The second edition of the BIS Poetry Slam is taking place in less than one month.
If you’re a participant, this means only one thing: it’s time to start panicking!
Because trust me when I say this – if you’re a young poet who wants to make a mark through your poetry, an event like this can literally be life-changing!
So, if you’re competing (or planning to compete) at the BIS Poetry Slam, this blog post is for you. We want to help you prepare for the slam in the best possible manner, so that you have the best shot at winning!
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
– Benjamin Franklin
Right. Let’s get straight into it!
The Rules Of The Slam
Let’s start with the basics – the rules of the slam.
i. Schools have to nominate a team of 3 poets from grade 11 and 12 for the Slam.
ii. Participating students must have an original poem to perform and also work on a group poem for the final round.
iii. Individual poems should not exceed 3 minutes and group poems must not exceed 5 minutes.
Keep these rules firmly in mind while writing and practising your poems. After all, the last thing you want to do is get disqualified at the slam!
Preparing For The BIS Poetry Slam
Below, I’m listing 4 steps that you can follow to deliver a powerful performance at the slam! If you follow them, I promise you you’ll do a good job at the BIS Poetry Slam!!
Step 1: Writing Your Poems
Step 2: Mastering Your Performance
Step 3: Creating A Great Group Piece
Step 4: Keeping Your Cool On The Day Of The Event
Step 1: Writing Your Poems
Needless to say, this is the most important step of your preparation process. It can also be the scariest, especially for those who put too much pressure on themselves!
If you’re struggling with writing your poem, here are 4 steps you can follow. Follow these steps, and I promise you’ll end up with a good poem!
a. Get Inspired!
Let’s start by having a bit of fun, shall we? Instead of getting straight into the process of writing, why not begin by watching a few videos? Here are a few world-class spoken word poems, for your viewing:
i. Sarah Kay – “B”
ii. Phil Kaye – Repetition
iii. Anis Mojgani – Shake The Dust
Some of you might already have watched these poems. If so, I’d urge you to watch them again, this time paying greater attention to the nuances that have gone into making these poems great!
b. If you could only write one more poem, what would you write about?
So you’ve watched the videos, and you’re feeling motivated. Time to pick up that pen and start writing, right? Wrong!
I’ll be honest: this is a mistake that most poets make. They begin to write their poems without actually being sure of what they want to talk about. Once in a while, this results in good poetry. But more often than not, it leads to frustration and a loss of time.
So instead of going straight into your poem, take some time to think about what you actually want to write about. For any poet, deciding this can be extremely tricky. There are just so many things you could write about! You could write about homework or heartbreak, about cricket or social injustices, or about that pimple that’s been occupying your forehead all week. Freezing on one thing to write about can be incredibly difficult.
If you’re in this phase, I empathise with you massively, because I’ve been stuck in this state on multiple occasions.
Luckily, I recently found a solution to it. All I do is ask myself a simple question – if I could write only one more poem, what would I write about?
This question always works for me. Simply because, instead of offering possibilities, it reduces them drastically. Within this constraint, it’s incredibly easy to pick something to write about.
By going into this mindset, the question changes from “what could I write about?” to “what must I write about?” What is so important to me that I couldn’t do without writing about it?
Trust me. Ask yourself this question, think deeply about it, answer it, and you will find out what you really and truly want to write about!
c. Decide Your Approach To The Poem
“Is it time to start writing yet?” I hear you ask. Unfortunately, no. Not yet. You now know what you’re going to write about, but you still don’t know how you’re going to write about it.
Let me explain: assume that you want to write about that pimple that’s been bothering you for weeks. That’s great. But how are you going to write about it? Are you going to simply complain about how much it’s bothering you? No! That would be too boring. Instead, what if you gave it a name, and a character? Ah, much more interesting. But let’s make it more specific – what if you named it Ramesh, and gave it the character of a well-meaning little helper, who’s just trying to decorate your face a little bit?
And so on. Remember, it’s not like you have to give your subject a name or character. This is just one way to approach your poem. The key thing is to think creatively about how you’re approaching your poem so that right from the get-go, you’re giving it an interesting flavour.
