Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


Take Two: Alternate Reading Formats

(Guest post by Rachel Bunting)

About two weeks ago, I had great fun giving a reading.

Let me explain that statement and why it’s a strange one. I don’t like to give readings. It creates a sense of anxiety in me: Are these the right poems? Am I forgetting to breathe? Is the audience bored? Would I be able to tell? Usually I’m asking myself all these questions while I’m still reading aloud, which means I’m not really present in the moment, not really living the poem as it’s coming out of my mouth. I often sit down at the end of a reading and think, “Oh. Did I just do that?” I dislike that sense of losing time, of being outside it.

But two weeks ago I was invited to read, along with my friend and fellow poet Anna Evans, at the public library in Princeton, NJ. We planned as usual: each prepared for a 20 minute set, choosing our own poems with no discussion. We flipped a coin upon arriving – I would read first. And then that plan fell apart.

We were waiting on a mutual friend’s arrival. About 5 minutes after the reading was due to start, his name appeared on the caller ID of my cell phone: “I’m about 15 minutes out, Rach, can you delay the reading at all?” No, of course we couldn’t. I mentioned to Anna that he was likely going to miss my entire reading (or most of it), and her face lit up. “I have an idea,” she said. And so we decided, in that moment, to alternate. This threw the host for a bit of a loop, but he was gracious and accommodating, introducing us at the same time. I started with two poems, then Anna followed with two of hers, and so on, back and forth, for 40 minutes. We closed with 3 poems each, and then settled in for the open mic.

While the idea of alternating readers is not entirely new (see: this oddly jerky but still relevant video of BJ Ward & Joe Weil doing just that), it’s still not exactly common. I think it worked well for us, and for the audience, for a few reasons.

Anna is mostly known as a formal poet, working a great deal of the time in meter now. She has written more sonnets than I can count, along with her fair share of sestinas, villanelles, rondeaus, triolets, and even a Chant Royal. She writes what we call “guts and knuckles poetry,” the kind of writing that makes you feel something in your stomach, poems that are image-driven, full of the grit that finds us every day, that follows us and sticks between our teeth. On the other hand, I am comfortably situated in the world of narrative free verse, having discovered fairly early on that if I write a sonnet, I need Anna to “fix it” for me before I can show it anywhere else.

Anna is a good reader, with a strong voice full of expression. She avoids the trap of sing-songy readings but even so, she knows to break up her readings with the occasional free verse piece. In alternating our poems, we were able to balance the measured voice of meter against the weight of free verse. This gave Anna the freedom to read almost exclusively from her formal catalog, which is where her voice is strongest these days. And it provided the audience with enough variation that they didn’t tune out when they heard her say “And this is another sonnet…” The audience was engaged through the entire reading.

I think this was pretty important for the reading, as it gave us an opportunity to play off one another. And this is where I really felt the reading was good for me: instead of losing time while wondering if I was engaging enough, I was listening to Anna, and trying to shift the order of my poems to follow off something she’d just said or a tone she’d set. She did the same, and there were two particularly successful transitions: in the first, I read a poem about a loved one’s car accident, a poem that celebrates survival, along with the mundane moments that we don’t acknowledge until we are challenged by some traumatic event; Anna followed on that with a car accident poem of her own, in which she examines guilt, anger and accountability in the wake of a death. Later she shared a beautiful and difficult philosophical meditation that focused on a few French phrases after I read my love letter to a French chef. Our poems presented somewhat opposing, but balanced, views of similar situations, and it was a nice complement.

Considering that we had only about 30 seconds to prepare our sets after deciding to alternate, the transitions were impressive. This is due in part, I’m sure, to our long-standing friendship – we’ve been close friends for about 11 years, and have learned to anticipate each other’s movements and alter our courses as necessary. So imagine the reading we could have planned, given enough notice. As it was, several members of the audience commented on how fun it was that we’d been able to coordinate our readings in this way.

This was especially exciting for me, as I see it as the closest poets can come to the jam sessions that musicians can have: the eye contact, the minute body language that communicates a shift in key, a new chord progression. I felt something like that with Anna at the library, and it was a new, challenging and rewarding energy from which to feed.

Presence / Energy
Listening to the same poet for 30 minutes, no matter how interesting, can be a little tiresome. Alternating poems gave the audience a chance to shift focus and be receptive to new energy. They didn’t have a chance to get bored to tears before the next one of us was up. And fortunately, Anna and I have very different energies: she tends toward a more serious, dramatic presence, while I am the one cracking corny jokes that only the true nerds in the audience respond to.

