Voice Alpha

about reading poetry aloud for an audience


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survival of the fittest – written word vs spoken word?

(cross-posted at Very Like A Whale)

…the most important language of our so-called post-literate society. The image. Ours is a world where the ability to communicate doesn’t require anything more than rudimentary reading and writing. And, in fact, sounds and pictures can do the job just as well.And given time constraints today, perhaps better. This is what virtual reality has wrought.The image is the new word. Don’t send a message expressing your emotion, send an image representing the idea.

[...]

It would be useful [..] to trace the history of Western civilization with an eye towards evaluating the war between image and word. Start with the Mona Lisa on one side and Don Quixote on the other and count up the wins and losses in each column [...] most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for.

From The War on Wordsmiths by Ali Eteraz – read full article here.

I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise, but do think there is a key distinction to be made between written wordsmithing and spoken wordsmithing. Which doesn’t much help the written word crowd, but does make the overall case for wordsmiths somewhat less dire.


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stage vs page (cont’d)

Serena Agusto Cox has an ongoing interview series at the 32 poems blog, in which she asks different poets the same set of questions. We’re linking here (part 2 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question, which asks: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”

Charles Jensen
I don’t like the limiting writing into discrete genres that are then put into opposition to each other. I think writing is most effective, most meaningful, when it cribs from many genres and traditions at once.

Hope Snyder
I believe that the power of a poem begins with the poem on the page. The poem has to work on the page before it works on the stage. That said, I also think that reading a poem in front of an audience is a crucial experience for both poet and public. It is important for the poet, if she chooses to read her own work, to read as well as possible. I believe poetry and theater go well together.

Leslie Jenike
Well, I love theatre (see above). When I was younger, there seemed to me to be very little difference between theatre and poetry, and I still feel that way. If you listen to a Beckett or Mamet script, for example, you’re hearing language shaped to emphasize repeated rhythms and patterns, right? So naturally I love poetry “for performance” in all its guises. But theatre is a collaborative art, while writing shorter lyrics meant primarily for the page seems to me to be a solitary activity. Both satisfy competing desires for introspection and extroversion, as I imagine they do for a lot of writers, and writers are a part of humanity—or at least they’d like to think they are.

Kim Bridgford
I think we are at a pivotal time in poetry, with spoken word/hip hop communities affecting, for lack of a better word, more “literary” communities, and vice versa. In fact, at West Chester this year, I am working to have more of a dialogue between these communities. The new Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Adam DuBois, for example, brings performance to the page. By the same token, I think some poets do not think enough about performance, and so miss an opportunity to make poetry more vital and electric for an audience.

Temple Cone
I’ve been present at some spoken word performances that were full of energy and proved to be both entertaining and artistically satisfying. But performances are really of the moment; I don’t find they translate well to film, though oddly enough I think that sound recordings of readings can have real force (the way Alan Lomax’s recordings of Southern music from the 1940s and 50s have the power to blow away contemporary recordings with their authenticity and presence). But I believe the written word lasts longer, even if it languishes on a shelf in a used bookstore, and that it generates a dialogue between reader and writer that simply can’t be had in a live reading. And one need only read Shakespeare’s Sonnets to see that the written word is not dead, but alive and awhirl, a sort of quantum cloud of meaning awaiting a moment of attention to fix its meaning before it swirls back up again.

Jehanne Dubrow
For me, written poetry has the emotional force expected of spoken word and performance poetry, while also having a life on the page.


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page vs stage (cont’d)

Serena Agusto Cox has an ongoing interview series at the 32 poems blog, in which she asks different poets the same set of questions. We’re linking here (part 1 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question which asks, very Voice Alpha-ishly: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”

Joseph Milford
Obviously, when we hear the poems or see them “performed”, they become altered, and many times more powerful, vehicles. To see the shape of the poet’s mouth, the body posture, the diaphragm expand, the throat constrict, etc.—this is an incredible organic experience all leading to the convocation of voice. It’s a great sharing. I do think that in these moments, which at their greatest extreme could border on shamanistic, we may find ways to temper our human nature, to tune it into a more harmonious instrument, maybe. Although, I do hear my inner skeptic creeping in, so I will stop here.

Matthew Thorburn
I think the most powerful poems are those that really work in both mediums – as words arranged on a page and as words spoken or read aloud. As a reader/listener, I want both! After reading someone’s poems in a book or journal, I want to hear her or him read them. It almost always gives the poems an extra depth. I love to hear poems in the poet’s own voice – to see where she puts the stress, where she pauses, and so forth.

Andrew Kozma
I seem them as powerful in different ways. Spoken word and performance poetry have more to do with the skill of the writer as a performer than they do with the power of the poetry itself. A brilliant performer can bring you to tears with your tax return. Because of this, it’s hard to tell from a performance whether the poetry stands on its own as poetry because the voice of the performer gets in the way. In addition, spoken word is crowd-oriented, meaning that your reaction is somewhat determined by the reactions of those around you. It’s a communal experience.

