Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


Carey McHugh on reading poems aloud during the writing process

I was blown away by last Friday’s selection at Poetry Daily: [      ], by Carey McHugh, so I Googled the author to see what else I could find by her. The top result was a small selection of her poems at the “audio archive of emerging poets” From the Fishouse, which includes her talking about reading her poems aloud when she writes.

She makes important points about the need to actively consider sound as an element every step of the way during composition, but I’m not sure whether this “composition awareness” translates into “performance awareness.” Listen for example to McHugh reading “Farrier” — a serviceable enough reading, but rather lacking in expression, I thought, as if the poet were still hearing that writerly voice in her head.

A terrific young poet nonetheless, and one whose first full-length collection I will be eagerly anticipating.


Letter to a Friend Who is about to Read in front of an Audience

Hi P_______!

Congratulations on your upcoming reading! How exciting.

I think if you can do some stand-up about a weird blind date, then I think you’d certainly have no problem with reading poems. It’ll be a cinch! But just in case you need some more ideas, I’d suggest the following:

• do some vocal warm-ups beforehand. Deep breathing, tongue-twisters… anything that’ll help release excess energy, which seems to accumulate right before a reading.

read your poems once or twice so that you’re familiar with it.

• however, I also like to have my poems be not too familiar. It’s nice if you can surprise yourself with fresh insights into your own work.

• if you haven’t used a microphone before or are not too confident, a couple of good tips is to adjust the mic so that you’re talking across it and not into it. Also, if you’re not first to the microphone, it’s a good idea to listen out for ‘popping’ on the plosives: Ps and Ts, etc. You might need to draw back a bit and increase your volume to compensate.

• volume does not come from your throat but from the diaphragm. Think of the area of your stomach and lungs as the sound-chamber and the volume will be resonant, and not merely loud.

relax, take your time, slow down. Give people time to absorb the words. Even if you think you’re too slow, you’re not. There are more likely to be complaints about a speaker being too fast than about a speaker being too slow. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it!

Hope that’s enough. Take only what you need of my advice, of course. You’ll be great! Yay!




Serendipity–Report on a Reading

This past Sunday three of us with poetry chapbooks read to a warm, receptive audience in the community room of the public library.  Here are some things that made the reading work very well:

–A microphone
–Refreshments: cookies, fruit, pastries, juice, nuts
–Informal atmosphere and introductions
–Choice of poems to read to an audience

As one of the poets, Kathryn, said, “We have three very different voices,” and we did, but serendipity wove us together.  We all had some humor in our poems (and in our “patter” between poems), and we all happened to have music in our poems.  Who knew?!  (I even sang a phrase mid-poem, a bit of embedded lyric that is also conversational enough in passing not to be recognized as a song lyric, unless sung!)

I say, “Who knew?” because we did not rehearse, nor get together beforehand to discuss what poems we’d choose, which I think is most often the case at poetry readings, yes?  Oftentimes poets come together as featured guests, or in a group reading, and have some poems prepared and some backups, based on what others read.  See Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s account of this Miami Book Fair reading!   So not rehearsing is probably the norm.

Sometimes, though, I do “rehearse”—specifically with my poetry class, mostly new poets, reading on a shared theme, in a museum setting, and mostly to time the poems, so we don’t go over our allotted hour.  Reading aloud to each other is indeed 1) good practice 2) something we do regularly before feedback and as a revision technique, and 3) it does reveal common themes and serendipitous strands.

For Sunday, I chose some poems with the other poets in mind.  For example, I brought 3 train poems because I had read and loved Tim Hunt’s “Train Window” (and posted it in my blog ), and, during my set, I requested that he read that one.  Serendipitously, he had planned to read it anyway.

The microphone was essential in our public library setting, even though we had plenty of privacy, tucked into the basement auditorium space reserved for large events.  Staff did pass by in the hall, there were latecomers, and the “free and open to the public” nature of the event brought a mix of ages and some people who have difficulty hearing.

Kathryn was least comfortable with a microphone. “I tend to move around a lot when I read,” she told us, and I had shown her how the microphone could detach from its stand, but she stayed put, which was good, as we could all hear her in her whimsical, wry, and honest delivery, and her energy went into the poems instead of movement, except for eye movement, that impish glance to the left when she was being…impish.