This is my new favorite way to read. Although I’d like an opportunity to plan a reading like this with Anna, I enjoyed the spontaneity, the shift in energy, and the challenge to stay focused and relevant. And I think the audience enjoyed how much we were enjoying it, too.

Rachel Bunting lives and writes in Southern New Jersey, between the Pine Barrens and the Delaware River. Her poems can be found in Muzzle Magazine, Weave Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, and forthcoming in PANK. She is currently at work on her first full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled A Door Opens at Night. Visit her website here.

1 Comment

Pecan Pie and Ice Cream: Reading Poetry, Reading Prose

Susan Rich has a great post about reading prose out loud for an audience, and she compares it to reading poetry.  Want to know which one is more like pecan pie and which is more like ice cream?  Go read her post to find out.  Along the way, she’ll give you tips about how to prepare for a prose reading and things you should think about (like water and the interesting questions you might get).


“Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings”

Missed this anti-reading/pro-recitation post when it came out in April at the Contemporary Poetry Review:

…reading your verse has an impact in terms of the performance of your poems before a live audience, and that impact is negative. The poet reciting his verse can make use of the actor’s craft—not least of which are gesture and expressiveness—to perform the poem dramatically. By comparison, the poet reading his verse is a humble creature in front of an audience: eyes down on the page, body behind a lectern, mouth in front of a microphone. The poet-reader presents his audience with nothing in terms of his presence (or “visual impact”) but only as a disembodied voice to be heard—much like a school teacher’s lecture. Therein lies a fatal flaw: the audience has come, not to be taught, but entertained. This kind of “poetry reading” is thus an absurdity: the non-performance of verse by a poet in front of a live audience. The poet who can only read his work should, ipso facto, not be in front of an audience, ever.

This week, the folks at Commercial Poetry take up the refrain in this post.


The Poet as Cover Band

Once upon a time, I would have sneered at any musician who covered another person’s song.  I was a do-it-yourself teen.  If you couldn’t write your own songs, you should get out of the business!

Once I would have told you that I felt the same way about poets reading poems by somebody else.  I would have said it was OK if it was some kind of festival, celebrating a long, dead poet–but in a reading of your own?  People came to hear your poems, not somebody else’s.

Lately, I’ve had some occasion to rethink my rigid position.

For many years now, my parents have been ushers at Wolf Trap, that wonderful national park in Northern Virginia that happens to be an amazing performance venue.  We came to visit last summer, and since our plane came late, they planned to pick us up on their way to their ushering duties.  They generously bought us tickets to the show.  I was dubious.

We saw the show Rain, which is described as a tribute to the Beatles.  I don’t quite know how to explain this experience. The 4 musicians impersonate the Beatles at various points in their careers. There’s also a multi-media show. It was amazing. During parts of the show, we all sang. There I was, in a fabulous national park, as the full moon lit up the night sky, and our voices rose. I expect that when I’m 95 years old and slightly confused, I’ll remember seeing the Beatles, but it will have been this event.

If I had gone with my original snooty position, I’d have missed this extravaganza.  What a shame that would have been.

I think about all the great poetry readings I’ve attended or been part of.  Once I was asked to read 5 love poems, and only 2 could be mine.  I liked combining my work with the work of poets I admired.  It made the reading richer.

As I think about it, that’s what I’ve been doing when I teach poetry, except I rarely use my own work.  But putting together a class session can be somewhat like creating a set list.  I’m looking for poems that play well together, poems that intersect in interesting ways.

So why not have the work of others be part of my set list when I do readings of my own work?

Reading the work of others expands my options.  But including other poems also does so much more than that.  It roots my poems in the wider community.  It might also root them historically, if I choose older poems.  And it helps share the poetry wealth. 

When I do a reading, I’m not there simply to sell books, although I never complain when that happens.  I’m there to win over readers.  The health of poetry as an art form depends on having people to love poetry, people who will read poetry, people who will choose poetry over all the other options that they have.

If an audience member ultimately decides they don’t love my poems, but they leave wildly interested in discovering more about the other poets I include, that’s fine with me.  Sure, I want to be loved best in all the world.  But if it can’t be me, let it be some other poet–let me win converts to poetry!

Leave a comment

stage vs page (cont’d)

Serena Agusto Cox has an ongoing interview series at the 32 poems blog, in which she asks different poets the same set of questions. We’re linking here (part 2 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question, which asks: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”

Charles Jensen
I don’t like the limiting writing into discrete genres that are then put into opposition to each other. I think writing is most effective, most meaningful, when it cribs from many genres and traditions at once.

