Spoken word isn’t about a handful of “great” artists who have lots of video views or publishing accolades; it’s about how everyone has a story, and every story has value.
In that spirit, I wanted to consolidate a few resources, links, and tips that I’ve shared with young (and not-so-young) people all over the country. If YOU are interested in spoken word (or poetry, writing, art, more generally), whether that means finding somewhere to share your work, getting feedback to sharpen your craft, or just being around poets and building community, here are a few thoughts. Feel free to add more in the comments below.
1. Show Up: Attend an Open Mic or Poetry Slam
One of the best ways to get involved is to simply dive in—whether as a performer or just as an audience member. Spoken word is built around open mics, poetry slams, and other spaces in which anyone can show up and share something. While I realize that not everyone reading this lives in the Twin Cities, here is my big list of Twin Cities open mics, slams, and other opportunities. If you’re here, use it. If you’re not here, do a little searching and find the similar events in your community. Specifically, I want to shout out two of TruArtSpeaks‘ programs:
- The Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series (happens every January-March); a huge opportunity for MN youth poets to meet each other, tell their stories, and have fun.
- The ReVerb Open Mic (free, all ages; happens every Thursday night, year-round, 7pm at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in Saint Paul); one of the most community-oriented, supportive open mics I’ve been to.
- There’s also Button Poetry Live, The Free Black Table, the OUTspoken open mic, college slams, and much more. Here’s the full list.
- This list is more spoken word-oriented, but if you’re looking for information on how to dive into the publishing world, here’s a potential starting point.
2. Build Your Cypher: Connect with Other Writers
Writing is about community. Many high schools and colleges have spoken word clubs, and showing up to those can be a great first step. If you’re a student and your school doesn’t have one, start one!
It doesn’t have to be as formal as a club or student organization. What counts is community—maybe it’s just a circle of friends who meet up once a week to give each other feedback. Maybe it’s an online document that multiple people can edit. But getting feedback from other writers, having someone to bounce ideas around with (and not just trade Instagram likes)—that’s vital.
Revision is 85% of the battle. First drafts are not ever as good as they potentially could be. Break out of the mindset that the poem is this magical, perfect thing that just bursts fully-formed from your head. Your peers, friends, and mentors can have a lot to offer.
3. Read More, Watch More, Write More
The deluge of poetry on Instagram and YouTube over the past five years or so has meant that there’s more poetry than ever before, right at your fingertips. I’d argue that this is a good thing, but the flipside is that there’s a lot of not-so-great work out there too. That’s natural; that’s fine. But it can make learning and growing as an artist a challenge: is the IG poem with ten thousand likes a “good” poem? Is your poem, that didn’t win the poetry slam, a “bad” poem? What does that even mean?
There aren’t easy answers to those questions, if there are answers at all. The key is to never stop developing your critical eye/ear. This is work. Almost every poet or artist I know whom I would call successful has years and years of work under their belts. That work doesn’t have to be some fancy, inaccessible degree or whatever– but it does have to be work. That work can be fun, though. Here are a few thoughts and resources:
- Some good background info: Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Spoken Word and Slam Poetry
- While online video providers have thousands of poems you could potentially watch, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend just typing “slam poetry” into a YouTube search bar. Here are a couple of lists of poems that might provide good starts:
- My big list of 100+ poems/videos for use by social justice educators.
- Button Poetry’s channel, showcasing the most current work by current practitioners.
- An ongoing project of mine analyzing some new poems on Button’s channel.
- The YouTube channels of YouthSpeaks and TruArtSpeaks, both featuring work by young poets.
- This is my website, so I may as well shout out my own videos, haha.
- In terms of books, there are too many great poets to shout out here, but a couple of presses that regularly publish work by poets who also participate in spoken word: Write Bloody, Button Poetry, Coffee House Press, Haymarket Books– I could go on and on; feel free to add more in the comments. There are also journals and zines like Poetry Magazine, Paper Darts, Mizna, Muzzle, and many, many more.
- Lots of social media accounts share poetry; a lot of is bad. There are some, though, that regularly share good, curated stuff: @PoetryMagazine, @SlowDownShow, @POETSorg, and Litbowl.
- Check out the VS podcast w/ Franny Choi and Danez Smith.
- Every April, TruArtSpeaks shares a daily writing prompt. Other sites, organizations, and accounts do this as well. Try to find some you like, and potentially try writing a 30/30 (30 poems in thirty days).
4. Take Advantage of Opportunities to Sharpen Your Craft
For artists, growth can happen both inside and outside of formal spaces. Classes, workshops, conferences, festivals, cyphers, e-classes– wherever you can find that support, take advantage of it. Again, to use the Twin Cities as an example, a few shout outs:
- TruArtSpeaks’ Flip the Script! Youth Writing and Performance Conference.
- TruArtSpeaks’ ReVerb Writing Circle: very first Thursday of the month, 6pm at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in Saint Paul.
- The Loft Literary Center offers multiple classes and workshop opportunities.
- Black Lines Matter presented by Black Table Arts.
- The weekly Well-Placed Commas workshop.
- The Asian-American Literary Collective
- Slam Camp
- UW-Madison’s First Wave Program
- Six Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started as an Artist
5. My Video Series on Spoken Word Tips, Tools, and TacticsIf the opportunities in the last point aren’t as accessible to you– there are some good tools on the internet too. This video series is about sharing some of the ideas that have been helpful to me as a writer and performer. Honestly, when people send me their poems for feedback, 95% of the time, my feedback is based on video #2 and video #5. More videos on the way.
- Intro/Five Things I Look for in Poems
- On Concrete Language, Specificity, and Turning Ideas into Poems
- Spoken Word Performance Tips and a Note on “Poet Voice”
- On “Diving In” and Getting Involved with Spoken Word
- On Revision
- Even though my TEDx Talk isn’t specifically about poetry, it does contain a lot of insight into my writing process and may be worth a watch.
A running theme through all of these points is the idea that craft matters. Of course, if you’re just writing poetry for your own healing or enjoyment, whether some other poet or critic likes it or not is beside the point. But if you’re someone who is trying to make a career out of it, or really wants to find some measure of concrete success (book sales, publishing credits, a larger audience, etc.), then I hope these links, thoughts, and resources can be useful.
(BONUS POINT) 6. Live Your Life
Writing is important, but the best poems don’t come from locking ourselves away in a cabin and just writing for 20 hours every day. They come from engaging with our community, showing up to things, experiencing the world, having conversations, organizing and rabble-rousing, thinking critically, and then writing. Have fun.
(BONUS POINT) 7. Quick/Basic Writing Advice
There isn’t enough space here to go too in-depth with writing tips, but if I could share anything with an aspiring poet, it’d be this. The poems that stick with me…
- …tend to be driven by images, not just ideas. They’re not just “deep thoughts” or manifestos; they use imagery, storytelling, and metaphor to go beyond the surface of an idea.
- …tend to have creative HOOKS: the concept or angle that makes a poem fresh. How is your love poem different from all the other love poems out there? How is it uniquely yours?
- …tend to be focused and specific. They don’t try to tell “the whole story.” They take one moment from that story, zoom in, and explore it.
- …tend to be more concerned with being timely than timeless. You are free to agree or disagree with this one! I appreciate poems that comment on the world as it is, and/or try to help me envision a better one.
Check out the zine for more!