Monday, May 06, 2013

Five Lessons Slam Poetry Taught Me About Media

Originally published at Opine Season

Jumping off from last week’s piece, here are a few thoughts on how those of us who write press releases, design flyers or websites, write essays or op-eds, give speeches, organize and promote events, post on social media, or engage in other kinds of media work can learn from arts practices. Specifically, slam poetry (the art/sport of competitive spoken-word) provides a few conventions to consider. And please save the “but slam poetry sucks” comments; that’s not what this is about, and I’ve written about that elsewhere.

Keep it short and punchy
The first time I read the phrase “tl;dr,” I had the same incredulous, monocle-popping reaction that many of you might have when you learn that it stands for “too long; didn’t read.” I asked the same old questions: Is our culture becoming less intelligent? Is this the end of art? Does everything have to be a dumbed-down soundbite now?

Of course, that’s an overreaction. Sure, people have shorter attention spans these days, but that’s not necessarily cause for alarm, just cause for adjustment. Just as slam poems have to make as big of an impact as possible in under three minutes, a time/length ceiling can be as much of a strength as it is a weakness. Challenge yourself to identify the main idea, seek out constructive criticism, trim the fat, and keep the forward momentum.

Identify your hook
As someone who is around poetry all the time, I hear a lot of beautifully written, powerfully performed poems. But the ones I remember, the ones that stick with me years into the future, are the ones that have fully realized hooks. The hook is the concept, the thing that makes your love poem different from all the other love poems. A good hook allows me to describe the poem in one sentence to someone else and have them know what I’m talking about: “that poem that uses Wile E. Coyote as a metaphor for addiction,” or “that poem where a black woman writes from the perspective of a white skinhead,” or “that runaway slave love poem,” etc.

In media terms, that means reaching beyond the basic information you’re presenting or the straightforward narrative and attempting to make some connections. This essay, for example, could just be “tips for media professionals,” but I’m using slam poetry as a lens to give those tips some context. It doesn’t have to be anything revolutionary—just something that makes it stick out from the pack, that frames your idea in a novel or engaging way.

The importance of craft, or “it is not enough to just be right”
I can think of dozens of poems that I agree with on a political or philosophical level but do not like. It is one thing to be “right” about an issue; it is something else entirely to be effective at communicating, clearly and powerfully, why you are “right.” The relevance of this simple idea to progressive and/or social justice circles cannot be overstated, but that’s another essay.

While poetry has a reputation for being “difficult,” I’ve found that my favorite poems use simple language and straightforward images to explore something profound, and the best non-artistic writing should follow suit—no jargon, no buzzwords, no abstract intellectualizing of the issues or holier-than-thou attitudes. Let’s tell stories. Let’s paint pictures. Let’s put a human face on our ideas and values and make them come to life.

Acknowledge context and audience
I have something like 50 poems in my head. At any given performance, I choose which ones to pull out, so being able to read the audience is an invaluable skill. As a media worker in any field, you have to know who your likely audience is, and who your target audience is (maybe they overlap; maybe they don’t). This will allow you to craft your writing to have maximum impact. Again, having a good message is not enough; saying “my audience is everyone” is a nice thought but not realistic. It’s about strategic thinking.

Competitiveness can have an upside
The oldest criticism of slam poetry is that art shouldn’t be about competition. And the oldest response to that criticism is that art is already about competition, and that slam just acknowledges that in an attempt to subvert it. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, there are some important lessons here.

The media landscape is vast. Those of us who do media justice work, promote progressive causes, or just want to break through the static have an uphill battle. Whether the struggle is to get the people who already agree with you to act, to convince the people who don’t know any better to agree with you, or to reach out into hostile territory with a new message, a little competitive chip on your shoulder can help. Be ambitious. Watch your web analytics, set goals, and experiment with tactics. Collaborate and push one another. Believe in the value and importance of what you’re doing.

I know there may be a limited audience for a piece like this, but I hope some of this can be useful. Feel free to share any other tips or strategies, whether arts-related or not, in the comments.

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