Sunday, November 15, 2015

Creating a Poetry Feature

I recently read a post by Mike Simms on Eternal Graffiti titled "Why Your Poetry Features Are Just Not Good And What You Can Do About It". Mike covers ways in which feature poets can fail to capture and entertain an audience.  While I am not claiming to be a consistently great feature, I was happy to see that I do many of the things he advocates in a good spoken word set.

Here are some of my thoughts and tips on creating a poetry feature set. These things work for me, and may not be right for everyone, but I offer them as an insight into my process.

Set Lists

I consider the audience and create a new set list for every feature. If the room is likely to be quiet and contemplative, I will perform some of my more introspective and layered pieces. If the energy level is going to be high and the crowd needing to be entertained, I will shelve those poems in favour of something more direct.

I try to create light and shade in my set, roughly alternating between sad and happy poems. Usually, I will end on something upbeat, to bring us back out of whatever 4 am hole my last poem just put us in. Sometimes I will end on a low note if I think the crowd will appreciate being left with a kick in the guts. My sadder poems seem to have the greatest impact.


Biggest confession of this post: 90% of my banter is scripted. When preparing for the feature, I rehearse the full set, including between-poem chats. I try to sound as natural as possible, and will react to the evening where appropriate, but rehearsing banter has several benefits. It prevents me from rambling between poems. There may be something I want to say, but if I haven't prepared for it, then I'm likely to find myself sounding vague or repetitive. It's like editing my writing.

Rehearsing banter also makes sure I don't forget anything if, for example, I want to thank the other feature poets or the inspiration for a particular piece. Finally, it helps me keep to a flow during the set, creating something cohesive that fits within my allocated time.

One note while I'm discussing banter: I limit the introductions of my poems and do not explain them. I feel cheated when a poet tells me what their next poem is all about. I would much prefer to find that out for myself. If I do introduce a piece, I try to set up a context that makes people what to hear what comes next.


I am fortunate to be very good at memorising my poetry. This means that I can focus on performing every piece. When I say "perform", I mean naturally engaging the audience and showing the emotion I felt when I created that poem. If I know the lines deep in my subconscious, I can concentrate on accessing these feelings and portraying them on stage.

(Photo: Adam Thomas)

This can sometimes be very draining. Candy Royalle speaks of being "resiliently vulnerable". This resonates strongly with me. My best poems, best performances are when I am being brutally open and honest. I honour the audience by putting myself in this vulnerable position.

These are some of the things I think about when preparing for a feature set. I am very privileged to be able to share my words with others. I hope that by putting in this effort, I am respecting this privilege and my audience.

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