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  • Writer's pictureHarrison Casswell

Spoken Poetry: Finding your voice

When I first started writing poetry, I had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t, but don’t tell the editors that). In the same way that I assume many people do, I would try to imitate the greats. I remember writing this poem about the birds that live on the roof of York Minster, trying to channel the Romantics – their love of nature and lofty verse. It was crap.

Once I started writing in my own voice, about subjects that were personal to me, my poetry started to feel much more authentic. Rather than imitating men that lived centuries before me – writing verse, that read aloud from my mouth, would sound naff – I began to write poems that were very much my own. Poems that sounded like me. When I finally stepped up to a microphone and performed my work aloud, I understood it better than ever before.

Poetry at its core is an oral artform that predates the written word. In fact, the earliest forms of poetry were recited or sung aloud – sometimes to music. I think it is this connection to music that makes spoken word appeal to me. Since I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a rockstar. To stand on stage and address an audience. To feel the thrill of performance. Problem is, I’m tone-deaf. So, poetry it is.

I had been wanting to perform my poetry for a long time, but I had never made the leap. I would read my poems to friends and family and my partner, but I had never performed them. I always said I would – but never knew how.Then one night, I was at the Open Mic evening in my usual Thursday night haunt. My more musically inclined friends were getting up and performing and it looked so much fun. I felt jealous.

I wanted to be up there.

So, I drank some tequila and I got up. It felt incredible. Like electricity, coursing through my body and zapping all the good parts of my brain.

I performed a poem about baldness, a poem about my Grandad, and a poem about Doncaster.

I was asked by one of my Writing Voices colleagues to talk in this piece about how I write dialect and the funny thing is, I didn’t really know I was doing that. She told me that when she reads my poetry, she doesn’t have to try to understand the voice – it comes off the page naturally, as it does out of my mouth. She asked me how I do that – and I couldn’t think of an answer. I told her, “I don’t really think about it”. She said, “Maybe that’s it”. It's strange to consider my own writing practice critically. I don’t consciously try to write in dialect, I just write in my own voice and I guess this probably does help the writing seem more authentic.

One thing I have noticed recently is that since I started performing my poetry as spoken word, the voice in my head as I write has changed. Or perhaps more accurately, the way I hear the voice in my head has changed. Rather than forming the words as sentences to be read off the page, I visualise myself on stage, speaking through a microphone. I think this has allowed me to get even closer to my natural voice, while also improving the rhythm and delivery of the lines.

I do write my poetry down and it can be read from the page, but I think it works better as spoken word. I don’t know if this because I can ensure it is received with the cadence and rhythm that I intend, and after my friend told me that it comes off the page for her just as though I was reading it, it would seem so.

This begs the question whether there is a difference between writing for the page and writing for the stage. I’d say yes, of course, though I don’t pay much attention to it myself. When you read poetry, you can often tell which way the author was leaning when writing it. Poets who work primarily in spoken word often still publish their work in chapbooks or collections and I think you can tell that the words on those pages were intended to be heard, rather than read. There is often a more obvious rhythm and I’ve noticed too, that sometimes, the work is much simpler than that which is written specifically for the page. I would say, while I much prefer spoken word myself, all types of poetry are as important as each other – even the humble haiku or limerick.

When I set out to write this piece I didn’t really know what I was trying to say about spoken word and poetry. I don’t really feel qualified to give definitive answers to these questions and I don’t yet understand poetry as much as I want to, but I am making an effort. I recently listened to a podcast in which the guest, Johnny Marr, said something really inspiring. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence of it was this: being famous is useless. Be an expert instead, nobody can take that away from you. Since I decided that this is what I really want to do, that is the effort I’m making. I want to be an expert in spoken word and poetry. I’ve been reading more poetry than ever before and attending performances when I can, as well as trying to get behind the microphone myself as often as possible.

I don’t feel I should be giving advice, but all I will say is this, if you are interested in writing poetry (or any form), go out there and do it. Read and consume the art of others voraciously and don’t be afraid to be your authentic self, for that is the best version of you that there is.

The day following my open mic night, a friend of mine – a very talented musician who was about to play his debut gig in a couple weeks – asked me if I would be his support act - performing poetry. It all felt very surreal. I didn’t know if I could do it. I only had a few poems that I considered good enough. But somehow, I pulled together a setlist and performed to a packed room above a pub and I loved every moment of it. I remember thinking – in the brief moment between uttering the last word of my last poem and the applause beginning – I want to do this forever.


Learn a little more about about me here.

Cover image by Jr Korpa via Unsplash


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