by Aparajita Bhandari

“Raise Your Voice: An Introduction to Spoken Word Poetry”

Although Valentine’s Day has passed, there are still some days left in the month of love, so this week I am going to share with you something that I love: spoken word poetry. A spoken word poem is written with the express purpose in mind of being performed: it is crafted to be read out loud. I think that spoken word is best described as part creative writing and part theatrical performance. It is lyrical and relies on rhythm, alliteration, tone and body movements to weave together pieces that often have very powerful and moving messages.

If I Should Have a Daughter, by Sarah Kay

My first experience with spoken word actually came from watching a popular TED talk video on YouTube. The video was of young spoken word artist Sarah Kay performing her poem If I Should Have a Daughter. What really captivated me about the poem was the simple beauty of Sarah’s metaphors and language. She didn’t use any advanced vocabulary words or have a complicated rhyming scheme, yet her words, spoken with a calm, lyrical voice, were deeply moving.

After finishing the video I immediately went to Google and searched for “Sarah Kay”. I found a link to something called Project Voice, which is a program that uses spoken word poetry workshops in classrooms to “promote empowerment, improve literacy, and encourage empathy and creativity”. The program seemed interesting and through their website I discovered performances by many other spoken word artists. Go take a listen!

It’s something of a paradox that spoken word can’t be properly explained through words. In order to understand it you really need to experience a few performances. Here are a couple of my favourite videos, some of which are from university level competitions, performed by students like us.

Beginning, Middle and End, by Phil Kaye

Phil is also a member of the Project Voice team and is currently on tour with Sarah Kay. Along with Sarah, he was one of the first slam poets that I discovered back in high school and over the years I’ve come to know a lot of his poems almost by heart. This one is my favourite out of his many great poems.

Blue Genes, by Marvin Hodges

Spoken word is a medium through which many artists can explore their own personal challenges and traumas, and performances can get pretty personal. This performance about dealing with familial dementia is one of my favourite slam poems. It was performed at the finals of the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. The best line of the piece is, “I never correct him when he gets my name wrong… at least I remind him of someone, right?”

Shrinking Women, by Lily Myers

This was performed at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) and won Best Love Poem at the tournament. I found this video last semester after a particularly stressful week and the line in the poem “I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word ‘sorry’”really resonated with me.

What Teachers Make, by Taylor Mali

Choosing which poems to include in this list took a lot of deliberation. I wanted to pick performances that showcased many different performance styles and covered the wide range of topics found in spoken word pieces. This last performance is actually more than ten years old. I saw this video for the first time in my grade eight classroom, way before I really discovered my love for poetry. I re-watched the performance last week when researching videos for this post and I think the message that Mali succinctly delivers is an important one about the value of the work done by teachers.

Hopefully you enjoyed the poems in this post. I really love spoken word as a medium and it’s increasing in popularity all the time. There is a raw emotionality to spoken word poetry as well as an engaging intimacy that really compels listeners to pay attention. I hope to attend a live poetry slam at some point during the next year. I know Toronto has many spoken word events happening throughout the year. One of the most popular of these is the Toronto Poetry Slam, a twice-monthly spoken word competition hosted at the Drake Hotel Underground located on Queen Street West. Tickets are usually sold a few weeks in advance. For more information check out the website. Maybe we’ll end up attending the same event one day.

Let me know in the comments which of the poems you liked the most – or tell me about one of your favourite poems that I didn’t include. I’d love to discover a spoken word artist who’s new to me!