Why Your Poetry Features Are Just Not Good And What You Can Do About It

So the first thing to note is that this is not scientific, it can’t be. One of the simultaneously frustrating and thrilling things about performance art is that it is subjective to the person listening/watching. There can never be an absolute “best”, but by-in-large I think I have assembled a pretty good frame of reference as to why some poetry features are just not good. As well as some practical steps on how to make them better. I talked to several poets who admitted that they never even thought about their features as a”show”. They had not done the thought exercise of — “I am being given 20 minutes to present my work on stage, what is the best most amazing thing I can do with that time to represent myself and my work” They pretty much said they show up to the venue and rattle off their best poems until the time is up. I would like to challenge that, I would also like to challenge the notion that poets do not have the creativity & the foresight to put together a piece of work, be that 10 minutes or an hour that has a viewpoint and a direction.

I had my own thoughts on what makes poetry features suck, but to make sure that my thought process was legit I asked a handful of poets what they thought made a terrible feature. I asked what are the times when they had someone on their mic that they wish they never booked, never confirmed, never even returned the Facebook message. I have combined some of the main themes into 5 points.

  1. Not knowing the audience/venue

If you have ever traveled the US doing poetry features you will know that each region has a different sound, they have different styles of poetry they react to, (this is exacerbated even further if you go outside of the US).  A good performer should be able to pick up on that and pull from their repertoire of poems that fit the venue and space. Some poems work better for an intimate crowd, some poems don’t. If you are trying to rock that fresh hella personal poem, but the venue you are in has a cappuccino machine going off every 3 minutes and a bar 10 feet away from the mic then your poem 11 sonnets for Ralph Waldo Emerson, might not rock.

In my experience there are some areas where I have performed that the audience is there and hungry for beautiful well written poems, and there are some venues/cities where the crowd was there to be entertained. Crowds that valued the performance element over how well the poem was crafted. As a performer you have to be able to recognize the venue you are in, and what the audience is looking for and be able to adapt to that. What I am not saying is be unauthentic still do YOUR poems, still have your integrity, just reach down and pick the poems that work for the venue.

One of the things that I see happen some times is that a poet has a couple of good poems, so they win a couple  of slams, and then a couple of people decide to book them a couple of features. Said poet gets to a city outside of where they are use to preforming, and those couple of poems completely tank which means the feature tanks. If you don’t have a lot of poems to choose from then you sink and swim with the ones you got.

So to circumvent this you really want to make sure you pay attention to the crowd and the venue before you perform, if there is an open mic, what seems to be working? Is the venue loud? does it look like a crowd that just needed to go on a nice date on a Friday night, or is it full of people who love poetry….depending on the answers to those questions you know how to tailor your set to put on the best show possible.

          2. Uncomfortable banter

One of the first pieces of advice I received before I started featuring is “the thing that makes a good feature is what happens between the poems and not the poems themselves”. I have found this to be absolutely true. There should  be a natural flow to your feature, you should have a general framework for how you are going to move through the poems BEFORE you even show up to the venue. Now at what level of detailed planning you should commit yourself to is where some of the feedback diverged. I think its a personal thing, me personally I normally know exactly what I am going to say in-between my poems. I know what jokes I am going to tell and the way in which I will deliver them. I obviously leave room to make things relevant to the crowd, make topical commentary on current events, etc, but the feature is pretty much a well oiled machine before I step foot on the stage. The worst thing is when a performer finishes a poem and then starts telling a couple bad jokes and then goes into this long winded  – WTF are you talking about story – and then awkwardly goes into the next poem. Not being that person and nailing a fluid feature really comes with practice, knowing your voice, and  understating what works and what does not. Which is what your friends are for, which is what your squad is for, which is what open mics are for, not features.

I was in Indianapolis and talked to a poet after a (my opinion) horrible feature where the crowd was not at all into it. I asked him how he thought it went and he said (no bullshit) “I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick, made some notes and will probably really rock the venue next time I am here” I was thinking they are paying you to be here, they promoted your whole entire face on a flyer, and you are just winging it?!?!

