Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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Poetry sound check

Here’s a useful reminder of ways to think about and effectively use sound when writing poetry. I like the poetry sound check list at the end. Everybody does No. 1. How many do numbers 2 & 3, I wonder?

Poetry Sound Check

Try some of these activities to get a sense of how your poetry sounds.

1. Read your poems aloud as part of the writing and revision process.

2. Ask a friend or family member to read one of your poems aloud to you. Pay attention to where the reader stumbles. Try substituting different words in these places.

3. Record yourself reading your poems. Listen without copies of the poems in front of you, focusing on the sounds.


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stage vs page

From an interview with Andrew Kozma at 32 Poems blog:

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?

I seem them as powerful in different ways. Spoken word and performance poetry have more to do with the skill of the writer as a performer than they do with the power of the poetry itself. A brilliant performer can bring you to tears with your tax return. Because of this, it’s hard to tell from a performance whether the poetry stands on its own as poetry because the voice of the performer gets in the way. In addition, spoken word is crowd-oriented, meaning that your reaction is somewhat determined by the reactions of those around you. It’s a communal experience.

Written poetry, on the other hand, is intensely private. Even if you like the same poets and love the same books as another person, chances are that you are receiving different things from the poems, and that those things are different than what the writer intended. Text is like e-mail in this: the skill of the writer narrows the field of what the reader interprets, but it is still an interpretation.


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poetry out loud website: miPOradio – interview with Didi Menendez

(Didi Menendez is a Cuban-born American artist, publisher and author. Her publications have won the Pushcart Prize and have been recognized by Best American Poetry. She publishes MiPOesias and Poets and Artists and curates the poetry out loud website, miPOradio.)

Tell us about miPOradio.

miPOradio is a project all on its own. It has been around since 2005. I had the help of Birdie Jaworski in setting up the initial podcast’s rss feeds and interviewing some poetry personalities at the time that I was publishing including Ron Androla and David Lehman. She had the sound equipment to do this for me and we went into full production. Later I bought individual sound recording devices and sent them to several poets to record their poems for me. I sent one to Amy King, Ron Silliman, Gabriel Gudding (and a couple of others). Amy King lives in New York so she was able to use the little recording device to interview Daisy Fried, Annie Finch, Ron Padgett and Ron Silliman among others as well as record live readings for me. Most of these readings and interviews are still available for download for free at miporadio.posterous.com. That is where the problem came in. Where to store the audio. Placing large files on a server is not free. Even with the new opportunities today such as Posterous and Soundcloud, there are limitations as to how much free space you are allowed. After that there is a fee of some sort involved. The majority of the audio I have online is kept at Libsyn. There is a limit as to how much I am able to upload a month depending on the package purchased. I originally had a server for miPoradio and had several files uploaded there but I could not afford it any longer and started resorting to Posterous and my monthly quota with Libsyn.

Another problem is at the poet’s end. Not so much with recording devices because there are plenty of recording options already built in to computers, ipods, etc. that were not around in 2005. The problem is the actual recordings. Very few poets are able to deliver a good reading of their own work. Amazing but true. That is my biggest challenge with miPOradio. Not so much the technology (which I still run into problems with when I ask someone to record their work) but the actual outcome of the recording. Maybe some poet’s works should be read and not heard…. I will continue to offer the media of sound with my publications regardless of these obstacles. There is always a way around whatever situation presents itself.

Talk about the response to your different publishing initiatives. Have the sound initiatives had greater or lesser response than the others? Why do you think this is?

Most readers still prefer to read and not hear. To me what is most important is how the work is presented on the page/browser, than if the poet is able to do a good job reading of their work or not. Visuals are more important to me.

Is there a next level to which you plan to take your sound-related projects?

I was planning on leaving all the recordings of miPOradio to PENNSOUND. I already have several recordings there but the mandate on how a file is to be submitted to PENNSOUND became too much work for just one person to handle. I am not a University. I do not have monies dedicated to any of my publications. Everything I do is out of pocket, love, sweat and yes sometimes tears. So I fathom if I die, I will just let PENNSOUND figure out what to do with all of it if they are able to get to it. This is an official statement I just made here.

