Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


poetry out loud: interview with ‘Linebreak’ editor

(This is one of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Johnathon Williams, editor of the online audio poetry journal, Linebreak.)

Most online poetry sites with an audio aspect feature poets reading their own work aloud. Linebreak is highly unusual in that it is specifically predicated on readers reading other people’s work. Would you give us the background on how/why Linebreak developed in this direction?

It was mostly by accident. We’d intended to include audio from the very start, but when we began soliciting that initial batch of poems – before the website even existed – a few of the poets we accepted didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to record their work. The most obvious fix for that was to have someone else record those poems, and once we tried that, we knew immediately it should be a permanent fixture.

What is specifically beneficial/intriguing/productive about marrying voices to poems that the voice owners have not written?

The benefit is that performance is a form of interpretation, so that in hearing someone else read the poem you’re exposed to a new interpretation of it. It’s a little like hearing a cover of one of your favorite songs performed by a different band. A good cover can completely reinvent a song. It’s the same with poems.

As a weekly magazine, we also benefit by increasing the number of poets that we feature. We only publish 52 poems per year, so the weekly addition of a reader allows us to feature two poets at a time instead of one. There’s a benefit to the poets as well, in that it encourages a connection between two writers who might not have known each other. It’s been fun to watch our performers and writers become friends on Facebook, or write us to ask for each other’s email addresses.

Please describe the process of selecting Linebreak poems. To what extent does the fact that they will be vocalized on the site influence your choices? (E.g. are questions of length, format, the sonics of the poem itself, actively weighed?)

The audio portion doesn’t influence our selection process at all. I certainly don’t think about it when I’m reading submissions, and I’m pretty sure the other editors don’t, either. We have to fall in love with a poem as a written artifact first, before we even think about how it sounds out loud. As an online publication, we’re open to poems of all lengths.

Please describe the process of selecting your readers and the criteria you use in those selections.

Our first criteria is that all readers be poets themselves, with at least a couple of publications to their credit. We have a standing call for volunteer readers on our about page, and lots of the folks who read for us are pulled from those volunteers. Pairing a particular reader to a particular poem is sometimes deliberate — as when we asked Leon Stokesbury to read Seth Abramson’s “Cash at Folsom” — and sometimes coincidental. Sometimes it’s Monday afternoon and our update is due the next morning and the volunteer reader doesn’t come through and I find myself trolling through my Facebook chat list, randomly accosting any poet who happens to be online for some impromptu audio.

What tips do you have for anyone recording a poem for an audience?

First I’d say to get rid of your poet voice – that dreadful, droning affectation that’s become all too popular these days. (Hearing one of those always makes me think of that scene from The Golden Child where Eddie Murphy is in Tibet confronting the mystics: -“I, I, I, want the knife…. please.”) Your regular voice will do just fine. Other than that, you can do a lot worse than to simply slow down a little, and speak. A recording isn’t live, so there’s no pressure. You can always do another take if you need to.

Please describe the technical side of your audio operation. How do you receive sound files? Do you edit the audio at all? If so, to what extent? What software and equipment do you use?

We receive sound files through email, generally, or through a service like DropBox when the files are too large to be emailed. We tell our readers that files in WAV or AIFF format are preferred (those are uncompressed formats that give us the most leeway if we need to edit them), but a lot of people don’t know how to create those files, so we accept MP3s as well.

As far as editing goes, we edit most of the files that we receive at least a little. The most common edit is to remove the dead air at the beginning of a recording, or the shuffle and click of the recorder being turned off at the end. The second most common is removing background noise.

Our software workhorse is GarageBand, which comes bundled with all new Macs, and which I use for 90 percent of our editing. Occasionally I need something that’s more capable at removing background noise, and when that happens I use Audacity, a free program for both Macs and PCs.

On the hardware side, I have a Zoom H2 recorder, which is probably the best purchase we ever made. I’d recommend it for all poets. I use the Zoom to record audio for the site whenever I can, which is usually when a new poet happens to be visiting the local university, or when I’m at AWP.

Probably the most valid criticism you could make against Linebreak is the variance in our audio quality. There are weeks when we post studio-quality audio, and there are weeks when we post … something else. We have on occasion rejected recordings — or more commonly asked the reader to re-record something — but we hate to do that too often. My thought is that it’s better to err on the side of a greater variety in voices than to be too stringent about audio quality.

What sort of feedback do you get from poets on the readings of their poems? Does anyone ever object to the way their poem has been interpreted?

Usually, our poets love hearing their work read by another poet. No one has flat-out objected to a reading yet, but a few poets have grumbled a little about our choices. A more common problem is the rejection of a poem by a potential reader, although even that has happened only five or six times in the last three years. When that happens, we generally just send the reader a different poem.

