On spoken word poetry and its many wonders

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Monday, 5 May 2014 - Last Updated on May 12, 2014

By Edel Valera


The world needs more poets, and while there will always be this insatiable desire to express ourselves in whatever way we could, too many of us are scared to share our stories – or our verses, for that matter – for fear of being rejected. Thankfully, some people do step up, take to the stage, indulge us with their wordplay and forget about everything else.

“It’s like standing naked in front of everyone,” says Kooky Tuason of Bigkas Pilipinas in an interview with GMA News. Tuason is a performance poet and long-term advocate of performance poetry in the Philippines. “But after a while, you get the hang of it, and then you’d see a new dimension to your poetry.”

What is spoken word poetry?

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art describes spoken word poetry as something that is written on a page but performed for an audience. Because it is performed, this poetry tends to demonstrate a heavy use of rhythm, improvisation, free association, rhymes, rich poetic phrases, word play and slang. It is also more aggressive and “in your face” than more traditional forms of poetry.

“(Spoken word poetry) involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper, that something about it demands it be heard out loud or witnessed in person,” says Sarah Kay, a well-known spoken word poet and advocate during one of her talks in TED. As a 14 year-old wide-eyed teenager, she soaked in verse at New York’s famous Bowery Poetry Club and was inspired to share things only she knew about. “There were things that were specific to me, and the more that I focused on those things, the weirder my poetry got, but the more it felt like mine,” Kay said. (Here is a full transcript of Sarah Kay’s TED talk.)

Meanwhile, Tuason also clarifies that stage poetry is “a combination of a lot of things.” “It’s part theater, part storytelling, part poetry, even part singing. A stage poet is free to do anything she likes that will convey the emotion to the audience, so it’s more fun and challenging.”

The basics

Glenn North of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art enumerates 7 things that one should keep in mind when writing a spoken word poem:

1.    Use of concrete language – use words that project on the minds of the listeners vivid images, sound, actions and other sensations. Enrich your poem with imagery so your listeners will see, smell and taste what you’re telling them.

2.    Repetition – A simple but powerful poetic device, it can be employed in a key phrase or image.

3.    Rhyme – If used with skill, surprise and moderation, this can enrich your poems and performance.

4.    Attitude – “No attitude, no poem!” According to North, feelings and opinions are the “stuff” poetry is made of. Each poet has a unique perspective and view of the world that no one else has. A spoken word poem should embody the courage necessary to share one’s self with the rest of the world.

5.    Persona – Spoken word poetry allows you to be anyone you want to be. You can write a poem in the “voice” of someone or something other than yourself or with a personality that is different from your own.

6.    Performance – Since spoken word poems are meant to be performed, you must keep the following elements of good stage presence in mind: posture, eye contact, projection, enunciation, facial expressions and gestures.

7.    Memorization – Committing a poem to memory is a wonderful exercise. Doing so will allow you to focus more on your performance, but it is imperative to “learn your poems by heart.” If you are really in touch with the meaning and the emotional content of your poem, even if you forget a word or a line, you can keep going. Incorporating improvisation (freestyle) – one of the most important elements of spoken word poetry – will also be much easier.

The power (and magic) of the spoken word

Aside from encouraging self-expression, spoken word poetry has also been used as a way to entertain, educate and inspire. “I teach spoken word poetry because it’s accessible,” shares Sarah Kay in her TED talk. “Not everyone can read music or owns a camera, but everyone can communicate in some way, and everyone has stories that the rest of us can learn from. Plus, spoken word poetry allows for immediate connections.” Kay, who is also a co-founder of Project V.O.I.C.E., is also quick to add that nothing could be more rewarding than a room full of your peers and your community who will listen. Reactions are also instantaneous.

Moreover, poetry can also serve as therapy. In a write-up by GMA News, Tuason shares that she once found solace in poetry during her abused childhood.

“Throughout those years, paper and pen gave me the strength to rise above what I went through. I just wrote and wrote. For me, it’s therapy and art form at the same time. People were able to relate to that,” Tuason says. Another advice from the prolific poet: “If you have problems, just write and perform it. It eases the pain and makes you a better person.”

Spoken word poetry in the Philippines

Kooky Tuason notes that unlike in other countries, performance poetry is not yet that popular in the Philippines. “It’s not as respected an art form like dance, visual arts and music.”

Good thing, though, local poets are not losing hope. Unknown to many, an increasing number of spoken word poetry advocates and enthusiasts thrive in bars and cafés around the metro, ready to welcome anyone who is willing to listen or perform a poem or two. Try checking out the Facebook pages of Sev’s CaféConspiracy Garden CafésaGuijo Café + Bar, and Mag:net Gallery for possible open mic poetry sessions and performances.

Spoken word poets to listen to

To further give you an idea of what spoken word poetry is like and hopefully inspire you to just go ahead and try it some time, here are some brilliant spoken word poets in some of their mind-blowing performances:

  1.        Sarah Kay: “B”

Sarah Kay is the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., founded in 2004, a group dedicated to using spoken wrd as an educational and inspirational tool.

2.    Kate Tempest: “Icarus”

Kate Tempest is dubbed as one of the most exciting performers, both in terms of content and delivery, working in Britain today. Aside from being a spoken word artist, she is also a playwright and part of the band Sound of Rum.

3.    Tanya Davis: “How to be alone” 

Tanya Davis is a poet, singer and songwriter. ‘How to be alone’ is her collaboration with filmmaker Andrea Dorfman.

4.    Saul Williams

Saul Williams is described by Sabotage Times as the slam-poetry daddy. He has won several events at the Nuyorican Poetry Café, he also starred in a lead role for the 1998 film Slam (about poetry-slams, of course.)

5.    Benjamin Zephaniah

Sabotage Times describes Benjamin Zephania as “a poet, writer, lyricist, musician and a troublemaker, and he also happens to be one of Britain’s most well-respected literary figures.”

*Photo courtesy of Sarah Kay’s official Facebook fan page


Edel V. Cayetano (98 Posts)

Edel Cayetano tells stories for a living, but she thrives on being a wife and hands-on mom to her 1-year old daughter. She loves reading, watching indie films, hoarding notebooks and "believing in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

About Edel V. Cayetano

Edel Cayetano tells stories for a living, but she thrives on being a wife and hands-on mom to her 1-year old daughter. She loves reading, watching indie films, hoarding notebooks and "believing in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

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