Hope Snyder
I believe that the power of a poem begins with the poem on the page. The poem has to work on the page before it works on the stage. That said, I also think that reading a poem in front of an audience is a crucial experience for both poet and public. It is important for the poet, if she chooses to read her own work, to read as well as possible. I believe poetry and theater go well together.

Leslie Jenike
Well, I love theatre (see above). When I was younger, there seemed to me to be very little difference between theatre and poetry, and I still feel that way. If you listen to a Beckett or Mamet script, for example, you’re hearing language shaped to emphasize repeated rhythms and patterns, right? So naturally I love poetry “for performance” in all its guises. But theatre is a collaborative art, while writing shorter lyrics meant primarily for the page seems to me to be a solitary activity. Both satisfy competing desires for introspection and extroversion, as I imagine they do for a lot of writers, and writers are a part of humanity—or at least they’d like to think they are.

Kim Bridgford
I think we are at a pivotal time in poetry, with spoken word/hip hop communities affecting, for lack of a better word, more “literary” communities, and vice versa. In fact, at West Chester this year, I am working to have more of a dialogue between these communities. The new Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Adam DuBois, for example, brings performance to the page. By the same token, I think some poets do not think enough about performance, and so miss an opportunity to make poetry more vital and electric for an audience.

Temple Cone
I’ve been present at some spoken word performances that were full of energy and proved to be both entertaining and artistically satisfying. But performances are really of the moment; I don’t find they translate well to film, though oddly enough I think that sound recordings of readings can have real force (the way Alan Lomax’s recordings of Southern music from the 1940s and 50s have the power to blow away contemporary recordings with their authenticity and presence). But I believe the written word lasts longer, even if it languishes on a shelf in a used bookstore, and that it generates a dialogue between reader and writer that simply can’t be had in a live reading. And one need only read Shakespeare’s Sonnets to see that the written word is not dead, but alive and awhirl, a sort of quantum cloud of meaning awaiting a moment of attention to fix its meaning before it swirls back up again.

Jehanne Dubrow
For me, written poetry has the emotional force expected of spoken word and performance poetry, while also having a life on the page.

Leave a comment

page vs stage (cont’d)

Serena Agusto Cox has an ongoing interview series at the 32 poems blog, in which she asks different poets the same set of questions. We’re linking here (part 1 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question which asks, very Voice Alpha-ishly: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”

Joseph Milford
Obviously, when we hear the poems or see them “performed”, they become altered, and many times more powerful, vehicles. To see the shape of the poet’s mouth, the body posture, the diaphragm expand, the throat constrict, etc.—this is an incredible organic experience all leading to the convocation of voice. It’s a great sharing. I do think that in these moments, which at their greatest extreme could border on shamanistic, we may find ways to temper our human nature, to tune it into a more harmonious instrument, maybe. Although, I do hear my inner skeptic creeping in, so I will stop here.

Matthew Thorburn
I think the most powerful poems are those that really work in both mediums – as words arranged on a page and as words spoken or read aloud. As a reader/listener, I want both! After reading someone’s poems in a book or journal, I want to hear her or him read them. It almost always gives the poems an extra depth. I love to hear poems in the poet’s own voice – to see where she puts the stress, where she pauses, and so forth.

Andrew Kozma
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.

M.E. Silverman
I have never found spoken word to be enjoyable outside of the environment they are being performed in, usually a bar or coffee shop. When I was in Philadelphia, I went to a couple of these back in the 90s, but have not followed the movement since. As far as “power” goes, it depends on the meaning of such an abstract word. What is power to a garbage employee working 9 to 5 or to a white collar exec? I do not think that writing can equalize anything in today’s age and while it had a powerful force at one time, even influencing politics, I think it has fallen into the folds of the Ivory Tower. Those in college, whether a student or teacher, are probably the most exposed to words, to language, and thus, poetry is unable to spread its wings beyond that.

Terri Witek
I love ephemeral creations, and as I have been working with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes since 2005, have become more and more enamored of doing things that disappear—words and images (he uses photographs and video), sound pieces. We did some ipod voice pieces for an installation and I loved that…watching people lean into the rooms to catch fragments, etc. Of course I still love words on the page. But I really like staging “events” with him where we switch out—it feels unexpected, even when I know what’s going to happen, as I do now with the day you left, a 50-minute piece we’ve done several times.