If you could wave a magic wand and have anything you wanted to fulfill a sound-related project, what would it be?

I don’t believe in magic wands. I believe in hard work and determination. Hopefully if there is such a thing as a magic wand it would allow me the energy and creativity needed to continue providing this venue.

What are we poets not doing with sound technology that we should be doing?

They are not listening to their own poems. The are not reading them out loud. They are not stopping in the periods. They are not pausing between stanzas. They are not reflecting emotion in their words. They are writing poems as big as a mountain and reading as if they were a mouse.

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Readings Didi likes:

Emergent by William Stobb.
You painted your teeth read by Ron Androla.


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Reading advice: reading from outside the poem

Dear Voice Alpha,

I’m so glad I found your site! It’s been especially helpful hearing the different versions of Wonder Woman posted this month, because I knew I’d have a hard time reading it well when I was choosing poems to record.

I’ve attached readings of The Party and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these poems through recording and I hope that comes through. Looking forward to your comments!

Best,

Rachel Brown

(Rachel reads The Party by Nic Sebastian and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom by Donna Vorreyer from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)
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The Party

Voice Alpha responds:

Nic

Dear Rachel – thanks for sending in these readings! I found your reading here very clear – good confident enunciation, good breath control and good pacing. However, I have a fondness for a ‘conversational’ tone of reading, rather than a more self-aware ‘I am reading a poem’ tone and I felt more of the latter than the former in this reading. What was also missing for me here was a sense of your own emotional engagement with the poem – I heard you reading the words aloud without feeling that you were in the poem’s skin and communicating the poem to me. The delivery felt somewhat monotone to me, and this was probably a contributing factor.

Kristin

Dear Rachel – I thought the tone of your voice was lovely: no cracking, no squeaking, no breathlessness. Very even. Perhaps too even. I noticed that you never changed your delivery much: every word comes out exactly the same as every other word. Perhaps this decision was a conscious one on your part, tied to the theme of the poem. But in case it’s not, I thought I’d point it out.

I heard the slightest difference in delivery when you said these words: cinnamon, bergamot, Istanbul, and citrus. I could make the argument that these words are some of the most evocative (but someone who is not into cooking and scent, as I am, might choose other words). If you were to continue to work on this poem, these might be the words that are most evocative for you, evidenced by the slight shift in your voice.

Dave

Dear Rachel – Kristin is kind to suggest that the lack of inflection might have been intentional. Even if it was, I’m afraid I don’t care for it. I feel you need to slow down and think about what the poem is saying — to get inside it, as Nic says. This isn’t a terrible reading, and one can certainly hear the poem well enough to appreciate it, but it sounds like the way one might read a poem if one were encountering it for the first time. I suspect that after 15 or 20 more takes, you’d get pretty good at it.

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Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom

Voice Alpha responds:

Nic

Dear Rachel – I listened to your reading of The Party before I listened to this reading and noticed a definite difference between the two. This time it felt much more to me that you were inside the poem, feeling it, and communicating it to me. I’m wondering if that might be because you felt more confident in your understanding of the poet’s intent in this piece – you were definitely much more emotionally convincing. I find that when I’m not sure of a poet’s intent, voicing the piece several times helps build an emotional narrative that is cohesive and makes sense to me. The emotional narrative your voice builds for you doesn’t have to match the poet’s intent exactly (and no reader can do that any way) – but it has to be convincing to you, because if it’s not, your voice will betray you.

Kristin

I, too, noticed a difference between the two readings. I love the way you emphasize these phrases and words: “Hurl the heft,” “gutteral punch,” “whip crack,” and “honey.” When you said “hurl the heft,” your voice lifted; with “gutteral punch,” your voice went into a staccato punch of emphasis. Likewise, “whip crack” was delivered with a verbal similarity to the line, while you said the word “honey” with a long languidness, very much like honey.

Well done!

