A Baker’s Dozen
Secrets of Slam:
13 Tips for Performing Poetry in Public
Adapted from Taylor Mali
1. Performance is an editing tool.
You learn things about your writing when you perform it. Don’t think twice about going back and revising a section of your poem (or the entire poem!) based on the reactions (or lack of reactions) you get from a live audience.
2. Don’t force your emotions.
Most poetry invites the poet and the audience to feel different emotions. Don’t force them or act them out. Let the words do their own work. Present those emotions naturally.
3. Be an expert on the microphone.
Know how to adjust the mic stand in case you need to. Know where the mic should be and how close you should be to it. Remember you have at least 15 seconds to get ready before people will begin to wonder why you haven’t started.
4. Clarity above all else.
If the messenger is not clear, then there really isn’t any message, is there? You could be the most brilliant poet in the world, but if no one understands you they won’t listen. Try over-enunciating, exaggerating the shape of your mouth with each word. You will not sound as stupid as you think you look.
5. Everyone wants you to be amazing!
Despite what you might think, the audience is not waiting for you to mess up. Nor are they hoping you do so. They want you to blow them away with your words. So do them a favor and do it.
6. Have an interesting voice.
Or if you don’t, at least use a fuller range of your voice than you would in a normal conversation. Get deeper in places and higher in others. Sing! I mean it! Include lines from songs in your poems and sing them, especially if you don’t think you have a very good voice. The audience will love and admire you for having such guts.
7. Instruct or entertain or (if possible) do both!
Poets (like teachers) are part entertainers. Their poems should delight as well as inform. Put a little humor in most poems (even the sad ones).
8. Have a few lines that everyone will understand.
If you write “non-linear” poems (more lyrical, imagistic poems that don’t necessarily tell a story), be sure to have a few places where the audience can “rest” and think, “I understood that.” If you don’t, they will stop listening to you.
9. Never say, “I just wrote this poem today.”
Because it means you either want the audience to be easy on you (because you’re afraid your poem is bad) or be impressed by you (because you think it’s good). Better to just shut up and recite the poem.
10. Go back to the nugget of truth.
Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to make our poems sound like poetry that we don’t let ourselves say simple, truthful, beautiful things that would help the poem immensely. Things like, “Sometimes I wished I were an only child.” Don’t be afraid to leave the truth unadorned.
11. Stay still- or have a reason for moving.
Movement is usually the result of nervousness, and everyone can tell. Plant your feet and don’t fidget. If you let your hands hang naturally at your sides you will LOOK normal (even if you FEEL stupid).
12. No one needs to know if you forget a line.
If your mind goes blank, take a pause. Don’t let the audience know you have no idea what comes next. Start singing “Amazing Grace.” Make up the rest of the poem as best as you can. No one cares that it’s not perfect (except you).
13. Try to signal that the poem is over.
You know you have performed a poem well if the audience knows when it is time to start clapping simply because you start smiling. Don’t be afraid to end with a moment of expectant silence. When they start to clap, stay for a moment and collect the applause before walking away.