The informal atmosphere came from speaking directly to the audience in our brief introductions to the poems, and leaving off fancy introductions of the poets themselves.  Introductions in which a host reads a biography and lists accomplishments can sometimes intimidate an audience and sort of turn them off or close them down in advance.  But our audience remained eager and open, ready to listen.

Tim Hunt read from his forthcoming chapbook Redneck Yoga, with “redneck” settings, language, and music.  As he is a “self-proclaimed redneck,” he means nothing pejorative in the label.  He also read from White Levis (as in jeans).  Kathryn Kerr read from her forthcoming Turtles All the Way Down, in poems that give voice to a turtle “as a cranky middle-aged woman.”  We got to hear that cranky turtle voice.

All three of us chose poems that could be heard and received in one hearing, especially with a wee bit of set up or context for the hearing.  We stuck with mainly shorter poems, or longer poems in sections.  We had room for darkness and complexity, but we also offered poems that could be readily grasped or accepted, if not necessarily completely understood.  We hoped and intended to connect to our audience, and so we did.

Comments afterwards confirmed this, and the audience stuck around to chat, eat, and buy books, before heading off to Sunday afternoon football on tv, or other delights.  And, because we three poets stuck to the 15-20 minute limit on our “sets,” we were out of there in an hour and a half.  Satisfied our audience and left them wanting more.

If you want confirmation, here’s a review from Julie Kistler at the theatre blog, A Follow Spot.

What are your own experiences with:

–microphones (or lack thereof)
–adapting to the venue (see Carolee Sherwood on flexibility, etc. in open mics post!)
–rehearsing or preparing as a group for a group reading
–timing, allotted time, poets respecting this (or not)
–host’s introductions of poets
–poets’ own introductions of individual poems (and see Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s post!)
–serendipity in poem choices, or serendipity in general


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Live poetry news from Edinburgh

UK poet Rob Mackenzie wonders whether it’s time to wind down the successful poetry reading series he started in Edinburgh three years ago. Logistics considerations are part of the equation, and Rob compares Edinburgh to London in this regard.

What logistics experiences have you had with organizing live poetry readings? Any ‘best practices’ to suggest?


learning from open mics

I didn’t start reading my poems in front of other people until June 2009 when some of my work had been selected for a local reading series. I had no idea what I was doing, except that I was terrified. But something else happened, too: I loved it. I came away from the experience determined to develop more confidence and better showcase my work.

My partner-in-crime, poet Jill Crammond Wickham, and I started putting local poetry open mics on our calendars. We laugh about it now, but at the first one we attempted, we didn’t have the courage to sign up. We lingered near the door, lost our nerve and retired to a tavern a few doors down. Albany is a small city, but it has a vibrant poetry scene. In any week there are two or three open mics to consider, and so second chances were abundant. We tried again in August 2009 and had a great time. We have been regulars on the scene ever since, and I have learned a lot about reading my work in front of an audience.

The open mic scene is a great training ground.

Oh, the horror! (Get over it)
When people describe the horrors of public speaking, they list standing up in front of people, fussing with the microphone, tripping over their words (or worse, their feet) and hating the sound of their own voices. Reading at open mics exposes me repeatedly to those elements, and they create less and less anxiety over time.

I have also developed a comfort level about walking into a space and adapting to its variables. Sometimes there’s a podium or music stand; sometimes there isn’t. Usually there is a microphone, but not always. Settings are diverse (bars, coffee shops, community centers, living rooms, outdoor parks, conference rooms and stages). There is background noise, and there are distractions. The audiences are attentive in some places and not in others.

Misery likes company, of course, and at open mics, we’re all in it together. While there are rare instances of grumbling, overall the scene is nurturing. It is a great place to support – and be encouraged by – fellow poets. I have learned to consider audiences as gatherings of friends (even when I don’t know them), and this has helped me quell my nerves. One simple way to establish rapport is to assume it exists.

