Voice Alpha

about reading poetry aloud for an audience

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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


a cool recitation learning tool

A great recitation learning tool from the folks out Poetry Out Loud. (hat tip: the Commercial Poetry blog.) The text at the top of the page frames the intent in presenting below nine videos of young performers, each reciting a different poem in their own performance style. The idea is for teachers to view the videos with students and discuss what the class feels worked or did not work in the performances. What a terrific initiative. Just for fun, my own take on the nine videos (I can’t link to them individually, so you have to watch them at the Poetry Out Loud link):

1. Writ on the Steps of Puerto Rican Harlem by Gregory Corso
Although good understanding of the material was evident and diction good, I’m afraid I found this one a little over-rehearsed and therefore less convincing.

2. Forgetfulness by Billy Collins
He nailed it – fully agree with the performance assessment appearing underneath the video. This struck me as the best of the nine videos, along with No. 4 below.

3. Bilingual/Bilingüe by Rhina P. Espaillat
Mixed peformance here – moments of great timing and perfect tone, gesture & expression, but also some overdone moments. More good stuff than weaker stuff overall, though.

4. Sonnet CXXX: My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun by William Shakespeare
Super performance. Deliberately a bit larger than life and humorous, fantastic diction, expression and timing. Best of the bunch in my view, along with No. 2 above.

5. Frederick Douglass by Robert E. Hayden
I liked this a lot. Was a bit slow to start with, but the style grew on me quickly. Loved the slow deliberate pace and her confidence in the material. Favorite moments were the snap of her fingers on ‘action’ and her voice/facial expression when she said ‘alien.’ Could have varied the agonized facial expression a little more, but overall, great job.

6. I Am Waiting by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Nice job. Kudos to the performer for taking on a such a long piece, with that risky repetitive “I am waiting” as its backbone. She worked well to vary her delivery, exudes confidence and joy, nicely mixes satire and sincerity. Great diction and presence.

7. The Man-Moth by Elizabeth Bishop
Very well prepared and delivered – another long one at over 4 minutes. Agree with the assessment underneath the video: “His skillful and deliberate pacing, rhythm, and intonation complement the poem’s language and its subtle shift in mood—from observation to intimacy. His gestures are economical and flow through the poem as an integral part of the recitation, working deftly to heighten its overall impact.” One minor gripe (and this is very personal and rather amorphous, even to me) was that I would have liked to have seen a little more humility before the material on the part of the performer. If that even makes sense…

8. Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins
A difficult piece to take on, but a good try. Felt a bit over-rehearsed in places to me, but loved the delivery of the last couple of lines: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:/ Praise him.”

9. Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams
This didn’t really work for me. I found the half-grin facial expression that kept coming back a bit distracting, and the slow pacing seemed over-emphasized to me. A brave attempt, though, and good mastery of the material.


a talent *not* owned by every poet? reading their poems well aloud

Oregon is organized! They are archiving voicings of poems by Oregon poets here. (Hat tip Maureen Doallas).

I love the idea of archiving poems-as-voice, and absolutely think more states and entities and people should do it. So yay, Oregon!

What I do argue with, however, is the seemingly universal notion that the best way to aurally present a poem is to have its author read it aloud.

So not true. Just take a listen.

What Oregon (and other collectives looking to create aural poetic archives – are you listening, people?) should do is actively look for and select those among them who read well and have them volunteer to read for everyone else.

Screen writers and playwrights don’t act their own films and plays. Fashion designers don’t model their own clothes. They look for people with the specific talents and attributes acting or modeling requires. My argument is that to do their own work justice, poets should do the same.

It’s not as if good readers are desperately scarce – like good actors or good models, they most definitely are not. All that is required is the baseline intellectual/emotional acknowledgment that most poets just don’t read aloud well – just as most playwrights or fashion designers aren’t good actors or good models.

And a decision to proceed accordingly.


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!


Kristin reads ‘How To Make A Raft’

This week the Voice Alpha gang is challenging itself to read a list poem – How To Make A Raft by Elisa Albo, a poem donated by the poet to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given advance recording permission for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. Feel free to add your observations on the readings. If you would like to send in a reading of How To Make A Raft for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

Kristin’s reading

Kristin’s comments

Clearly I need better recording equipment–I’ve been using what came built in with the laptop.