Dave

I did listen to this one first, and wasn’t completely satisfied with it, thinking it sounded as if you were trying too hard in spots. After listening to The Party, though, and three more times to this one, I tend to feel this succeeds where the other fails: expression slightly mis-fired is still a vast improvement over expressionlessness. I’m thinking the latter is your default style, and that here you were really studying how to place emphasis, as Kristin’s comment details. Keep doing what you’re doing here and you’ll be rocking the mike in no time.

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Rachel Brown recently graduated with a BA in mathematics and nine houseplants. You can read some of her poems here.

Previous Dear Voice Alpha responses.


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BAP poetry out loud posts

I blogged at the Best American Poetry blog Feb 27 thru March 5 and most posts were ‘poetry out loud’ posts. Just getting all the links into the record here:

Poetry out loud: Must-visit websites
Poetry out loud: Group reading
Poetry out loud: Page vs stage
Poetry out loud: Voice as organ of investigation
Poetry out loud: Audio chapbooks & other methods of poetry delivery
Poetry out loud: Singing poetry


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poetry out loud website: How Pedestrian

(This is one of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Katherine Leyton, founder of the online audio-video poetry journal, How Pedestrian.)

What made you start How Pedestrian?

I had been frustrated for years by the common misperception that poetry is boring, pretentious and/or simply beyond the average person’s understanding. My relationship with poetry has always been defined by pleasure – pure, spontaneous, unrestrained pleasure – and it has the potential to give each and every individual this. As I say over and over again in the project’s manifesto, I believe poetry should first and foremost interact with the reader on a gut level. No formal education required. I wanted more people to realize this, and I wanted, somewhat selfishly perhaps, to demand a wider audience for poetry.

Why did you settle on the current format?

The visual element of the project, of course, was the main idea. I wanted to bring poetry to people in pubs and streets and taxis around Toronto, capture it on video and post it online. However, the visual aspect of a poem itself is also very important, and I think to fully absorb a poem you need to actually read it; this is why I decided to post the work next to the video. I really wanted the viewer be able to read along.

I also thought it was essential to provide a biography of the poet, not only out of respect for him or her, but also because I believe it gives the viewer important context and, hopefully, inspires them to explore the poem or poet further.

What has the response been like?

The response has been wonderful! The enthusiasm with which pedestrians agree to read for me is astonishing. I would say that out of every ten people I ask to read a poem, nine say yes. When I started, I never expected a 90% response rate, which speaks of my own misperceptions about the way the Canadian public views poetry. People are willing and curious, they just might not be inspired to seek it out on their own – they need a push. Many of my readers want to discuss the poem or poet with me after they read, and almost all are fascinated by the project. Of course, certain contexts and/or groups of people are not as easy; the day I filmed the video for Haiku and High Finance week in the financial district, for example, I probably only had about a 40 percent success rate. Everyone was simply too busy. Nevertheless, getting hurried business types to read poetry during lunch hour was an immensely rewarding experience.

What are your main challenges?

Honestly—money and time. Working a full-time job and running this is exhausting, and the quality of the project suffers for it. Between selecting poetry, choosing a location, filming, researching and writing biographies, editing video, moderating comments, corresponding with contributors and doing promotion, I simply can’t do everything as well as I would like to. I have a number of incredible occasional volunteers, but no one that contributes in a regular, scheduled way. I also need better equipment – an external microphone, for example, and a camcorder light for shooting at night, but I literally just don’t have the extra cash to invest in such items.

What’s fun about it?

Almost everything, but above all else, the process of actually going out and filming people reading. This aspect is by far the most rewarding; I am continuously exploring wonderful new places and activities around Toronto for the project, while simultaneously meeting incredible people along the way. Among many others, I’ve had a priest, a Caribana queen and a man with a parrot on his shoulder read for the site, all in amazing locations. I often have those ‘aha’ moments while I’m out filming where I realize how much I love this city, and the people in it, and how grateful I am to be running a project that constantly reminds me of this.

Describe the hardware and software you use.

I use a Canon FS200 video camera for filming and Final Cut Pro 7 for editing.

