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 A Slam Poet’s Guide to Creating Tear Jerking Poetry

Text that exclaims “Applaud The Poet! (Because they read this article)” with a face with sunglasses. Illustration by Shala Santa Cruz Krigbaum.

Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani preaches to the audience about the history and importance of slam poetry as the other Verselandia competitors and I fidget in our seats. We have all been waiting for this moment: to perform the work that we have been curating for the past two months on an even bigger stage than when we performed at our school poetry slams. To have my face glow from the auditorium lights as I showcase my vulnerability, to what seems like an anonymous sea of applause and laughter, was the highlight of my year so far. After the success of my performances in the Franklin library and at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, one question that I have been asked multiple times is “How do you do it?” 

Now, I am not good with broad questions like this because I don’t tend to think about what I do to prepare my craft. I just go ahead and write whatever is making my heart full, or whatever is pissing me off that week, and practice how I will perform my piece. But the question made me realize that I do in fact have somewhat of a routine I follow to create a successful piece. To answer the question again (and in a more thoughtful manner), I wanted to introduce the tips that I follow when I write and perform. With these general tips in mind, you can improve your poetic craft, or even kickstart your poetic journey from the paper to the stage. (Disclaimer: these tips aren’t fully guaranteed to make you become the greatest poet alive. Take what applies to you and your craft, for that poetry is extremely fluid, and I am not liable for failure if it happens.)

Tip One: Your poem should project a story

Every good poem that I have heard has always formed a story in my mind. Whether it be a story about the poet’s personal turmoils and highlights of life, a rant about a societal struggle or systemic flaw and how it impacts us, or a poem that takes us on a tour into a mystical place, there is always a story being formed in the mind from the words that are being recited. It is a common thought that you have to spill your darkest secrets in order to have an amazing poem; however, if you don’t want to fully unravel your struggles to a crowd of mostly strangers, that does not make you a bad poet. The best form of poetry is poetry that is told from the heart, regardless of the extremity of the content.

Tip Two: Don’t be afraid to have rhymes, that’s what makes the poem shine

If you’ve seen my poems or have heard me recite, you know that my favorite thing to do is rhyme. Rhyming is what makes your poetry flow, but too much rhyming brings comments about how “this poem blows.”  Rhymes are what makes a crowd get into what you’re reciting. If you want to have a poem that is on the more rhyme-y side, make sure the lines that rhyme are separated by one or two verses, or else your intimate piece sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme. Think of rhymes as the seasoning in cooking a delectable meal: they make the dish flavorful, but too much make it salty, and hard to chew and savor.

Tip Three: write in cadence directions in your piece

One common mistake that I have noticed when writing out a piece is the lack of direction written (I happen to make this mistake as well). The written version of your piece is meant to be a script to memorize. Not only are the words meant to be memorized, but to level up your performance, your cadence, breaths, and pauses need to be memorized as well. The most basic ways to signal cadence within a poem are bolding the letters to indicate that that line is louder than the rest, italics to show that the line is to be stretched out, and three dots after a line to symbolize a pause before the next line. This added direction when memorized brings extra confidence and comfort to your performance.

Tip Four: Watch past slam competitions

In order to have a gut wrenching, emotion filled poem, you have to gain inspiration from people who are veterans in the scene. Success not only comes from hard work; it also comes from inspiration. Before I perform or write a piece, I like to look back at veteran poets performing at past competitions. Not only can I take notes from them and how they perform, but I can also get the creative juices flowing, and my energy charged up. Some channels and archive competitions that I enjoy watching are “Brave New Voices,” “Button Poetry,” “The Moth,” and even past Verselandia competitions. I also like to watch my old performances, and reflect on how my craft has improved since the last time I was performing.

Tip Five: Remember that a poem is never truly complete

Even when the period on the last line of your poem is placed, what you have spewed from your mind to the paper is not completed by that punctuation mark. 

In fact, nothing ends your poem because poetry isn’t meant to be fully complete. With every recital and with every performance, that same piece will continue to evolve. Whether it be a new way of rhyming, or a complete tone change, what makes a poem performance worthy is the effort projected, rather than the perfection. Poetry is a raw form of performance art; to stress over how palatable a poem is, and to try to make it perfect, takes away the beauty of slam poetry’s rawness.

Now that your brain has grown to the size of a watermelon after reading these tips, please seek a doctor, and get writing at any flat surface after being checked out. With this article, I hope you find satisfaction in following the advice of a lightly seasoned slam poet, and the satisfaction of knowing that I will be applauding you: a fresh minded poet getting ready to slam down the poetry scene with your crafty words. Happy writing!

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