Friday, February 16, 2018

Moonlight Musings

Today I'm handing over to a guest – my new real-life friend, Sarah Temporal, who describes herself as poet, performer and teacher – because I thought what she had to say in a recent blog post would interest you as much as it did me. I am always fascinated by discussions of process. (Not to mention that she refers to both Natalie Goldberg and Kate Tempest, whose work, in different ways, is dear to my heart.)

What comes first: rhythm or words? 
© Sarah Temporal 2017

I had a great question from a punter after my performance at M-Arts last weekend. (You can watch the live performance here).

“When you’re creating a poem, do you start with the words or the rhythm? Do you write something and then make it flow, or does the flow dictate what you write?”

The answer, of course, is not straightforward, and that’s what makes it an excellent question. I have had so much fun investigating this very problem that I wanted to share it with you.

Many of the great slam poets around today, such as Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, and Kate Tempest, came from a hip-hop background. These extraordinary wordsmiths can tell you loads more about ‘flow’ than I can; they have spent countless hours, weeks and years honing their skills rhyming, freestyling, laying words over beats or vice-versa. When they deliver a poem with only their unaccompanied voice, they bring an expert sensibility of rhythm and flow, which makes their work so much more complex and compelling to listen to.

It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy: there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in.

I didn’t come into poetry from hip-hop, but I grew up learning music from a young age. I’m sure that has had a big impact on the way I use language to compose poetry. As a kid I spent equal amounts of time every day practising guitar, which my mother taught me to play, and burying my nose in books. So by the time I discovered slam poetry at the age of nineteen, the fusion of spoken language with the qualities of music just made sense to my music-trained brain.

Like many writers, I keep copious notebooks, which no one else reads (see Natalie Goldberg for the value of letting yourself write junk, and lots of it). I’ll comb through these when I’m looking for ideas, and often what jumps out is something that has an interesting sound, as well as an interesting sentiment.

There’s sometimes a weird moment when I realise that some little line I’ve written has lodged itself in my brain like a catchy guitar riff, pestering me to make a whole poem so that it will have somewhere to live!

So when I’m composing (and ‘composing’ may be a more apt term than ‘writing’), I’m focusing as much on the sound and rhythm as I am on the meaning of words. When I speak a line of poetry out loud, I’m trying to become aware of the physical sound of the words: the cadence, the tone, whether it seems to burst forth with explosive energy or coil slowly around the tongue; whether the line wants me to take my time or get carried away. It’s not always simple. 

Sometimes the meaning is clear but the rhythm isn’t working. Sometimes too much rhythm diminishes the meaning. And sometimes the particular mood or energy of the piece just takes a really long time to reveal itself. The challenge for any poet who performs is to strike the right balance of sound and sense.

There’s no point having lots of verbal tricks if you’re not saying anything meaningful; and likewise, no point in performing a great poem if there’s nothing for the ear to enjoy. It’s a fine balance, challenging, occasionally maddening, but ultimately so rewarding when you share it with a live audience.

If you’re interested in trying slam poetry yourself, please sign up to follow my SlamCraft series

This link takes you to Sarah's website, where you can also click on her blog etc. Also check her "Flight to the Heart" on YouTube – poetry with music, and the poem itself very musical, demonstrating what she says above about the way her musical training has influenced her writing.

Just now she's been appearing in one of a local series of "The Vagina Conversations" (based on Eve Ensler's famous "Vagina Monologues") at Byron Bay. Her husband posted proudly on facebook this morning of his joy in hearing audience members last night "raving about how good 'the poet' was". Wish I'd been there!


  1. Thank you so much for this, Rosemary and Sarah! I love Kate Tempest and although I have never had the opportunity to see her live, I have watched a fabulous televised performance and seen her on YouTube. What a coincidence that both Kate and Sarah’s surnames start with ‘Temp’!
    I have read poems to a live audience, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was younger, and I think I could have been a performance poet back then. But before my last live reading I was fraught with nerves, so I admire anyone who can get up and perform or slam.
    It’s always interesting to read about the writing process and I recognised elements of my own writing in Sarah’s, and I like the comparison of writing and performing: ‘It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy: there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in’. I think music has influenced me too, and I also get little lines lodged in my brain, pestering me to make a whole poem!
    I will definitely check out Sarah, her website, and her "Flight to the Heart" on YouTube.

  2. This made me think about the way i write my poems. Thank you!

  3. What an interesting post. Thank you, Rosemary and Sarah. I loved "Flight to the Heart". So melodic and wonderful. This was a pleasure to read.

  4. A very interesting I have tried to figure out how poetry flows from me too! Much food for thought.

  5. I really enjoyed "Out With the Old." I enjoyed the words and the way she performed it. I always enjoy slam poetry, and she is terrific. Helpful to read her method of writing poetry as well. A very talented woman!!

  6. What a pleasure to read this intelligent and aware piece by Sarah, and I so understand why Rosemary is impressed and wanting to share it. It sums up and clarifies some vital points about today's poetry without being didactic or simplistic. Thank you both SO much.

  7. I'm delighted you all get so much from this post. Sarah has read your comments too, and asks me to say:

    Thanks for your thoughts everyone, it's such a pleasure to engage in this conversation. As I enter my late 30s I'm also wondering whether live reading is a 'young person's game', but I think Rosemary would back me up when I say, anyone can do it! I'll be posting more about performance, using rhythm to open up your writing, and tricks to overcome nerves so that you can share with a live audience. Follow my blog for more on SlamCraft - and stay in touch! 🙂

    1. In answer to Sarah's thoughts about live reading, I'll have to say that I was in my forties when I started, lol; and I have kept on doing it over the years – less often as time goes on, but for other reasons such as being more reluctant to travel long distances at night. A live reading does need energy – but I find that the doing actually energises me. (And it's OK, in fact good, to be a little nervous beforehand; one needs the adrenalin.) I know plenty of wonderful "performance poets" who are no longer young and still going strong.

  8. I enjoyed 'Out With The Old'. Sarah is such a modest, yet superbly talented poet. This was such a good post. Thank you for sharing it with us Rosemary.

  9. I always think about the rhythm when writing i think. Coming neither from hip hop or other music I still try to work from the rhythm and the sounds... sometimes the flow and sounds leads me to the meaning instead of the other way around. Great article. As for reading, I have started to record every now and then... and it helps focusing on the rhythm

  10. An awesome essay, Rosemary and thank you, Sarah, for your edifying and thoughtful insights. I have often paused, while writing, and contemplated the very question you pose, here: What comes first: rhythm or words? I have found that it is usually, a unique alchemy. Sometimes a single word will alter a direction.

  11. Poem words often come with their own rhythm, I feel. May be simultaneously? Such a wonderful post! Thank you Rosemary and Sara.


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