If you’re interested in starting Spoken Word workshops, here are some tips we recommend. This is not a definitive guide by any means, but just some things we like to think about when we teach. Hopefully it will at least give you a place to start. Good luck!
1. If you are going to create a group of students who are writing poetry and putting their heart and soul into their work, it is important to foster an atmosphere of respect, trust, and safety. It may sound silly, but having everyone at least introduce themselves and be on a first name basis can go a long way in making people feel more comfortable sharing themselves. That’s one of the reasons we like to start with the “10 Things I Know to be True” exercise, because sharing that list gives people a common ground to start from.
2. Make time for sharing new work that people have brought in. If somebody comes to a workshop with a poem and they are looking for feedback, talking about the poem will not only help the poet who is writing, but will also help the other students consider different elements at work. Giving critical feedback is a tricky game. Respect is paramount, especially in the early stages. Think and ask about what the poet is trying to do/say, how they are going about it, what is working, and what can still be worked on.
3. For students who do not have poems they are already working on, prompts and lists can help them start their own pieces. Make time in a workshop for one or two writing exercises to get the creative juices flowing. (Example: 10 Things I Should Have Learned by Now, etc.) Reassure students that the writing they do for these exercises does not have to be perfect, nor even a “poem”. The idea is to give students a place to start, to get words flowing, to get them jazzed up about what they want to write about. Refining and rewriting is important, but can come later.
4. Poetry does not necessarily have to be about Politics. Or about Love. Or about Life. Poetry can be about anything and everything. Writers (especially new writers!) tend to get nervous about writing poetry when they think they need to be “deep” or “heavy” or “universal”. All they really need to be is true to themselves. It is important to write poetry about things you actually care about, that you are genuinely excited to talk about. If you’re writing about something you aren’t truly invested in, nobody else is going to be invested in hearing it—find the story you can’t stop telling or the thought you can’t stop thinking. That’s what people will be excited to hear. Even if that’s just a poem about what you had for breakfast this morning.
5. Don’t forget performance. To truly be a Spoken Word workshop instead of just a writing workshop, you have to make time to discuss and practice people’s performing techniques. Each Spoken Word Poem can be investigated with questions like: Why does this poem need to be performed? What is it about the performance that will enhance the meaning or experience of this poem? Who is the audience for this poem? Who is the speaker of this poem? What do they do with their body? Their voice? Their facial expressions?
6. Explore other poets’ work as much as possible. In every workshop we teach, we make time to show videos of other poets. Search on youtube for examples of different styles of poetry, different types of performance, different poets from different backgrounds. The more diverse of a group you bring in, the more opportunities there are for students to find something they connect with. It’s really important to see a lot of different poets, not just the one or two you like best. It is tempting for new writers to latch on to the first poet with whom they identify, but you can learn just as much from a poet you don’t like as you can from one you love. To find a wide range of poets and poems, two good places to start are: the speakeasynyc youtube channel, and the indiefeed audio podcast.
7. Try to make sure this doesn’t become another thing students get “tested” on. It is fine to create rubrics on which to grade them, but let those rubrics focus on their process rather than on their product. Grade them on how well they participate, listen, give feedback, write different drafts of their work, etc. Don’t grade them on whether or not you like the one poem they write, or even their one performance of that poem. When you grade them on their one “final performance” for a spoken word poetry unit, it focuses them only on that singular experience and turns it into yet another test that they have to perform well on for the teacher. Instead, spoken word poetry has the potential to be an art form that students can fall in love with organically. It also has so much educational potential for teachers as a teaching tool. Keep it as something students cannot fail; let them only succeed! It makes it that much more of a positive experience and promises positive future association with the creative process!
Taylor Mali’s “The Tree” http://www.reddit.com/r/thetree/
Vermont & New Hampshire:
“The Young Writers Project” for teen poets in Vermont and New Hampshire
“Youngblood Poets” Facebook page, for teen poets in Australia. https://www.facebook.com/groups/youngbloodpoetsinspire/