Dick’s comments

No problem audio-wise for me. Clear as a bell. I like the businesslike tone here. This is advice and guidance delivered with authority. I might well take it! I like the quality of Kristin’s voice. The cool, dry tone brings a detachment and objectivity to the reading, which serves the value and importance of the information and advice.

Donna’s comments

The voice is very business-like and matter-of-fact, probably the most “instructional” reading of the bunch, as if directions were being read from a booklet. I like the way you changed the tone on “a sail, a symbol, a word.” The over-enunciation of “little” toward the end threw me a little, although I really liked the way the “don’ts” were pronounced.

Nic’s comments

I thought you had good energy in this reading, as well as clear diction & good breath control. It’s tough reading a list poem, especially one of this length, where the central challenge is to introduce enough variety of tone, energy and speed to make the various lists interesting. Probably a poem like this might reward more careful preparation than most, with active thought given to how one would read the different sections, combining changes in speed, tone and volume to introduce that variety. There could have been more variety in most of our readings (including my own), I think.


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:


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.


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).


poetry-aloud websites: Hans Ostrom’s You Tube channel

(This is part of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Hans Ostrom, who has his own poetry You Tube channel.)

What is the mission statement for your You Tube channel?

I don’t have a mission-statement. Instead I simply state that the channel features the reading of poetry, mostly by others, with a few by me. As things have turned out, I think my mission is to present poems I value, work by poets I’ve liked for a long time (Langston Hughes, Karl Shapiro, and W.H. Auden are good examples), lesser known poems by well known poets (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues), and lesser known poems (like some poems from the Sanskrit)–pretty much in that order. Early on I discovered that the Spoken Verse Channel from Tom O’Bedlam had presented terrific readings of the very famous canonical poems, and there’s no point competing, as it were, with Tom.

Why did you start your You Tube channel?

Really I was first interested in the technology: how to record a poem on the cheap at home, and how and whether to make accompanying slide-shows. I’m also just an advocate of poetry in general and think more people should read it and engage with it. Then I really got interested in the recording itself, how it changes how one reads a poem. I’ve recorded over 400 now, but I hate the early ones and still feel I’m not a good reader. The learning curve is steep.

What made you choose You Tube as a platform rather than a blog or website or other internet platform?

A website seemed too complicated (for me), and I already have a blog called Poet’s Musings, on which I post my own poems, others’ poetry, brief essays on poems, etc. You Tube seemed to provide access to a wide audience and a fairly easy way to upload videos.

How frequently do you post and how do you choose your readings?

For a while I was posting up to three poems a week, but I’ve backed off from that. I’ll probably settle on one a week. Because it takes a while to edit the sound, I’m always on the lookout for short poems, and so I’ve rediscovered how long a lot of contemporary poems are. I also don’t mind reading “chestnuts” that hip readers of poetry would deride–like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” or a poem by Robert Service, “Ordinary Men.” I’m trying to appeal to a variety of audiences, and I don’t want the channel to be elitist.

What percentage of readings are your own poems and what percentage are other people’s poems?

Probably 10 per cent of the poems, at most, are mine.

What are the differences in approach, rewards and challenges that come into play when you read other people’s poems, as opposed to your own?

Well, you want to do the poem justice, and to try to stay out of its way, so to speak. I tend to hate my voice, and my recording technique’s not perfect, but at least I get the poem out there, and even if people don’t like my reading, per se, they may enjoy the poem. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my basic job. If they like the reading and the poem both, so much the better.

What are your plans/hopes for the You Tube channel? Is there a next level to which you hope to take it?

I’d like to experiment with the visuals. Now I either create a slide-show of what I think are apt images, or I use the poem itself (the text) as the images. I start with a visual of some sort on the “title” panel, then usually have an image of the poet. I think I’d like to play with that basic format. There is a huge temptation to use sound gimmicks like reverb, etc., but I learned early on to avoid those, so I don’t want to experiment too much with sound. I’d like to learn how to present the text of poems in a greater variety of ways. I also want to read poems by newer poets, up-and-coming poets, and so on. People just breaking in. I’ve done a few of those already, like “Under,” by Hannah Stephenson.

The following sites also feature people reading other people’s poems aloud. Please comment briefly on each. How do they differ from or resemble your own site?

1. I’m very much in tune with How Pedestrian insofar as I think poetry should be a part of the culture at large and not so remote. I like the common touch of this site.

2. I like Belly Up, too–nicely produced readings, not overly dramatic, letting the poems speak for themselves, as it were. Nice selection of poems, too.

