Finding your voice: Spoken Word by Stephanie Dogfoot

Performing spoken word can be a daunting experience. Multidisciplinary performer and local poet Stephanie “Dogfoot” Chan tells us how she got into the scene and why she enjoys it.

  • 12 Nov 2021
Stephanie “Dogfoot” Chan gives a masterclass in performing Spoken Word and shares her experience of how she got started.

Stephanie “Dogfoot” Chan gives a masterclass in performing Spoken Word and shares her experience of how she got started.

If poetry were a quiet and contemplative relative at a family gathering, then spoken word would be its loud and visibly emotional sibling who constantly shares their thoughts to everyone else in the room.

Performing spoken word is more than just reading a poem aloud. When writing it, a spoken word artist would already have considered how the piece would resonate with a live audience. During the performance, artists play with words and intonation, and draw on other styles such as rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theatre and folk music, to make the poem come alive.

In Singapore, the spoken word scene has gained traction in recent years and budding performers have more opportunities to participate in poetry slams. One veteran spoken word performer is Stephanie Chan, also known by her stage name, Stephanie Dogfoot (it was inspired by her favourite children’s book Daggie Dogfoot by English author Dick King-Smith!). Winner of the 2010 Singapore Poetry Slam Championships and currently a Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo) moderator, Stephanie tells us how her spoken word journey began and shares some useful tips for those keen to get started.

How did you get started performing spoken word?

I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry. But I only really got the confidence to perform when I was doing an internship in Vancouver, Canada. I went to this poetry slam that was happening every week. I didn't know anyone in the city at the time, so I thought there was nothing to lose.

That was one of the most exciting events I've ever been to, because I had never seen such a thing before. It was completely unfiltered, and anyone could go up and perform. There were plenty of inside jokes thrown around and the audience would yell things at the performers too, especially if they went into overtime. It felt like being part of a group of cool friends where anyone was welcome to join.

So, I decided to try my hand at my very first spoken word. To my surprise, the audience enjoyed my performance. It was a great feeling!

Tell us about the spoken word piece that you performed.

Looking back, I think it was extremely pretentious! My poem was inspired by film director Wes Anderson. Fun fact: I don’t like his movies, but my roommate in Vancouver was a huge fan and always forced us to watch them. I would never get his films on the first viewing, but when I watched them a second time, I could recall certain scenes and maybe understand them just slightly better.
I wasn’t sure anyone would get my poem when I first started writing it. But it turns out that the street I was living on was full of hipsters, and the video rental store near my home had listed three Wes Anderson films on its list of top 10 movies. So I became more confident that my poem would resonate to some extent.

What’s your relationship with poetry?

One easy answer would be that I don’t have the patience for prose, and my literature classes in school definitely helped further my interest in poetry. I remember doing a close reading of a poem in literature class and I enjoyed it. In particular, I really loved unseen poetry and found it fascinating.

I’ve always enjoyed how it felt to write a poem. I like the idea that you begin and end a piece of writing in a matter of hours, or even less. There’s so much potential that one can achieve in a short piece of writing, and I really appreciate how much emotion you can fit into a short poem.

Can you describe your style of writing?

I try not to take myself too seriously, and that’s reflected in the conversational tone of my poetry. I tend to lean towards describing situations and scenes, and often, I’m inspired by personal experiences or a historical event that I’ve read about.

I’m also very inspired by song lyrics. While I don’t want to be a songwriter because I was scarred by bad experiences learning music as a child, I want to recreate the feeling people get when they hear the lyrics of their favourite song, but in poetry form. Many of my favourite singers are artists who do some form of spoken word as well, like this rock band called The Hold Steady. There’s a lot of storytelling elements in their lyrics, and sometimes the lead singer will just yell things in the middle of a song.

I want food to be an adventure: I want to know that I’ve lived, that I’ve worked for it. Food should be painful, like a long hard run — The kind of pain you get a head rush from: its bones in your throat tears in your eyes from the chilli padi that chokes, grains of pepper at the back of your nose and the sweat that streams down the back of your neck. An excerpt from “Food: A Manifesto” by Stephanie Dogfoot Chan

When you write a spoken word piece, are you thinking about how you’re going to perform it or does the performative aspect come naturally?

It really depends on what I’m writing and who I’m writing for. Most of the time I write my poems with the intention of performing them someday, but the words still must make sense on the page. For me, it takes a lot of practice and stage time to get into the groove of writing a spoken word piece. I continually edit my works and tweak them based on the previous performances on stage and how the audience reacted, so that it resonates better at the next show.

Most of the spoken word works that I’ve written for the stage are usually commissioned pieces or meant to be performed at slams. But my opinion is that there’s no divide between the page and the stage — anything on a page can be performed well and in an interesting way! If it fails, it’s because you didn’t put enough thought into it.

What happens when you don’t get the reaction that you want from the audience?

It’s actually quite normal to not know what reactions you will get to a spoken word performance. Watching a poem reading is very different from a stand-up show — there’s no right or wrong way for the audience to react, for the most part. Unless you are performing a sad piece and the audience is laughing, or you are doing a very funny piece and they aren’t amused. Most of the time I go in expecting that the audience will not react. Instead, they are just listening to me.

Is it hard for a newcomer to enter the spoken word scene?

At the moment, it would be tough because you can’t really perform live other than in a virtual space due to COVID-19. But generally the scene is actually very friendly, and if you want to write a poem, you can join a session and ask any one of us to see your work.

Poets are notoriously very thin-skinned, and especially so for spoken word artists! We are way too nice to give harsh feedback on how you can improve. For someone who is new to poetry, I would say SingPoWriMo fosters a great learning environment because you can ask for the type of criticism that you are looking for, whether it’s gentle or harsh.

But you have to be thick-skinned to some degree to be a spoken word artist. Poetry, and in particular spoken word, is not an art form that is in high demand, so you will have to be prepared to face rejection in the course of pursuing this. Not everyone is going to understand your poetry, and something you’ve written that you thought was amazing may not actually connect with your audience. You will be risking a lot of sweat and blood for this, but what’s important is to enjoy the process and never give up!

What’s your advice to aspiring spoken word poets?

There isn’t stuff that people shouldn’t write about, but one should be prepared that not everyone is going to like what he or she wrote. I would recommend that aspiring writers read widely, and listen and watch a wide variety of poetry, including things they don’t fully understand. I would also tell them to learn about the history of spoken word poetry around the world, and the various communities and styles that have shaped spoken word today.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself, but you can’t be too self-indulgent too. There’s a difference between poetry that you write for yourself and poetry that you share with the world. The challenge then is to make the audience care about what you have written. You have to sell it to them, give them a reason to want to listen and connect with your poem. Often times that can be done with humour or effectively using emotions.

To be honest, there is no magic formula. You need to find a balance between expressing yourself, and writing for your audience without pandering to them too much. This will also help you to find your own voice.