The A-Z of Performance Poetry

Poet Cal Harris maps out how to prepare for a performance, whilst offering guidance on refining poems and improving craft.

All performance poetry is poetry but not all poetry is performance poetry. By-and-large, constructing poetry usually involves following a set of rules or patterns. Conversely, performance poetry only has time constraints, other than that, anything goes. Do not get the wrong idea though—reciting sonnet 180 is not going to win you a slam. Especially not if you stand still and mumble.

Firstly, performance poetry is meant to be performed. Gesticulations, voice fluctuations, pace of speech, audience engagement and volume are all key to a good performance. Holding a piece of paper in front of your face and ‘reading’ is going to bore your audience to sleep.

I prefer to memorise my poetry and therefore remove the paper barrier that detaches a lot of poets from their audiences. Just by re-reading my poetry daily, reciting it in the shower, reading it under my breath as I walk to work and rewriting it before every performance, I have been able to retain the words in my head. Knowing the words is one thing, but this practice also allows me to pick up on lines which don’t sound right—I know that I have the correct line when it becomes easy to remember; when it flows correctly with the rest of the poem.

Like songs, poems have a certain rhythm and identifying this rhythm then sticking to it enables me to be able to more easily remember the lines, and where key words fall. My poems never follow a strict structure, but the beats still exist and knowing the difference between rhythm and structure is key for me.

Never freestyle—I have seen this done once or twice and it never works well. Other poets have other ways of memorising their poetry—I know people who record themselves reading and then listen back it using headphones or what-have-you. Personally, I hate the sound of my own voice, except in the shower—there is something about showers that gives them a special acoustic quality. Quite simply, find a method that works for you and stick to it.

Regarding the construction of the poems, one thing that I think is important is to sound like you mean what you are saying; to believe in your own words even if you are actually telling a completely made-up anecdote or you are taking on the persona of a cat or something. Seem genuine.

Too many poets are afraid to kill their darlings; if the poem sounds wrong, it’s because it is and you need to revise it; edit. Unequivocally, no poem is finished after the first draft—I am still re-editing poems I thought were finished five years ago—allow your poems to mature and grow with you. Very few people can claim to be such linguistic geniuses that they can string the perfect sentence together at the drop of a hat. When writing, open up or or whatever writing tools you like to use—I have found sites like these incredibly useful and often just finding a new word of phrase has allowed my poetry to go in a whole new direction.

X-ray your poems—strip them down to the bare bones and let them speak to you—you may have left a message you had no intention of leaving and it may be that the poem has taken on its own life completely unbeknownst to you. You are not the master of your poems; your poems are the master of you. Zoom into the world of the poem; ignore everything around you and immerse yourself in the performance; only then will your audience be completely on your side; completely on your journey; wholly on the same page.

Cal's performance poetry is laced with witty observations of banality and infusions of pop-culture. Spoken-word for the everyday man.

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