Reading out any piece of work is nerve wrecking; being so open and vulnerable in public.
It’s a piece of yourself that you are sharing to others.
– Laura Bartlett writes
In my adventures to discover performance poetry, I spoke to well-practiced slammers: National Champion Chris Huet (CJ Bowerbird) and Josh Inman. Chris has been poetry slamming for a bit over four years and Josh since 2007. Josh and took over the Canberra Poetry Slam. For those of you who don’t know what poetry slamming is – and I myself was new to the concept – it is, in the words of Josh Inman, ‘a short, high energy method of personally sharing your writing with an audience and your peers’.
Standing up in a front of a crowd is always be a terrifying experience, and it made me wonder whether poetry slammers practise. Chris said, ‘I do all of my practise alone, and rarely share a poem before I first perform it in front of an audience. I practise in my car on the way to and from work or in my bedroom at home (my kids have become used to hearing me talking to myself). Sometimes I will rehearse while walking or in a park, but I need to be able to speak at normal volume to really absorb a poem. I find I won’t remember it fully unless my brain has heard me say it our loud several times. Rehearsing is part of the editing process for me. I will change the poem to make it sound better, to make it sound more musical.’
Practising with people isn’t for everyone. Some people don’t like to practise audibly, instead feeling their poetry in the moment. Josh practises ‘in my head, almost constantly; I’m forever rolling phrases around. If I’m travelling by myself I’ll run through as many poems as I can remember while staring out the window. Out loud, I’ll practise in private – I’m fortunate enough to have an office set up for writing that I can close the door to. I’ll also practise a new poem in the shower before heading to the slam. When I performed with the Tragic Troubadours we’d rehearse our vocal projection and delivery in parks and footy fields. No amount of practise can compare with time behind the microphone though. It’s a different beast – a chimera made of all the parts of your poem: your content, delivery, your stage presence, your confidence, your cadence, your competitiveness and your desire for self-preservation. You cannot simulate it at home. ‘
I have to admit, I’ve never been to a poetry slam before, nor have I ever workshopped any poetry, so I was curious to know whether or not poetry is workshopped the same way you would work shop a creative piece. Josh explained. ‘Despite its competitive nature, the slam scene is quite a nurturing one. New poets are sought, new poems are shared and collaborations are born. Workshops allow an established poet to guide a batch of aspiring poets down a pathway that they have already tread. It is a valuable way for the emerging poet to network and become a part of the poetry scene, these connections provide support and entranceways to other groups and events.’ Chris agreed with this, ‘I love seeing other people perform their work at open mics or at slams, particularly those who are doing it for the first time. I want to encourage people to tell their stories in verse. It is very rewarding if I can do that by running a workshop and giving others the confidence to give slam a go.’
If you, like me, aren’t always confident in sharing your work, you’re not alone. The hardest part is setting out our vulnerabilities. Even Chris shares this, ‘I feel a little nervous sharing my thoughts, but I am also upfront about wanting to hear the ideas of others. I am very conscious I do not have all the answers, so I enjoy it when a workshop becomes interactive.’ Josh adds, ‘The vulnerabilities tend to come from the live judging of a poem, or a lack of conviction in the content; it’s a fear of failure. It’s those who want to share, and to entertain and participate in the slam community, even if they have these fears who’ll attend workshops and slams.’
If you’re keen to test your skills as a performer and a poet, then test them: there’s no harm in saying you once voiced what is yours. Queensland’s own David Stavanger is running a two hour workshop this coming Monday evening at the ACT Writers Centre. It’s $20 for those under 30, which frankly, is a steal. To follow it up, Stavanger will be hosting Canberra’s own Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! on Wednesday night at the Phoenix, where you can either heckle and cheer offstage, or try your hand at your own poetry. There’s no better audience, I’ve been told.