Jeffrey Bahr
I was never all that enamored of spoken verse. I supposed I’d rather hear a poem in my head with my own cadence and emphases. There are exceptions I can think of, however. I love hearing Plath readings of her own work.


Poets Performing on Radio Programs

Jeannine Hall Gailey has posted a great interview with poet and radio producer Elizabeth Austen.  They talk about all sorts of important topics, like how to prepare for a radio interview and how to read your poems on the air.

This interview is full of all sorts of great tips, like to keep the poems for a radio interview shorter than ones you might read for a live literary event.  Keep them accessible too:  “remember that radio listeners are almost surely multi-tasking.”

Austen even gives great advice for those of us who don’t have a radio interview lined up, but would like to know how to go about arranging one or two:  “The important thing is to remember that producers are looking for content that fits their programming needs. If you do a little work up front, you can write your email in such a way that you show how you are a good fit with their program. Make it easy for them by keeping your correspondence brief and professional—you know, the same way you’d approach the editor of a journal.”

Gailey asks the right questions, and Austen generously shares her wealth of knowledge–this interview is a true gift!


Creating a Set List If You’ve Got More than One Book

Long ago, I went to a reading by the poet Yusef Komunyakaa at Florida International University.  He had all his books with him.  On the way home, I expressed my disappointment, because the bulk of his reading had come from a book that wasn’t my favorite.

My spouse, who approaches poetry readings as an appreciative observer not a fervent acolyte, said, “Of course he did.  He got more applause each time he read from that book, and eventually switched to reading poems only from that book.”

I marveled at Komunyakaa’s ability to make that switch, but later, I realized that he probably has the experience that makes it possible.  Some days, the process reminds me of those “choose your own adventure” books that my sister and I loved long ago (if Joe opens the door, turn to page 23; if Joe goes back to the space capsule, turn to page 31):  if audience claps politely, switch to this book; if audience applauds wildly, go to next poem from that volume.

This process likely gets more and more complicated as poets have more books to promote.  It’s easy to create a set list if you only have one book that you’re hoping to help your audience love (see this post for my thoughts on the set list).  It’s harder to know what to do if you’ve got several books.

Here again, we can turn to musicians for help.  Several weeks ago, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I heard a great interview with Ben Harper (go here to listen, here to read).  He talks about performing, and much of what he says could be applicable to those of us who read our poems too.  He says a set, which for him is 2 or 2 1/2 hours, “represents 20 to 25 songs. So, if you have a 25-song set, half of those have to be what got you there. So, material from the past – that’s 12 songs; five songs have to be just me and a guitar, ’cause there’s plenty of people who only want to hear that too – so, that’s 17 songs. So, that leaves me with exactly eight songs that can be covers and more up-to-date material.”

I realize that most of us don’t have the kind of popularity that ensures our audience will sit enraptured for 2 hours or more.  But his guidelines still seem applicable with a ratio that could work for most of us:  half the poems should be from your past, only a few can be experimental, which leaves you with a little over a third of your time left for new work. 

So, with this ratio in mind, if you’ve got a new book out in addition to an older book or two, roughly one third of your reading should be from the new book.  But like musicians, it’s not wise to abandon our old work completely.  After all, the older poems are likely the work that brought audiences to our current readings.  And this set list still gives us a chance to see how audiences react to works in progress, so that we can revise before we publish.

I have more than an academic interest in this subject.  I have two chapbooks.  Whistling Past the Graveyard has been out since 2004.  My new chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, will be published in July.  I have a reading on August 4 at the Books and Books location in the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale (it starts at 6:30—if you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there).  So, let’s see how this ratio would work in a real life setting.

I’ll share the stage with 2 other poets, which means I’ll have 15 minutes, which for me is about 8 poems.    Here’s what I’m planning.  I’ll read the most popular of my poems, “Heaven on Earth,” first; it appears in my first chapbook.  I’ll read one more poem from my first chapbook, and then a poem that appears in both.  Then I’ll read 3 poems from my new chapbook, and I’ll close with one poem from each.

Those of you with math acumen will note that I haven’t stuck to the ratio I recommended.  I’d rather read published work than poems that I’m still revising, so my ratio turns out to be more 50-50, in terms of a balance of old and new.

Hopefully, I’ll choose the poems that leave the audience inspired–happy to be reminded that of what they liked in the first chapbook, and excited to explore the new chapbook.


Next week:  what can poets learn from cover bands?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers