On Spoken Word Poetry

To go with our spoken word poem VIDEO this week (“Transition to the Real World,” by Terese Mason Pierre), Poetry Reader Justin muses on the form.

On Spoken Word Poetry: Learning to Project Your Voice in the Shadow of Another’s

Image © Garry Knight (flickr.com)

Image © Garry Knight (flickr.com)

On those odd days in middle school when my fisherman father would be back on land long enough to drive me to class across town, he’d force me to work for the lift every single time. He, a great oral storyteller and phenomenal public speaker, used to make me play this game he liked to call Project Your Voice while I was trapped in the cab of his beat up old truck, trudging through morning traffic with him.

I was always a quiet and awkward kid, and Pappy was determined to help me find a voice – perhaps even my own, despite my nervousness and introversion – by reading aloud random newspaper and magazine articles, parts of old speeches he’d written, press releases, newsletters, etc. While driving, Dad would rummage through the disorganized piles of paperwork lying around the dashboard and floorboards of his truck, emerge victoriously with something he thought fitting, and toss it in my lap.

The first time he commanded me to read, I naturally begin to do so quietly to myself, as I had been indoctrinated from all my years of noiseless reading in the classroom. Dad interrupted my silent scanning with a “Nah, boy, read it out loud,” wryly smiling and following that by declaring, in his most animated tone, “Project your voice, booooy!,” then ah-ha-ha-ing to himself as if I understood the humor of the situation.

Even then, I think I was beginning to pick up on some of his delivery skills and his choice of stressing specific words for added effect. And as I voiced the words on the page, dad would encourage me to read louder, with more conviction, and like I actually cared, despite the less-than-interesting reading material. However, being the foolish, uninspired, and quiet kid I was back then, I only obeyed his instructions until the truck screeched into the parking lot and I was finally able to escape the vocal torture.

Little did I know how much use and relevance these Project Your Voice sessions would have on my later years of life as a performer. Had I known, I would have been less sarcastic about them then, and probably a better spoken word poet now.

Unbeknownst to the younger me, through his training, my dad was helping me connect with humanity’s long tradition of narrative storytelling. Consider that human languages – and appropriately, human stories – have existed for thousands of years before the printed word, and yet, for all that time prior, humans had been learning, sharing, and performing their stories. Humans had fulfilled their desires to communicate and to be understood – the main impetuses for the development of all human language – by speaking, and these desires continue to be found living implicitly within every spoken word poem. And in that vein, today’s spoken word poets are simply the next rendition of humanity’s storytellers – the modern manifestations of the West African griots; the Native American shamans; the Anglo-Saxon scops, and the Gaelic, Greek, and British bards.

But ever since spoken word’s most recent resurgence, there has been the debate of “page versus stage,” with the academy claiming that spoken word is somehow inferior because it is not printed, because it has arisen from the streets and the mouths of common people rather than from the learned minds of the ivory tower. In my work with both academic and performance poets (ignoring their overlap for the moment), I have noticed varied approaches to their writing of poetry. However, in general, the performance poets tend to arrive at the art by the urge of wanting to say something, and their passion to get their message out, to scream something into the void, pushes them to write. To this end, their reading of other, more-established poets, and their learning and implementation of traditional poetic and rhetorical devices, comes later, as they challenge themselves more and more to become stronger writers and performers.

On the flip side, the majority of academic poets tend to try to emulate their favorite poets and professors (and those writers’ tendencies), meekly attempting, at least at first, to push/publish something out into the world. It is only later that they come to find their own passions and are able to express them in their own, distinct voices. But the goal is always the same for both: to craft great writing – and a balanced blending of that passion and study is optimal for delighting and instructing audiences. And as the lines between academia and spoken word continue to blur, spoken word slowly gets more and more of the respect it deserves as a legitimate art form.

Partly as a result of my dad’s Project Your Voice sessions, partly as a desire to connect with others, I started writing poetry, quietly, in high school. And in all that time, I had never heard of anything beyond the tired, simple, seemingly apathetic poetry readings. But in college, I happened upon Vanderbilt Spoken Word, a group of awe-inspiring poets who reveled in performing their poetry live after penning it in their journals. I saw them perform a collective piece as part of my freshman orientation, and I was undeniably hooked, in a life-trajectory-altering sort of way. This physical performance aspect of poetry was the thing I was missing that I didn’t even realize I’d been missing, and I wanted to know how to be just as bold with my words.

From this community of talented writers and performers, I learned so much – about writing; about confidence; about being true to myself and my own voice; about taking and implementing critiques; about contributing to a creative collective; about racism, sexism, and classism; about people; and about puppet-mastering the emotions of a room filled with enraptured listeners – that I grew with them throughout the rest of college. This was poetry creating for me what would become lifelong friendships with fellow creatives who were still creating, and the spoken word particularly helped usher these positive and necessary changes into my life – helping me improve not only as a poet and performer, but as a person as well.

Photo by Dwayne Boyd (cut by us)

Photo by Dwayne Boyd (cut by us)

Because without spoken word, and its surrounding community which accepted me, I would have been content not to grow, I would have forgotten to project my voice, and I would have let my own stories wither in the shadow of another’s.

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