken word, I start thinking about the way words sound together, how they sound alone, the weight on different syllables, and the unintentional rhymes that can happen when slang is incorporated, or the way the sound of vowels can change when they’re said with a different emphasis or speed. Words appear in the mind as sounds instead of visual pictures of letters, and phrases are like lines of music with specific beats and lilts to syllables. When writing a poem, I make something that is going to be seen with the human eye and read with the mind. Alliteration is processed by seeing the same letter among groups of words, whereas when a poem is performed, alliteration is processed by hearing the letters. Most often no one thinks of how a poem would look on the page, or how words would look written down when listening to a piece. There is the added pressure of knowing that I will likely only have one chance to make my piece have an emotional connection with the audience, therefore, my poem must gain and hold their attention; not only must I put emotion into my poem, but I must channel it correctly so that it can stay with the audience and not dissolve into noise. 

 A reader can read the poem at whatever pace they like; I naturally read poems slowly. This is, I think, the largest difference between spoken word poetry and normal poetry: when listening to a poem, the audience gives up all control they had on the poem. They must go at whatever tempo the poet takes the piece, they cannot go back and reread a line multiple times, and they cannot skip over a poem or decide to stop halfway through. In a performance, the poet fiercely owns the poem, and has control of the rhythm it takes, the emphasis on chosen words, the quickness or slowness of its tempo and any increases or decreases in said tempo; the audience is on a roller coaster and the poet is at the control panel. It can disorient an unfamiliar audience at first, but I’ve seen people cry and laugh in the same performance, literally hold their breath through parts of a poem, and scream when the poet finished as if they were at a rock concert instead of a performance.

When it comes down to it, the two methods are really just different mediums for the same art: poetry. Both focus on the intricate arrangement of words in a relatively small space to create a form of art, and both aim to communicate with an outside audience, to invoke an emotional response. I have read and listened to both, and written both to get myself through tough times. Though a poet will think about them differently when they are writing, they are still doing it as a somewhat fundamental form of self expression. That feeling of breathlessness when a poem finishes can follow both a reading and a performance, and a poet can still agonize over a single word in both. I’d encourage poets who have tried one of the two and are considering trying the other to jump in and do it. Writing with both mediums continues to impact the way I write poetry and gives me a greater variety of ideas when I’m stuck. It also opens poets up to new circles of writers to connect with and share ideas with. I was unsure about spoken word at first, and even less sure about the idea of performing, but it turned out to be the best thing I could have done for my writing. 

You can buy an MP3 Blue Blanket from Andrea Gibson’s album Swarm from Amazon.

This guest post was originally published on Niche’s website on February 9th, 2012.

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