Happy to have an outstanding poet and spoken word artist in the pub today…and handing the mic to Ami Mattison who prepared this wonderful article for us..
There are no hard-and-fast rules for writing spoken word poetry. Like poetry in general, spoken word poetry can’t be boxed-in. Still, how to write spoken word is a concern for poets interested in reading or performing their poetry for live audiences. So, I’d like to highlight a few observations about spoken word poetry as an aesthetic style, examine a specific example, and then offer an exercise for writing a successful spoken word poem.
Spoken word is intended for a listening audience. Thus, it must somehow manage to speak itself in a way that makes its various images and metaphors easily apparent, or accessible, to any listener and not necessarily to someone “schooled” in poetry or even spoken word. Sure, a lot of spoken word poems need to be heard several times to appreciate all the nuances of meanings. But the success of a spoken word poem depends upon being able to convey its meanings in a single performance.
As a result, translucency, or poetic transparency is a key element of spoken word poetry. So, how does a spoken word poem achieve translucency? Well, it does so not much differently than any poem. For instance, the use of narrative, repetition, and direct address to the audience is common to spoken word poetry. Also, spoken word poetry often utilizes language one hears spoken in common parlance and images that manage to be familiar and yet not clichéd. But a popular element of spoken word poetry that I want to focus on is its use of first-person point of view.
Check out Minton Sparks poem “Fill Her Up.”
Watching and listening to Sparks’ performance, you can see why the poem lends itself so well to being spoken to a live audience. Without sacrificing poetic complexity, Sparks’ manages to use rather simple descriptions for a memorable portrait of a woman who works as a gas station attendant.
But the entire piece is framed as Sparks’ personal story. Yes, this is the daughter’s portrait of the mother, but it is also Sparks’ portrait of herself. And because it’s written in first-person, we, as the audience, have a tangible narrator with which to identify in the poem and which is then mirrored by Sparks’ stage presence.
And that’s the rather simple “trick” of utilizing first-person address for spoken word. As an audience, we tend to suspend disbelief with first-person accounts of all kinds, thereby trusting the truthfulness of the narrator. But we are even more likely to believe and allowed to be led by a piece that speaks to us in everyday language with images that are familiar. So, in the final instance, the voice of the spoken word poem written in first-person point of view resonates as immediate, intimate, and familiar.
As an exercise in writing a spoken word poem, consider how you tend to speak to others. Examine your own language choice in your every day interactions. Now, write a first-person account in the unique voice you use every day. Utilize words you’re likely to use or encounter in daily interactions, as well as images that are familiar to you. See what happens when you utilize your poetic skills to take your unique voice and its mundane language and let it speak an interesting and compelling poem written in first-person point of view.