Like I alluded too however, there are two schools of thought on this concept, the one we have been discussing which is feature should be iron tight you should have a goal on what you are trying to communicate, and it can be human and warm but it should have a tone of legit-ness. It should not be to cavalier. The analogy was if you go to a concert and Beyonce gets on stage does a song, tells an awkward story, and then looks at a crumbled piece of paper to decide what song to do hey you would feel like she is not giving you a professional show. A slammaster I spoke to said “my audience deserves a professional show, not one that feels like you are making it up as you go along, it makes me as a slammaster feel like you are not taking this stage and your work seriously”

The other school of thought is that poetry features should be inviting and engaging, you should talk to the audience, you should take questions you should ask for poem suggestions (i.e do you want to hear my love poem or my depression poem?). There should be no pomp-and-circumstance it should be as if you are talking to some old friends in a living room. They feel as though a poetry reading or feature should be an intimate opportunity for a audience member to connect with the poet, even in a large venue you can still make your feature feel inclusive. Do note, the poets that sided with this thought still said the feature should be polished BUT it should just be mostly, if not all, unscripted.

There is a valid point here but I think only really great poets can do this well, I am all for “fluidity” of your feature to present yourself as open and human, but you have to be careful that it does not slip into the realm of unprofessional

          3. Tone 

A general consensus was – don’t do 20 minutes of depressing poems, or 20 minutes of political poems, etc etc.. we get it sir, no to the keystone pipeline, you hate the government, the congress is corrupt…now lets move on. No matter how great your work is there is a threshold on how much an audience can listen to the same thematic poem over and over.

         4.  Doing a full set of all your slam poems

This will not make your feature suck, it will just make it generic and sometimes exhausting. A great feature is an experience it has a viewpoint and an angle, it is well thought out…writing down all your slammy poems and rattling them off can build a narrative that often times fall short. There does not have to be a big production, but throwing in some shorter poems, reading an excerpt from a book, some haikus…something besides a cadence of 3 minutes…banter…3 minutes banter…3 minutes

As a good example of this in action, I remember seeing Amir Suliman do a feature at the Soundbites Poetry Festival in Brooklyn, it was to date maybe the most affirming and impactful poetry feature I have ever seen. It opened me up to a possibility that I had not considered at the time which was, holy shit, my 20 minutes of presence on the stage could actually mean something, could go further than my poems, could be an experience in and of itself.  I left feeling uplifted, more aware, and charged to be a better poet and more intellectual person. Some poets features just make you want to go outside and take a smoke break, and I honestly don’t think it is a matter of said poet being “good” or “bad” its about how they decided they wanted to use their time to put together an experience for the audience. Some features feel like an ego stroke, I have never spoken to Amir about it but i would not doubt that he started with the question “what experience am i trying to leave my audience” and worked backwards from there as he constructed his feature. I think if you really got to the heart of it alot of poets main goal in a feature is to show you how good they are, how nice they are with the words, I really don’t think many poets start with the audience in mind, or the impact they want to leave in mind and work backwards from there

          5. Going over your time

I know you got the fire poems bruh…

dylan

But if the host said 30 minutes be respectful of that time. They have a show to run, other talent to put on the stage, a venue that has to be cleared out by a certain time. One slam master said “there is nothing worse than trying to get a poets attention to tell them to to wrap it up, you are sitting there waiting for them to stop talking so you can get in their side view to give them a signal and they are not looking your way [read: ignoring you], so then, right when they finishing the last line of the current poem, you walk up to take the mic and they give you a hand signal that indicated they are about to do one maybe two more pieces when they are already overtime”

Honorable Mention

6.  Being an Asshole

There are certain things you should not do, like try to have sex with everyone, or be drunk, or be begging for drinks. Or drop your poems and blame it on being high, or having too big of an ego. Or using the mic to bully people or showing up late or or or

I know this is hard for some of you but just present yourself with some decorum like someone is paying you to be there.

 

micstage

Redbone: A Biomythography | Book Review x Interview With Mahogany L. Browne

Redbone: A Biomythography | Book Review x Interview With Mahogany L. Browne

Redbone: A Biomythography is a masterpiece of personal narrative mixed with strikingly dynamic storytelling through poetry. One of the things that struck me most about this book of poems by Mahogany L. Browne is how intimate it felt. Her writing has a way of sitting you down and demanding you to get comfortable. Although I live in Atlanta, I felt like I was reading this book in her Brooklyn living room with a cup of coffee and the sound of traffic sweeping thru a cracked window. I thought I was sitting down to read a bunch of poems, but as cliche as it may sound, you don’t really read this book– you experience it. You live inside of it, and it lives inside of you. It makes you think about your own family, it provokes questions about how you came to be that you may have never considered. After reading this book of poems I actually called my mother and asked about my own grandmother. I explored my genealogy in a way — from a lens that I never had. That right there is what good literature is, what a powerful narrative should be.

