***Be sure to check out my new Spoken Word and Slam Poetry Resource Hub too***
(Updated June 2022)
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. “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 with a little research, you may be able to find a virtual open mic 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 is 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 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! For those of us not in school, maybe there’s a local literary or arts organization that offers a writing circle.
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 (and not just trade Instagram likes)—that can be really powerful.
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 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—but it does have to be work. It can be fun, though. Here are a few thoughts and resources:
- Some grounding: 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:
- 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 and The Poetry Question for interviews with practitioners.
- 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.
- 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.
5. 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)
- 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.”
(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.