Written poetry, on the other hand, is intensely private. Even if you like the same poets and love the same books as another person, chances are that you are receiving different things from the poems, and that those things are different than what the writer intended. Text is like e-mail in this: the skill of the writer narrows the field of what the reader interprets, but it is still an interpretation.

M.E. Silverman
I have never found spoken word to be enjoyable outside of the environment they are being performed in, usually a bar or coffee shop. When I was in Philadelphia, I went to a couple of these back in the 90s, but have not followed the movement since. As far as “power” goes, it depends on the meaning of such an abstract word. What is power to a garbage employee working 9 to 5 or to a white collar exec? I do not think that writing can equalize anything in today’s age and while it had a powerful force at one time, even influencing politics, I think it has fallen into the folds of the Ivory Tower. Those in college, whether a student or teacher, are probably the most exposed to words, to language, and thus, poetry is unable to spread its wings beyond that.

Terri Witek
I love ephemeral creations, and as I have been working with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes since 2005, have become more and more enamored of doing things that disappear—words and images (he uses photographs and video), sound pieces. We did some ipod voice pieces for an installation and I loved that…watching people lean into the rooms to catch fragments, etc. Of course I still love words on the page. But I really like staging “events” with him where we switch out—it feels unexpected, even when I know what’s going to happen, as I do now with the day you left, a 50-minute piece we’ve done several times.

Jeffrey Bahr
I was never all that enamored of spoken verse. I supposed I’d rather hear a poem in my head with my own cadence and emphases. There are exceptions I can think of, however. I love hearing Plath readings of her own work.


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stage vs page

From an interview with Andrew Kozma at 32 Poems blog:

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?

I seem them as powerful in different ways. Spoken word and performance poetry have more to do with the skill of the writer as a performer than they do with the power of the poetry itself. A brilliant performer can bring you to tears with your tax return. Because of this, it’s hard to tell from a performance whether the poetry stands on its own as poetry because the voice of the performer gets in the way. In addition, spoken word is crowd-oriented, meaning that your reaction is somewhat determined by the reactions of those around you. It’s a communal experience.

Written poetry, on the other hand, is intensely private. Even if you like the same poets and love the same books as another person, chances are that you are receiving different things from the poems, and that those things are different than what the writer intended. Text is like e-mail in this: the skill of the writer narrows the field of what the reader interprets, but it is still an interpretation.


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BAP poetry out loud posts

I blogged at the Best American Poetry blog Feb 27 thru March 5 and most posts were ‘poetry out loud’ posts. Just getting all the links into the record here:

Poetry out loud: Must-visit websites
Poetry out loud: Group reading
Poetry out loud: Page vs stage
Poetry out loud: Voice as organ of investigation
Poetry out loud: Audio chapbooks & other methods of poetry delivery
Poetry out loud: Singing poetry


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To read or to recite?

To read or to recite? This blog treats reading as normative for public performances of poetry among contemporary English-language poets, but for many in the spoken word community — to say nothing of poets in other cultures — recitation is much more highly prized. Spoken word performers sometimes say that if you don’t memorize a poem you can’t fully internalize it, and therefore can’t give it the kind of physical, whole-body expression that audiences best respond to. I’ve seen spoken word performers live, as well as on YouTube, and I have to say I’ve been extremely impressed by what they can do. Unlike some of my collaborators here at Voice Alpha, I do still feel there’s a place for dramatic delivery of poetry, though I think it’s a lot harder to pull off than a relaxed, natural reading.

But I’m not going to start memorizing my poems, for the simple reason that I suffer from what Harold Bloom dubbed the anxiety of influence — from myself. I worry about wearing such deep ruts in my imagination that going off-trail and exploring new terrain would prove increasingly difficult. Eventually, everything I wrote would begin to sound alike. Maybe that will happen anyway, but I don’t want to give it a boost.

Fundamentally, my poems are made to be read. A lot of spoken word is created first and foremost as oral texts, and the focus on communicating with a live audience does sometimes (often?) militate against the kind of ambiguity and allusive subtlety I prize in poetry. I wonder how much we more cerebral, page-oriented poets can really learn from our spoken word brethren. It seems to me we have rather different expectations of our audiences, to begin with. People at traditional poetry readings have to enjoy being to some extent lost, for example, since there’s so much you can’t get out of a poem just hearing it for the first time.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to suggest rules for anyone else here; I’m speaking purely for myself. For example, I’m a pretty self-confident public speaker and rarely experience any kind of stage fright, so I don’t need the help in avoiding stumbles that memorizing might provide. I really admire people with good memories, but alas, I’m not one of them, and every time I write I have to struggle to make sure I’m not committing unconscious plagiarism. I don’t need any more ready-made phrases in my head!

I’d love to hear from people with contrary experiences and impressions. It seems to me there’s a strong possibility that I am quite wrong about all this.

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