Voice Alpha

about reading poetry aloud for an audience


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‘I am a sound geek, plain and simple’

We are very pleased to feature the following guest post by K.R. Copeland, a Pushcart nominated poet, editor and freelance creative. She describes herself as a left of irreverent fan of humor, horror, snark, pop culture, art, nature and all things audible. She even adores her boyfriend’s snoring. She recently established the Facebook group Audio Files as a venue for sharing noteworthy sounds and audio projects.

I am a sound geek, plain and simple. Always have been, always will be. Ever since receiving my first Fisher-Price Child’s Phonograph, back in the 1970’s, I’ve been a hopeless audiophile.
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I fondly recall listening to children’s songs and nursery rhymes for hours on end, memorizing, imitating, and wailing away, much to my parents’ chagrin. When I was about 12, I upgraded to a cabinet stereo/phonograph, not entirely unlike this one:
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Music was an integral part of my existence; an everyday escape, a panacea. I would listen to the lyrics and the voices and my imagination would run wild. Something inside me ignited. And then, I discovered poetry. At that time, there was not much in the way of spoken word recordings, or, at least not to my knowledge, but I quickly recognized the familiar cadence when reading the rhymesters aloud, and again, I was in love. Smitten with the musicality of language!

The next seemingly obvious step in my sound-driven evolution came by way of:
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Yes! Now the sophomoric poetry and lyrics I was beginning to write could be endured by all (within earshot). I mean, my parents did not have to be in the same room, or even on the same level of the house, to hear what I had to offer, thanks to the amplification of good old Mr. Microphone!

I studied poetry and literature throughout my school career, and continued writing and honing my craft. My first publication credit came by way of a local newspaper, which published a little Valentine’s ditty I’d written. I was 22. Since then I have published umpteen poems in text form, and produced a couple chapbooks to boot.

More recently I decided to delve into the great wide world of audio poetry, which the internet makes available in grandiose doses. I was incredibly excited to see/hear what people were doing with sound poetry, especially when coupled with music. Again, I branched out. Purchased a Zoom H1 handheld recorder, as recommended by an audio specialist:
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This lower-end starter microphone is compact, easy to use and allows for storage and upload of both MP3 and WAV files. The sound quality and noise reduction, in addition to simplicity of use make this a great tool for neophytes like me. Still, I needed more boost. A friend suggested Audacity, a free online, professional sound editing system.
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The Audacity program allows for upload of multiple tracks, which you can edit, amplify, mix, match and remaster, all from the comfort of your own living quarters. With the help of these two products, I have successfully created multiple musical poetry tracks. Here is an example (using free audio hosting at SoundCloud):

As I broaden my horizons, I find myself wanting to know more about the ins-and-outs of quality recording. This brings us to present day. I have created an audio group on Facebook called, Audio Files, a friendly, supportive community for others like me, to share their recorded work, the works of others, their trials and errors, and any and all information on the subject of sound. All are welcome to come hear, share and be merry, one audio file at a time.


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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.

Form
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.

Context
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.

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