Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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voice as organ of investigation

“.. to say the words over and over and then to hear yourself say them [..] is to go farther into the poem than you might have imagined was possible. Suddenly, you start to see the things between the lines and letters. Sometimes, you stop in your tracks mid-read and realize you have to start over.”

[..]

“.. with each subsequent reading, I found myself feeling the poems more as the speaker rather than an outside reader. I suppose it must be a bit like this for an actor learning a character, moving from reader to this other self that exists in the lines of the poem.

I don’t know if this is how poetry reading should be done, but it makes sense to me to think of a poem as something that is said or told as if letting the audience in on some secret rather than recited or pronounced (in the sense of pronouncement). When I read to my students, this approach seems to work best for them. They actually listen.

The best thing about this is that by the end, when I sit back and listen, I feel like I’ve come to understand the poem in a way I hadn’t before. As if now, I’ve really walked that mile in the other’s shoes.”

James Brush recently joined the ranks of volunteer readers for The Poetry Storehouse and blogged about his experience here. His experience with preparing and reading poetry aloud for an audience tracks exactly with mine. The voice truly is an organ of investigation, and one that brings you information about what you are reading that is not otherwise available to you. I think it’s related to putting the poem into the body, as it were, and making it a physical, bodily experience.

Listen to James’s Storehouse readings here and see information about all Storehouse readers here.


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thanks for reading other people’s poems!

We have added a new page to acknowledge our volunteer readers at The Poetry Storehouse. This is to gratefully acknowledge those who volunteer to provide audio for poems other than their own.

Every recording up there increases a poem’s chance of being remixed. More than one reading for a single poem is even better, in that it gives the remixer more material to choose from, since different voices and reading styles resonate differently with each remixer. And even where audio is not used in a remix, it plays a valuable role in adding depth to a remixer’s engagement with a piece.

If you would like to volunteer to read at The Poetry Storehouse, leave a comment below, email nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com, or just go ahead and pick a poem, make your recording and send it to Nic. Tips on getting started with audio recording here.


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Who should read at poetry readings? – handy-dandy decision-making aid

There was a great deal of discussion recently on Facebook, on the Wompo Listserv (scroll down to Mon Oct 14 at 8.44am for subject ‘Recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?’) and at Very Like A Whale on one of our recent posts about recruiting actors to do reading at poetry readings. In following the discussion, I realized that at the end of the day there really is no ‘right’ answer as to who should read what at poetry readings (whether in-person, audio recording, etc). It isn’t a zero-sum, either/or question and the ‘right’ answer depends on your objectives.

So, what is the purpose of the reading event? When you consider the possible range of objectives, all of us should probably be doing ‘all of the above’ when it comes to poetry reading, and preferably all in equal measure, rather than hewing to the same formula (poet reads own poems to audience) 95% of the time. So, for example, consider the following preliminary handy objective-based aid to poetry-reading decision-making:

When to read your own poems to an audience:
– you want to convey to an audience what your poems mean to you.
– you want to improve your own public poetry-reading skills.
– you want to sell your poems.

When to seek others to read your poems for you (actor, fellow-poet, non-poet, whichever):
– you want to learn what nuances, connections & messages others perceive in your poems, particularly those you did not consciously intend to convey (which in turn will make you both a better poet and a more self-aware human being).
– you don’t yet have enough confidence in your public poetry-reading ability for the occasion.
– you want to learn how to improve delivery of your own poems by watching how others handle them.
– you want to sell your poems.

When to seek out opportunities to read others’ poems for an audience:
– you want to honor their work and improve your understanding of it (bearing in mind that what goes into and what you get out of reading aloud for an attentive audience differs materially and exponentially from muttering fragments aloud to yourself while you read on the couch).
– you want to practice the art & science of getting into someone else’s head (which in turn will make you both a better poet and a more self-aware human being).
– you want to find out if you are – or already know you are – better at presenting others’ poems than you are at presenting your own (apparently happens more than one would think).
– you want to improve your own public poetry-reading skills.
– you want to sell your poems.

I commend once again the excellent Voice Alpha blog post by Rachel Dacus on this and related themes.


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recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?

That’s what the UK’s Forward Arts Foundation did at their big poetry prize day in London last week, provoking much indignation among UK poets.