Role models
Watching my peers read their poems has been invaluable. How long are their introductions? How do they engage with the audience? Are they chatty or business-like? What do they do with line breaks? Do they talk fast? Do they allow pauses? Are they apologetic or confident? In other words: what works and what doesn’t?

Another fabulous component of being a public-speaker-in-training at open mics is witnessing the risks people take with their work. There are poets who sing with their poems. There are poets who dance. On special occasions in our local scene, there is a poet who takes his shirt off prior to reading his “bra poem” to reveal he’s wearing a small lacy, white bra. Although my own boundaries are much more conservative, I am learning about stretching myself enough to execute the best reading for each poem. Perhaps the most basic manifestation of this is enthusiasm. I know that if I sound like I’m bored, my poems won’t stand a chance with the audience.

Trial and error
Readings are ephemeral. It is a skill to pay attention, not only when I am listening, but also when I am reading. I am learning to be in the moment with poems I hear whether they are in my own voice or in someone else’s. It’s extremely rewarding to be present with the work.

It’s also liberating to understand the fleeting nature of the open mic. While I want to do well each time I stand in front of an audience, I realize it’s no big deal if I make a mistake or have a bad night. Another open mic is coming up tomorrow or next week or next month. I can try again.

Self-conscious (in a good way)
I am not free from fear of public speaking, but it isn’t crippling anymore. It is no longer a hurdle, and I credit this: practice, practice, practice. There are still skills that require my attention if I’m ever to develop them – I mumble, for example, in daily conversation, and I need to do a better job remembering to enunciate and slow down when I am performing – but I have an awareness of myself that I couldn’t have achieved without participation in the open mic scene.

And lastly (in case you had any doubts!) check this out: The Ear is an Organ Made for Love


To introduce or not to introduce?

I once received a packet of poems back with this sentence scrawled on the rejection slip: “Well, your poems certainly are accessible, aren’t they?” I could hear the sneer across the miles, even as I decided to take the rejection as a compliment. Most poets I know have wrestled with this question of accessibility, especially in their early years as they’re working to define their art. When it comes to a poetry reading, the question often revolves around how much introduction to give to each poem.

Occasionally, I read advice from people who say that poets should give no introduction at all. Poems should live or die on their own! I recoil a bit from this advice.

For one thing, I don’t want my poems to die. If a bit of introduction helps win new readers, why wouldn’t I want to do that?

It’s one thing to say that poems should live or die on the page. Readers can return to the page and spend time puzzling over what they don’t understand. The poetry reading is different. The audience sits there for a variety of reasons. When I think about a poetry reading, I assume only one or two audience members are poetry fans. I work hard to win the rest of the room. I won’t convert them if they spend the reading feeling confused and increasingly alienated.

Some of my poems require a bit of background knowledge. For example, my poem “My Habit, My Hairshirt” begins with these lines: “A modern day anchoress, I commit / myself to my car. In my moving cell, / I sing constantly and pray without ceasing.” If you’re reading at home, and you don’t know what an anchoress is, you can look it up. I don’t want audience members whipping out their digital devices to look up references. It’s simpler to tell them—and then I don’t risk losing them to the other distractions that the Internet provides.

As an audience member, I like knowing a bit about how the poem came to be. My introduction for “My Habit, My Hairshirt” tells the audience about how I got the idea for the poem after teaching the work of Julian of Norwich, the most famous anchoress, and then hopping in the car for my many hours of commuting home. That introduction also gives me a perfect way to define an anchoress.

Of course, the poem is only 15 lines long. If I’m not careful, the introduction could last longer than the poem. If that happens once, that’s fine. If it happens with every poem, it’s a problem.

For me, one of the best things about an introduction to a poem is its function as a transitional time. It’s a clear signal to the audience that we’re moving from one poem to the next poem. It gives the audience a resting point, while preparing them for the next poem. And it reminds me, the poet, to slow down. A natural tendency for many of us is to talk more quickly when we’re nervous. We zoom from poem to poem, leaving the audience whipsawed. An introduction to a poem can short circuit our nervousness.

