How to Be a Poet

I read this a little while back.  I liked it.  It made me laugh.  A little uncomfortably though.  I recognize these people.  Sometimes I have even called them “friends.”  Scary…

How To Be a Poet
Mike Believe

( 2006)


1. Change your name.
Sorry to tell you this, but the name ya mama gave you ain’t gonna cut it. The names of gods of lesser known religions always work. Prefixes like king, queen, sista or mother will do.

Here are some ideas to get you started: Chewbakah, Allah-zilla, tofu-pork, olos nah, albino jones, kizer SEW SAY, bob Marley jr jr, omega supreme, optimus prime, black Africa, Unspoken word, the brown hornet, SO SO BLACK, NICK SAINT, almighty dreadlock head wrap king Solomon, Jesus Jackson.

2. Look the part.
It’s not what you say, but how you look when you say it. Here are some fashion tips for the aspiring slam star:

·        DO NOT comb your hair. EVER. Grow locks if you can – might be a good prop later on. Also, facial hair works for both male and females.

·        Head wraps & wool hats… appropriate in any season. Looking hot and uncomfortable will subconsciously bend the audience in your favor.

·         Wear red black and green wrist-bands. If you’re not black, red gold and green works just as well.

·         Approach the mic with a well-chewed chew-stick in your mouth.

·         Rock tee shirts of slain political leaders. When Che or Malcolm X are not  available, Bob Marley makes a good stand in.

3. Never have paper.
Reading from paper on stage makes you appear amateurish and unsure about your feelings. Thought this was a forum about sharing your true feelings with a group of caring, listening people? NOPE… sorry!!! It’s about performance, first and foremost. Your poem may be heartfelt and well-crafted, and about your dear departed mother, but if you’re shuffling through papers the implication is that she wasn’t good enough to memorize the piece for.

4. Say you’re from foreign lands.
Whenever possible, be a person of color, preferably from a place with an accent. It makes you seem exotic and people are less likely to question you, as Americans don’t get out much. If unsure what ethnicity to claim, just say that you are half or three quarters of something.

1. Explore the canon with this list of mandatory subject matter:

·        “I don’t fit your stereotype” poems.

·         “I hate (insert name of political leader everyone hates here)” poems. No research necessary for this one. Remember this: no one checks facts that are stated loudly.

·        “The revolution will not be… (something that rhymes with televised)” poems.

·         “I really love hip-hop” poems, preferably referencing old school

·         Sex poems. In graphic detail, preferably featuring extended metaphors about food, sports, or architecture.

·         Poems about poetry

·        Being a woman/all things womb related

·        Answer poems. These are a great way to ride the steam of last week’s most popular piece.

·        Cultural food poems

·        Weed poems.

·        “I love your genitalia” poems. This archetype is also commonly known as the ‘***** poem.’ It’s the theatrical equivalent of a personal ad. Context and innuendo is everything here. As an exercise, read the directions to BEN GAY aloud, really slowly and with many breathy pauses.

2. Never be happy.
Misery loves company—that’s why poetry readings are packed. On the off-chance that the audience is actually listening, you should never have anything celebratory or particularly happy to say. I did a poem one time about how happy I was and was nearly beaten to death by the angry mob wielding still-hot tea bags and sharpened chew sticks. Keep your tone somber, accusatory, strident, and/or mournful.

3. Have a chorus or hook.
If you don’t think your thought will pan out for your full 5 minutes of microphone time, a chorus or hook can be your best friend. Repeat a catchy line, or even just the title of the poem after approximately 3 lines of literature. If the audience looks like they are not buying it, have them say it with you.

4. Buzz words – you can never go wrong with…

·        3 rd eye

·        Cipher

·        360%

·        Higher level

·        Sista/brotha/queen/king

·        Mental

·        Womb and/or tomb (together are a lethal combination)

·        Lick

·        Amerikkka

·        Made-up words that sound like they might be real. Trust, no one will remember them long enough to check when they get home. Try these out: Divionism, angeration, fuckery, de-mock rah see.

5. Other artists’ names to evoke or quote:
Bob Marley, Che, Malcolm X, Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Saul Williams, Maya Angelou, Chuck D, KRS 1, Taye Diggs… Try to evoke names of people you are sure not to meet any time soon. Dead people don’t get out much so using their names is virtually risk-free.


1. Voice Control
Two strategies here, and both are good for emphasizing key points. The first is to learn to yell really, really loudly. Things spoken loudly must be the truth, or at least seem intense enough to pass as such. The second is to hold the last note of every fifth word or so. Yes it’s cliché but clichés are clichés cause they work.

2. The Art of the Intro
This is the only time people are guaranteed to actually listen to what you have to say, so drag out your intro for as long as possible. Think of it as getting 2 poems out for the price of one. Here are some classic ice-breakers:

·        I just wrote this

·        Where’s Brooklyn at? (guaranteed to work anywhere in the world)

·        I just moved here last week

·        I had a hard day today, y’all. . .

·        Peace and blessings

·        You’ll have to excuse me if I can’t get through this with out crying its about my ________
– This was really hard for me to write
– Have you ever been _________ and _______ happens well that happened to me and I wrote this
– This one’s for the ladies
– This is my first time up here
– Can u hear me in the back?

3. Closing your eyes and flailing your arms
Arm-flailing is absolutely necessary. (In fact, having hands free to flail is an extra advantage of not using paper.) The effect on the audience member is that you are possessed. Even more effective when combined with closed eyes.

4. Mastering the silent thank you
When the clapping starts at the end of your piece, first bite your bottom lip, then silently mouth the word VELENCIO to yourself while nodding and walking off. It looks like you’re saying something gracious and humble. Try it in a mirror to get the gestures right.


Once you have mastered the basic poetry skills, it’s time to introduce the advanced techniques. The following are major theatrics and are best left for the pros:

If you can cry on cue, use it at every possible opportunity. (Even better if you are already crying when you come to the mic).

Partners/group work—
If you are not into sharing the love, please don’t attempt.

Always great for emphasis (no actual singing skills required).

Abstract poems (advanced)—
This, my friend, is my favorite of all. You can literally say anything. It’s all in the delivery.

You should see a difference in your fan base within 2-3 weeks by following these simple steps. Results may vary.



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