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Slam Poetry Workshop

Maggie Waickman | Sunday, March 24, 2013


This past Friday, Marty McConnell gave a group of Notre Dame students and community members a crash course in slam poetry. McConnell is both a literary and oral poet, with her book “Wine for a Shotgun” recently released and a history of touring and competing as a slam poet. In one jam-packed hour, McConnell led a poetry slam workshop that went through the rules of slam poetry and techniques that can enhance a poet’s performance. McConnell’s skill and wisdom successfully imparted knowledge upon attendees, but the value of the workshop moved past mere skill building. 

McConnell described a poetry slam as a game involving poems. Participants each perform three-minute poems that are then judged by three to five judges. These slams, usually occurring in bars and coffee shops, are “just a way to get people in to hear poetry”.  

The real value of poetry slams, McConnell said, is the ability of a poetry slam to make the poet accountable to the audience. Poetry slam judges are random audience members, not professionals with special training. Some slams encourage the audience to let the poet know if they dislike what is happening on-stage. Through finger-snapping, foot-stomping or outright booing, the poet has to face the audience’s feedback.

Despite the threat of being booed off stage by angry drunk people, McConnell told the audience over and over that performing in slams should be fun. The fun might come from the intensity of performing, confronting fears of rejection or a love of performing. If it’s not fun, stop performing, at least for a little while. 

After a half-hour of hearing McConnell’s talking points, she moved on to coaching volunteer audience members on their performance poetry. Throughout this coaching, she held on to the concept of performance poetry as fun, greeting each audience member with a hug and encouraging positive feedback from the audience.

The constructive criticism given to performers was centered around the techniques encapsulated in McConnell’s acronym PAVES. When coaching, McConnell thinks about pacing and speed, action and stillness, volume and enunciation, emotion and authenticity and shifts and variety. Performers were given feedback focusing on their physical actions, emotional intensity and breathing patterns.

Besides imparting performance poetry skills upon the Notre Dame community, McConnell also showed the audience how poetry can be used to relay authentic emotions that might be controversial. McConnell performed her poem “The World’s Guide to Beginning,” a poem about sex and its links to personal and literal beginnings. McConnell describes the poem as a sex-positive personal anthem. 

The topics and language of “The World’s Guide to Beginning” could have been considered a bit controversial for her audience at Notre Dame. McConnell’s choice of poem, however, taught audience members one of the great values of the poetry slam: it allows expression for all ideas and emotions, whether or not they follow social convention.

McConnell’s coaching in performance style and the value of poetry is a precursor to “WHAM, BAM Poetry Slam,” a slam poetry contest hosted in the Snite Museum on April 18 at 5 p.m. Students can compete in this one-round poetry competition to put Marty McConnell’s coaching advice into action. Students looking to work on improving their poetry before the poetry slam can attend meetings with Spoken Word ND, a student group dedicated to growing as performance poets, at 8 p.m. on Thursday nights in 108 Debartolo Hall.