Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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How to create a downloadable album of poetry

“For the moment the best way to produce a multi-media presentation of your poetry might be something very familiar: the downloadable album.” Read about it here.

From Michael Myshack’s blog Poetry and other sounds, which covers the history, current usage, and techniques of recording poetry with music and other sounds.

For an interview in which Michael talks about the blog and its purpose, go here.


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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.
kc1
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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Getting started with recording audio

Over at The Poetry Storehouse, there are two ways to submit. You can submit your own poems, or you can submit your readings of others’ poems collected at the Storehouse.

Here are some basic resources for those who may not yet have ventured into the field of audio recording but would like to. Putting together a basic set-up is simple and doesn’t require any expenditure. All you need is:

Software

- Our top recommendation for ease of use and great FAQ support is Audacity, a free, open source software for recording and editing sounds, which works equally well for Mac and Windows.

- Mac users onlyGarageband is a powerful recording and editing tool that comes with your Mac. Getting started with Garageband is a handy quick-start guide.

Hardware

- Start with your computer’s in-built microphone, which in most cases can produce perfectly acceptable audio recordings if you set up your environment with care.

- If you want to upgrade your recording quality, there are any number of good USB microphones on the market, which you just plug straight into your computer. There is a good set of choices at this link, ranging in price from $40.00 to $100. I use the Blue Microphones Snowball model and swear by it.

Recording

- A Newbie Guide to Recording

- Basic advice on reading for a recording

- Common recording issues and fixes

- 4 Simple Tips for Recording High-Quality Audio

Editing

- Really basic audio editing

- Basic audio editing

- Audio Post-Production Techniques for Spoken Word


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Reading poetry with video: some first impressions

In early August I was able to attend my first festival devoted to videopoetry, the 2013 Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar, Scotland. One of the high points of the weekend-long event was a live reading by classicist and poet Henry Stead of London Poetry Systems, a recitation of his translation of Catullus’ long poem (#63), “Attis,” in front of a screen onto which a film was projected. It was essentially a karaoke version of a videopoem, with the soundscape included but no words. As fellow audience member Graham Barnes put it,

The compelling Galliambic metre of the poem and Henry’s (1960s) ‘beat poets’ delivery style combined with the haunting soundscapes and film images representing scenes from the poem made for a powerful and memorable, multi-modal performance.

Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, the lover of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who in keeping with many members of the Cybele cult castrated himself as an act of piety and then lived out his life in regret and tormented exile.

Stead’s semi-musical recitation style was fairly understated — a good choice to balance the high drama of the poem. Because he was reciting rather than reading, he could stare out into the distance, and his clean-shaven white face became part of the large screen onto which the film was projected, a startling and effective technique for this ancient text about divine possession, madness and transformation. This video, made three years earlier, doesn’t quite capture that effect (and the video behind him is inevitably hard to make out):

I’d given readings with videopoetry interludes, which had always gone over well, but Henry Stead’s “Attis” made me realize I could take things to another level. This past Wednesday, I got my opportunity with a reading in a local bookstore-cafe, the inaugural event in a monthly poetry reading series organized and emceed by Jason Crane. (Thanks to Jason for the photos that follow.) As featured reader, I had 25 minutes, and the focus was to be on my new chapbook of poems about banjos.

For the month preceding the reading, I’d been beavering away making videopoems using texts from the book. As poetry films go, they are fairly unsophisticated because I lack either the software or the know-how to make “real” films, but fortunately we are living in the golden age of remix, and there are great troves of public-domain films and videos on the web that one can steal from, as well as free and Creative Commons-licensed sound and music one can borrow. Since the poems all reference or are concerned with banjos to some degree, musical videopoems seem like the logical next step beyond the print edition, and some of the imagery I found allows me to expand on things that are only suggested in the text with additional, visual metaphors, such as the round, white dome of Monticello suggesting something more about the “jars” in a poem called “How Jefferson Heard Banjar.” The point is that I was making these videos anyway, so why not try to give a reading with karaoke versions of some of them?

