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Embracing Rhyme & Rhythm - Writing for Slams

After my resounding success(!) in my first ever poetry slam, I decided to sign up for another one – the Shrewsbury Festival of Literature slam, held on November 23rd, 2019. I’m not even really sure why I signed up – but I fancied having a go, and when my name was drawn was one of the participants, a few weeks before, I knew I had to get to work.

I knew that ‘slam poetry’ – or performance poetry – is not the same as ‘on paper’ poetry (hint: it’s not all like this). While they are not necessarily completely distinct entities, there are some features you can add to performance poems which don’t resonate in the same way on the page, and some ‘on paper’ poems which don’t lend themselves to being read out. As soon as I found out that I’d been drawn, I went straight to YouTube and looked up some previous slam winners (American, UK, and even German!) and accomplished performers. What I noticed is that:

- They were all quite rhythmical. I don’t mean metered, or that it was the same all the way through. I mean the order, beat, speed, and length of the words was made into an interesting feature of the poem.

- Supporting this, a lot of them contained some rhyming. Not necessarily regular, not necessarily always obvious. But there was enough there to carry the audience through the poem, aided by the rhythm.

- They  mostly resonated strongly in their themes. I *know* that’s what poetry is supposed to do. But this was people telling their stories. Mental Health, politics, relationships, personal struggles, sexuality – these were all well within limits. It was strong poetry which evoked raw emotion quickly.

- Some contained humour. Always guaranteed to get the audience on board when you’re making them giggle. Not all though – some were very powerfully emotional.

- The diction, tone and overall ‘performance’ of the piece was precise –  in Every. Single. Example. The delivery was as punchy as the words.

- They had usually learned their poems off by heart. Oh crap!

Now, I do not like rhyme. Scratch that – I can deal with assonance, half-rhymes, suggestions of rhymes. I do not like end rhymes. I don’t like structure, I don’t like form, I don’t like meter, and I do not like a regular, nursery-rhyme rhyme pattern (#sorrynotsorry). I find it very restrictive, and have always felt as though it hampers my creativity. That’s not to say I *won’t* do those things. Or even that I’m not aware that I should. But my go-to preference is free verse, always. The problem with free verse, though, is that is doesn’t make for very strong slam poetry!

So I procrastinated for a while, and then set about writing some poems which would be suitable for a slam. Emotional. Humorous. Political, even. It was hard to think of ideas at first, but luckily, inspiration came in the form of my master’s degree course. Every week we pastiche a legendary poet by trying to write in their style. The week before the slam, we pastiched Gwendolyn Brooks. Even if you don’t recognise the name, her most famous poem ‘We Real Cool’ is probably familiar.

We Real Cool



We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

Gwendolyn Brooks

(Here’s an excellent recording of Brooks reading it and talking about it).

WOW! Rhythm? Rhyme? Humour? Personal experience? Yup, yup, YUP! So…I wrote my painfully personal pastiche – ‘We’re Not Cool’ – and pocketed it as an option. The problem I found as I was writing it, is that the lines are so improbably short that there’s not much room to fit much of anything in, let alone my usual rolling metaphors and simile, and pondering over the wonders of sights all around. Could it be…..did I have to…write in plain English? What – no bells or whistles?! (The horror). Reader, I made peace with no metaphor, I made peace with no simile, I made peace with rhyme. It rhymed, and when I read it aloud, it sounded good. Relatable, even.

As there were three rounds to the slam, we needed enough poetry in case we got through to all three! So two more to go…I won’t ruin the surprise in case I register for another slam and want to use them! But I managed it. For the other two, I started off by doing a piece of free-writing on the topic - statements I might want to include, any words which rhymed with each other which might end up close together. Gradually, segments came together in my head. I repeated them. They stuck. I added more – in my head. Lying in bed, or looking at the sky as I let the dog in the garden. Suddenly, I could quote 4 lines off the cuff. 6 lines, 8 lines. Suddenly, I had to force myself to write down what I’d composed in my head, before it was lost forever. And letting go of my usual techniques in favour of more auditory features and a more conversational style really helped the words roll out. The rhymes didn’t have to all be at the end of the lines – they could be anywhere to offset each other. They could be slight, barely perceptible. Consider this segment from one of my poems:

Do we go shopping? Go for coffee?

Am I popping round after work for biscuits and a cup of tea?

‘Shopping’ and ‘popping’ obviously rhyme but are separated by ‘coffee’ which sort of does - well, enough to keep the momentum of:  do/we/go/shop/ping/go/for/cof/fee/am/I/pop/ping – and the rhymes are not even consistent in their placing in each phrase, or sentence. They are woven in to suit the beat.

I recited those three poems out loud any chance I could. Walking the dog. To an unappreciative audience of cats. In the car. Under my breath in Asda. I practiced my confident slam poet voice. I did hand movements. I knew what I was doing. Of course, that didn’t stop me being ‘incredibly nervous’ (not the words I used at the time) when the time actually came to perform. Two of my lovely friends accompanied me to the venue – The Hive, in Shrewsbury – and as we got closer and as the time got closer, my stomach was full of knots.

The Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists were hosting. Luckily, their humour and easy-going banter helped to settle my nerves. I grasped my notebook throughout the other performances and referred to it regularly, terrified I would forget my words. The contestants’ names were drawn from a hat to see who would compete in each round. Not only was I in the last round, I was last out of all fifteen poets!! Talk about drawing it out (someone had to be last I guess…).  When I *finally* ascended the stage (and took my glasses off so I couldn’t see the audience), to my surprise, the poem leapt out of my mouth, almost in the same way as I had rehearsed it!

Alas! It wasn’t to be - I didn’t get through to the next round. The competition was fierce – there were some very confident and very funny poets in the mix. Eventual winner Colin Wells had me and my friends wryly referring to mermaids all evening…. (you’ll have to go to his paid gig at next year’s festival to experience it for yourselves!) Despite the ~obvious injustice~ of my not getting past the first round, it was a really entertaining evening, and I am proud of myself for taking part. Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists always make the atmosphere fun, and it was the first event I’ve been to in quite a while where I didn’t know most of the performers. It was really nice to see some talent from a different town! Writing talent.

I have a newfound respect for performance poets. And for people who don’t label themselves as performance poets, but who perform their poetry. It’s a whole different skill set, writing poems to be listened to instead of read. Just as you have to choose techniques to make the biggest impact on the page, you have to choose techniques to make the biggest impact for performance, but the choices might be lexical, tone-related, rhyme, rhythm, use of silence. Arguably, some people use the same for both (meter and rhyme, for example). I prefer to write in two different styles, now I’ve tried both. And guess what? Rhyme is not just antiquated. Not just for kids. It’s a technique in its own right, and if you, like me, didn’t/don’t like it, the chances are you’ve only seen it done badly. It serves a purpose, and just has to be applied carefully and in context of the poem. “Newsflash”, you will probably be saying. It’s taken me a long time to get here - let me revel in it.

I’m definitely hooked on the exhilaration of poetry slams! There’s nothing that gets the adrenaline pumping more than the terror that you might forget your words mid-poem. Bring on the next one!

Here is a selection of performances I watched during my ‘research’ which I enjoyed. I hope you will too. **Trigger warnings on some of these: Bereavement, Rape, Emotional Abuse, OCD**

Which performance poets would you recommend to people interested in finding out more?

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