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on reading poetry aloud for an audience

poetry-aloud websites: Hans Ostrom’s You Tube channel

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(This is part of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Hans Ostrom, who has his own poetry You Tube channel.)

What is the mission statement for your You Tube channel?

I don’t have a mission-statement. Instead I simply state that the channel features the reading of poetry, mostly by others, with a few by me. As things have turned out, I think my mission is to present poems I value, work by poets I’ve liked for a long time (Langston Hughes, Karl Shapiro, and W.H. Auden are good examples), lesser known poems by well known poets (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues), and lesser known poems (like some poems from the Sanskrit)–pretty much in that order. Early on I discovered that the Spoken Verse Channel from Tom O’Bedlam had presented terrific readings of the very famous canonical poems, and there’s no point competing, as it were, with Tom.

Why did you start your You Tube channel?

Really I was first interested in the technology: how to record a poem on the cheap at home, and how and whether to make accompanying slide-shows. I’m also just an advocate of poetry in general and think more people should read it and engage with it. Then I really got interested in the recording itself, how it changes how one reads a poem. I’ve recorded over 400 now, but I hate the early ones and still feel I’m not a good reader. The learning curve is steep.

What made you choose You Tube as a platform rather than a blog or website or other internet platform?

A website seemed too complicated (for me), and I already have a blog called Poet’s Musings, on which I post my own poems, others’ poetry, brief essays on poems, etc. You Tube seemed to provide access to a wide audience and a fairly easy way to upload videos.

How frequently do you post and how do you choose your readings?

For a while I was posting up to three poems a week, but I’ve backed off from that. I’ll probably settle on one a week. Because it takes a while to edit the sound, I’m always on the lookout for short poems, and so I’ve rediscovered how long a lot of contemporary poems are. I also don’t mind reading “chestnuts” that hip readers of poetry would deride–like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” or a poem by Robert Service, “Ordinary Men.” I’m trying to appeal to a variety of audiences, and I don’t want the channel to be elitist.

What percentage of readings are your own poems and what percentage are other people’s poems?

Probably 10 per cent of the poems, at most, are mine.

What are the differences in approach, rewards and challenges that come into play when you read other people’s poems, as opposed to your own?

Well, you want to do the poem justice, and to try to stay out of its way, so to speak. I tend to hate my voice, and my recording technique’s not perfect, but at least I get the poem out there, and even if people don’t like my reading, per se, they may enjoy the poem. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my basic job. If they like the reading and the poem both, so much the better.

What are your plans/hopes for the You Tube channel? Is there a next level to which you hope to take it?

I’d like to experiment with the visuals. Now I either create a slide-show of what I think are apt images, or I use the poem itself (the text) as the images. I start with a visual of some sort on the “title” panel, then usually have an image of the poet. I think I’d like to play with that basic format. There is a huge temptation to use sound gimmicks like reverb, etc., but I learned early on to avoid those, so I don’t want to experiment too much with sound. I’d like to learn how to present the text of poems in a greater variety of ways. I also want to read poems by newer poets, up-and-coming poets, and so on. People just breaking in. I’ve done a few of those already, like “Under,” by Hannah Stephenson.

The following sites also feature people reading other people’s poems aloud. Please comment briefly on each. How do they differ from or resemble your own site?

1. I’m very much in tune with How Pedestrian insofar as I think poetry should be a part of the culture at large and not so remote. I like the common touch of this site.

2. I like Belly Up, too–nicely produced readings, not overly dramatic, letting the poems speak for themselves, as it were. Nice selection of poems, too.

3. Classic Poetry Out Loud: a good “Old School” site. I was a bit bemused by the reference to “poetry from the past,” as all poetry is, technically, from the past; but I get their drift. I’d compare this channel to that of Spoken Verse on Youtube, and I’d give a slight edge to Spoken Verse, whose readings (by “Tom O’Bedlam,” also British) are a bit less predictable. Blessings on CPOL, nonetheless: what a great resource.

4. Whale Sound is terrific. I like the selection of poems, and I like the woman’s voice. It made me realize how relatively few sites like these seem to be from women. There are a lot of women reading on Youtube, but most of them seem to be individual poets reading “to” the computer screen–or recordings of Sylvia Plath, et al. So that is very refreshing.

I think really only two things distinguish my site from these–one is that a site like Classic Poetry Out Loud is very professional, in a BBC kind of way, whereas I’m still an amateur reader trying to get more skillful at production, etc. Second, I make slide-shows that either use the text of a poem or use images suggested by the poem. So my site is probably less for the purist listener, who may wish only to hear the poem.

Hans Ostrom is Professor of African American Studies and English at the University of Puget Sound. Read more about him here and here.

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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.

5 thoughts on “poetry-aloud websites: Hans Ostrom’s You Tube channel

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been too single-mindedly focused on videopoetry to pay much attention to the poetry reading sites on YouTube, but I always figured they were providing a great service. Now I’m convinced of it. Kudos to Mr. Ostrum for his willingness to meet people where they are and his efforts to help resuscitate the art of poetry reading.

  2. Then I really got interested in the recording itself, how it changes how one reads a poem. I’ve recorded over 400 now, but I hate the early ones and still feel I’m not a good reader. The learning curve is steep.

    I hear you! Steep and never ending…

  3. Hi Hans, and thanks for your site, the interview, and the kind words about Belly Up! I’ve got a couple of questions for you, if you have the time…

    First, I wonder how you decide whether to include the text of a poem or whether you’ll complement the lines with images. Is there something as you read or get ready to record that triggers one choice or the other?

    And I appreciate your appetite for variety, not wanting to let your channel become elitist. Do you have a sort of mental list of “holes” in the collection that you’d like to fill? Or is it more of an auto-adjustment as you go–“Boy I’ve been reading a lot of young women/short poems/formally adventurous ones/poems about rabbits lately–time for something different”? How do you plan what’s next?

    Curiously,
    Karsten

  4. This is my poetry reading playlist:
    So far I have only four recordings on YouTube
    All poems are read in the original language and subtitles are available under the caption menu.
    Enjoy.

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