Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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‘When I read [my poems] for others, something different happens.’

(This is a recent posting from her own blog by Rose Hunter, reproduced here with permission. PS: We think Rose is too hard on herself – we like her straightforward reading style…)

This morning I did some recordings of my own poems for The Poetry Storehouse. They are here.

That was an interesting thing, firstly to find a time here without heavy construction, trucks cars and dogs, TV or blasting music. Solution: 7 am Sunday morning.

So I did those. I am not a great reader of my own work, is my perception, although I like these recordings better than other recordings that I’ve done. I hate all my old recordings. Well I think I was trying too hard and being too fussy. (See previous posts re discussion of hating everything I’ve ever done, also.) I have a lot of stage fright, and turning on my laptop microphone by myself, in my pajamas, constitutes a stage in my mind. I’ve tried to read my poems in front of people once that I remember (unless I’ve blocked any other demoralising instances out) – that was last year, and it did not go well. There were about eight people there and I felt like I was dying of embarrassment. I vowed never to put myself (or anyone else) through that again. So that’s how that is.

My theory is that this goes back to having problems learning to read as a kid. Well, maybe not learning to read per se, but learning to read anything out loud. My mother home schooled me during that time and it got a bit ugly. I’m not blaming her, I’m just remembering how it felt. In any case I developed a phobia of reading out loud. At school I’d freeze up, turn beet red, mumble so hardly anyone could hear me, mix up all the words anyway, and think: “I am so stupid I am so stupid,” and feel like crying. Which I’d try to wait until later to do, so as not to create (more of) a spectacle. I took beta blockers to get through tutorial presentations at university. They didn’t help much. Anything like that has always been hell for me.

Maybe that’s strange for a poetry writer. Or maybe not; maybe it’s one of the reasons I write poetry. To claim my own voice, at least when I’m on my own, at my desk, writing, and reading them aloud to myself at that point, often. I think my poems as they are on the page are mostly strongly voiced, and much bolder than I am in life. When I read them for others, something different happens. I think. You know. It’s pretty hard to see your own work sometimes, at least for some of us, it’s kind of impossible.

Read the full blog post here.


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of speech impediments and reading poetry out loud

Back in 2011, I wrote in this post:

tim·bre/ˈtambər/
Noun: The character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.

Regional or other accent, the timbre/quality/sound of one’s voice and speech impediments such as lisps are three things pretty much out of control of most who read aloud for an audience. They should really be discounted when judging the quality of a reading.

Pursuing the wonderful poetry of Lucille Clifton over at Very Like A Whale, I found some of her readings online. In this Poetry Foundation offering, she reads her poem Mulberry Bushes for an animated video of the poem, and in this You Tube clip, she reads her poems Aunt Jemima and After Blues for an audience at the Dodge poetry festival. Listeners will note that the timbre of her voice is rather high and somewhat thin, and that she has a pronounced lisp.

Robert Pinsky is another poet with a pronounced lisp, as evidenced by this Poetry Foundation reading of his Poem About People, or this You Tube clip of him reading some of his other poems. He and Clifton also seem to share a penchant for super-careful word enunciation (a related phenomenon, possibly?). The timbre of Pinsky’s voice, with its depth and warm granularity, is more actively attractive than Clifton’s. But it’s not that which makes him a stronger reader than Clifton, in my view. (And by the way, although I have expressed reservations about Pinsky’s enunciation preferences in the past, I do consider him a good reader overall.)

What does make the difference? Hard to say, exactly, but if I had to sum it up, I would say that listening to Clifton, I hear: Here I am, reading my poem for you, whereas with Pinsky, I hear more directly: Here is my poem for you. Hard to pin down exactly why, though. I’d be very interested to hear what others think.

But yes, the speech impediments really are not relevant here.


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‘Close-up poetry’

A nice idea from the Guardian: “A series of readings, in which poets choose a favourite poem from their own work, and recite it to camera.”

There are two readings up so far. I enjoyed the understated comfortable – in both voice and visage – reading in this one by Yorkshire (love that accent..) poet Simon Armitage.

Not so much this one by Jo Shapcott – her voice and face are both trying too hard for my taste.

Look forward to seeing who goes up next – the site has an RSS feed so you can add it to your reader and get them as they are posted.


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sub-zero: timbre & accent cont’d

ok, shoot me, but on the timbre and accent scale, this reading registers pretty much -0 on a scale of 1 to 10. Courtesy of Poem of the Day (and it’s a long one):

Fever 103° by and read by Sylvia Plath

3 min 16 secs

She is totally totally in love with the words, though – you can hear her absolutely relish and adore each one.

So, yes — I don’t know.

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