Beyond the Open Mic: How Spoken Word Poetry Helps People Find Their Voices

By Audrey Quinn

For many people,  “spoken word poetry” conjures up images of dimly lit coffee shops crawling with college hipsters in flannels and fedoras, droning on at the microphone about seemingly unrelated words and concepts. 

And they would be correct–in some cases. 

At some open mics, it’s as if there exists a never-ending human conga line of young college philosophy majors eager to share their poetry with the audience (consisting primarily of other members of the aforementioned philosophy conga line). 

But what if spoken word poetry wasn’t just for young, nerdy hipster people? 

What if it wasn’t about showing off or droning on and on at open mics? 

What if spoken word poetry was actually an incredible therapeutic tool for people struggling to express themselves in “traditional” ways? 

The therapeutic power of spoken word

As a matter of fact, there are a myriad of studies which suggest just that. 

A 2013 study published in The Arts of Psychotherapy found that guided poetry writing sessions helped alleviate symptoms of depression in adolescents who had experienced abuse. 

Moreover, a 2021 journal article published in Literacy notes that spoken-word poetry in particular is a form of activism for young people, and allows them to examine and construct their own identities while challenging oppression by constructing counternarratives.

Expressing the Inexpressible: How Spoken Word Poetry Transcends Traditional Writing

But how does spoken word poetry help people express themselves in ways that other forms of writing can’t? How does it function as a tool for activism as well as personal expression for marginalized communities?

For the first point, the answer appears quite simple. 

Tackling difficult topics and traumatic experiences

We all face things in our lives that we find difficult to talk about, or write about, even if we don’t share them with other people. These things can be traumatic, as in abuse, experiencing a natural disaster, or even losing a loved one. Or, they can be very personal to us and our identities, but we feel as though no one would understand us if we were to talk about them. 

For example, I am Autistic, and I deal with sensory processing issues that are sometimes difficult (or impossible) to explain to people who are not on the spectrum. 

And so, for me, poetry, even if I don’t “speak” it aloud, became a way for me to express some of my feelings and sensory experiences that just wouldn’t make sense in a literal narrative format. (I.e, “the lights are white gnats/buzzing through one ear to another/an ivory train impossible to drown out” makes more sense to me than trying to explain “these lights are so bright that I cannot hear anything you are saying.” Plus, it has the added advantage of making me sound way cooler than I actually am.)

Breaking free from literal narratives

Spoken word poetry can be a way for people to talk about the things in their lives that are difficult without the constraints of literal narratives. 

That is, people can talk about their trauma or struggles without having to list, word by word, memory by memory, what happened to them. 

This can not only help people learn more about themselves on an individual level, it can also be rewarding and easier to share these experiences with other people in spoken word poetry.

Unleashing creativity through performance and presentation

Spoken word poetry relies upon many factors aside from writing, such as tone, repetition, rhythm, volume dynamics, and body language. It is performative as well as written, which gives people an opportunity to present their story in whatever way they wish. This level of narrative control through an external presentation can be liberating in ways that other forms of writing do not always permit.

Activism through Spoken Word Poetry

As for the second point, spoken word poetry can be a powerful medium for expression as well as activism, particularly for marginalized communities. In particular, spoken word poetry allows people from historically marginalized groups (LGBTQIA2S+, BIPOC, AAPI, and disabled communities, for example) to construct counternarratives. A counternarrative is a point of view and story that challenges a culturally predominant narrative. 

Empowering marginalized communities

For example, as an Autistic person, I write and talk about many counternarratives about what my life is like with my neurodivergence, which challenge predominant narratives perpetuated by non-Autistic people. 

One example of this is when I talk about having empathy, sometimes to a heightened degree, for animals, plants, and people, because a predominantly held narrative is that Autistic people are incapable of empathy (which is harmful to me and my Autistic family and friends, as well as patently false). When I tell non-Autistic people how I can tell when my pet fish are happy or excited by the way they move and the way they swim near each other in my tank, they are surprised, because they themselves actually thought that fish were incapable of showing such emotions, or even having personalities…which in a sense, is probably why I relate to fish so much, because they fall victim to a similar predominant narrative in our culture about empathy and communication.

Constructing counternarratives and challenging harmful stereotypes and misconceptions

This demonstrates one way that counternarratives function to challenge harmful, commonly perpetuated narratives in our culture against certain communities. 

Spoken word poetry can employ counternarratives in this way, which allows for marginalized people to express their feelings and experiences while also engaging in a form of activism, by correcting harmful stereotypes about their identities and shared communities. It’s powerful to share counternarratives, and it invites a vulnerability to the speaker at the same time. 

The Courage to Perform: Sharing Counternarratives and Finding Liberation

Spoken word poetry is a performance as well as a written medium, and to perform a piece that challenges commonly held beliefs about people like you can be terrifying…but also liberating. It requires immense courage to express who you are, and confront whatever feelings you have about your identity and how it is inexplicably tied to the perceptions of the people around you, and to share that with others through art. 

Spoken word poetry as a transformative art form

And so you see, spoken word poetry is more than an open mic in a coffee shop, with a conga line of 20-somethings in $100 dollar jeans obsessed with Sarte. Spoken word poetry is a way for people to find their voice and share the weirdest and most difficult parts of themselves with other people, without worrying about the constraints of literality. It is a way for people who are often shut down and rendered invisible by culturally held prejudices and stereotypes to reclaim their stories and advocate on behalf of their communities. 

Spoken word poetry is for everyone, and everyone stands to benefit from writing, performing, and listening to it.