Something I get asked at shows around the country is how I got started in spoken word and slam poetry. To which I reply: I was a rapper. Obvi. I was a rapper who could not freestyle and spent more time doing drugs to number my feelings than writing rhymes in my rhyme book. Then someone invited me to a poetry open mic. I was two days sober after being robbed at gunpoint for $132, aka my entire paycheck from the frozen yogurt shop.
In 1999, Lauren Zuniga believed poetry was for nerds. In 1999, Lauren Zuniga was actually Lauren Barry and was going by the rap name Ms.Verse (short for Universe because I was a conscious rapper.) Basically, I didn't know how my life was about to change. I won my first slam with a badly written rap and I won $12 two cigarettes and a condom. I had never won anything rapping So, I decided poetry was my calling.
I've learned a lot since then about the artform, the competition and my passion but here are some tips if you have just discovered this genre and think it might be for you.
1. FIND YOUR OPEN MIC
Maybe you have been watching spoken word poetry on YouTube but you have never actually heard it live. Get out in the world. Find your people. Almost every city has one and if you don't have one, start one. All you need is a room, some seats and people willing to share their work. You don't even need a microphone. You just need an agreement that you are going to support each other and bring new work and at the very least show up. If you are lucky enough to live in a city where there is more than one open mic, poetry reading or poetry slam, then check a few of them out. See if it feels like a supportive atmosphere. Most cities have more than one spot and they each have their own vibe. Sometimes they are an older crowd who are less performancey. Sometimes they are a poetry slam but they have an open mic at the beginning and you can test it out before getting into slam. Sometimes they are really diverse and sometimes not, so find the one you feel most comfortable in and if it doesn't exist, start your own!
2. BRING SOMETHING NEW & SOMETHING OLD
Maybe you just wrote a poem about sea creatures as a metaphor for your last relationship but you aren't really sure if people will understand what the tentacles represent. You can read it on the mic and then see how people respond. Maybe they are blank stares. Maybe they laugh at the sad parts and frown at the funny parts (some audiences are just like that though so don't take it personally). You can ask people afterward if it made sense and then bring that piece back in a couple weeks when it's better. So, make a goal of having at least one new piece each week.
This is good for two reasons:
1. You write a lot of things.
2. People won't get tired of hearing the same poem from you every week.
You see this a lot in slams. People want to win a slam so they do the same poem every time because it scores well and they never challenge themselves. Also, people in the audience quietly groan every time they say the first line. Don't be that guy. Bring something brand new and fuck it up. Read that one first to get it out of the way then do something you've been working on. maybe you have it memorized now and you can perform the shit out of it and leave people with a strong finish. The main purpose for the open mic is the community. You want to create a culture that encourages first drafts and collaboration.
This may seem obvious but you would be surprised how many people go to the open mic and then sit outside smoking the whole time. Or they text or talk or take pictures of themselves doing this artsy poetry thing. They might decide they don't like someone's work because they dress funny but totally miss out when that awkward person has the line of the night that could have inspired everyone's next poem if they'd heard it. Be someone who listens. Be someone who takes notes. Who can point out what they like and what they don't like and then give constructive feedback later. Also, you will make friends this way. Be the one who says to the poet, hey I really liked that line about your grandmother and the maple tree and they will be your BFF forever.
This might be a good time to tell you, if you don't already know, that snaps are really only appropriate during a poem to show the poet that you liked the line they just read without distracting them. After a poem you want full force clapping not snapping. You don't want the room to sound like a rain stick. Feel free to NOT snap. Feel free to just listen (and maybe moan occasionally.)
4. DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR PRESENCE
You usually get 5-6 minutes on an open mic. Do not spend half that time explaining what a piece of shit the poem you are about to read is. If you don't like the poem, then don't read it. No disclaimers. Just start reading. And take the time to learn how to use the mic. It's fine to have a hard time with it your first time but ask someone to show you how it works. You can test it before the show even to make sure you are comfortable with it. When you get up to the mic, I'M ESPECIALLY TALKING TO WOMEN, take us much time as you need to get the microphone at the right height and then speak directly into it. A good rule of thumb (haha) is A THUMB'S DISTANCE AWAY FROM THE MIC. Do not stand ten feet away or have your head down or say I'm sorry thirty times when you mess up. This is your time. Use it. You have as much right to be there as everyone else.
Once I was featuring at an open mic on the east coast and the host was really tall and loud and talked a lot between each poet and when the women would come up after him, they would struggle to get the mic to their level and be sheepish and apologetic and no one was doing anything to show them how to be on the mic . But when the men got on the mic they would grab it confidently, speak directly into it and say their poem like it was worth saying. So during my set, I stopped and did a mic tutorial just in case it was the only one they would ever get.
5. GET OUT OF YOUR OPEN MIC
Once you have found your home slam or reading, go check out some other ones. Get out of town. I have the good fortune of touring open mics and poetry slams all over the country and I always tell people that if they want to get to know a city they are visiting, find their open mic. That's where you really hear the news of the city. In Las Vegas, you will hear poems about strip clubs and working at the Statue of Liberty bobblehead factory. In Maine, you will hear poems about fisherman fathers and birch trees. You hear the city through its writers.
You will also benefit from hearing voices outside of your community because it's easy to start sounding like each other. When I was starting out, we didn't have Youtube so the only poets I ever heard were at my slam. It wasn't until I went to the National Poetry Slam in 2000 that I saw the incredible diversity of voices in slam. The other benefit is that you will get to say poems that the have never heard before and you will be the new, shiny one everyone will want to talk to.
If you think you ever want to do a tour, you will want to get out into your region and meet organizers of other shows. If they like your work, they might ask you to come back for a spotlight or feature and that will be a great way to get your name out there.
Hope that helps. Let me know how it goes! Or comment with other tips for new poets!