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.
2. Substance > 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. And yes, I know that this is a particularly controversial point in poetry circles, but it's what I believe.
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.
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.
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.
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.