Slamming it with Peter Kahn – a beginner’s guide to youth slam

A guest post from Lisa Hitchen, a recent Apples and Snakes Artist Development workshop participant. The original blog post can be found at Lisa’s website here.

“The more deprived and troubled, the more poetry can help”
Peter Kahn, 27 June 2011

I don’t get out much (occupational hazard of looking after a two-year-old). But recently, through some fortuitous rearrangements of childcare, I was able attend Peter Kahn’s workshop for Apples and Snakes on performance poetry. What a fantastic day.

Ten writers and performers were taken into the world of the Chicago high school where Peter works to inspire young people to write and perform. We saw the finished products on video, then heard stories about individuals who had gone on to higher education and new careers despite challenging and turbulent backgrounds. Some were shy, others disruptive, chaotic or in trouble with drink and drugs. Their chance to write and work with others in poetry competitions had turned lives round. Really inspirational.

We were here to learn how to do this ourselves so writing and performing was a big part of the day. And, like the kids in Chicago, the emphasis was on collaborative work. Ok, so writing a poem might be tough, but as a group? Then, working together to really convey the sounds and meanings of our words. Here’s what we did:

Four stanzas in groups of three or four.

Peter Kahn

Write a poem of between two and five lines in three minutes using one of two starter phrases and one to four assigned words. Stop and pass your work to the next person in your group. Repeat. This time continuing the theme, sense or feeling of the previous writer’s work but throw in a metaphor. Pass on and throw in a sound or smell. Do it again but throw in shape or texture and some alliteration and bring to a close. At the end, check out the poems in groups. Which is strongest? Work on this for 45 minutes to develop a performance piece. Perform to the whole group.

There was no time for writer’s block but the phrases and words did help to prevent that. Then the lines from colleagues were the guide and occasionally, something oblique and original came out. In 12 minutes, it wasn’t Shakespeare but by the end, we had four 16-line poems.

I worked with Errol, Nathan and Eddy. One piece really seemed to stand out to us. Simpler and clearer, less disjointed than the others, still a bit fantastical but hey, that was the idea!

Then we worked on how to perform, looking at words first. How and who says what? Sitting outside the Betsy Trotwood pub in the afternoon sun, it was like The Apprentice. Everyone had lots of ideas but when to push and put them out there and when to hang back.  ‘We’ve got 45 minutes – loads of time,’ I said brightly at one point. But no, it wasn’t.

One technique Peter introduced us to was ‘spinning’. This is where one person speaks out the first part of a sentence then two, three and finally all four people come in as the sentence goes along to create emphasis. You can spin up or down for different impact.

After words, we moved to movements and gestures. What do you physically do to really carry the meaning of the piece?

By the end we had a few too many complicated ideas and, to be honest, were not entirely sure where they all went (or at least I wasn’t). Two scripted rehearsals (no time to learn by heart) and onto the performance. During these we simplified things somewhat. On third and final (performance rehearsal) it went pretty well. A great exercise in group learning and lots of fun.

I want to develop my poetry and performance skills to work with school children so this gave me some great ideas plus I made a few contacts from the slam scene.

Lisa Hitchen is a journalist and writer based in London and is at the beginning of her career in performance poetry.  She wants to work in schools with pupils on writing skills and speaking out, using their own words and feelings. You can contact her on lfhitchen@gmail.com.