If you could wave a magic wand and get a long-wished-for thing for Linebreak, what would it be?

My wish would be for the ability to make Linebreak and my own writing a full-time gig. Right now, I balance those with running my own web design and development shop, as well as being a husband and father.

What are your thoughts in general on the current state of the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience?

I think there’s a fascinating split between the academic side of poetry – those of us who came through MFA programs, and tend to focus on poetry as a written art – and the slam side. It’s fascinating because, in general, the academic folks tend to be better writers, in that they tend to be better read and more aware of the tradition they’re working in. But slam poets, by and large, are better performers. And by “better performers”, I mean they’re less likely to bore the audience to tears.

We’ve all been to poetry readings on the academic side where the reader could’ve been replaced by a robot and hardly anyone would’ve noticed. Sometimes I think that refusal to perform is a deliberate effort by some academic poets to separate themselves from slam poets. But it’s also true that many writers are introverts who are uncomfortable with the entire idea of performing. To those people, I’d simply remind them that, in the absence of performance, there’s absolutely no reason for public poetry readings to exist. Everyone in the audience is perfectly capable of reading the work by themselves. The only reason to invite the author to read it aloud is to hear it interpreted in a new way, in a voice other than the listener’s — in other words, to hear it performed.

Anything else we should have asked but forgot?

If I hadn’t taken so long to get these questions back to you, you could’ve asked about Linebreak‘s first book project, which went on sale on Jan. 26. Two Weeks is a digital anthology of contemporary poetry, released exclusively as an ebook and audio book.

The entire project was compiled, edited, designed, coded, and recorded in only 14 days. My co-editor and I took public submissions for the first week, then spent the second week editing and producing the book. We received more than 1,000 poems. In the end, we selected 58 of them, from poets such as Dorianne Laux, Bruce Bond, T.R. Hummer, and others. You can listen to samples and download it immediately on our website, or order it directly from Amazon.


Johnathon Williams is a writer, editor, and web developer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His poems have appeared in The Morning News, Unsplendid, 42 Opus, and various print magazines that can’t be linked to. An essay he wrote about his personal relationship with zombie movies is required reading in university writing programs across the county. (Not really).


Johnathon at Whale Sound.
More interviews in this series.

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The Dazzling Patricia Smith

Kelli Russell Agodon has a great post about going to see the poet Patricia Smith, author of Blood Dazzler, and how inspired the reading left her.  She meditates a bit on Smith’s reading style and delivery.  She says, “Patricia was nothing like the dull, dry, uncaring poet that has/might be/is the stereotype of what is wrong with poetry readings.  She is the comet when you were expecting a clear night and no rain.  She is the unexpected hug when you were expecting a handshake.”

Kelli’s post has links to Smith’s website.  Dave Bonta’s Moving Poems site has some great videos here.

Patricia Smith was part of an AWP panel on collaboration, and her collaborative work sounded just as fascinating as her work on the printed page.  I hope I have the chance to see her read her poems in a live performance at some point.  I’ll keep my eyes open for the opportunity.

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audio submissions for Valentine’s Day

Woodrat Podcast is asking. Details here. Last stipulation below (emphasis mine) is my favorite!

I’m asking for original contributions on the theme of Platonic love for an episode to be published in one week — on Valentine’s Day.


This can be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry (and you don’t have to tell us which it is) and previously published works are welcome as long as you are the author and hold the rights. Recordings must be no longer than five minutes.


Email your recordings as attachments, or upload them to free file-sharing services such as yousendit.com — anything I don’t have register for — and send me the link: bontasaurus[at]yahoo[dot]com. Please put “Platonic love” into the subject line so I will easily be able to find any that end up in my spam folder. The deadline is Saturday at midnight EST.


Do not include the text you’re reading from; the recordings have to stand on their own.


To read or to recite? Dramatic versus Epic

I came late to the debate about reading versus recitation and just about everything that I’d have been minded to contribute was more than eloquently dealt with in the comments that followed the initial post. However, a process of thought was set in motion and I offer up its products in the hope that they might augment a fascinating discussion.

My training and subsequent career were in drama and for me the declaration of poetry out loud, whether from the page or as learned recitation, is all about performance. The distinction between the two (for me) is all about intention: what response your presentation is designed to evoke in your audience. Learned delivery involves one set of very specific and characteristic criteria; read delivery involves a distinctly different characteristic modality.

Many of you will be familiar with Aristotle’s treatise On Poetics, in which he differentiates between specific poetic genres. Certain of his propositions were subsequently reiterated by Goethe and Schiller, adapting them for their theatrical needs in the late 18th century, and then by poet and playwright Bertold Brecht in the early 20th century.