At times Redbone is a window, it ask you to sit and be a witness. At other times it is a wide open door, it invites you to sit Indian style inside of it as you to inhale the love and damage – the survival and carnage.

One of my favorite things about this body of work is how Mahogany defines and redefines ideas I thought I knew to be true. We explore what it means to be a victim. We explore what it means to be a black women carrying all of this world on her shoulders. The way she brings you into the struggle of a woman who has experienced so much: which makes her strong, tough, and a force within her own right. Yet, she renders abuse in attempts to be love.  The protagonist Redbone reveals our humanity in what she accepts and encourages readers to explore their own truths, how hard lines switch between black-and-white to shades of grey.

It is the humanity in the words, the complexity in the story, the complexity of love and the psychology of victimization. It is the non-stigmatizing of addiction, the familiar side of it. It is both what the family was doing to itself, and what the nation was doing to the black family. It is layered, and rich, and human. Redbone is a woman, a black woman living in her blackness, she is not here for your pretty box of what a black woman should be, or what black women were. She exists in her own multiplicity, her story is hers written through the lens of her daughter and offered up to us as a bullet through the definition of what blackness or womanhood should be.  It shoots through the stories offered to us from the mainstream, stories that has been defined by non-black women writers and producers that have largely locked black women out of telling their own stories.

The main character manages to be strong and soft, a victim and the author of her own fate, calloused but yet still in love and wanting to be loved. You are taken to a time when people made the best of what they were given, and much wasn’t given. You are able to see the good in the bad, and the bad in the good in a time where being black and alive was a struggle in and of itself.

If I had to say the thing I loved most about Redbone it would be the journey it takes you on. You know the dynamic that happens when you are reading a really good book and you have to put it down, but the characters stay with you? The story stays with you. You might be doing the dishes or feeding your kids and you can’t stop thinking about the story you are reading, the characters that are developing. Redbone is one of the few books of poetry that I have read that contains that dynamic. While I was at work I found myself wondering about Betty Sez’s life, wondering what events in her life molded her slick tongue. I thought alot about Grandma Coco and how religion molded so many black families, how much that identity matters to our larger collective story. I wondered about Bam, wondered if we would find out what made him violent wondered where his character would go as the book progressed on. I found myself thinking about the big house, about Alcatraz. I wondered if the house would smell like my grandmothers, If Bam’s hands were my grandfathers hands.

Often times when I write a book review I pull out some of the best parts from some of the best poems to really showcase the writer’s strength. This was almost impossible with Redbone. Every word builds on the one before it, every poem is important and necessary, every stanza is made of steel. The writing found in Redbone is gorgeous and I strongly suggest that you pick up a copy as this is a must have for any fan of writing, poetry, or just good story.

redbone
Photo from the Redbone Stage Play Written and performed by Mahogany L Browne

I had an opportunity to sit down with Mahogany Browne to talk about her new book:

MS – So Redbone is a story about your family, centered around your mother, why was it important for you as a writer to share these stories?

MB- It is important to me to share the stories of my family, because we have a clear understanding of what happens when you allow others to retell your history. A lot of the sauce is lost in translation and sometimes — it’s just revisionist as hell. So if not me, then who? And if several of “me’s” then we have an entire picture being painted. I am only speaking from my perspective — there are at least 30 other people that remember the story…A different lens and vantage point can offer a vivid (and maybe) slightly different story of the same moment.

MS – Redbone is a BioMythography explain to our readers exactly what that is, and why you took that approach?

MB – Ted Warburton defined “biomythography” as the act of “weaving together myth, history and biography in epic narrative form that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.” This was a definition of the term created by Audre Lorde in her book from 1982 Zami. And if we consider Audre Lorde and her sense of urgency to tell the thing to a world that refuses blackness and variations of womanness, then we should very well be ready for the type of revolution that will destroy the machine that gathers black people into a fist of silence. The machine that perpetuates only images of hypersexualized and bitter black women. When that machine is only a pile of ashes, we can learn black women (like all women) have layers. We are sexual beings. We are mothers. We are sisters. We pop shit in the hair salon. And pick women up from the floor of heartache. We love hard. And laugh hard. And drink liquor. And go to church. And prayer. And are prayer.