“On the way in to the event, a Forward Trustee told me that the origin of the actorly coup came from the premise that poets can’t read their work,” wrote a protesting blogger. She went on to characterize the evening as “a solemn, ponderous series of readings by a group of actors who made heavy weather of the poems.”

“If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated,’ asserted another protesting blogger, adding that ‘one only has to go to a TS Eliot prize-giving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets are somewhere between competent and excellent at reading.” Am not sure I completely understood the rationale she then used to explain her position, but she went on to say that “most of the actors just didn’t inhabit the poems effectively. I think it was harder, hearing most of the poems for the first time and not knowing several of the poets’ work, to ‘get’ each poem than it usually is at readings. I don’t mean the ostensible subject, if any, but the motive force and the magical something that might make the listener/reader connect with the work.”

The Foundation’s response was, um, snarky: “The controversial decision to use actors to read the shortlisted poetry has provoked vigorous debate: some poets, publishers and bloggers insist that poetry should be read aloud only by its authors and no one else, while others reckon that a poem lives in the voices, ears and minds of the many, not the few,” it said on its website.

As my long-suffering readers know, I’m a big fan of the you learn way more about pretty much everything by reading other people’s poems to an audience or by having your poems read to you, than you do by reading your own poems to others school of thought. As such, I am very intrigued by this idea. Note that the actors provided their services free for the event.

Has anyone ever tried this? Asked an actor friend or friends to take the poet’s place at a reading? If not, do you think it might be a good idea to try, or a stinker? Why?

Meanwhile, here are some of the readings from the controversial Forward prize-giving event last week. There were three big winners – Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem.

Best Collection – Michael Symmons Roberts (see him read on a different occasion here – jump to about 1:17 for the reading). At the prize-giving, actress Natascha McElhone read one of his poems, here. Roberts struck me as a competent reader, but I thought McElhone did a really fabulous job with her reading.

Best First Collection – Emily Berry. See her read here. Actress Helen McCrory read one of Berry’s poems at the prize-giving, here. An unfortunate stumble on the last line of the poem, but an otherwise engaging performance, I thought.

Best Single Poem – Nick MacKinnon. I couldn’t find any readings online by MacKinnon. His winning poem was read at the prize-giving by actor Samuel West, here – an excellent reading, in my judgment.

Very interested to hear others’ thoughts on all this. To close things out, here’s a great post from the Voice Alpha archives by Rachel Dacus (with discussion in the comments), on the advantages of having someone than the author read poems to an audience.

(Cross-posted at Very Like A Whale. Hat tip Dave Bonta for pointing out the Forward story.)


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For Dummies series: ‘Why You Should Read Poems Aloud’

Found the entry below on the For Dummies website. I like When you read poetry aloud, read it as though you were delivering the poem to an attentive audience. Yes, muttering to oneself as one writes or reads really doesn’t count. To be useful, reading aloud has to be full attention and full respect, aimed at an audience:

When you read poetry aloud, read it as though you were delivering the poem to an attentive audience. Why? Here are the three most important reasons you should read poetry aloud:

Poets design their poems to be read aloud. The earliest poetry was oral. People chanted it, sang it, recited it — and they still do. From its earliest forms to the poems being written today, poetry has kept its close alliance with speaking and singing.

The music of poetry — that is, its sounds and rhythms — isn’t just for the eye and the mind, it’s meant to be given voice. In fact, as they write, most poets imagine someone reading their poems aloud. Poetry is supposed to be a living thing, and poets write accordingly, with an audience in mind.

– You’ll experience the whole poem if you read it aloud. Poems read aloud are different animals from poems read silently. A big part of poetry is sound and rhythm — and the best way to get the full impact of these important elements is to put them into action by pronouncing them with your own throat, lungs, teeth, lips, and tongue.

Sound and rhythm don’t exist just for their own sakes, either; they exist to give you pleasure (because humans naturally like music and rhythm in poetry) and lead you to the poem’s meanings. Commas, spaces between words, line endings, and other pauses may hint at melancholy, hesitancy, or passion. Punctuation has its traditional functions (exclamations! questions? wistfulness . . .), and it often also is used in unexpected ways — or not used at all. You may miss all these signals if you don’t read aloud.

– You’ll understand and remember more if you read aloud. Memory and understanding are everything. If you remember something and understand it, it takes up long-term residence inside your brain. And then you can use that knowledge as a building block to discover more and more about the world of poetry.

– From Poetry For Dummies by John Timpane

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