video-assisted poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

Here’s the set-up. I needed a high table large enough to hold my laptop and speakers. A set list with the poem titles and page numbers in black magic marker helped me quickly and easily find the next poem text while the present poem’s credits rolled on the screen. The projector sat on a separate table in front, projecting onto a screen off to my right:

the screen at my poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

In a bookstore-cafe still open for business, the challenge was to compete with ambient noise and respect the needs of other customers (e.g., to browse books with the lights on). Fortunately, the store was well equipped with an excellent mike and speakers. If I’d had the means to plug my laptop directly into their amp instead of having to use my own speakers for the soundtrack, I’m sure that would’ve been better, but the volume seemed sufficient — even, I’m told, at the far end of the seating area:

video-assisted poetry reading from a distance - photo by Jason Crane

I didn’t mind not having a large screen and movie-theater darkness, because frankly, my made-for-web videos aren’t as high-resolution as they could be. As usual for me, I chose a fairly relaxed, naturalistic style of reading, except for one video where I attempt (not too successfully) to imitate a 1940s film noir narrator. Based on my own sense of things as well as the numerous positive reactions afterwards (some even from people who weren’t friends or relatives), I’d say the reading went pretty well. It was definitely a very different experience from any other reading I’ve ever given.  I felt most complimented by the fact that the three children in attendance seemed spellbound, including a toddler who’d been restive earlier and Jason’s two boys, who I’m told are regular, football-loving American kids.

Lessons

There was simply no question that I’d have to practice my ass off for a couple of days in advance, reading the poems over and over while the videos played in a VLC playlist on my laptop. With regular poetry readings, practice might seem optional (at least to poets who don’t read this site), but with audiovisual accompaniment, you have to come in on cue or the whole thing flops. I had assumed the screen would be behind me and prepared accordingly, but with it situated to my right, I didn’t have to glance exclusively at my laptop for visual cues.

Complete memorization of the poems would not have been a bad thing, much as I resist internalizing my own words to that degree. I wouldn’t have had to fumble with a book and set list, and possibly could’ve engaged more with the audience. However, with the audience focused on the screen, what really mattered was my vocal delivery, not eye contact. And with the accompanying music being generally melodic and at points down-right funky, it took off the pressure to give an absolutely flawless reading. So in a way, this approach offers a bit of a crutch to those of us (95% of poets?) who are not highly skilled performers.

There’s nothing like a live reading to improve one’s delivery, though. I had been afraid that the necessity to sync up my reading with prerecorded music and images might make for kind of a mechanical delivery, but I don’t think that happened. In fact, for some of the poems in the set, I found myself reading in a more intense, impassioned style than I used when I’d recorded myself alone in a quiet bedroom for the online versions of the videopoems. And since I had to pay close attention to the music for many of my cues, I think this approach actually improved my over-all sense of timing and rhythm.

With the laptop in front of me, it was possible to pause the videos for a few seconds when needed to make introductory remarks, though I think I only had to do that twice. In a regular reading, it’s all too easy to natter on and on about what prompted a particular poem, and forget that our job is to entertain, not to lecture. With this reading, I had to be mindful not only of the tight time constraint but also of the effect on the audience of interrupting the music and the flow. The next time I do this, I will add enough slack-time in the intros and credits of each video for all my brief contextualizing remarks.

Now, all this might seem like a huge lot of effort for a 25-minute reading in front of 30-some people, but I found it hugely energizing and reaffirming. More than that, it was useful to be reminded of the essential ephemerality of what we do. As Walter J. Ong points out in his classic study Orality and Literacy, sounded words with their inherent temporality are uniquely dynamic and close to the human lifeworld. Fans of online audiopoetry and videopoetry like to claim that we’re recovering an oral dimension and liberating poems from the prison of print. But if we’re serious about orality, it seems to me, we need to periodically test our words and images in the crucible of live performance.


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using text vs voice in videopoems

[cross-posted from Very Like A Whale because I think it's relevant to the Voice Alpha ethos]

I wrote this a few weeks ago with the first text-only videopoem I made:

I remembered that in Tom Konyves’ videopoetry manifesto, he categorized videopoems according to their usage of text, with two key distinctions drawn between sound text and visual text. (He also asserted that visual text is ‘charged with leading’ the videopoetry genre, although I’m not sure I agree with that.) I realized that what with Whale Sound and Voice Alpha and now this interest in videopoetry, I’ve been engaged with ‘sound’ text almost exclusively for months now. The idea of making a videopoem without voice and with only visual text was therefore appealing.

I’ve now put together three vpoems with text only and no voice (links at bottom of this post). This is what I have learned so far, and, very interested, continue to ponder:

- Text is not a ‘poor relation’ to voice in videopoems. Not sure why or how I had absorbed this ‘fact’, but I had. Text is a different mechanism from voice. In videopoems text can be as strong (or stronger, if the voice alternative available is relatively weak) a mechanism as voice.

- Text used in videopoems is not like text on the page – it is more a text/voice hybrid, a halfway mark between both.

- This is probably because a) text on the page is a block, all visible, all together, in front of you while b) voice is a ribbon of sound unfurling for you – each word takes the place of the previous one, which disappears in front of it.

-Text in a videopoem takes on the ‘ribbon unfurling’ aspect of voice – each word takes the place of the previous one, which disappears in front of it.

- Text can be an active, communicative character in the performance that is videopoem.

- Text-as-ribbon can very competently (or more competently, depending on the strength of the voice alternative available) convey the nuances that voice-as-ribbon conveys – font, font size, text animation, sound/sense byte, pace – all these are elements that can convey feeling, cadence, tone, emotion.

- Text-as-ribbon, like voice-as-ribbon, is not a great respecter of linebreaks and other page-centric devices – the best way to present a sound/sense byte as text on the screen is not necessarily the way it is laid out on the page.

- Videopoem makers who are tired of or don’t trust the sound of their own voice need not be limited by the ‘voicings’ available to them, by whatever means – have at it with text, people!

Text-only videopoems:

the situation on Thursday by Nic Sebastian
you never thought by Nic Sebastian
No. XLII by e. e. cummings


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poetry readings & copyright – best practices

Thanks to Dave Bonta for sharing this link. Much of interest, and this bit in particular for those who like to or are thinking of reading other people’s poems (definitely a best practice in itself!) at poetry readings:

7. LITERARY PERFORMANCE

DESCRIPTION: Live readings are a staple of the poetry scene in many communities across the United States. Frequently, readers are poets whose programs include both their own work and selections from the work of others. On occasion, poets and other readers also create programs that consist primarily of the work of poets they admire. On some occasions, these readings may constitute criticism or commentary on the works included, but that will not always be the case. Members of the poetry community strongly believe in the value of respect for poets and their work, and they generally agree that prior consent should when possible be obtained for the inclusion of particular poems in readings.

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a person other than the poet may read a poem to a live audience, even in circumstances where the doctrine otherwise would not apply, if the context is (1) a reading in which the reader’s own work also is included, or (2) a reading primarily intended to celebrate the poet in question.

LIMITATIONS:

Readers should present quoted passages or poems as accurately as possible, allowing for the nature of the performance event.

Readers should provide conventional attribution to source material as appropriate to the nature of the performance event.

Readers should refrain from the use of particular poems in an event if they are aware that the context would be (or would have been) objectionable to the poet, unless the use is permissible as commentary or criticism.

Subject to the same qualification, readers should not repeat uses to which the poet (or a qualified successor) has objected.

In events of type (1), readers should avoid disproportionate use of the work by one or a few poets in any particular reading; in events of type (2), readers should limit their reliance on fair use to one-time or occasional performances.

Readings that include unauthorized copyrighted poetry may be recorded for archival purposes but not be made generally available without permission from the poet (or qualified successor).


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Recording Technology Advice Needed for the Not-Quite-Neophyte

Once upon a time, I could work with all types of technology, both old and new. I had a Sony Walkman, but I also knew how to thread the seemingly ancient reel-to-reel tape player in the college radio studio. In 1986, we did the layout for our college’s literary magazine on an Apple Macintosh, and I knew I had glimpsed the future. I remember the Internet before there was a World Wide Web, back when it was all text.

But somewhere along the way, technology has gotten out ahead of me, and in most cases, I’ve just let most technological developments leave me behind. In many cases, it pays not to be an early adapter. It’s better to let the developers work out all the bugs and kinks before I invest.