And sometimes, we are silent. And sometimes we are laughing. We are loud and unafraid of all our roundness and all our wombs vibrate like a chant of yes. Redbone is only one offering to the myriad of black women. I am prepared to speak for myself.

MS- What was the hardest part about writing Redbone?

MB – This story is about my mother so there is plenty of unpacking to do. My mother who fell to addiction after surviving domestic violence and after bouts of depression was my first lesson in how women break. It was a real lesson on what (and in my case who) gets left behind. I still have a hard time reading the poems in public. Because the truth is hard to hear. And those feelings, while in the air make it easier to understand who I am and how I became this fractured rib cage.

MS – In terms of the writing process for this book, did you have a special time to write? A special Process? how is your writing structured?

MB -I interviewed folks in my family. I kept it under wraps for several years. I thought they would keep it PG if I told them I was writing about it. I never knew it would turn into a book. I was just intrigued to hear the stories of how I got here. Like most of us must be. The difference is — I couldn’t sleep without typing out the stories. And then the stories turned to poems. And then it was 50 different stories. Sometimes, the same story revisited. And it was scary. I felt like a snitch. I sent the manuscript to several writing gurus for their eyes and honest opinions. And they returned it to me with edits and a resounding “YES” with different publishers to submit to. I also recorded most of the poems and made the first component available to the public an audio/visual offering of the Redbone manuscript into a poetry music and dance production. And this act propelled the necessity of the manuscript into orbit. It blew my mind how many people flooded the venues to hear Redbone: A Biomythography.

MS – What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

MB – Read everything. Write until it hurts. Write until you are afraid. Until you reach the fear. Until you walk through it. And write some more. Read everything. Experience life. Workshop with people that you trust. And workshop with people whom you do not know but could learn to trust. Sometimes this is harder than it seems. But even the person you dislike and distrust has a view that can spin your work on its head. Consider everything a work in progress. Be afraid of nothing. You were meant to be here.

To Find out more about Mahogany Browne visit her website below:
www.mobrowne.com

 

MoBo

Guest Post: Inkera Oshun | 12 Things You May Not Know About The National Poetry Slam

The National Poetry Slam (NPS) is a performance poetry competition where teams from across the United States and Canada participate in 5 days of competition. The event occurs in early August and takes place in a different U.S. city each year. The National Poetry Slam is Poetry Slam, Inc.’s signature event. It is currently the largest adult team performance poetry competition in the United States.

Poetry Slam, Inc. is the official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization charged with overseeing the international coalition of poetry slams.

Here are 12 things you may not know about the National Poetry Slam:

  1. The first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco in 1990. There were ONLY 3 teams represented. They were from Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Chicago (Green Mill) won that year.
  1. Did you know that Nuyorican Poet’s Café has been on final stage 14 times? This is the most that any one team has been represented.
  1. Prior to SlamCharlotte’s win in 2007, there had not been a winner from the South East in 14 years. Asheville, NC won in 1995.
  1. In the history of NPS, there have only been 5 cities that have won back to back. They are Chicago (Green Mill 1990-1991), Boston (1992-1993), Charlotte (SlamCharlotte 2007-2008), St. Paul (Soapboxing 2009-2010), and New Orleans (Slam New Orleans 2012-2013)
  1. In the history of NPS, there have only been four instances where the host city won the championship in their hometown. They are Chicago (1990), Boston (1992), Albuquerque (2005), and St. Paul (2010).
  1. In 26 years, NPS has been held in 15 states. They are California (4), Massachusetts (3), Texas (3), Illinois (3), North Carolina (2), Minnesota (2), Florida (1), Wisconsin (1), New Mexico (1), Michigan (1), Washington (1), Rhode Island (1), Connecticut (1), Oregon (1), and Missouri (1).
  1. Did you know that in the hitory of NPS, no venue has won more than twice?
  1. Did you know that NPS has had as many as 78 competing teams and as few as 3?
  1. In the history of NPS, only two cities have hosted the event back to back. They are Austin, Texas (2006-2007) and Oakland, CA (2014-2015).
  1. Did you know that up until 2007, NPS had an indie competition as well as a team competition?
  1. Did you know that starting in 2016, NPS will be grounded in 4 cities? The “anchor” cities are Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, and Chicago.
  1. Did you know that The National Poetry Slam has been the subject of several feature-length documentaries, including the 1998 Paul Devlin film SlamNation, and the 2006 Kyle Fuller and Mike Henry film Slam Planet?

