I’ve written and performed dozens of spoken word poems, yet I can’t tell you in easy steps how to write any kind of poem, much less how to write a spoken word poem. Poetry, generally speaking, defies those kinds of recipes and instructions.
Plus, there are no hard-and-fast rules for spoken word poetry. Like poetry in general, spoken word poetry can’t be boxed-in.
Still, how to write spoken word is a concern for many would-be performers. So, I want to offer some notes, or general observations, on spoken word as a poetic style and form that tends to exhibit some particular artistic qualities.
The Importance of an Audience
Spoken word simply doesn’t exist without a live audience. In that sense, it depends upon its audience in a way that written poetry does not.
Slam, which is a popular and competitive form of spoken word, exemplifies this dependence. For a slam competition, random members of the audience are chosen to judge the quality of the content and the performance of the poems.
As such, slam is a democratic art form. The success (or failure) of a spoken word poem and its performance is how well it speaks to any random person and not necessarily someone “schooled” in poetry or even in spoken word. Slam, then, strives to speak to a wide range of diverse audiences.
The Power of Accessibility
Because spoken word relies so heavily on a live audience, it must somehow manage to speak itself in a way that makes its various images and metaphors easily apparent, or accessible to a listener. Sure, a lot of spoken word poems need to be heard several times to appreciate all the nuances of meanings. But its success depends upon being able to convey its meanings in a single performance.
While spoken word, like any poetry, takes on many different forms, it commonly relies on first-person narratives, or stories told about the poet’s personal experiences.
But it can use any form of narrative, such as third-person stories about other people’s experiences or persona poems, in which the poet takes on the guise of a different person.
Consider this poem by Minton Sparks who is well-known for her style of story-telling:
While narratives are a common form, spoken word isn’t limited to just stories. Poems that focus on general observations about people and events are also common.
For instance, this poem by Ernest Cline drives home its political and social critique by making humorous observations about human nature:
The Personal as Political
So much of spoken word is driven by the poet’s personal experience as well as by their political views. In that sense, politics as a personal issue is a common theme.
For instance, Meliza Banales utilizes her intimate experience to demonstrate a personal history of social and political oppression:
Spoken word, then, often personalizes politics in order to gain empathy from an audience. But it also often uses commentary about current political events in less personal ways, such as this poem by T. Miller: