***Updated Summer 2022. Also, be sure to check out my new Spoken Word and Slam Poetry Resource Hub***
There’s no one way to write, perform, publish, or live poetry. This post simply shares some tools, resources, and perspectives that have been useful to me as a poet, especially a spoken word poet.
Spoken word is about the idea that everyone has a story, and every story matters. While it’s often talked about as something new, it’s deeply connected to the history of the oral tradition, the storyteller, the griot. For a (relatively) more in-depth introduction, check out Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Spoken Word and Slam Poetry.
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. “Showing up” might also mean checking out events or programs where we’re not performing—go to another poet’s reading, or the launch party for a literary magazine’s new issue, or a panel discussion: these can all be spaces to learn more, have fun, and build community.
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.
Of course, if you’re reading this during the pandemic, this may be easier said than done. But “showing up” can mean more than physically attending events. With a little research, you may be able to find a virtual open mic (like Sabrina Benaim’s) or other kind of online community, which relates to the next point.
2. Build Your Cypher: Connect with Other Writers
There is a stereotype that writing *must* be an intensely personal, individual act. And I don’t think that’s right. To me, writing is about community. Many high schools and colleges have poetry 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! For those of us not in school, maybe there’s a local literary or arts organization that offers a writing circle. There are also online writing circles, like Neil Hilborn’s.
As an introvert, I also know that this point can also be easier said than done. But 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. Maybe it’s literally just one other person. But getting feedback from other writers, having someone to bounce ideas around with—that can be really powerful.
- A few Twin Cities examples:
- Other examples:
- Button Poetry offers online classes
- Neil Hilborn’s online writing circle
- Again, a little online research may turn up other opportunities. You can also check out my (soon to be updated/overhauled) video series sharing tips, tools, and tactics for spoken word poets, with sessions on using concrete language, the revision process, performance tips, and more.
- You can also researching writing residencies in your area. Here is some basic info on writing residencies via Maria Robinson at Catapult, as well as Hannah Bae’s A Person of Color’s Guide to Navigating Writing Residencies.
3. Read More, Watch More, Write More
The deluge of poetry on social media 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 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—but it does have to be work. It can be fun, though. Here are a few thoughts and resources:
- 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 educators.
- Curated YouTube channels that showcase work by current practitioners:
- Other databases, social media accounts (Twitter handles here, but should be easy to find on IG or other platforms too), & resources:
- 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.
- 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).
- Poet Ollie Schminkey also regularly shares some great writing prompts here.
4. A Few Links Related to Publishing and Career Stuff
My work generally focuses on performance, so I don’t have much advice when it comes to publishing. But I can share a few links that may be useful:
- The Academy of American Poets’ “Writing and Publishing FAQ” resource
- Lammergeier’s “Lit Mag Crash Course”
- Lincoln Michel’s “Everything I’ve Learned about Being a ‘Professional’ Writer in One Post”
- UW-Madison’s First Wave Program (an opportunity for high schoolers seriously considering a future in the arts, especially spoken word)
- This may be a longer post later, but for now, some food for thought on writing as a career, from Dan Sinykin and Ariana Brown.
- From my book: All Advice is Bad Advice, Including the Advice that All Advice is Bad Advice
- I will also shout out the “zines” page here on this website, which I think can be an interesting entry point into the idea of self-publishing and thinking beyond traditional methods of getting our work “out there.”
5. A Few Tips and Tools I’d Share With Myself If I Had a Time Machine
Advice is a tricky thing, since we all write for different reasons. Some just write for fun, or for a release. Some are trying to get published and build careers. Some are creating work to support movements and inspire people. So an important framework for me is the idea of TOOLS, NOT RULES: general tips and tactics that may or may not be useful based on what we’re trying to do. I asked a few poet friends to share some:
- Read! “Too many poets don’t read anyone but themselves, or random quotes on social media. Read books—poetry, but also fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, everything. Audio books count.”
- Have writers’ block? “Take a break and get inspiration from other media: movies, music, visual art, and beyond.”
- Stage fright? “A powerful tactic that we tend to forget because it’s so simple is to practice. Build relationships with your poems through repetition.”
- The most important part of writing is revising. “Let your first drafts emerge in whatever way makes sense for you, but don’t be satisfied with them.”
- Take your time. “Especially with social media, there can be pressure to share everything, get published, go viral, etc. right away. I wish I had recognized that pressure for what it is: completely artificial, and often harmful. Set your own pace.”
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 or issue. This relates to the concept of “showing vs. telling,” but again, for me, that’s a useful a concept to understand, a tool—not a rule.
- Tend to have creative HOOKS: the concept or angle that makes a poem fresh. How is your love poem, elegy, or call-to-action different from all the other ones 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. I appreciate poems that engage with the world as it is, and/or try to help me envision a better one. Feel free to disagree!
A few poems that illustrate these concepts (not necessarily the “best” poems or anything like that; just ones that I think represent spoken word in a powerful way and might serve as a useful introduction to the culture):
- Ariana Brown: Ode to Thrift Stores
- Danez Smith: Alternate Heaven for Black Boys
- Suheir Hammad: First Writing Since
- Sierra DeMulder: Paper Dolls
- Rudy Francisco: The Heart and the Fist (and here’s a classroom-friendly version of Rudy performing this on the Tonight Show with the alternate title, Rifle)
- Patricia Smith: Skinhead
- Kevin Yang: Come Home
- Robbie Q. Telfer: Clowns
- William Nu’utupu Giles: Zombies (Made in America)
- Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body Is Not an Apology
- Ollie Schminkey: It’s Going to Be Okay
(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 (and “showing up” can mean a lot of different things, not just in-person activities), experiencing the world, having conversations, organizing and rabble-rousing, thinking critically, and then writing. Have fun.
It can also be very… tempting to see how poetry exists on social media and want to just immediately jump into sharing freewrites on IG and expecting overnight fame and fortune. And while that approach may work for a tiny, tiny number of people, it generally isn’t a good way to build a career. Social media can be a good way to share our work, but it’s most powerful when it’s supplementing what we’re doing offline (like building relationships, performing, showing up, reading, writing, etc.), not being a substitute for it. That’s a whole other post, but wanted to share that thought.
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.