How to Develop a Poem for Spoken Word Performance Part II

Writing Tips
  • Find your own voice. How do you find and develop your own voice? First, recite your poem, go with what feels natural, and really listen to what’s unique about your style of speaking. Remember that the poem needs to develop and grow into something unique to you and interesting to audiences. Once you’ve carefully listened to your natural speaking voice, try experimenting. Vary your pitch, rhythm, speed, and volume. Play around with emphases on different words. Try singing, yelling, or whispering. The point is to start making some interesting choices with your voice and to commit to them. As you recite and listen to each line of your poem, consider carefully the meanings and determine the best way to enhance those meanings with your vocal style.
  • Breathe. Without breath, there is no voice. It’s important to consider when and where to inhale and exhale. Again, go with what feels natural. If you need to breathe, then breathe. But you can also begin to make choices around your breath. You may want to use breath or breathing for a dramatic effect; or you may want to get to the end of those run-on lines before you inhale again. Just remember that breathing is an important part of any vocal performance.
  • Add gestures and movement. It’s best if the gestures and movement you employ in your performance have specific meaning or seem natural and spontaneous. The key to strong gestures and body movements that enhance your performance is to make interesting choices and commit to them. If hand or body movements don’t enhance what you’re saying, then try to stand still, let your arms relax by your sides, and focus on your voice instead. If you want to make dramatic, stylized gestures, then be bold. There’s a saying in stage theatre circles: If you’re going to make a mistake, then make a BIG mistake. In other words, commit whole-heartedly to the gesture or movement, and make it big and noticeable, as small gestures often go unnoticed in stage performance. If your piece is conversational or quiet, then use gestures and movements that are natural mannerisms for you. Also, try to avoid canned, predictable, or stereotypical gestures (unless that’s your point). Most of all, don’t be afraid to move. Use your whole body—your arms and legs, your face, your hands and feet. Play, experiment, and find what feels natural, spontaneous, or meaningful. Through this creative process, you’ll discover new ways to express yourself and your poem.
  • Rehearse. Rehearsal is foundational to offering solid performances on a consistent basis. Once you’ve made interesting choices with your voice and movements, keep working on them. Hone your performance. Try performing in a front of a mirror so you know what you look like and can see the impact that your gestures and movements make. Also, try recording your voice to hear what it sounds like to others. Using these tools, you’ll be better able to hone a solid performance. And be sure to rehearse an adequate amount of time. Nervousness and anxiety play a big role in the live performance experience; but if you know your piece, then you’ll be able to focus on executing it well, rather than being distracted by the reactions of the people watching, listening, and forming opinions about you and your poetry. There’s also such a thing as over-rehearsing. Try to find a nice balance between knowing your poem and running it into the ground until it sounds canned again. Try to keep it fresh.
  • Perform for your friends or family. Before you run off to that open mic or some other performance opportunity, try out your poem in front of others who you trust and who will give you positive and constructive feedback. Ask for suggestions, consider any advice given, and bask in the positive praise you’ll surely receive.
  • Perform for a live audience. Finally, you’ve developed your poem. You’ve adequately rehearsed it, and you’ve gotten feedback from loved ones. Now, you’re probably ready to perform. You’re also probably a little nervous, which is an important and necessary sign that you’re taking a creative risk. If you’re not at least a little nervous, then something is wrong—you’re not taking a risk, you’re not in touch with your emotions, you’re bored, or you just don’t care. In this case, you may not be ready to perform. A great performance hinges on passion, risk, and the honest and authentic expression of emotions. So, for your performance, get in touch with your emotions and focus on delivering your poem to the best of your ability. Probably, you’ll get positive and supportive feedback from the audience. At the very least, you’ll have the significant reward that comes with sharing your work, your thoughts, and your passion with others.
  • Evolve and grow. Keep rehearsing, and keep performing. Learn what works and what doesn’t from audience reactions. Let your performance evolve and grow over time. Keep it fresh by making new choices. Leave some choices open-ended, and let yourself be surprised by what you do when you’re actually performing. With continued rehearsal and live performance, your poem will grow and evolve into a whole, new creative experience.

All of these suggestions are intended to be helpful. If you don’t find them useful, then experiment with your own method of performance. The most important thing is that you find a way to creatively express yourself and to deliver your poetry in your own unique style.

What’s your experience in developing poems for performance? Do you use certain methods to offer a unique performance? Who are your favorite performance poets and what about their performances are unique?