Interestingly, poets aren’t the only ones who wrestle with this issue of introductions. My mother is a classically trained musician who occasionally gives concerts. One year I got to go to one of her organ recitals and was delighted before each piece, when she explained what was going to happen and told us what to listen for. It opened a window to a world I had only glimpsed before. When I told her how much her introductions really enriched my experience, she told me that purists would scoff at the idea of introductions, but she knew there would be a number of children in the audience, and she wanted the experience to be a good one for them.

We’re all wrestling with the issue of how much introduction to do, how to lead the audience to a deeper appreciation without giving away too much before they even get to the creative work. It’s a tough balance, but one worth striving to achieve.


Poetry As Music

All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.
– Walt Whitman

Even if you are not a poet, there are probably words that have become an integral part of your experience in the form of favorite songs. Who hasn’t memorized a line or two that recalls a special memory or has become a mantra of sorts? And when you started reading poetry, it may have been the most musical lines that first stuck out – the pattern of rhyme, the repetition of a chorus, the alliterative love letters, the guttural wailing of onomatopoeic pain.

Think about the poets you may have read or loved as a child. Dr. Seuss, with his magical rhyme schemes and fanciful, made-up words. (Oobleck, anyone?) Shel Silverstein with his surprise endings and his chant-worthy rhythms. The entire Child’s Garden of Verse with the musical diction of Robert Louis Stevenson’s swing and shadow.  Think about Mother Goose, bedtime prayers, jump rope rhymes and schoolyard hand-clapping games. You have been filled with rhythm and music longer than you know. And music is a weapon in your poetry arsenal that cannot be ignored.

When I write poems, music is essentially a part of my writing pulse. As I stated in a comment on Kathleen Kirk’s post about the double life of the poem, I wrote songs before I started “officially” writing poems, so I learned to write hearing my words out loud and matching them to the tone, mood, and length constraints of a melody. So, when I did start writing poems that were not meant to be song lyrics, the sounds of the poem remained at the forefront, as did the knowledge of line lengths and the cyclical possibilities of repetition, anaphora, and refrains.

Poets who write in form are no strangers to these “constraints” – sometimes the structure of a form poem can create a new kind of music for a writer that is unexpected or (at the very least) a change from the music of free verse.  Shakespeare’s music is completely different than Whitman’s, but both of them beg to be read aloud.

One of the best things I can do for myself as a writer is to read my own work aloud – this helps me (as Kathleen mentioned in her post) to hear even the white space on the page, to get the words out of my head and into the air. With current technology making recording so easy, I have started to record the poems I think are nearly finished to hear the trouble spots, the places that I stumble or that don’t flow cohesively.

A songwriter wouldn’t dream of writing a score and leaving it only on paper, never to be played by instruments or heard by an audience. Why, then, do some poets seem unprepared or unwilling to share their poems as living, breathing works of aural art?  Poetry is meant to be heard. It started as an oral tradition, and songs continued that tradition. Why mess with success? Take the next new poem you write out of your head and into air – listen to it sing.


Poetry Out Loud

Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for American high school students, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, now in its sixth year. In 2009-2010, close to 325,000 students took part. According to the website’s About page,

Recitation and performance are exciting current trends in poetry. There has been a resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum by inviting the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class.

The national contest is run in a federated fashion, with each state’s arts agency solely responsible for the contest in that state, although “teachers, students, and poetry lovers everywhere can use this website and its accompanying educational materials to organize their own recitation contests.” In my state, Pennsylvania, the competition is carried live on PCN, our state equivalent of C-SPAN, and last March I was able to watch it online after a friend who has TV alerted me that it was on. I realize this might not be everyone’s idea of gripping television — it doesn’t have quite the glitz and glamour of “American Idol” — but I found it quite exciting.

You can do a video search of “Poetry Out Loud” to see finalists from around the country; New Jersey and California seem to be the best represented on YouTube. Here’s the Rhode Island state winner from 2010, Amber Rose Johnson, with a joyful performance of Nikki Giovanni’s “Walking Down Park“:

Last year, the first deaf student to enter, Tiffany Hill, won the Oregon state contest. Check out the Facebook video of her signing “Inside Out” by Diane Wakoski. This is fascinating because of the way it challenges conventional notions of what poetry recitation can be. And it suggests parallels with dance interpretations of poetry, as well.


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