The following is an interview by Wyndee Holbrook with Tiffanie Shanks.
Do yourself a favor and view Tiffanie Shanks three minute video of her spoken word poem, “Lost. Located. Leading.”
Recently I spoke with Tiffanie, a 23 year old, Ohio based spoken word poet and youth pastor, about attending the National Festival of Young Preachers in Atlanta. In the course of conversation I mentioned the new Gospel Slam initiative and her passion as both preacher and poet was piqued (pardon the alliteration).
As part of encouraging young people in their call to gospel preaching, the Academy of Preachers will host the Gospel Slam as a platform for teens to present their own three-minute interpretations of scripture on 1/3/13 at 7p.m., during the Festival. Tiffanie knows exactly how to bring home a message in three short minutes, so I asked her more about how she gets from theme to scripture to spoken word poetry.
The following is an interview with Tiffanie about her poetic process and passion for creatively communicating the gospel.
AoP: What age were you when you began writing poetry?
TS: I wrote poetry in High School, beginning in a creative writing class. But it was just for me and was pretty structured and stagnant. It was written to be read rather than spoken like the work I do now.
I began writing spoken word poetry a year or so ago. I had been memorizing other poets’ works and using them to begin sermons or lead devotions. Someone heard me and asked if I would write my own poem if they gave me a theme and text. I said, ‘Sure!’ And I’ve continued anytime I’ve been asked. Now my poetry is to proclaim a message, so I only write when I know someone will hear.
AoP: Where did you start when you wrote, “Lost. Located. Leading.” which is rooted in the story of Mephibosheth from 2 Samuel?
TS: I was asked to speak at Relevance X 2012, a young adult event for Relevance Ministries, the official young adult ministry of the Desert SW Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
First, I brainstormed the theme for each worship session with the person who asked me to perform, and as we talked I picked up on poetic phrases from our conversation. While talking about the worship service for “located” she explained that being located was more than being found. Being located is about identity, purpose and value, which led to the phrase “found worthy.”
Throughout our conversation I looked for inspiration to create metaphors. I put words together in meaningful ways that caught the ear by creating phrases that are uncommon. Using unusual phrases keeps people’s attention.
Once we’d brainstormed, I went to the text in 2 Samuel and read the story of Mephibosheth. I read it aloud a few times to pick up on the natural poetic phrases. I read first from the Common English version which seeks to retain poetic form in translation. Then I read from the Message and other versions in my process.
After brainstorming the theme and reading the text aloud repeatedly from different translations, I let it sit for a while until it became intimate to me. (I’ve learned I need to let the text settle in my mind/ heart at least a day, preferably a week. Less than that just doesn’t work. Sometimes, I do the same with the theme before going to the scripture.)
Next I began to write. I always write poetry in my simple black Moleskine notebook using an actual fountain pen. (Note: Writing with pen and paper helps commit information to memory and is known to help trigger creativity.) The one thing I’ve found that really helps me start to put pen to paper is to listen to some poets I like on Youtube for phrasing ideas. This helps me move from this logical life I live to the creative process.
The writing begins as a chaotic process of words and phrases, then all sorts of squares around words and arrows changing the order. I often stand and always speak as I write (it is spoken word poetry after all). So, I create in a private place. That way no one thinks I’m crazy. Some people listen to jazz as they write because of the interesting rhythms. I’ve tried that, but since I talk it out as I write, music is distracting for me.
Sometimes the poem finishes itself. When a poem is complete I sense it even if it’s still a chaotic mess. Lines appear that create an arresting beginning and an impactful ending. For “Lost. Located. Leading.” I actually planned to write three separate poems of two to three minutes each, but I just couldn’t stay “Lost” that long. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t truly end a poem without ever sharing the hope of the Gospel!
I knew if I didn’t want to be in that space, no one else would want to be there very long either. That’s why the world is so thirsty for the Gospel! Each of the three pieces of the poem can stand alone, but the work is so much better as one piece. The truth of the Gospel is found in the poems entirety.
AoP: How do you practice in preparation for a performance?
TS: I begin by repeatedly reading the finished poem aloud to adapt to the natural rhythms in the phrases. Getting the rhythm right is a big part of the process. I’ve learned that the more dynamic the phrasing, timing and rhythm, the more engaging the performance.
After many reads, I begin to memorize and I pick up on the narrative so that I am using specific lines of each section as a trigger to know what is coming next. Next I practice how I will stand and use my hands. It is very important to know what type of microphone you will be using, so you can practice. There’s a big difference in where you can move with a headset microphone compared to a microphone on a stand.
Rehearsal leads to confidence, and confidence is key when presenting spoken word poetry. I keep focused on the performance of the words, being sure they are clearly understood. With only three minutes, you have to keep the audience with you every second. They can’t check out on you and know what the message is, so you have to keep them engaged. You have to be very intentional in your choice of words, phrases, rhythms and timing.
Careful rehearsal matters because it leads to confidence. I use the word “performance,” but I don’t use that term lightly. My goal is to be real so the listener can identify with me. But if I haven’t practiced enough to deliver a quality performance, the listener will be distracted and not hear the message. If I have to use my notebook to be sure I can deliver confidently, I’ve learned that can work, but I still have to practice to communicate well.
AoP: Have you ever messed up in a performance? How did you handle it?
TS: Yes, and it’s terrifying in the moment. This is where confidence comes in. You can’t change what has passed, so you keep moving forward and realize that no one else has to know you changed the words or accidentally repeated yourself. This is part of what makes the work original, as each performance is unique. When I’ve watched poets’ videos and then read their poems, I’ve seen that they don’t perform the words exactly like they wrote it, so why should I?
AoP: Why do you write scripture based poetry?
TS: What I believe is such a part of who I am. Scripture is written on my heart, better to embrace it than to fight it. How we express our faith is dictated by our culture because culture determines how we express what we believe. At times it seems the church hasn’t fully embraced this. Spoken word poetry allows me a creative, culturally relevant way to express what I believe.
AoP: What do you want the audience to get from your words?
TS: Whatever God wants them to hear. Typically I present before or after a talk/ sermon or some other element in the program. So I want my words to prepare them for what’s next and recapture what they’ve experienced while giving them a phrase to come back to.
AoP: What would you share with someone who wants to write poetry with a scriptural base?
TS: Drench yourself in poetry you like. Find your performance identity by memorizing other poetry and watching how you naturally change the performance. Keep writing. Learn the power of timing and pauses.
AoP: Are you a preacher?
TS: I am. I received the call to preach when I was 20. So I’d say first I was a prophet, then preacher, then poet.
Prophet, preacher and poet… indeed she is.
Ready to be or to encourage a Gospel Slammer??? Contact Wyndee Holbrook @ email@example.com