Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Dave reads ‘Wonder Woman’


This week the Voice Alpha gang is reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. We’ll end the week with a Voice Alpha critique of a reading of the poem by the poet himself. Feel free to add your observations on the readings to the comments. If you would like to send in a reading of Wonder Woman for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman’.

Dave’s reading

Dear Voice Alpha,

This was the last of seven takes. I did a couple of dry runs, too, but usually the recorder has to actually be running for me to put my all into a reading with no live audience present. Isn’t that weird?

I enjoyed the poem very much (once I consulted the Wikipedia article on Wonder Woman — the stuff about the lasso would’ve been lost on me otherwise). There were two places where I kept stumbling. I couldn’t decide how to space my breathing in the sentence beginning “The headband and bullet-deflecting cuffs,” and so I fear that might be the weakest patch in my reading overall. And for me the poem has a lot riding on the next-to-last word, “invisible,” and I found it challenging to decide how to emphasize that without sounding unnatural. Probably there are other problems in my reading about which I was simply oblivious, but those are the two that stood out for me. I thought about trying to put special emphasis on the “wonder” in “Wonder Woman” in the second or fifth line, but I think that’s one of those things you have to trust the audience to work out on their own.

Looking forward to your feedback.

Dave Bonta

Donna’s comments

Dear Dave – Your voice is the welcoming voice of the storyteller – it makes me want to pull up a chair and sit a while, which is a wonderful feeling and helped make the poem feel relatable. I hear the affection (and a little nostalgia) in your voice.

I noticed that you decided not to stress the word “invisible,” but you did stress other words to emphasize their importance – be, truth, magic, ounce. Most readers chose to stress these words, so they seemed natural choices for your reading.

You handled the transition into the “headband” line well. It is a difficult section as it goes from an end-stopped sentence into a fragment – since there is no subject/verb structure to distinguish the rhythm of the syntax, it is a challenge for the reader to decide how to handle it. You did honor the endstop, but used your tone to make the phrase seem like it connected to the sentence before.

Nic’s comments

Dear Dave – Your volume, clarity of diction and breath control were good in this reading. I thought your pacing overall was slower than the content of the piece required, though, and that the reading could have benefited from a faster tempo.

Beyond all that, I felt that your ‘base note’ register is ‘I am reading a poem so my voice should get declamatory’ and for me that base note really gets in the way. It infuses the whole reading, so it’s hard to point out particular lines where it comes into play, but I have bolded below the points where I thought it most intense:

The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
G.I. Joe for Wonder Woman must have set off alarms.
I wanted to surrender my guns for the golden lasso,
more than the dolls, mind you, I wanted to be
Wonder Woman.
I don’t remember who stitched the costume,
blue underwear with glued on stars, a red bustier
wrapped around my seven-year-old sunken chest,
the golden eagle oddly deflated.
The headband and bullet-deflecting cuffs made
of cardboard and the length of rope my father had
spray-painted gold in the yard hooked at my side.
I lassoed my poor dad first, demanded the truth,
but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.
If the rope could have squeezed out an ounce
of what he was really thinking,
I would have been dressed up as Superman or Batman,
a manly cape flying out behind me as I ran
around the back yard, hidden from the neighbors,
while my dad devised a way to build
Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.

I’m going to refer back to my comments at this post, where I noted:

“I continue to meditate on Paul Stevens’ comment at this post where he defines authentic readings as ones where the reader “seems to be talking (italics mine), not self-consciously reciting.” I think reading a poem as if you are ‘just talking’ to your audience is excellent advice. Trust the text and trust your voice – they will give you the stresses and inflections and variety of tone called for by the poem, if you just get out of the way and let them do it.”

I guess not so long ago poetry was written to be declaimed and somewhere along the line we have internalized that method of delivery as the correct one for any poetry. I don’t think it works for contemporary poetry, though.

In this clip, at 1 min 20 secs into the video, you can hear Anne Sexton reading her poem ‘Menstruation at 40.’ I feel she automatically adopts that declamatory base tone which, in my view, detracts from the sensitive inflection and variety of tone of which she is clearly capable. Later in the video she herself says: ‘My husband hates the way I read poems. He says I sound like a minister.’ I agree with her husband!

Carolee’s comments

I understand what Nic is saying, and I hear the “i’m reading a poem” tone most often in the words that you stretch out in length, much like a song. where a conversational tone might have a short pronunciation of a word and then a pause, some of your words hold onto their vowel sounds to fill the space. does that make sense? like alaaaaarms and staaaaars.

However, I felt like I heard more of the pieces of the story (and understood more of their irony) in this reading than in any of the other readings. I wonder if it’s because you practiced it so much and really focused on the emphasis (which I understand b/c that’s what I had to do when reading the Emily Dickinson pieces for your podcast).

Anyway, there is a lot hidden in this poem, and I think you brought more of them out than some of the other readings did. Of course, there is the variable that we can’t predict — that yours is the fourth one I’m hearing so maybe I gathered up the hidden bits along my way. :)

Kristin’s comments

I, too, like Dave’s voice here, the warmth and the slight gruffness. I like the way that his voice deflates a bit as he reads a word like “shrunken.” I liked the tempo, and didn’t hear as much of the “I’m reading a poem” tone as other commenters noted here. This reading was my first listen and comment session, so I don’t know how much that element might play a part.

Gender of the reader and gender of the poem’s speakers . . . I started thinking about how readers might react differently to Dave’s reading, in his male voice, and our other readings, our female voices. It’s clear to me, from reading the poem on the page, that the speaker is male. Is it clear to readers who hear a female voice? Is it disconcerting when the female voice doesn’t match the speaker’s voice? Topics for a different post, I suspect.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Dave reads ‘Wonder Woman’

  1. Yes, storyteller and folksy quality to this reading. Kristin has a point – the narrator is male, so I think some of the effect is lost in a female voice. However, I the ladies who have read it here so far have done a wonderful job of conveying the story.

  2. i like Dave’s reading very much. Readers who use what i would call natural inflections used in “story-telling” manner are much more satisfactory than those who use a flatter voice.

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