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Gen Y Speaks: Poems can inspire youths — that's what keeps me going as a poet despite self-doubt

I will never forget the first time I performed a poem to a room full of strangers. 

"What started as a dare to myself — to read a poem to a bunch of strangers in a foreign city — has turned into a grand journey that has taken me across the globe and helped me meet people who are now some of my closest friends," says the author.

"What started as a dare to myself — to read a poem to a bunch of strangers in a foreign city — has turned into a grand journey that has taken me across the globe and helped me meet people who are now some of my closest friends," says the author.

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I will never forget the first time I performed a poem to a room full of strangers. 

It was 2008 and I was spending summer in Vancouver on an internship. I was a painfully shy 20-year-old who knew no one in the city. 

I had seen an advertisement in the local paper for a weekly poetry night in a café near where I lived. I had been there a few times and had fallen in love with its chaotic but friendly atmosphere, with people reading and performing all kinds of vulnerable, often hilarious poems into the microphone on the stage at the front of the cafe. 

I had spent enough time at the open mic nights to feel inspired — I wanted to see if I had the courage to read out a poem of my own. 

I remember the moment of panic as the host called my name, the terrifying steps up to the stage, the reverberations as I spoke into the microphone for the first time and began to read a poem I had spent several months writing.

This was my very first spoken word poem, what I hoped was a sad but funny ode to a lost friendship and a former friend who loved Wes Anderson movies.

But I was filled with doubts and felt like an imposter among the other open mic veterans. Why would anyone be interested in this? Would this room of strangers understand it? Would they be bored? Would they hate it? 

I decided that if I embarrassed myself, I could always leave the city and never come back. 

Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary.

I will never forget the first laugh I ever got as I read out the first funny line in the poem, then the claps, then the whooping and cheering.

I also recall feeling disbelief. “Wait, they get it? They can relate to this specific thing that happened to me? They think I’m funny? They like me?” 

Fifteen years on, I am still writing and performing poetry to strangers, chasing these feelings ever since.

What started as a dare to myself — to read a poem to a bunch of strangers in a foreign city — has turned into a grand journey that has taken me across the globe and helped me meet people who are now some of my closest friends. 


Broadly speaking, spoken word poetry is poetry which is performed, it is poetry which is created for an audience to watch and hear, as opposed to poetry which only exists on the page. 

Spoken word poetry draws on oral traditions and other live art forms, such as storytelling, singing, jazz, hip hop and even stand up comedy.

But for the longest time after my first on-stage performance, I continued to deal with huge amounts of imposter syndrome, self-doubt and the constant fear of writers’ block.

I worry frequently that the work I create will one day lose its power and urgency, that the years I have put into the art form might one day amount to nothing. 

In fact to this day, I still hesitate to tell people I’m a poet when we first meet. 

After all, the term “poet” still has connotations of a pretentious, self-absorbed person who is likely to be anti-social.

Poetry is so much more than stereotypes about poets and bad or overly complex work. 

Like any form of art or literature, it’s a reflection of human experiences and there is a poem out there for everyone if you make the effort to look.

It doesn’t change the reality that many people still associate poetry with dense, hard-to-understand literary texts they had to study in school. 

It is true that very few people in the world are able to make a living off poetry. 

I have seen many talented poet friends stop performing poetry over the years, due to the difficulty in sustaining a passion for a niche genre that is both highly competitive and has a small audience. 

Despite these challenges, what has kept me going in this art form and made it meaningful have been the human connections and community I have found through spoken word.

Poetry creates a space to let people be open about their lives, whether it is the good and the bad, their grief, their joy, their rage, their flaws. 

There is something incredibly vulnerable and beautiful about sharing poetry on a stage that can turn an audience of strangers into friends. 

To me, the act of sharing poetry gives people space to be earnest and sincere, a space that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s world which rewards irony, cynicism and bravado. 

Over time, I have overcome imposter syndrome enough to call myself a spoken word poet.

I have won national competitions in Singapore and Britain, and performed in multiple cities in Germany, the United States and Australia. 

I have performed alongside poets from the tiny Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, to large scale festivals like the 2013 Glastonbury Festival in England. 

I have collaborated with pro-wrestlers, storytellers, musicians and filmmakers, and my work has brought me on stages in theatres, classrooms, within tents, around bonfires, in abandoned buildings, and on boats. 

I had no idea any of this was possible when I first stood on that stage in 2008.


What has kept me going has been creating spaces where people can feel safe and empowered enough to share their words, helping people from all kinds of backgrounds and realising that their stories and perspectives are worth sharing.

In doing so, I was able to witness moments of human connection and empathy fostered by spoken word poetry. 

For instance, in the poetry workshops that I conduct, I would give participants the opportunity to write about their lives. 

My joy comes from seeing a student’s nervousness turn into amazement as he reads out the first poem he has ever written, as other participants either cheer him on or fall into a stunned silence over his performance.

Recently, I was part of a film project with the National Arts Council called Words for Good, in which I was tasked to write and perform a poem based on interviews with several youths talking about their experiences with being hurt by words.

This project is part of a series of stories in February to showcase how the arts have touched and inspired Singaporeans and their lives.

I was asked to write a poem to inspire and instil hope and strength in these youths — and as you can imagine, I did not feel that I was up to this mammoth task at first. 

“How could I do justice to these youths’ painful stories,” I questioned myself.

But then I remembered that part of the magic of spoken word is not so much about perfection as it is about vulnerability and sincerity, and this helped me craft the poem. 

It was certainly nerve-wracking to perform the piece to the same youths (what if they didn’t like it?). 

When we met for the shoot, however, they told me that they loved the poem and found it uplifting, and several of us still keep in touch even after the project. 

I had one line in the poem that said this: “Words may not erase the past but they might help us write a better tomorrow into existence.” 

I believe it resonated with youths because it was a line that inspired hope and offered empathy, without needing to preach about the power of poetry. 

Ultimately, spoken word poetry is an art form which I love because it is so intertwined with creating community and bringing people together in a meaningful way, and allowing people to be themselves. 

It has led me to places I could have never dreamed of when I first stepped onto that open mic stage in Vancouver. 

But in many ways, I am not that different from that nervous young woman back in 2008.

I am still searching for human connection, new ways to express myself with words, and hoping to make a friend in a room full of strangers.

Stephanie Chan, also known by her stage name Stephanie Dogfoot, is a Singaporean poet, a qualified lawyer, and the winner of several national slam championships in Singapore and Britain.

Related topics

imposter syndrome poetry literature

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