How To Save a Life: The Power of Spoken Word



By: Tobi Abdul

In the spoken word community, a common phrase repeated throughout the poetry slam is “it’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry.” For an outsider watching a slam, which is rooted in competition, these words may not make much sense, but for a poet, these words are our guiding principles. The poetry is the only thing that matters and the points are just a bonus.


Like any art form, poetry has the ability to inspire, to heal, to increase confidence, to change lives. By finding a love for the stage through the monthly poetry slams, workshops, and events held byHamilton Youth Poets (HYP), dozens of youth have found their voice since HYP was established.


For one teammate, spoken word has improved his confidence and allowed him to find camaraderie in belonging to the HYP team and through competition. HYP has allowed him to discover the art of spoken word, and his voice. The family he has found through the team constantly pushes him to be a better poet and artist.


For another, HYP has been instrumental in her growth as a person and as an artist. For someone who spent her formative years not being listened to, being given a microphone and a platform to speak to an audience who would listen and love her for her was the closest she’s felt to perfection. Knowing that her words had meaning and were understood allowed her to connect with people and realize that she wasn’t alone anymore, and that she had found a community that truly supported her. She believes that spoken word has changed her life and without it, she wouldn’t be here.


That’s the power of spoken word. The feeling of being on stage, sharing your words to a receptive audience is unparalleled. For me, poetry has served as an emotional outlet where I can feel supported, where my feelings can be validated, where I can feel less different, and more human. Through poetry, I’ve begun to understand the nuances of human experiences. When I speak, or another person speaks, the snaps and sounds that echo around the room serve as a non-verbal “I understand.” Those words were all I ever dreamed of hearing as a too-awkward, mentally ill teenager. To hear those words in the form of scores, and applauds, and cheers, and snaps, every time I stand on stage and show a willingness to bare my soul is life-changing.


When you leave a slam, regardless of what place you’ve come in, whether it’s first or last, you’re in a state of euphoria. Performing spoken word is like standing on stage naked, asking the world to love the parts of you that you found most difficult to love yourself. Or, asking the audience to empathize with experiences you’ve gone through, to ruminate on issues you care about, to see you as a metaphor for the commonalities in the human experience.


The first time I performed poetry I was a few weeks shy of 14 and had entered my school’s annual literary coffeehouse through the urging of my English teacher. Sitting in the crowd with an iron grip on my paper, hands trembling as I waited my turn, I had no idea how much that night would change my life.


Six years later, when I had the chance to stand on a national stage and represent HYP, competing with teams all over Canada, I remembered that nervous almost-14 year old kid, who stared at her paper the entire performance. I wasn’t necessarily less nervous this time, but standing on the stage, looking out at all the people who came to support the art and the poets who loved the art, I knew that this was a sense of calling.


Being a part of Hamilton Youth Poets has allowed me to share my love for poetry with hundreds, if not thousands of people. I’ve became more confident, more expressive, more joyful, less lonely, more community-centered. I found a sense of family in the poetry community, and a renewed love for Hamilton as a student who hadn’t been raised in this wonderful city. The encouragement of a coach that never, ever gives up on you, and who believes in you when you can’t understand why, has saved my life. And I’m sure it has saved a lot of people’s lives.


The best part of the spoken word community is that it’s a community. Poetry gives a sense of belonging to so many people who have been desperately searching for it. It brings people of all walks of life, all ages, all different experiences and cultures together through an appreciation for honesty. Poetry is the closest thing that we get to unabashed honesty in this world. It gives us a way to take the hurt and the pain and the curiosity and the happiness that we feel on a day to day basis and turn them into – well, turn them into art. And for that, and for Hamilton Youth Poets, I’ll always be grateful.

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