Spoken Word: The Art of Finding Your Voice & Bringing Poetry to Life

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contributed by Triber Erryn Howard (@writer_dye)

I used to be that girl who would create beautifully written poems of love and heartbreak, of life and its lessons only to scribble them down in a journal never again to see the light of day. Surely, I thought, no one would want to read or listen to my carefully crafted iambic pentameters or even my short but bold Haikus. For many years my poetry pieces remained shunned away in a journal (or two, or three). One day during my years of adolescence I conjured enough bravado to slip one of my poems into the desk of my crush hoping he would read it, fall madly in love with me, and we could escape to some Shakespearean-themed loveland. Needless to say, he did read my poem, he did not fall in love with me, and my feet are apparently still stuck on planet earth.

In addition to reading my poem, he shared it with a bunch of friends who apparently all found it to be comical- go figure! When the teacher became aware of something being passed around in class, she confiscated it. I immediately sunk into my desk as she read its content and afterwards said, “Erryn, I’d like to see you after class." After the bell rang for dismissal, I sat with my teacher who did not surpassingly scold me or laugh at my poems like the middle school aged boys did. Instead, she told me I was talented and she genuinely enjoyed reading my poem. The most important thing she said to me, which has stuck with me to the present day was as follows, “You have a voice, it is your duty to share it with others. Keeping silent is dishonorable”. I have a voice; therefore, I have a duty to share it…ahhh it all made sense. 

Fast forward to the present day. I still hold tight to the lesson I learned that fateful day in 5th grade. As poets, we do have a voice and I believe it is our duty to share it with others. There are many ways in which we can share our voice either written or orally. Spoken word is simply a fulfillment of the duty of a poet. How selfish would Shakespeare have been if he kept those love-laced sonnets to himself? Or think about if Maya Angelou never proclaimed she was a phenomenal woman. What impact would the last poets have had on the civil rights movement if they were say, the silent poets? Yes, sharing our poetry is sharing our voice and that is our primary duty or contribution to the world. 

 The purpose of spoken word is to uplift and inspire the audience. Because we were endowed with the gift of writing, spoken word allows poets to be the voice for the silent, the underprivileged, the broken-hearted, the lost. In many ways it is also liberating and freeing for the artist to speak their poetry aloud to others. In order to go from poet to spoken word poet, you have to find your voice, your guts.

A common misconception about the typical spoken word artist is that there is a certain look you must have or a certain way in which you must read the words of your poem, emphasize just the right words at just the right time, or follow a specific rhyme. Nix that from your brain. Spoken word is just that - spoken word. One needs only to find their inner, courageous voice in order to be a spoken word artist. If you have found your inner voice then you have found your guts and therefore, you are ready to speak your piece…literally.  If you are a poet who does not fit into the popular “spoken word box”, do not let preconceived expectations of how you should perform stop you from performing. You can not be a spoken word artist if you never hit the stage!

Needless to say, after that enlightening day in elementary school, I found my voice and continued to share it with whomever was willing to read my work or listen to me recite it aloud.

Eventually, once I became a student at Temple University (Philadelphia, PA), I was so in tune with the art of spoken word, I even organized a few campus events. Organizing spoken word events in itself is not difficult. There were plenty of eager, gifted college students who were ready to share their poetry with their peers. Like any event, the organizer must begin with a vision - a plan. It is imperative to know what type of event you plan to organize (your purpose), who you plan to market the event to (your target group/audience), and the desired setting of the atmosphere (formal vs. informal). Once your vision and marketing plan leaves your mind and is written down and finalized on paper, your next step is to secure a venue. The venue you choose should compliment the overall vision of your event. Choose a venue that can accommodate the maximum number of people who you predict will attend. Next, after you have a final event/business plan drafted, a selected date of event, and a secured venue, it is time to market and advertise. This is the fun part of planning a spoken word event because you can get the word out any creative way your mind can fantasize.

Flashback to 2007 when I organized my first campus event, Facebook was the primary social media outlet. Of course I utilized Facebook but the oldie but goodie method of word of mouth proved to be the most effective. Important things to remember about executing a successful event is to stay organized, adhere to a previously set agenda or “flow” of the evening, and remember the overall mission of your event. If you are putting on a spoken word event the number one goal of success is not perfection in planning, execution, or even turn-out but instead producing a platform for all spoken word artists to share their work with an appreciative audience. Looking back, there were probably a bunch of small mishaps that occurred during my planned events, but I don’t remember them. I only remember the artists, their words, and the feeling of purpose and pride I felt for being the one to bring so many talented, brilliant, special artists together under one roof. If you can plan an event and walk away feeling purposeful and inspired, then you have succeeded. Bravo!

