Thoughts: On there being not one way to write a poem

Thoughts by Benjamin Solah

There is no one way to write a poem or a piece of spoken word. Perhaps I used to think that there was a formula of sorts. I used to spend too much time wondering whether my poem was not a poem that it got in the way of writing it. I still probably spend a lot of time dismissing my own work as not poetry, or it’s a certain kind of poetry, but not appropriate for another kind, another gig or journal.

I think I first learnt how to write poetry based on the free verse of Sylvia Plath and the poets we read at school. Except for Plath, I didn’t like them that much but I modelled what I wrote based on their form, their rules. And then I entered spoken word in Melbourne, discovered Passionate Tongues and all these spoken word artists doing things differently, but somewhere in my head taking from it that I need to write a certain way. I obsessed about not being too literal, hiding what I wanted to say in metaphors and even when I do get minimalist or direct, I’m still thinking a bit too much about that.

Then you see the slam poets, those performers from America that excite so many people. It feels like a lot of them are much more like storytellers than poets, though not in a bad way. They are still concerned with poetry and rhythm and images. They have a certain style, a certain tone of voice that I can’t quite pin, but I know what I like and when I heard Ken Arkind, I knew I liked how he did it. I feel like he has a confidence in the way he uses anger in his voice and the way he constructs images around story telling, often quite literal in places but bringing out the images, those moments where you click your fingers as he brings the poem and story to life.

The poems that I’ve tried to write as slam poems like ‘Unless You’re Free’ in particular, feel like more on the cryptic side and the poems like ‘The Red Tram’ which is pretty cryptic but more like a dream-time story, have been difficult to memorise to really bring them alive.

I recently wrote a poem about my father and about my love for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Perhaps a subject that has a danger of people not understanding why I care about a football team, in a game mostly played in NSW as well. It began literal and I felt like it spelt a lot of it out a bit more than a previous attempt, but I keep wanting to rewrite it, either spell out an anecdote more clearly or bring some more images to the work. I think I have a tendency to editorialise too much in poems rather than let the images tell people how I feel and I also have a tendency to dislike a bunch of my pieces soon after I’ve performed them a bunch of times, except a few that I keep coming back to.

There’s no one way to write a poem, but it doesn’t stop me from rethinking and critiquing how I go about it. It’s hard to articulate how other people do it and what makes your stuff different, and whether your way of going about it is effective, but at the same time, it’s worth trying to discuss. Open mic and workshopping is a process of refining your work, not just current pieces, but for the next pieces you write. It’s not about caving to every reaction of the audience. You have to do what you want in your pieces in the end, but it’s useful to know what gets a good reaction, what makes people keep listening, and what pieces are forgotten soon after they are read.

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Benjamin Solah is the editor of He is also a spoken word artist, a writer of truth, fiction and poetry, and a political activist. His spoken word often deals with themes of capitalism, alienation, oppression and resistance and often through the lense of popular culture and sport. He is the convener of Keep Left Poetry and has ‘featured’ around Melbourne at places including Passionate Tongues, The Dan O’Connell, Keep Left, Egg Gallery and Conduit Arts.

Annie Solah