However, I often find myself overwhelmed by all the choices once we know that a particular technology is here to stay. Lately, it’s become clear to me that I need to pay more attention to the recent advances in recording technology.

I’ve only recently learned how to make recordings using the microphone and software included with my laptop. It’s easy enough, but I’m not happy with the way that the recordings sound. I wonder if there’s some technique that I’m missing, some way of talking into or at the laptop that would make my voice sound less tinny.

Here’s what I really want to know: at what point do I know for sure that I need to buy better technology?

If I just need to record a poem here and there for online journals that offer readers a chance to hear the poem, then maybe my laptop is fine. But then I wonder if having the better options in technology might open up new doors for me?

For example, would I play more with podcasts if I had better ways to make recordings? I used to work in college radio, and I miss it. I’m an NPR junkie from way back, and I imagine that creating a podcast series would help me feel like I’m working in a meaningful medium, a medium that until recently I thought was lost to me, once I graduated.

If I decide I need to invest in better technology, then I have another set of questions: what do I need to buy? Should I invest in top-of-the-line technology or do I just need whatever would be the cut above the basic equipment that comes with my computer?

And then, there’s a round of software questions. I know that software exists that will let me manipulate the recordings that I make. I can access some versions of this software free, from my school. But the last time I tried to do this, in 2006 or so, I found the software overwhelming. Do I really need to learn a new computer program? Or will most people be listening through inferior devices anyway, so it won’t be worth it to manufacture supreme sound quality?

I know I’m not the first person who has wrestled with these questions, but here, too, technology seems to be an equal mix of blessing and curse. There are lots of answers out there in the Internet realms. Who to trust? Globalization complicates the matter even further, because we now have many more choices than we once did, and many of them are affordable.

So, if you’re a poet who has wandered into the realms of audio production, and if you have some insights, it would be great to hear from you. What technology advice would you give to someone who’s not a complete novice, but nowhere near an expert?


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Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas

I must be honest:  I never thought much about what to bring with me to a poetry reading until last April.  Don’t get me wrong—I did the obvious things.  I checked to make sure I had enough poems to read and a few extra for good measure.  I brought more copies of my  chapbook than I thought I could sell, along with plenty of money with which to make change.  I even thought far enough ahead to create order forms, for the people who wanted my chapbook but didn’t bring enough money with them.

But then, in April, I read this post by Kelli Russell Agodon, which made me think about poetry readings in a whole new way. A poet could bring handouts!  A poetry reading could have a door prize!  It would all feel so much more festive.

Kelli described (and took photos of) the bright colored copies of one of Susan’s poems, which were on the chairs when the audience arrived, and which they later held up when prompted.  At the beginning of the poetry reading, a young man passed out mint leaves.  At the end, a basket of lavender chocolates made the rounds.  One of Susan’s poems talks about throwing a ball, so after warning the audience, she tossed them a ball, and the person who caught it won a prize.

Immediately after reading this post and Susan’s post where she talks about what she learned (reprinted as a post on this site not too long ago), I started thinking about my own poetry readings.  What would make sense to have on hand for audience members?

I haven’t come to any conclusions.  As I’ve looked at themes in my poems for my forthcoming chapbook, I’m struck by how many metaphors come from my experiences in an office, but the idea of handing out shredded paper or office supplies doesn’t appeal.  I have several poems that mention exotic fruit, but it’s not always possible to find pomegranates.  A bottle of wine might make a nice door prize.  Or perhaps a fruit basket would be better, since I’d hate to give a bottle of wine to a person in recovery.

I also like the idea of a single poem on people’s chairs, perhaps with my contact information on the bottom.  I don’t want to give away too many poems, since one of the purposes of a poetry reading is to generate some book sales.  But perhaps a poem might prove tempting.

Dave Bonta wrote a previous post about bringing text to a poetry reading, and he talked a bit about technology.  Instead of paper handouts, we could bring ways to project our poems onto a screen.  In some ways, I love this idea.  I love the thought of a more multimedia presentation.  I’ve been experimenting some with videopoems, although I’m at the more rudimentary stage of creation.  I choose photos taken by me and my friends, and I pair them with lines from my poems.  The same thing could work nicely at a reading.  And if I was reading in a busy bookstore, I imagine I might attract more attention that way.

