A: Why I Am: An entry on why they do this. How did they get here? Why do they slam or not? Why they do the things they do.
B: Tricks of the Trade.
C: Check this out!
This is Thadra's 2nd Blog with us!
As I mentioned in my last article, I have done a lot of teaching. This has taken many forms and spanned many ages and abilities. My specialty is performance. I have a theater degree. I like to perform, like the eye contact and the milking of the pregnant pause. You have an instrument up there on stage that a lot of poets neglect. Many feel that their words are enough, but this is definitely not the case. If you want me to merely glory in the brilliance of your written word, then hand me a piece of paper and let me read it myself. If you're on a microphone in front of me, you are presenting your words, and it would do you a great deal of good to use the opportunity to your advantage.
So where to start? I goes we start with body language. People are animals. They read each other without saying a word. We can't help it. So the way you carry yourself and the way you move while you are on stage will be interpreted right along with what you actually say. If you get up there all slump shouldered and looking at your feet, if you fidget and shuffle nervously while you read, we will see that you are not a confident person and not really believe that you believe what you are saying. Right off the bat, you want the audience to get the message, "get a load of me!" Get up there with confidence. Stand up straight. Throw back your shoulders. Look us dead in the eye fearlessly. Then we will believe in your conviction. We will think you know what you're talking about, and we will listen.
As we are animals who read each other, keep this in mind: You will be judged. And I'm not just talking about the five random strangers with score boards. I'm talking about the whole room. A female poet once said something I found very frustrating in a slam sisters meeting at Nationals. She said a female poet gets up there and says something and gets a low score. But a male poet gets up there, says the exact same thing in the same way, and he scores totally differently. Well…..Yeah! That's how it works. Men and women are different, so they are perceived differently. Now you can take what you have been given biologically, and you can complain that you got a raw deal and can never win, or you can use it as a tool to get what you want. Everything about you elicits expectation from an audience; your gender, your gender identity, the color of your skin, the way you are dressed, the shape of your body, if they find you attractive. And you can pander to their expectations, or you can blow them right out of the water. Nothing hits an audience harder than having their assumptions challenged. Own who you are, believe in it, and say something that surprises them.
On the note of owning who you are, something should be said about the way you dress on stage. This is a live show. Treat it as such. Look like you are serious about what you're doing, not like you rolled out of bed and crawled over to the venue. I'm not saying everyone should wear tuxes and sequins, but keep in mind that your wardrobe effects your score as well. You are presenting yourself as much as your words. You may not like this, but if they don't like you, if they don't take you seriously, then your score will suffer. So take yourself seriously. And don't wear a hat. Hats make it harder for us to see your face, which is the most important visual part of you. We want to see your eyes and facial expressions.
So onto eyes and facial expressions. Look at your audience. Look at specific individual people, and talk to them as if you are the only two people in the room. Remember that you are telling them something, not lecturing them. Keep the energy conversational, and they will listen more than if they feel they are being yelled at or talked down to. Find a few friendly faces in the room and move your focus around to each of them, but give each a good chunk of time, so they feel they are being addressed personally and not that you are just sweeping the room with your eyes. If you keep in mind that this is a personal conversation and not a public presentation, your facial expressions will follow. Audiences love an animated face. Practice saying your poem to friends as if you are telling a really great story and pay attention to what your face does.
Lets see….how about cadence. Do your style sound like Sierra DeMulder? Buddy Wakefield? Anis Mojgani? Andrea Gibson? Someone else I haven't mentioned, because I could go on for hours? We can tell, and it is not helping you at all. I have watched many poets in workshops and been able to name their favorite slam poet when they are done, and I am always right. I hear very, very often from performers who don't attend Twin Cities slams much or poets from out of town that a whole lot of the poets here sound the same. This is not good. Here's the thing. No successful art is ever made by trying to be like other art. You shouldn't even try to write pieces like other pieces that you wrote yourself. Each poem, each performance, is an individual piece of work, and it should come straight from only you. If your performance style emulates a different poet, then it comes out as false. Buddy Wakefield knows why he talks the way he does, because he is Buddy Wakefield. You don't, because you are not, and imitating him, unless you are at some sort of Buddy Wakefield tribute or roast, will only detract from the power of your performance. You HAVE to find your own voice. I cannot stress this enough.
When the audience hears something that feels oddly stylized for no apparent reason, then again you are distracting them from the words you are saying. You are hypnotizing them with an odd cadence. The same can be said for a lot of hip hop and rhyming poetry. Do not push the rhythm or rhyme too heavily. Do not punch every rhyming word for me to emphasize that it rhymed with what you just said. Now I have no idea what you just said, except "hey, did you notice that rhymed?" Same with the beat. Trust your rhythm. Don't ram it down my throat, or it is all I will pay attention to, and I will feel a little insulted that you felt you had to point it out to me, because you felt I wouldn't notice on my own. So how do we break out of our habitual performance styles? How do we find our own unique voices? Practice performing for different individuals with a different intention in mind. I'm your best friend, and you are telling me this story that just happened that I absolutely have to hear. You are confessing something that embarrasses you to admit. You are trying to convince me of something, etc. Play around with different intentions, and notice how it changes the way you talk and pulls it away from imitation and back into your own voice.
Try very hard not to insult your audience's intelligence or compromise their perception of your confidence. Don't tell me. Show me. If you tell me you are a strong, powerful woman, I don't believe you, because you felt you had to tell me, and that I wouldn't notice on my own. Do not tell me that something is funny. If I find it funny, I will laugh. If I don't laugh, that's fine. Learn from that experience and move on. Don't tell me that you are a word weaver who weaves words. I will notice your mastery of style and language. Telling me about it just lets me know that you don't really believe it yourself. Try not to introduce or title your poem on stage. It should be able to stand on its own.