Is there a next level to which you hope to take ‘How Pedestrian’?

Although I never want to lose the rough charm of the current HP videos, I do hope to eventually improve their quality, both through the use of a better camera and by bettering my video editing skills. I’m also planning to purchase an external microphone so that sound quality improves. Most importantly, I’d like to expand the number of contributors we have filming videos of pedestrians reading in various locations around the world. We’ve already had videos from India, Italy, Scotland, and the US, and I’d love to continue reaching more places and more people. In sum, How Pedestrian wants to take over the world.

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

Do what feels right for you. The poem is yours now, even if you didn’t write it. Beyond that, just read loud and slow. Remembering to breathe is important.

What are your thoughts in general on the current state of the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience, in Canada and/or elsewhere?

I would say I generally find traditional poetry readings boring. In my opinion, the majority of your run-of-the-mill readings simply don’t add any value to the actual work, and I think that’s a key thing to consider when it comes to reading aloud for an audience. You need to add an extra element.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t feel qualified to make a general statment on the art of reading poetry alound in Toronto – I haven’t explored the scene enough. The Toronto Poetry Slam at the Drake Underground is an incredible event, and demonstrates just how dynamic and exciting poetry can be, but it’s a very specific type of poetry – it’s Spoken Word. I think there are a lot more ways we could make traditional poetry readings more entertaining. When I was studying in Edinburgh a few years ago, for example, there was a fantastic monthly poetry event called The Golden Hour; it involved musicians, poets, short story writers and artists all performing in one night. The atmosphere was always lively and light-hearted and fueled by wine. The audience didn’t take themselves seriously, and neither did the performers. Indeed, the audience performed as much as the performers did. I think Canada needs more of these – unrestrained, unscripted, anything-goes poetry events.

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Katherine Leyton gets paid to write about porn & lust every weekday from 10 to 6. At night, she writes poetry. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Malahat Review, The Feathertale Review and Room. She is also the founder of How Pedestrian.

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More interviews in this series.


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Louder than a Bomb: A Teen Word Explosion

Right now in Chicago, teen poets are leaving shrapnel all over city stages in the Young Chicago Authors’ annual Louder Than A Bomb Poetry Competition. (Click the link to read some of the history and background of the event.) This yearly gathering of teen poets is an exhilarating ride into the fine minds of teens who use poetry as a release valve, spitting their steam as the audience listens to their words that illustrate everything from the apathy of affluence to the dignity of struggle.

I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge at preliminary Bout 16 on Sunday, February 26. (There are so many participants now that, on this day, as with most prelim days, there were two stages each running three separate prelims. This day, both stages happened to be at Columbia College. ) Each poet from each of the four-person teams performed individually and then the teams shared collaborative poems. As in traditional slam scoring, the judges scored on a scale from 1-10 with the highest and lowest scores being thrown out.  But it isn’t the slam competition format that makes Louder Than A Bomb special. It’s the atmosphere.

Host Tim Stafford, a Def Jam poet, middle school teacher (shout out for the middle school teachers!) and member of the performance duo Death from Below, hosted the day with humor and skill, displaying a pure and genuine delight in these young writers. He reminded the teams that this event was not only about words, but also about community, and he encouraged the competitors to cheer on and support one another. (Which they did.) Organizer Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan was not only the scorekeeper, but made sure to have the entire audience repeat her mantra of points: “The points aren’t the point; the point is the poetry” before announcing the results. Founder Kevin Coval was also on hand at this location, doing a little bit of everything, but most importantly, providing his approval and appreciation of the poets through his quiet, calming presence and a nod or shake of the head to show that a line had hit home.

And the poets themselves? Sixteen brave and honest kids who, having found a home in the house of words, threw open the windows and doors to invite the rest of the world inside. They performed with passion and courage – some read from their pages and many memorized their pieces, but all had obviously rehearsed their readings and their styles were as varied as their topics. Some swept the audience up in storyteller mode. Some used a hip-hop delivery that was infectious. Some rattled out their rage like machine guns, and others reached out to the audience like a trusted friend. Were they nervous? Sure. But adult poets who are trying to improve their reading of their own work could have learned much about engaging an audience by watching these kids. I know that I did.

