By Betty Carpick
Much of what I know about spoken word performance began in a small nickel-mining town in Northern Manitoba. In this sub-arctic climate isolated by distance and geography, we didn’t have television until I was twelve years old. The sole radio station, CBC, broadcast in English about a dozen hours a day. The radio brought current affairs, dramas, concerts and hockey games. The stream of serious performance, serious talk and serious music honed my listening skills and an appreciation for compelling material and powerful delivery.
We had a lot of books in our house. “The Story of a Little White Teddy Bear Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed” by Dorothy Sherrill was in one of the ten volumes of “The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls”. No matter how many times my dad read me the tale of the little bear who, instead of going to bed as he was told went out into the snowy night and got lost, I would cry. A good story inspires an imaginative experience that allows you to walk through the writer’s thoughts and emotions when they wrote the story. My dad didn’t just read the story, he told it.
Storytelling was a part of our household. When I heard recollections, knowledge and ideas told in a lively and detailed way, I felt inspired, protected and connected to my family and our histories. The powerful fleeting experiences of well-told storytelling are an act of intimacy and generosity with their sounds, images, actions and feelings.
As a kid, I loved to memorize poems, rhymes, riddles and stories. Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti: I recited them to my family along with my original material. Sometimes, I dressed up. Writing, performance and stagecraft had a certain allure, which, because I was very shy, the performance part took a long time and lots of practice before I felt comfortable to show my vulnerability.
It’s important to have confidence in your poem, story, or monologue. As William Strunk Jr. said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” In spoken word, strive for vigorous writing where every word carries weight. Read your writing out loud. Read it out loud again. Edit. Read out loud. Repeat.
Spoken word is a way of reinforcing writing and meaning. Connecting to listeners with the aesthetics of language, word play, intonation and voice inflection is a way to take a written subject and give it attitude. Moving from the page to the stage takes deliberate practice of conscious stage presence with a good dose of personal flavour. When you’re in the spotlight, eye contact, projection, enunciation, facial expression and gesture are capitalized with confidence. Find your inner strengths and fearlessness. Spoken word is a tightrope performance. You can never be too prepared. I’ve fallen off the tightrope more than once.