All three were particularly interested (albeit with differing emphases) in Aristotle’s presentation of the opposing modes of the Dramatic and the Epic. As narrative, the former provides the immediacy of the event unfolding in the moment through dramatic performance, structured so as to evoke in the audience emotional identification with situation and character and a sense of participation in the narrative. The latter provides the detached descriptive account, maybe delivered by a narrator or a chorus, relating events after they have occurred, structured so as to engage the audience’s capacity for objective evaluation as the story is told.

The plays of Goethe and Schiller – like their Greek counterparts – were written in verse. But Brecht, writing his highly politicised post-naturalistic ‘Epic Theatre’ largely in prose, refined the differentiation, actively requiring the distancing of the audience from emotional identification, encouraging instead, through a range of specific performance and design techniques, rational understanding and considered evaluation on the part of the spectator. Not least amongst these techniques was the actor presenting his/her part in the third person singular, as if commenting on the action as it actually unfolds.

I see similar contrasting dynamics at work in, respectively, the learned poetic text performed to an audience and the text that is read from a printed source, interposed, as it were, between reader and recipient, acting as barrier and conduit at one and the same time.

It seems to me that the entire point of the learned text in performance is the engagement of the audience’s emotional attention. Whether the performer is delivering the poem indirectly to the audience in the manner of a ‘fourth wall’ presentation requiring the fictional notion of an unobserved real event unfolding in real time or directly to the audience as a face en face encounter, an emotional commitment is being required. The very phenomenon of performance itself will engage the spectator/listener’s feelings and the greater portion of those subtle nuances and allusions that are part of any poem of substance will be hostage to its processes.

However, the physical interposition of text is also going to impose very specific constraints on both the scale and character of the delivery. Any emotive intentions on the part of the reader are going to be invested entirely in the vocal techniques that are going to be employed principally in simply ‘telling the tale’ – cadence, tone, pitch, pause, rhythm and the like.

But the very fact of this disembodiment of performance presents not just as limiting but as liberating too. Limiting because performance is invisible and thus purely oral/aural. But liberating because in the distancing of the audience from the emotional relationship with the performer, the reader can, in the manner of the ‘epic’ narrator, simultaneously tell the tale beguilingly and, in the manner of the telling, commentate on it too.

So for me the priority in the delivery of poetry to an audience is the integrity of the text. In this respect the poem should be speaking me: I am the vehicle, not the poem. And to my mind this priority can only be accorded via the medium of the read text (this being subject, of course, to whatever skills I can muster for the task!)


To read or to recite?

To read or to recite? This blog treats reading as normative for public performances of poetry among contemporary English-language poets, but for many in the spoken word community — to say nothing of poets in other cultures — recitation is much more highly prized. Spoken word performers sometimes say that if you don’t memorize a poem you can’t fully internalize it, and therefore can’t give it the kind of physical, whole-body expression that audiences best respond to. I’ve seen spoken word performers live, as well as on YouTube, and I have to say I’ve been extremely impressed by what they can do. Unlike some of my collaborators here at Voice Alpha, I do still feel there’s a place for dramatic delivery of poetry, though I think it’s a lot harder to pull off than a relaxed, natural reading.

But I’m not going to start memorizing my poems, for the simple reason that I suffer from what Harold Bloom dubbed the anxiety of influence — from myself. I worry about wearing such deep ruts in my imagination that going off-trail and exploring new terrain would prove increasingly difficult. Eventually, everything I wrote would begin to sound alike. Maybe that will happen anyway, but I don’t want to give it a boost.

Fundamentally, my poems are made to be read. A lot of spoken word is created first and foremost as oral texts, and the focus on communicating with a live audience does sometimes (often?) militate against the kind of ambiguity and allusive subtlety I prize in poetry. I wonder how much we more cerebral, page-oriented poets can really learn from our spoken word brethren. It seems to me we have rather different expectations of our audiences, to begin with. People at traditional poetry readings have to enjoy being to some extent lost, for example, since there’s so much you can’t get out of a poem just hearing it for the first time.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to suggest rules for anyone else here; I’m speaking purely for myself. For example, I’m a pretty self-confident public speaker and rarely experience any kind of stage fright, so I don’t need the help in avoiding stumbles that memorizing might provide. I really admire people with good memories, but alas, I’m not one of them, and every time I write I have to struggle to make sure I’m not committing unconscious plagiarism. I don’t need any more ready-made phrases in my head!

I’d love to hear from people with contrary experiences and impressions. It seems to me there’s a strong possibility that I am quite wrong about all this.


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