When I became a mother in 2011, I stopped sharing my work aloud because motherhood was primary. I guess there comes a time in every person’s creative career where a hiatus happens. However, the urge to do what we love will always gnaw at the soul - always. I knew back then I would one day return to the stage; the universe would not have allowed me to stay away.

Recently, I had the opportunity of attending “Voices in Power”, a monthly, Philadelphia-based open mic event. It was hosted by another spoken word artist, Luis Marrero (IG: @imsuperdope_ ). Because I was coming back after a long hiatus (my son is now 7), I felt like the girl in 5th grade again. The girl who had not found (in this case lost) her voice. I was nervous, anxious, doubtful, and I did not have guts at all. It had been almost ten years since I stood on stage in front of an audience and I was scared shitless. As the start of event descended upon me, I began being my own cheerleader. I closed my eyes and heard the voice of my old teacher, “you have a duty, a responsibility to share your words”. Even if I went on stage and froze up or stumbled on my words, I would end the night knowing I had the guts and grits to get back up there. And so, I went on stage, shared my piece, and felt so damn free doing so. All of the emotions that nagged at me earlier in the day were stripped away. The audience received my work well. I like to think as long as you believe in your words then so will your audience. 

If you are a novice or a poet planning their comeback and you are wondering if you have what it takes to perform spoken word, wonder no more! Here is a short listicle of “The Do’s & Don’ts of Spoken Word”. Remember that with anything in life, mastery takes patience, practice, and perseverance: 

 DO:

1. Believe in your words
If you do not believe what you are saying, neither will your audience.

2. Believe in yourself
No, seriously, like believe in yourself, tell yourself how bad-ass you are and own what makes you unique, original, and beautiful.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice
If you are extremely shy or nervous, practice first in the mirror and then in front of a mock audience. This helps you to get your feet wet and hear/listen to your piece aloud.

4. Memorize your piece
This one takes time and practice so breath, chill out, and start practicing. Look at it this way: an audience wouldn’t be very receptive if say, Beyoncé pulled out a sheet of paper to sing “Single Ladies” now would they…alright, case closed. And if you forget a line and have to improvise, so be it. Even Jay-Z recalled forgetting the words to his song while he was on stage early on in his career and we all know where he is now.

 5. Speak clearly
Unless you are The Migos, then you shouldn’t be mumbling. Enunciate your words, incorporate pause breaks, emphasize words for greater impact, use inflection to better get a point across.

6. Connect with your audience
Make eye contact, utilize the entire stage, don’t be a statue, incorporate hand gestures, facial expressions…connect with your audience. If you aren’t feeling what you are saying, then why should they. This is your time to shine.

 

DON’T:

1. Compare yourself to another artist
Your chapter 1 may be another person’s chapter 29 in the book of life, trust yourself. Your greatest competition is yourself always.

2. Mumble, mumble, mumble
This isn’t a game of whisper down the lane. You should never force the audience into having an impromptu hearing test. Speak to be heard

 3. Stop if you mess up
If you forget your words or mispronounce a word, always keep going, heck, begin again if you need to. Whatever you do, do not just stand there dumbfounded hoping The Men in Black will come and make the audience forget your entire performance…it ain’t happening!

4. Let doubt or fear win
It’s okay to be anxious or slightly nervous before performing, however, this shouldn’t deter you from sharing your piece. If fear is all it takes to stop you from performing, then you are simply not yet ready to perform.

 

An important thing to keep in mind is the venue you choose for your first performance or reemergence. Choose an event or location that is welcoming to newcomers; there are some spoken word events that are geared towards seasoned artists or competitive poetry slams. Finding a local event that is welcoming and open to amateurs or returning talent can make all the difference in your comfort level. If you are in the Philadelphia or tristate area, I recommend attending a “Voices in Power” (VIP)  event. It is held monthly and has a positive, welcoming aura immediately noticeable upon arrival. You can also follow the official VIP page on Instagram to stay up to date on future events: @voicesinpower_

Lastly, believe in your words! I can not stress that enough, believe in your words! The biggest thing to take away from this today is that as poets and writers, we do have a duty bigger than ourselves to use our voice and share our work. As long as you believe in what you write as well as yourself, then an audience will listen. Talent and passion are two things that can not be taught or can not be feigned. So, take your words, your talent, your passion and start practicing. The stage is awaiting you

- Erryn Howard, 2018


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I want to extend a special thank you to my girl Erryn for writing such a beautiful and informative piece on spoken word. Erryn was the first person I connected with in Philly over poetry. We randomly found each other on IG and it's been love ever since. Not only is her writing powerful and honest but is her voice is twice as much. The amount of respect I have for not only her craft but her fearlessness and strength is admirable. It's an honor I am able to call this beautiful soul a friend of mine.

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love & light, 

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