Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Why don’t they teach us to read & What makes a poetry reading fail?


Here’s some great stuff from Jessica Piazza, who writes of:

a major problem I have with graduate poetry-writing programs in general: the lack of focus on public reading skills, as though those weren’t integral to our work as professional poets. As a PhD student, I’m not required (nor even encouraged) to take public speaking or drama courses. Nowhere in the curricula is it acknowledged that, because we poets have a devastatingly small audience matched by terrible underrepresentation in book stores, most of us will sell the majority of our books (if we’re lucky enough to publish some) at poetry readings. Shouldn’t that fact be considered when deciding what professional poets should learn in school?

What makes for a failed poetry reading? Among those Jessica had experienced, readings where the poets:

1 – clearly didn’t care. I’ve heard so many of my colleagues say “I’m such a bad reader,” like it wasn’t a big deal; like it couldn’t be changed with some work and practice. I’m a little offended by this, honestly. People come to the venue, they take their seats and (hopefully) sit quietly and respectfully so that you might share your art with them. Don’t we owe people enough respect to try to do a good job, entertain them, or at least convey our ideas well?

2 – mumbled, didn’t enunciate or articulate words, spoke way to quickly or didn’t project at all. This is obvious. Poetry can be difficult enough to understand even when the listeners get the words. Help the kids out.

3 – over-explained the poems. Personally, I sometimes make jokes about situations or people in my poems before I say them. It’s my defense mechanism. But when a poet tells more than is absolutely necessary about a poem, it robs the audience of what Josh called “the pleasure of revelation.”

4 – had no stage presence at all. This can mean a few different things. Some poets shrink into themselves. Some ramble. Some seem scared out of their minds.

5—speak in a poetry voice. You know the one. The lilting up at the end of every line. The pauses in strange places. The absolute inability to realize that poetry (though not prose) is written in sentences, usually, or at least phrases, and might benefit from being vocalized as such.

6 – don’t understand their audience. When Jim Shepherd, an amazing fiction writer I just read for the first time this year, came to USC, we had a really funny conversation about choosing the wrong piece for the crowd. “Their eyes glaze over,” he said, blanching at the memory. Once fiction writers start a story, though, it’s hard for them to stop or turn back. As poets, we have the opportunity to cater our reading to the crowd, watch reactions, choose poems more on the fly depending on how it’s going. All it takes is a little observation.

Jessica concludes:

there are endless ways to be winning, but the main one just seems to be caring about the audience, and realizing that what we do is an art of communication, whether on the page or in front of a microphone. And besides, I’ve always wanted to buy more books after good poetry readings than bad ones. But certainly none of this matters if the work isn’t good in the first place. So that’s obviously the priority.

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Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

10 thoughts on “Why don’t they teach us to read & What makes a poetry reading fail?

  1. This is spot-on. #5 is a particular annoyance because that’s the one aspect of poetry reading that does seem to be taught at college writing programs. It has to be, because it sure as hell ain’t natural, and I don’t believe it exists outside of North America.

  2. Add to #5 the little hand gestures that often accompany the lilting style, as if the poet were conducting her own musical delivery. The voice tilts up, the hand goes gently up into the air. The line lilts slowly to its end, the hand trails off in the air. I find this horribly distracting and annoying.

  3. #5!! Oh I hate it so. It makes me want to pull my eardrums out, tie them in a knot, and finger-sling them at the reader. If I’m listening to a recording, I try to squash the sound in my brain by imagining a cone of silence over the reader’s head while I push the stop button. Unfortunately that intonation often lingers in my head, long after the sound has stopped.

  4. #5 is a pet hate of mine too and yes it happens in the UK. Hand gestures too and foot tapping are very irritating.

    #6 isn’t necessarily something you can do that much about. The poet may for example be in a situation where he or she is expected to read only from the one book (published by the publisher who is hosting the event).

  5. Diane, Christine, Juliet – Thanks for stopping by and commenting! If you have anything else you’d like to share on this or related themes, please consider a guest-blog here at Voice Alpha. Or email me any material you think might be useful/interesting for the site – nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com

    best, Nic

  6. Pingback: Voice Alpha

  7. One of the ways I’ve seen readers fail is to be completely unprepared. They spend precious moments at the microphone pawing through a folder of poems, saying “oh, I know it’s in here somewhere, hmm, oh here it is, oh, no, that’s not it.” Or worse yet, a thick binder of poems, and they are turning pages ceaselessly trying to find this one they JUST decided to share. I think you owe your audience a bit more preparation than that.

  8. Pingback: sound-in-composition vs sound-in-performance « Very Like A Whale

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