Of course, the downside to anything that involves non-paper media is that I’d have to rely on technology in a way that makes me uneasy.  I know what my voice will do.  I can’t always be sure that all the technology equipment will work easily in a different space.  Far easier to bring paper handouts.

And chocolates!  I must look back through my poems to find out if any of them would work as an inspiration for a chocolate handout.  Or maybe I should look to find chocolates with bits of exotic fruits.

I know that some of you might write in to say that the poems should be sweet enough to stand on their own.  At one point, I would have agreed with you, that poetry should be its own reward.  But after twenty years of teaching, I also understand the benefits of a treat.  I like the idea of a poetry reading being more like a festive party and celebration than a dreary affair that we attend because poems are so very good for us.


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10 Things I Learned About Giving Poetry Readings

Some excellent advice from Susan Rich at The Alchemist’s Kitchen. Thanks, Susan!

1. People like to laugh. I wanted my friends and family to have a good time. Since many of my poems deal with heartbreak and aging, this is not a simple task. How to strike the balance between play and profundity? I made sure to include a few lighter poems. I spaced them in-between more somber ones.

2. Make it inter-active. This was my first reading for The Alchemist’s Kitchen so I wanted a party-like atmosphere. Since this was also the Broadsided Post-a-Thon weekend, I printed up broadsides of one of my poems and before I began my reading I had everyone hold up their colorful copy. This brought everyone together in a communal effort. I took a photo of the group and have submitted it to the contest. I promised to let everyone know if I won.

3. Read at a pace slower than you are used to reading. I re-learned this listening to Katherine Whitcomb’s reading last week. Poetry lives in the air; let it linger there so others can take it in, apprehend it. Nerves will push you to speed up, practice reading slowly and clearly. Listening to poetry takes effort by your audience; you can help them by slowing down the lines.

4. Pay tribute to your community. I spent the first few minutes thanking my sisters for flying in from San Fransisco for the day, John and Christine – the awesome owners of Open Books, my South Grand Street Poets, COPR’s (Community of Poetry Readers) and fellow BooklLift members for supporting me. I am deeply thankful for my poetry community.

5. Give prizes! Okay, I only really gave one prize. My final poem, “Letter to the End of the Year” has a line about throwing a ball and so I warned everyone beforehand that I would be throwing a ball into the audience and that the recipient of the ball should see me afterwords . The prize: a limited edition broadside produced by Joe Green of peasandcuespress went to Martha Solano. A lovely final moment to the reading.

6. Lavender chocolate. Yes, that’s right. Everyone received a piece of lavender chocolate (again, associated with a particular poem “Curating My Death”) to eat, on cue, when lavender chocolate appeared in the poem. The backstory: three days before my reading, I’d emailed Christine to ask her about creative ideas for my reading. She gave me a lovely list of what other poets had done (sung songs, showed movies, played tapes) and ended her email with “anything but chocolate.” And in that moment, handing out chocolate became the thing I most wanted to do.

7. Practice, practice, practice. I spent hours deciding on which poems to read and in what order. I read the work aloud over and over so my mouth would know what to do. I wrote out page numbers and marked pages in the book so I would be able to move with some fluidity through the pages. I was so nervous that often I had to read my notes 2 or 3 times to find the page numbers. I had confidence that everything I needed was in those pages because I had gone over it so many times.

8. Provide visuals. Since the middle section of my book is based on the photographs, paintings, and imagined life of Myra Albert Wiggins, I wanted the audience to be able to visualize some of her work. I don’t own a projector so instead I downloaded an image off the internet, printed up 40 copies, and glued each copy to a postcard. A number of people told me it was really helpful to have the image in front of them when I read the poem.

9. Make the event your own. I know giving out chocolate and prizes isn’t right for everyone or for every book, but it worked for me, for this book. Doing something outside the box, something that people would enjoy and perhaps remember, was important to me. It took extra work but it was well worth it to make the day my own.

10. Your cool idea goes here. I went to many events to study what other poets and writers do to make their events successful. One other thing I learned: bookend your reading by starting and ending with strong, clear, powerful work. And share ideas: let me know what you’ve done that’s succeeded or what reading you attended that stays in your mind as a great one.

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