To be a spoken word poet, you need three things: the raw technical skill to impress an audience, the ability tell a compelling and powerful story, and the presence to command a stage. The third of these, I believe, is the most important. Stage presence can buoy up less-than-stellar wordplay or storytelling ability, but an incredibly gifted poet will fall flat on his or her face if they can't compel the attention of an audience for as long as they're on stage. You can do this however you like, but to be a successful spoken word poet you need to ensure that, no matter how long you're on stage, the focus of the audience is squarely on you.
One way to capture the attention of your audience is to get into their faces, to let your charisma loose and use the power of you personality to hold them spellbound from the very beginning. Poems performed in this style are often delivered loudly and at a breakneck pace from the very first sentence in such a way that they seem to explode out of the silence that preceded them. They're also usually filled to the brim with mind-boggling wordplay and impossible to ignore because they fill the audience's world, demanding attention and focus. There are a great many excellent slam poems that begin this way, and without a doubt this style of poetry makes for a raucous, electrifying, and downright fun show.
However, the best poems I’ve ever written or seen performed don’t begin with the poet getting in the audience's face. Instead they start quietly, inviting the audience to listen to a story. Poems performed this way are often light on the wordplay to start, relying instead on the central idea or the story of the poem to draw in listeners. What happens next is up to the poet. Some of these poems then take off, exploding into the fast-paced, wordplay-rich delivery and using the quieter start as a brilliant contrast and way to frame the poem's energy. Others keep the quiet delivery but manipulate tone and intensity and wordplay expertly to craft a compelling and emotionally powerful story without ever raising in volume. Regardless of how the poem ends, though, it will resonate powerfully with listeners because something of an agreement has been struck between poet and audience. The poet started not by demanding to be heard, but by asking to be listened to, and the audience, in choosing to listen and give the poem their full attention, agreed. It’s the intimacy and trust created in this exchange that makes the audience so much more receptive to the poem. The audience wants to hear the poem, chooses to listen to it, and thus allows the poem to have an incredibly powerful effect on it.
I think the fact that quieter poems work so well is a lesson for all of us. We will all have audiences in our lives, either those who already believe in us and whom we’re trying to inspire or those whom we’re trying to convince to believe in us. It will always be tempting in those situations to think that the best way to be heard is to make ourselves heard, to ensure that it’s impossible for our audience to tune us out. But there’s something both sad and false about this kind of confrontational thinking, this belief that if we don’t force others to hear us we’ll be ignored, and I think the power of quiet poems shows us this. People listen best and believe in what they listen to most strongly not when they're forced to listen or we demand that they listen, but when we ask them to, when we let them decide for themselves that we are worth listening to. If we have something worth saying then people will choose to listen to us. We just have to trust them enough to ask them to hear us.
With Excitement and Optimism,