3. Classic Poetry Out Loud: a good “Old School” site. I was a bit bemused by the reference to “poetry from the past,” as all poetry is, technically, from the past; but I get their drift. I’d compare this channel to that of Spoken Verse on Youtube, and I’d give a slight edge to Spoken Verse, whose readings (by “Tom O’Bedlam,” also British) are a bit less predictable. Blessings on CPOL, nonetheless: what a great resource.

4. Whale Sound is terrific. I like the selection of poems, and I like the woman’s voice. It made me realize how relatively few sites like these seem to be from women. There are a lot of women reading on Youtube, but most of them seem to be individual poets reading “to” the computer screen–or recordings of Sylvia Plath, et al. So that is very refreshing.

I think really only two things distinguish my site from these–one is that a site like Classic Poetry Out Loud is very professional, in a BBC kind of way, whereas I’m still an amateur reader trying to get more skillful at production, etc. Second, I make slide-shows that either use the text of a poem or use images suggested by the poem. So my site is probably less for the purist listener, who may wish only to hear the poem.

Hans Ostrom is Professor of African American Studies and English at the University of Puget Sound. Read more about him here and here.


On Performing Other People’s Poems or You Mean, Not Everyone Does This?

(Guest post by Kristin LaTour)

I am pretty naïve about some things. And I assume that if I, who am generally behind the curve on most things, know about something, then most everyone else probably knew about it way before I did. But here’s something I know. It’s good to hear someone else read your poems. It’s good in workshop when you already know how you want your poem to sound, to hear how someone else reads it. It’s good when you’ve read a poem 50 times and can’t think of anything new to do with it. It’s good when you’re revising. It’s good when you need a laugh. It’s just all good.

I’m part of a group that calls itself the Waiting 4 the Bus Poetry Collective. We’re a very eclectic bunch of poets who don’t really workshop poems, although we do ask for help now and then, but who perform poetry. We perform our own, but we have a lot of fun performing each other’s work. The group holds a twice monthly open mic with feature, and the features tend to be area poets who are pretty well known, or who have been to the open mic often enough to be asked. After a person has been coming for a good long time, we have what we call Bizzaro Feature Night. This means that during the open mic, people don’t read their own work, they read poems by the featured poet. It might be a poem they love, or one they haven’t heard in a long time. But it’s fun to hear someone’s work read by 6 or 7 people before the feature gets up to read. And it makes you think about how to read that person’s work. We also have Under the Influence Night when poets read work by a poet who has influenced them. And there’s Lyrics Night, and Bad Poem Night and other opportunities to read other people’s work instead of always our own.

When it comes to reading other people’s poems, the closest comparison I can think of is a band deciding to remake an old song. They make it so similar that it sounds just like the original, which is boring and seemingly pointless. Or they can totally rework it so the song doesn’t sound anything like the first version. The one that comes to my mind is Kiss’ “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Nite,” which was covered by Toad the Wet Sprocket for a tribute album. They took a beer-drinking, slam-dancing, head-banging song and turned it into a pot-smoke-hazed, black-light-dark room, comfy couch song. Bob Dylan does the same thing with his work, I’d guess because he gets sick of singing the same songs over and over. The last time I saw him in concert, he was practically finished with “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I figured out that was the song he was singing. He completely changed it.

I have a poem called “Surgery” where the speaker is explaining in very clear terms how to change a person surgically using basic tools one has around the house, practicing on foods one would find in the fridge. When I read it, I read it straight, seriously. I see it as a comment on what people do to each other, coldly and callously. But one night a friend, got up and read the same poem with a strange quasi-Nigerian accent. It was hilarious! It was as if the poem was suddenly some kind of strange info-mercial, or something you’d run into by accident on YouTube. I love hearing him read the poem that way. I never would have known there was humor hiding under it.

Some people might cringe at the thought of other people “messing up” their poems. What if they don’t read the line breaks how you planned? Or what if they read it with a silly pitch, or leave out a line? But that happens every time someone picks a poem off a screen or a page. If they’ve never heard the poet read, they are going to put a voice to it. Who knows how they’ll read it? And what a gift to find that a poem that was written one way has another side to it.

When I heard about this blog and the webpage that accompanies it, Whale Sound, I was so excited. I love to read aloud. I love to read other’s poems. I love them to read mine. I encourage all poets to listen to others reading their work, and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for performing other people’s poems they can get.

Kristin participates in a group-reading at Whale Sound today.


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