Try also to focus on the message you are trying to say. You should have a very clear intention and point with each piece you perform in a slam. And it should not be to make the audience laugh or be impressed with your enormous vocabulary. Language and positive reaction will follow if you know what you're trying to say. What's the point? Where are you going with this? If you know the answers to these questions, the piece will feel more genuine, and it will feel like it comes from you. And be true to yourself. Be honest. Dig deep and spit it out. Poetry is all about economy. You are manipulating my emotions with as few words as you can.
Do you go over time every time with this piece? Cut it. Do you make it in time, but you have to talk really fast? Cut it. You need to give the audience time to absorb what you are saying. You need to give yourself time to pause and emphasize. You should not write three minute poems. You should make them 15 seconds shorter, so you have space to perform.
Each piece, and each set of pieces you use in a slam should start and end with a bang. Keep this in mind when you are writing, when you prepare what you are slamming with, and each time you get on stage. You should start from a place of power and end with one. In terms of the writing, your first line should suck me in. It should fill me with questions and make me desperately want to hear more. And the last line should make me gasp. Basically my first impression should be that you are awesome, and in the end you need to remind me of it.
In terms of when you get on stage, the same rule applies. Take your time. Adjust the microphone to your specifications. Compose yourself. Take a breath. You are not timed during this, and it tells me that you know what you are doing. Then hit me from a position of power right out of the gate. At the end, don't just throw away the last line and run. Don't be heading off stage in the middle of your last line. Punch it, pause, hold eye contact, then break and leave with confidence. This matters immensely.
In terms of the set, we used to do three poems at the Minneapolis slam. I don't know how many they do now, because I have been a poor attender. But here was my set strategy: First poem is HUGE and powerful to make a first impression. Second poem can't suck, but you can ride on the wave from the first, so you can do something less rah rah or something new. Last poem should knock them out of the park so they are reminded that you are the super coolest badass in the room.
A little more on strategy here in terms of the individual show. You should come to a slam with more pieces prepared than the amount you will have to do, because you never know what you will need in your arsenal. You should not be dead set on the order of what you do, or what you do at all. Keep in mind that this is an entire show, and where your piece fits in it matters and can effect your score greatly. Nobody wants to hear a long line of the same poem over and over again. People who win stand out. And you stand out by being different. There is a huge advantage to changing the tone of the show at the right minute from serious to funny, or vice versa. I was once in a competition with a guy who wins far more often than not, and he was in the lead after round one. I was going right before him in round two, and I knew he couldn't do funny, so I came out with a piece full of punchlines, and it tanked his score, because he couldn't follow it. After the show, he came up to me and asked if I'd done that on purpose. Yup. Strategy is a very big deal.
So I think I've covered a lot of ground here. I hope you have found these tips helpful. They come from over a decade of slam experience and a crapload of workshops. Want to know more? Hire me for a workshop. I'll cut all the modifiers off the beginnings of your sentences and hold your feet down with my bare hands while you talk.
ABOUT THADRA SHERIDAN:
Bio: THADRA SHERIDAN is a poet, essayist, columnist, teacher, and performer from Minneapolis, MN. She has been published in the Star and Tribune, the Skyway News, Moxie Magazine, Rattle, and several anthologies. She has won awards for her writing from the Faulkner Society and the National League of American Pen Women. Her work has been featured on the final episode of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Minnesota Public Radio, and venues across the country, including San Quentin Penitentiary, where she scored serious points talking about her terrible taste in men. She has been a member of four National Poetry Slam Teams, three from Minneapolis, and one from San Francisco, which placed 6th at the 2005 National Poetry Slam. She featured at ForWord Girls, the first ever all-female spoken word festival in San Francisco and won LA’s first all-female Redhots Slam. She was the recent recipient of the Jerome Foundation's Verve grant for spoken word. If it has hurt, she will find a way to laugh at it. She is snarky, clever as hell, and a little bit evil. She charges for pity, and she's sick of waiting tables.
Thadra has performed at hundreds of colleges, high schools, juvenile detention centers, and badass venues across the country, from the Conga Room in LA to the Bowery in New York to the Walker Modern Art Center in Minneapolis. Her scathing, hilarious, autobiographical work has won her countless poetry slams in dozens of cities, including Berkeley's coveted $1000 . She is a two-time Minneapolis Grand Slam Champion, and coached the Berkeley Slam Team to 6th place at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX.
With a background in theater and stand-up comedy, Thadra is a seasoned and meticulously dynamic performer. She has taught workshops in writing and performance in scores of colleges, high schools, libraries, community centers. She orchestrated a city-wide 3-month program in 8 Minneapolis community youth centers where she wrote the curriculum, trained the teachers, taught two workshops herself, and organized a final poetry slam at Minneapolis' acclaimed Walker Modern Art Museum. She taught a 3-month residency in North Minneapolis' Patrick Henry High School's ESL program to a primarily Hmong and Liberian student body. She runs yearly workshops at the National Poetry Slam in comedy and performance. Her workshops have helped to form a formidible number of national champions.
She was a finalist for the Nation's annual prize for poetry, reigns in Rattle's online top ten viewed poems of all time 7 years after she was published there, and writes a weekly column for the online Op-Ed magazine, Opine Season, featuring an impressive staff of Minnesota writers. She can drink you under the table, and make you laugh your ass off while she does it.