by Jade Sylvan
A couple months ago I was performing at a spoken word venue with a strong youth scene. My friend, the adult slammaster who was also one of the youth team coaches, asked me to come talk to the youth slam team about my experience with touring and performance. He told me he asked me specifically because his team was all young women this year, and he wanted them to hear from a women who toured, performed, and traveled on her own.
The roiling feminist in me initially reacted negatively. “Girls shouldn’t need ‘special’ coaching apart from boys,” the little second-waver in my head grumbled. “Shouldn’t the same issues apply to everyone?” Five minutes into our talk, however, I realized that the female experience of performing is still very often different from the male experience, and I myself had gone through some especially “female” processes in my journey to becoming a bona fide grown-up touring poet.
The advice I wound up giving the girls was very simple and, to me, mostly common sense — it just so happened to be common sense that took me years of introspection and personal work to realize for myself.
I decided to compile the gist of our talk in this numbered list (I love lists), in case it helps any other young/old, female/male/trans poets out there who may be on the cusp of breakthroughs in their own self-confidence.
1. Stand up straight.
A performer’s body-language can communicate just as much as her words do to an audience. Women in our culture are taught to make themselves smaller. That means hunched shoulders, bowed head, and/or arms and legs crossed or folded across the body. Not only does this convey insecurity to an audience, it also makes it physiologically difficult to breathe. If you can’t breathe comfortably, you won’t be able to speak with control and confidence.
When you go onstage, ask yourself, “Can I breathe comfortably?” If the answer is no, see if you can change your posture to allow you to breathe with more ease. Since nerves can get the best of you when you’re up there in front of people, practice at home. Experiment with different shoulder positions and stances, and when you find one that works, come back to it again and again so it’s a familiar muscle memory when you’re under the stage lights.
2. Don’t apologize for your work.
You probably do this and don’t even know you do. Every time you preface a poem with, “I don’t know about this one,” “I just wrote this,” or, “This might suck,” you are telling the audience that you think they should listen to your words less than everyone else’s. Women do this all the time. Men, hardly ever.
The next time you feel like you need to negate a poem before you even start it, try taking a deep breath and reading the title instead.
3. Fake it till you make it.
I swear, the only reason men appear to be more confident than women is because society tells them they should be, so they learn to fake it earlier. Your guy friends are sitting there with inner monologues just as insecure and chattery as yours, they’re just acting like they’re not.
To the world, there is no difference between a person who appears confident, and a person who is confident. Going back to your body during moments of doubt can make all the difference. Think of what confident looks like, and try to match your movements to that. If you do it long enough, your outside will train your inside, and you’ll start to feel more confident. This works. I promise.
4. Copy the boys.
When I started performing, I noticed that not very many women in poetry go on tour alone. It makes sense. We’re not even supposed to go for a walk by ourselves at night. How the fuck are we supposed to fly all over the world, find our ways to venues, and (god-forbid) trust strangers in strange cities offering crazy promises of paid poetry gigs not to throw off their Grandma-nightgowns, show their wolf-teeth, and swallow us whole when we show up with our naive little-girl baskets full of chapbooks?
I also noticed a lot of guys without a ton of credentials (and some of whose work I thought was of… questionable quality) would decide to go on tour, and just, like, go. I asked a couple of them how they did it. They told me how they began soliciting shows, planned routes, and found places to stay.
I did what they did, and it worked. It can work for you, too.
5. Don’t think of yourself as a female poet.
By this, I do not mean don’t claim your gender identity. I just mean don’t qualify your work, and don’t let your sex affect what you write about, what you wear, or how you present yourself onstage. If you want to wear a sparkly tube dress and five-inch heels, fucking do it. If you want to wear a T-shirt and ripped jeans, fucking do it. If you want to wear a suit and tie, fucking do it.
The same goes for your words, which segues nicely into #6.
6. Find your voice.
When I first started performing, my friend Brian S. Ellis gave me the best writing advice anyone’s ever given me. He said, “Sometimes I feel like you try to sound like a ‘normal girl,’ but you’re really weird. You should just be weird.“ I took the advice to heart, and the more I indulged my idiosyncrasies and personal obsessions, the better my work was received.
Write about what’s interesting to you. Figure out what you have to say, say it, and don’t worry if it’s not ladylike, or on the flip side, if it’s too girly. If you write like Charles Bukowski, do it. If your gut is churning for you to produce a crown of baseball sonnets, do it. If you want to write airy, lyrical love poems, do it. And don’t apologize. And stand up straight when you read them out loud.
7. Don’t let them get you down.
The most powerful thing you can do is not let what other people say affect you. If someone makes a nasty comment directed at you, and you react to them by raising a nonchalant eyebrow, going, “Okay, that’s weird,” and continuing to be your bad-ass self, you have won.
8. Pick your battles.
Maybe somebody said some sexist shit in a poem, or made a degrading remark about you or another woman on Facebook. Standing up for yourself and Womankind is noble and good, but if you take it upon yourself to single-handedly right every ill on all of TEH INTERNETS, you won’t have any energy left over to be an awesome poet.
Again, the most powerful thing you can do for Womankind is be a fucking bad-ass artist who is also a girl at the same time. Let everything else you do serve this goal first and foremost.
9. Know you (and your words) are worthy.
Everyone else is just like you. They have synapses and a right brain and a left brain, and their heart pumps their blood through their veins to oxygenate their tissues, and they have to breathe to speak. Some people are good at some things and some at other things. Some have been hurt in one way, some in another. Nobody else, no matter what their gender, background, or appearance, has more right to stand up on stage and have their word-arrangements heard than you do. When you’re in a roomful of big-shot poets and you’re not so sure about the piece you’re holding in your hand or your head, try repeating to yourself, “I am worthy. I am worthy. I am worthy.”
10. Serve the work.
All of this is hard for everyone: male, female, trans, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, differently-abled, whatever. It’s hard to put yourself out there to face rejection over and over again. It’s a lot of strain on our egos, which are by nature fragile, irritable, and perpetually terrified little entities.
What helps me is to think of myself—my physical body and voice—as an instrument that I use to play the space between the audience and the stage. My work as a performer then becomes about getting the poem across, not about getting me across. It takes a lot of pressure off my personality, which is too small and petty to handle this responsibility, anyway.
11. Just do it.
Don’t second guess everything. Don’t internalize every comment or every criticism or poorly-attended show or asshole audience member or low score. We’re tiny beings with momentary lifespans running around on a rock floating in an endless void, and here you are in a room full of five, fifty, or five-hundred human faces who are waiting to listen to your words.
Right now, you are the luckiest person in the world. Be grateful, and rise to the occasion.