Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Reading OPP (other people’s poems) for an audience


(Guest post by Hannah Stephenson)

Last week I was delighted to attend a reading celebrating Poets of the American West (1910-2010) at the beautiful Hammer Museum in L.A.. The event was held in honor of the Poetry Society of America’s 100th Anniversary. The featured poets were brilliant and highly-acclaimed: Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Carol Muske-Dukes, Michael Palmer, and (two of my all-time favorites!) Jane Hirshfield, and Robert Hass.

I know. Sorry you weren’t there to bask in auditory pleasure.

I loved the format of this reading, as most of the poets spent a majority of their stage time reading work by other writers (identified as West Coast writers). It was clear that poets had chosen work that resonated with them. Most intriguingly, this style of reading allowed the audience to see poets as both speakers and listeners; we got to watch a reader giving voice to and taking pleasure in someone else’s words.

Wanda Coleman’s readings were characteristically rousing and dynamic. I appreciate how she let the audience see her having fun; after reading one piece by Ishmael Reed, she laughed appreciatively. Juan Herrera’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bomb” was exciting and impassioned, and he involved the audience by giving us a line to echo, responsive reading-style (we sounded a bit like congregation gone wacky, which I imagine Ginsberg would have appreciated). Herrera praised Ginsberg’s performances, fondly recalling Ginsberg’s “beautiful breathing” between words or lines.

Robert Hass’s style of reading is fascinating. He manages to sound both conversational and authoritative, and I sometimes had trouble distinguishing whether he was reading a poem or providing commentary (which is a good thing, in this case). I admired how natural he was while reading; he was so blissfully easy to listen to. As he read a piece from Gary Snyder about the California coastline, he spoke as a tour guide might, punctuating the poem with occasional asides like, “Now we’re near Diane Wakoski’s home,” or “And here’s John Muir.” The audience was eager to laugh with Hass (at his own sequence of punchlines with no joke), and to learn from him.

Jane Hirshfield’s readings were calm and careful; though she spoke deliberately, she read her poems (many of which were quite short) comfortably, slowly. She also provided the audience with clapping instructions (always appreciated, right?), explaining that since she would be reading many brief poems, there was no need to clap in between each of them. It’s so refreshing when poets communicate to an audience in this way.

These readings allowed the audience to experience a poem on multiple levels: the original material, the reader’s feelings about the material, the poet’s own voice leaking into and reshaping the words. The experience reminded me a bit of hearing a musician cover a song that they desperately love, and bringing something new to the work. At one of the very first concerts I attended on my own (well, with girlfriends, but still with no parents) at 14, I heard Ani Difranco cover Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” I remember wondering why she chose that song, and what she loved so much about it.

So what poems would you cover, given the chance? (I’d head straight for some of Wallace Stevens’s Florida poems, Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” or something by Hirshfield, maybe “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested”). Would this work at every reading, or only in some circumstances (like thematic readings)?

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Author: Hannah Stephenson

Poet, writer, instructor, singer-songwriter. Talker and listener. Visit my poetry site, The Storialist, updated every weekday: www.thestorialist.com.

6 thoughts on “Reading OPP (other people’s poems) for an audience

  1. Can I first say…jealous? What a wonderful evening it must have been! I think that I would cover some Whitman (” a child said What is the grass?”), some Jack Gilbert (“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”) or Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Rebellion Against the North Side.” For starters, anyway.

    The hosts at a local open mic I frequent almost always start the evening by reading other people’s poems – it is a way to start an evening of words with everyone being able to appreciate the sounds and meanings of someone who is not present.

    • Have no idea why I changed genders all of the sudden in my profile…we’ll see if it rights itself – I love that, just with Dick’s comment, I now have two poems I don’t know to look up.

  2. Well, I’ve already covered a poem I really liked! But if momentum carried me onwards, I’d go for Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and Alice Oswald’s ‘Pruning In Frost’.

    Loving poetry and the American West, I wish I’d been at the reading. But those plane fares…

  3. Thanks for this report, and all the links. Wanda Coleman’s reading style is fantastic! I love the way she almost-sings at points. In general I find African-American poets tend to be dynamic readers, but she is doing something I haven’t heard before. I’m reminded of my older niece, who went through a period around the age of six or seven when she sang everything instead of speaking normally, as if her life were an opera. I think her parents had made her watch a DVD of an opera or something.

  4. Oh, what a wonderful reading report. Thank you, Hannah! I have heard Jane Hirshfield read, so your description was familiar, and I, too, would love to read her poems to people and also her translations, with Mariko Aratani, from The Ink Dark Moon. Another favorite to share with listeners is Emily Dickinson, as some of us had her forced on us in school situations…and maybe dismissed her then, but she is such an individual, and her poems rock! I’d like to work out the challenge of the dashes–in voice!

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