A Night of (Competitive) Spoken Word

A video of Herzog’s performance:

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spoken final

Today we’re attending a spoken word show.

Now, for me, the first thing that comes to mind when I think spoken word poetry is the classic comedy film “So I Married an Ax Murderer.”

But, it turns out it’s not that kind of show. Although I must admit, Mike Meyers was about the full extent of my spoken word experience before this. Nora Herzog on the other hand has been performing spoken word for about a year now. She’s always enjoyed writing poetry, but could never find a good way to share it.

“First of all I can’t sing, so a band is out of the question,” Herzog says.

But then Herzog, a Junior in High School, saw a friend of hers perform spoken word at a school talent show.

“He made me cry,” she recalls.

Herzog during her performance.
Herzog during her performance.

The poem was about a girl whose mom had just died, and was dealing with a lot of depression.

“It was just a very powerful and moving poem and I was going through a rough time personally when I heard it. And it really helped me, and I thought maybe I could do that for other people,” Herzog says.

So she started exploring the art of spoken word, and what she quickly found out was that she was able to combine one of her other passions with her poetry: acting.

“When I see people perform I feel like it touches people in a way that words just by themselves can’t do. And so when you take good words and you add them with good actions I think you get an effect that’s stronger than either one,” Herzog says.

And Herzog’s effect hasn’t just been on her audience. She says it’s made her more confident.

“I used to be nervous around people I didn’t know. And I developed a stutter and kind of a whispery voice,” Herzog says.

And now?

“I’ve been compared by three different people to Galadriel in the scene from the Lord of the Rings where she’s offered the ring and says ‘I will be more great, and more terrible!’ And I kind of like that image so I try and play it up,” Herzog says.

Tonight’s show is a competition put on by the group Brave New Alaskan Voices. The winner will move on to a quarterfinal competition, which will then determine a team to head to Philadelphia later this year for a national competition. Herzog has already won her way into the quarterfinals, so tonight she’ll be the sacrificial poet.

The judges weigh in on a performance.
The judges weigh in on a performance.

“You know how when you start a contest, if you’re scored on a scale of 1-10, the first person always scores 7s and 8s? Because the judges don’t want to score them too high in case everyone else is way better. But nobody wants to score them too low in case they’re the best one there. So the sacrificial poet is supposed to get rid of some of that,” Herzog says.

Herzog will still be scored even though she isn’t technically competing. The judges will simply use her performance as a measuring stick, and a scoring warm up.

“We have two rules as far as judging goes. One of them is you can’t know anyone who is competing, and the second one is you can’t be an English Teacher. We want people judging on the performance and what they feel,” Herzog says.

Tonight Herzog has chosen to perform her poem titled “Devil’s Practice.”

“This is the part where we teach them about ‘3, 2, 1 speak poet.’ We start every poem by saying ‘3, 2, 1’ and then everyone says ‘speak poet’ and then the poet can start. It lets the poet know that the audience is ready to hear what they have to say.”

Herzog’s poem, which lasts about three minutes keeps the audience quiet and engaged. Maybe even a little scared. She receives an average score of 8.5 from the judges, which I think is great. She isn’t thrilled though.

“That was an unusually low score for me, but because that’s my job as a sacrificial poet to get those low scores I don’t really mind,” Herzog says.

She thinks one of the reasons for her score is the poem’s abstract nature.

“That’s not necessarily an emotional poem; it’s more of a powerful poem.”

She’s still not sure if she’ll be using “Devil’s Practice” in her quarterfinal performance, or something more accessible. But for tonight, she’s managed to satisfy the only judge that matters.

“I’m happy with that performance,” Herzog says, with a smile.