Exercise: Watch the above 3 poems again, and try to decode the approaches that the poets have taken to their poems. You’ll find that each of them has taken a definite approach to their poem.
For instance, if you take a closer look at Sarah Kay’s poem, “B”, you’ll find that it’s about the lessons (both good and bad) that we learn while growing up. But instead of simply listing out these lessons, Sarah Kay has structured the poem as a conversation between her and her daughter. Doing this one simple thing makes the poem more concrete and more real to us. Think about it – a person listing out things they’ve learnt for 3 minutes? Sounds boring. But a person having an honest and uplifting conversation with their young daughter? Far more interesting!
Similarly, Phil Kaye weaves an intricate first-person story in his poem “Repetition”, and in “Shake The Dust”, Anis Mojgani lists out groups of marginalised people (“For the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold up their children”) before urging them to rise about their circumstances and overcome their fears. In both cases, the poet’s approach adds a layer of depth to the piece, and makes it more engaging for the viewer!
So what I do want you to do is – think about what you want to say, and find a creative way of saying it! Unleash your imagination; make it interesting. I promise you – doing this will make your poem a lot more fun to write, and a lot more fun to listen to!
d. Start Writing!
Finally, we’re here. You’re motivated, you know what you want to write about, and you know how you’re going to write about it. So, only one thing left. Pick up the pen (or phone, or laptop) and start writing!
Tip #1: Don’t edit while you write, edit after you write
I’ve often been guilty of editing while I write. I write one line, then edit that one line, then re-edit that one line, then scrap it and write a different line, then edit that line, and so on and so forth. Before I know it, two hours have passed, and I’ve only written one line of my poem!
While writing, do not fixate on any single line in your poem. Instead, power through it, and finish writing the poem. Once you’re done, then you can sit down and seriously work on your editing. Trust me, doing this will save you a lot of time!
Separate your writing and editing processes!
Tip #2: Be honest, be authentic
Don’t write about something you don’t care about. Don’t write about something just because it’s a “trending” topic, or because you think it’ll be “cool” to write about. By doing this, you’re only doing an injustice to yourself. Instead, write about something that you care deeply about, no matter how trivial it seems to the people around you. Being true to yourself while writing is the best thing you can do, and trust me, it’s the best shot you’ll give yourself of winning the slam!
A Short List Of Writing Prompts
If you’re struggling to come up with an idea for your poem, here’s a list of prompts that will help you start writing!!
i. Write a love letter to something you hate.
ii. Pick any object in your room and write a poem from the point of view of that object!
iii. As a poem, list out 5 steps to build an ordinary human being
iv. Write a poem from the point of view of your favourite fictional villain
Step 2: Mastering Your Performance
Spoken word poetry, or performance poetry, is poetry that’s written to be performed. Essentially, it’s an amalgamation of two art forms – the literary art (poetry) and the performance art. One can’t do without the other. Which is why you might’ve written a brilliant poem, but you’re not allowed to relax just yet!
The quality of your performance is as important as the quality of your poem!
So how do you deliver a fantastic performance? Here are the steps to take:
a. Practise Practise Practise!
Unfortunately, there’s no secret ingredient for delivering a great performance. It’s just this one word, that you’ve heard infinite times in your life, that I’m going to tell you again: practise.
You need to know your poem so well, that if someone woke you up in the middle of the night, you could start saying them instantly. You need to know what you’re doing with all your hands at all times. You need to know what expressions you’re going to be making while you hit your punchlines.
Achieving this is not easy. So make sure you practise. By the time the event rolls around, you should have practised your piece 50 times. Do this, and you’ll be 90% of the way there!
b. How You Practise Is How You Will Perform
Practising is essential. However, you can’t just practise any old way. For instance, if you’re lying on your bed and reading the words of your poem to yourself, you’re not practising!!
The reason for this is simple – how you practise is how you will perform. So every time you practise, make sure you make it count. Stand in front of the mirror, and perform as if you’re actually at the real event. Stand with the correct posture. Picture a mic stand and audience in front of you. Try to feel the nerves, and the tension. And focus on beating it.
If you practise this way, with full dedication, by the time the event takes place, you’ll be unstoppable!
c. Being Yourself On Stage
Let them see your personality.
