Kevin Wong is a relatively new face at local poetry slams. He entered and won his first slam in January 2016 and has kept going back ever since. Having spent eleven years in school drama clubs, he sees himself as a performer first and a poet second, relying on his delivery as much as he does on content, if not more so.
“Hey, are you here for the slam?”
Through a narrow doorway and up two flights of stairs, I am greeted by a pretty girl with a warm smile.
“Uhh.. Yes. I’m Kevin” I reply shyly. She glances down at a list of names and makes a mark next to mine.
“Let’s see.. Kevin Wong? Great. All the best!”
It is the last Thursday of January, and I am at a quaint cafe/bar in Bugis attending my first poetry slam. The cafe slowly fills up and after a brief introduction by the host, it’s time. She rummages through a bucket and pulls out a name, while I squirm in my seat and fervently pray that I’m not going first.
Of course I am.
As I step to the mic, my legs are trembling. My hands shake, I’m a mess. I don’t have any script to use as reference. But I have three poems prepared and eleven years in school drama clubs. I can do this. I take a deep breath, peer into the sea of unfamiliar faces, and bare my soul to them.
Three hours later, somehow I have won.
Three hours later, somehow I have changed.
What rings in my ears as I leave the café isn’t the moment when the host declared the winner was “Kevin!”. Yes, winning was sweet, and the supper I bought with my prize money equally so, but more than that what lingers is the exhilaration of having delivered a solid performance.
Now, on how to deliver a solid performance:
1. I say poetry, you say okay.
The first step is always the hardest one to take. I won’t lie, as I sat there in my black plastic chair, surrounded by strangers, most of whom were older than me, I felt extremely self conscious. This was an unfamiliar environment, an unfamiliar medium of expression, and I had to go first. What if they laughed at me? What if they didn’t?
It’s not about not feeling afraid, it’s about having the conviction to acknowledge your fear, and still take that step. I did not know what lay beyond that door, disappointment and embarrassment? Humiliation? But I knew I wasn’t content with watching from the sidelines.
Whether its poetry, a presentation, a speech, a competition, take that first step. Take it and don’t look back.
2. I say poetry, you say what?
Regardless of the medium, every person who delivers their piece will have their own style. I experienced this myself at various slams. What you like or dislike, the various sources that have inspired you, your beliefs, these things will contribute to you are as a writer, as an artist, as a performer. Just because your style is wildly different from someone you greatly admire, does not mean you are in any way inferior.
Good artists copy, great artists steal. But if we allow ourselves to be honest in our expression, and put a little bit of our soul into our words, then how could anyone hope to copy that? Be honest, be yourself, and let your voice be heard.
3. I say poetry, you say slam!
Once you’ve taken that first step, once you’ve begun finding your voice, the most important thing is to keep going. I participated in and won my first slam in January this year, and I’ve gone for it every month since then. Sometimes it gets disheartening, sometimes I write my pieces in the taxi on the way there. But I keep going.
Quitting will always be an option. After a disappointing night, after royally messing up and making an utter fool of yourself, the easiest choice would be to say “enough, I’m out. This isn’t for me.”
But the tongue is a muscle, and muscles are built over time. Learn to look not at the results, but at the process. I lost my last three slams, but I’m still going back this month. Persevere, endure, endure. The difference between success and failure could be that one chance you refused to give yourself.