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Matt Abbott on performance poetry

Written by Matt Abbott

Matt Abbott gives tips and writes about his experience as a performance poet.

ma9When I first appeared on stage in December 2006, I never would’ve dreamt it’d end up being my career. We were in a secret underground indie club in Sheffield’s red light district at an after-show party. I was 17 years old and halfway through my A-Levels, and had been penning spoken word ditties for a couple of months.

At the time, indie music was massive. I underwent a huge personality shift during my A-Levels, and instantly gravitated towards the skinny jeans and fuzzy guitars of the ‘boys in bands’ a few years my senior. Wakefield’s Escobar was a thriving music hub, and every weekend there were gigs aplenty, with folk staying out ’til 4am dancing to indie.

I’d always fantasised about being a frontman, but never genuinely contemplated it as I’d never tried singing or playing a musical instrument. And then in summer 2006, I came home from college to my dad playing a John Cooper Clarke CD. Instantly I was blown away. I learnt of his history opening up for iconic punk bands, and had my first light-bulb moment.

It was six months before I’d penned anything passable, but in this period I’d built a small following on Myspace, largely due to my presence on several Sheffield music forums. By early 2007, I’d gatecrashed a few gigs by ‘introducing’ mates’ bands with short bursts of spoken word. It went down a storm with punters, bands and promoters alike, and before long I had several resident compére slots, and was starting to be recognised on various local scenes as “poem guy”. It was partly the novelty factor, but I think it became clear that I was actually pretty good, and gradually I started taking myself more and more seriously.

Long story short, I ended up fronting a band called Skint & Demoralised, and we signed a massive record deal with Universal after being played several times on BBC Radio 1 and raved about by Steve Lamacq and Colin Murray. Funny how things work out. From 2007 until 2013, music was pretty much my only focus, although I kept writing occasional poems, and on S&D’s headline UK tour in 2009, the spoken word interludes were often the highlight.

It wasn’t until late 2013 that I performed at an event that wasn’t either a music gig, a music festival or a political event. After co-founding A Firm Of Poets, I started performing at poetry events, literary festivals and arts centres. And I think this was, and still is, one of the crucial factors behind my success as a performer. Spending seven years performing poetry to an audience that really doesn’t want to hear poetry, and consistently managing to engage them, is pretty good practice for a spoken word artist.

I’ve always written with performance in mind, and not only that, I’ve always written with an audience in mind that has no prior interest in poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I take pride in well-crafted and layered poems, of course I do. But I want to be able to perform them at an all-day music festival in Blackburn, same as I want to perform them at Norwich Arts Centre. I know this sounds like a cliché, but its poetry for people, not for other poets.

In terms of income, workshops are a huge part of a poet’s life. And I know that my entirely non-academic, down to earth, accessible style is a crucial factor here as well. My passion and enthusiasm for words, and my self-taught approach to writing, means that I can really bridge the gap between those who’ve never written poetry before, and those that love it. You have to be able to build a rapport with workshop participants, same as you do with an audience, but they’re not too dissimilar.

In terms of the day-to-day routine of a professional spoken word artist. Well, quite frankly, there isn’t one! You should regularly pursue gigs, but you should never put yourself under too much pressure. Most of my gigs, and certainly most of my best ones, have come to me, as opposed to me coming to them. But you have to be out there to be spotted, be it by a promoter or by a fan.

Generally, whenever I do a gig, it leads to another one. Never, ever approach a gig with less than 100% effort. You never know who’s in the audience; you never know who’s listening. Also, whilst its crucial to have content online nowadays, you have to maintain a certain standard. You’re only as good as you’re weakest poem. Put something online that you’re uncertain about, and that might be the first – and last – thing that somebody sees.

Being self-employed and freelance, you have to try and plan your finances as far ahead as possible. Make sure you’re guaranteed enough money coming in throughout May to cover June’s rent, for example – don’t live entirely hand to mouth.

Also, make sure you find the time to write. Even if its half an hour. Don’t slip into the same patterns when you’re writing. Always read and listen – novels, films, music, other poets – and always try to write something that doesn’t sound anything like your other poems. That’s generally how you build a strong collection. And if you’ve not written for three months, don’t worry, it’ll come. Trust me; it happens to us all!

Finally, and I think this is most important, ask yourself – and remind yourself – why it is that you’re doing it. What do you want to achieve from it? Which aspects make you happy, and which make you unhappy? Being a full-time spoken word artist involves discipline, sacrifice, persistence, disappointment, instability, insecurity and uncertainty, and is incredibly unpredictable. So make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons! Don’t get me wrong, I’m living the dream, but ultimately you have to be doing it for yourself, and for the right reasons, otherwise you’ll wear yourself into the ground.

5 tips for performance poets

1.

When you feel that you’ve finished a draft, record yourself delivering it on your phone. By the time you’ve managed a full take without any mistakes, you’ll have nearly learnt it. Leave it a week or so, and then listen back – its much better for evaluating and editing.

2.

If, for example, you write a draft which clocks in at 328 words, force yourself to edit it down to 250. It’ll almost always be a better poem. Words are more expensive in poetry than in any other form of writing – if you can say it in fewer words, then generally you should do so.

3.

Imagine one of your idols going on your website, or blog, or YouTube channel – wherever. Is there anything on there that you cringe at the thought of them seeing? If so, take it down. That one so-so or poorly recorded poem might be the first – or last – thing that somebody sees

4.

You should always write a set list before doing a performance, but you should also try your best to read your audience and change it if necessary. Its always handy to have alternatives up your sleeve – quite often audiences will surprise you. Learning to gauge which poems are appropriate for certain performances is crucial.

5.

It may seem obvious, but always be polite, professional and respectful from the minute you enter an event until the minute you leave, even if you’re only doing a 3-minute open mic slot. Reputation is everything in the freelance spoken word poetry world, and people talk. Just because you’re not on stage, it doesn’t mean you’re not being watched or judged.

Related links

Matt Abott
Matt's website
A Firm of Poets
Spoken word organisation, co-founded by Matt Abott and Ralph Dartford
Follow Matt on Twitter
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