**The National Poetry Slam Wikipedia page was used in this blog post as a reference for these 12 little known facts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Poetry_Slam#National_Poetry_Slam_results_by_year

If you would like additional information regarding Poetry Slam, Inc, National Poetry Slam, or any of the other events we sponsor, our web address is www.poetryslam.com

Inkera Oshun is currently the President of Poetry Slam, Inc and the Artistic Director of SlamCharlotte. She can be reached at inkera@slamcharlotte.com

 

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Justin Lamb | Yes New Friends | Eternal Graffiti

Justin Lamb | Yes New Friends | Eternal Graffiti

First and Foremost, any poem, by any poet, that is an open letter to Drake deserves your attention. I mean, cause drake is probably out right now, In NYC, listening to Sade while rubbing Serena’s feet just winning. This point alone is enough to weed through every poem that is an open letter to anyone and click on the one that is an open letter to Drake. And I am glad that a couple months ago when I ran across this video I did. This is a really dope video, filmed by Write About Now, at an after hours cipher during this years Southern Friend Poetry Slam. This poem has stuck in my head since the first time I listened to it and for good reason.

New Orleans poet Justin Lamb, offers up a humorous yet poignant narrative about friendship, connections, and the things that tie us together in this world. About humanity and the impact the messages rap carries on our youth. This poem offers up such an interesting perspective on the tangible effect of this message “no new friends” on kids that learn a lot about their place on this planet from the music they listen to. The honest truth is that our children are consumed by hip-hop. no matter how you shelter them, it is embedded in all facets of culture and it is pervasive on almost all levels, there is no running from its messaging. And without strong parental figures, teachers, ect anyone who can act as a counter-narrative, hip-hop can have damaging effects.

So when someone as influential as Drake says “no new friends”, they believe it, they hold tight to what they know, they shrink into the comfort zone of their block or street, their neighborhood or high-rise. As an adult we know, or at least we should, that opening yourself up to new opportunities is what makes us grow, meeting and interacting with people you don’t know who are not like you, who are not from where you are from.

New friends are the best way to realize that YOU don’t know

In light of recent events I would like to think that this hook was written by Quentin Miller, that in his cocoon of ghost writing he does not need any new friends that anyone new in his circle was too risky, might have let the world know that he was pseudo-drake

So I agree with Justin Lamb, because there is value in dealing with your day 1 friends people who you know are true and there for you through thick and thin, but I too think we can augment the criteria Drake puts forward in the song. I think the most valid thing said in this whole poem is “why not some new friends and a more vigorous vetting process”

Also Justin Lamb sings the chorus like several times which is both jarring and awesome at the same time.

More about the poet – Justin Lamb is an educator, writer and a 2013 National Poetry Slam champion. A two-time Slam New Orleans Grand Slam Champion, Justin has represented New Orleans at regional and national competitions for the last four years as member of the nationally acclaimed Team Slam New Orleans (Team SNO). He is also the author of a live performance poetry album titled However It Turns Out Is Perfect

 

Find out more about today’s Spotlight poet below

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Justin Lamb

Ta-Nehisi Coates | Writing Is An Act Of Physical Courage

Ta-Nehisi Coates | Writing Is An Act Of Physical Courage

This short clip of Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about the writing process just blew my mind. It blew my mind for a couple of reason, one because it so specifically encapsulates the fears and insecurities that most writers deal with. There is this pressure to write amazing things, every time, and sometimes you sit down and nothing comes. Its not like writers block however, its not that you have this thing to say but your brain is blocking them, its more like you can write and write and writer, but everything that you scribble is GARBAGE in comparison to, as Coates puts it,  the music that is in your head.

“Its not really that mystical, its repeated practice over and over and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be”

Two, because sometimes as a writer you forget this simple thing, that you just have to write, its that simple. The words may not come and that okay, but you write and then edit and write and edit, and sometimes you can’t find the music, and sometimes you can. And if you can’t, its okay, just write and write and edit. It is so easy to doubt yourself and your craft, it is easy to see your peers getting published in journals or winning big slams, and think of yourself and your art in relation to theirs. You compare your words and your likes and retweets and make a determination of your worth. This can be so damaging and limiting to your own growth.

Listen to this interview:

 

 

ta-nehisi