After my judging bout, I spent some time reflecting as I worked the ticket table and continued to listen through the door. I thought about the phrasing and the stage presence and the camaraderie.  But what kept ringing in my brain long after was a phrase that the audience used as each poet’s scores were revealed. When the audience felt the judges had been too harsh, they yelled, “Listen to the poem.”  What better advice could we give?

To listen to some past finalists, visit Chicago station WBEZ online. And if you are in the Chicago vicinity, try to make it to a semi-final or final bout. The competition ends on March 12. And if you miss it? Find a high school or a youth arts center. Find out if it has a poetry group. And listen to the poem.


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Two Poem Warnings and the Potential of a Program

When I was at the Miami Book Fair back in November of 2010, I saw Susan Rich do something that I’ve never seen at a poetry reading.  I had heard tell of interesting give-aways at her readings, so I was hoping for lavender scented chocolates, but I’ve since decided that what she actually did was far more valuable.  She gave us the two poem warning.

Shortly before the end of her reading, she told us that we were two poems away from the end.  Later I thought it remarkable that fewer poets do that.  I would argue that more of us should.

A two (or 3 or 4) poem warning focuses the mind.  The warning acts as a shepherd, herding us all back to attention.  It’s so easy for our attention to wander, especially as we get deep into the reading.  The two poem warning calls us back.  

Lately, I’ve wondered if we should go even further with our poetry readings, in terms of providing signposts for the audience.  I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t arrive with a program or a bulletin, much as we would get at a concert or recital–or performances of many kinds of art.

My mother is a classically trained musician, so I’ve had the chance to go to many concerts.  I’ve always found the program invaluable.  It lets me know where we are and where we’re going.  It gives me background information.  I can stash it away as a souvenir, to provide happy memories later.  Why don’t poets provide programs?

There are some drawbacks, of course.  Even as I write this, I hear the howls of protest from my environmentalist friends.  We can take some steps to mitigate the impact (like using recycled paper, planting seedlings), but handing out paper programs does mean that some trees will die.

Then there’s the issue of spontaneity.  Handing out a program means that we have lost some chance to deviate from the plan.  I know that some poets have several different readings in their heads, so that they can choose poems and go in directions as they sense audience response. 

Of course, audiences might be willing to forgive a bit of spontaneity, especially if properly introduced:  “This poem reminds me of a poem I wrote earlier, and I just can’t resist giving you this extra poem.”  If we deviate too much, it defeats the purpose of having a program, of course, but like the two poem warning, like the program, a deviation calls the audience back to attention.

The most important reason to have a program is the potential to gain new audience members, and this reason trumps the environmental concerns or the desire for spontaneity.  Often, we assume that we’ll be reading only for poetry fans, but unfortunately, that assumption means we’ll forget about all the others in the room who aren’t already fans, who can use some guidance.

Who might these people be?  The students who come for extra credit, the spouses (or significant others) and children of the poetry fan who drug them all there, the curious friends of the poetry fan, the people who just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Many people, even the ones who come to poetry readings, feel that poetry is a tough art form to appreciate; a program or bulletin would help them find their way.  A program gives us a place to put background information, if that’s important–then we don’t have to bog down our readings with lengthy explanations.  If we’re reading from an assortment of our books, the program can serve as a playlist; then later, perhaps an audience member will say, “I really loved that poem about modern big, bad wolves.  I’d love to buy the book that poem came from”–and there’s the program, serving as handy reference.  A program gives us a chance to advertise our upcoming readings and publications.  We might even promote other people.

A program gives people a souvenir, something to remember us by.  A program might serve as a prompt, helping people to remember to support the world of poetry, whether by attending more readings, buying more books, or simply by reminding people of what a wonderful reading they enjoyed–thus encouraging them to go to more readings. 

A program offers all sorts of potential.  We shouldn’t overlook the possibilities.

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