I feel like this is the best advice I can give you. When you get up onto that stage, don’t try to be somebody else. Find what’s unique about you, and let that come through in your performance. Don’t be afraid to let the audience see who you really are. Trust me, they’ll appreciate you for it.
So don’t hold back. Don’t pretend. Perform in a way that feels natural to you, be true to yourself, and your performance will be valuable!
Step 3: The Key To Putting Up A Great Group Piece
So you’re done with writing and practising your individual piece. Good job! However, the work’s not done yet. The best teams from Round 1 of the BIS Poetry Slam will progress to Round 2 of the slam!
So you must prepare a group piece, where all 3 poets in the team perform a poem together!
Let’s get started on writing a wonderful group poem –
a. Get Inspired!
As with the previous time, let’s start our process by searching for a bit of inspiration!
And what better place find it, than the poem that won first place at the first edition of the BIS Poetry Slam?
I’d also recommend you watch this fabulous duet poem, “Beach Bodies”, where two students really turned on the style! (They were later invited to perform the same poem at a TEDx Event!)
b. Write About Something You All Care About
I’m hoping that you’re feeling inspired now. Because the next step is to get writing. Essentially, you have to follow the same steps as listed above, but with one major change – you need to write about something that all 3 of you care about. Something that all 3 of your relate to. Something that all 3 of you want to talk about.
Why? Because that’s the only way you’ll perform with full conviction on stage!
Remember, it doesn’t matter who does the actual writing of the poem (you can all edit the poem together, anyway). But you must take the time to sit down together and talk about what matters to each of you. This way, you’ll be sure that you’re all performing a poem that means something to you, and I promise you that on the day of your performance, it’ll make a difference!
c. Choreography Is Essential!
Coordinating your body movements on stage is crucial to delivering a good team performance. Remember, performance is an audio-visual experience, so make sure that the 3 of you look like one entity on stage!
The way to achieve this is to have a strong cue to begin the poem, and you could coordinate certain movements and hand gestures as well, just to show that you’re functioning as a unit, and not as 3 individuals.
d. Practise Practise Practise!
For a team performance, there is simply no escaping this. If you have to practise your solo piece 50 times, you need to practise your group piece 75 times! That’s just how it is. The more you practise, the more comfortable you’ll feel with each others cadence, tempo and movements. Remember, the little things matter on the big stage, so practise together, get to know each other, and then only can you think of delivering a memorable performance!!
Step 4: Keeping Calm On The Day Of The Slam!
There’s just one more thing you need to do, to be able to deliver a powerful performance at the BIS Poetry Slam. You need to stay calm on the day of the event.
I know this is easier said than done, but hear me out. The thing that separates the pros from the amateurs is control. So if you want to be closer to a pro than an amateur, you need to be in control of yourself and your body on the day of the slam. It’s hard to do this nervous.
Here are a few tips to beat nerves and stay calm on the day of the event:
i. Practise your performances (solo and team) for an audience before the actual slam. If possible, ask your principal for permission to perform at your school assembly, before the BIS Slam. If this is not possible, get a bunch of friends together, and perform for them! But I promise you – the more you perform in front of real audiences before the slam, the less nervous you’ll feel on the day of the event.
ii. When you step onto the stage on the day of the BIS Poetry Slam, take deep breaths to calm down your nerves.
iii. Make sure you’re well-rested and well hydrated on the day of the event. If you’re not treating your body well, don’t expect it to do the job for you when it counts!
Don’t Perform To Win, Perform To Make History!
Look, you need to put real effort into your poems, and your performances. But that doesn’t mean you have to win. Poetry events die when they become hyper-competitive. So don’t let yourself fall into the trap of believing you have to win.
Let me make this clear to you – you don’t have to win.
You know what you have to do? You have to deliver a mind-blowing performance that makes an actual impact on the people who’re watching. If you do this, it doesn’t matter what the results are. Because you’d have already won.
“The points are not the point; the point is poetry.”
– Allan Wolf
So start gearing up for the slam! We can’t wait to witness the poetry that you create. And remember – you’re the only one who’s in control of your destiny, so make sure you make the most of it!!