The Difference Between Jordan and Me: On Prompts and Practice

The weirdest part about being complimented for my work as a poet is that nobody knows how bad I used to be. It’s disconcerting. I firmly believe you never know how bad you are at something until you get better at it. Michael Jordan probably watches his first high school game of basketball on VHS and wonders how he made it to the NBA – twice. Sometimes that begs the question: How do we improve?

We know the answer, for the most part. Practice. That’s the only ingredient in “perfect”, or at least that’s how the old saying goes. It rings true almost everywhere. Jordan kept shooting free throws and we measured his success by counting the number he sunk. It’s calculated. Rebounds. Assists. Turnovers. Three balls. It all gets written neatly on a gridded piece of paper or plugged into a program and the player gets a clean printout at the end so he knows what to focus on at the gym next day.

Hi, I’m a spoken word artist, and I’m in one of the most subjective industries on the planet. Here lies the problem! How do you practice poetry? What’s “good”. The first thing we tell new blood on the scene is: “Don’t worry if this audience didn’t respond well to your work. There will always be someone who will always identify with your truth.” That’s so true but it makes success a difficult thing to measure. Bad basketball players don’t play in front of sold out crowds and suck only to be told, “Worry not, for out there exists an audience that enjoy fouls and the sweet sound of a ball making it nowhere near the bucket.” It just doesn’t happen! In addition, we can’t measure a poet by the money they make, the books they’ve sold or the number of shows they’ve booked. That’s just their entrepreneurial spirit and I’ve read plenty of books from artists that are great businessmen but haven’t really engaged me with their writing.

So we’re still at square one, and you’ve gotten this far expecting me to drop the answer on you like a revelation that you can then go and apply to your writing and rule the world of spoken word with your metaphors of steel and your voice of honey. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. I, like everybody else on the internet, only have an opinion. I, like everybody else on the internet, am probably offensively wrong. However, I want you to get your money’s worth, so I’ll explain what I think.

In 2013 I started a page where poets and creatives, professionals and amateurs, good and “bad” alike could share their work by writing one poem per day every day for the month of April. It’s called The Dirty Thirty Challenge, and from 50 of my own friends, it’s grown to (as I sit here on this day and time to check) almost 1400 people. How is this relevant? Well I got into it with the intention of posting a new prompt every day then picking my favorite by the end of the night. What I saw astounded me, and still does. I get messages constantly from the old and young, the new and veteran, the serious and the yea-this-is-just-a-hobby, telling me the prompts helped them write in ways they never thought they could. And that is why I started this page.

I really sucked at this poetry thing when I started eight years ago. I had supportive friends who told me any and everything I wrote was perfect and so I never saw any reason to change. The best thing that ever happened to my writing was hearing criticism from a respected veteran in this industry. The second best thing that happened was my decision to go to a workshop where I had somebody else decide what I would write and push me out of my creative box. The Dirty Thirty has been that for me and so many other people; a wakeup call. My opinion on how we “get good” is that we push the envelope on our work as often as possible. That we remain uncomfortable with our outcomes. That we constantly stretch our limits by trying sonnets, limericks, villanelles and haiku instead of repeating freeform day in and day out. That we experiment with joy when we only channel sadness. That we conquer brevity. That we edit ruthlessly. That we always want more.

The Dirty Thirty has given so many writers an opportunity to try this. I’m just humbled they still trust me as a guide.

Abdul Hammoud
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