watch this beautiful child
(cross-posted at Very Like A Whale)
[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!
Missed this anti-reading/pro-recitation post when it came out in April at the Contemporary Poetry Review:
…reading your verse has an impact in terms of the performance of your poems before a live audience, and that impact is negative. The poet reciting his verse can make use of the actor’s craft—not least of which are gesture and expressiveness—to perform the poem dramatically. By comparison, the poet reading his verse is a humble creature in front of an audience: eyes down on the page, body behind a lectern, mouth in front of a microphone. The poet-reader presents his audience with nothing in terms of his presence (or “visual impact”) but only as a disembodied voice to be heard—much like a school teacher’s lecture. Therein lies a fatal flaw: the audience has come, not to be taught, but entertained. This kind of “poetry reading” is thus an absurdity: the non-performance of verse by a poet in front of a live audience. The poet who can only read his work should, ipso facto, not be in front of an audience, ever.
This week, the folks at Commercial Poetry take up the refrain in this post.
The left side of Patricia Smith’s face temporarily frozen by the effect of a virus and how it affects her:
I never realized how tightly the way I sound is connected to what I want to say. The minute I’ve written something, I begin looking for a way to say that something out loud. And yes, I’ve read mythic tales of poets who hate the sound of their own voices, who are content to have their words inked, bound, and therefore relatively accessible. Me? I believe that words are meant to touch the page for a tiny little instant. They don’t truly live until they’ve ridden the air.
But now my stanzas come halting and lazed. I have to slow my speech and enunciate. I’m terrified that I will speak and not be understood, that the full meaning beneath those words will be lost within the newly-slurred mechanics of my deadened half.
How can I say this? I am a poet. I need my whole mouth back. My pen can’t do it alone.
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.
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
I came late to the debate about reading versus recitation and just about everything that I’d have been minded to contribute was more than eloquently dealt with in the comments that followed the initial post. However, a process of thought was set in motion and I offer up its products in the hope that they might augment a fascinating discussion.
My training and subsequent career were in drama and for me the declaration of poetry out loud, whether from the page or as learned recitation, is all about performance. The distinction between the two (for me) is all about intention: what response your presentation is designed to evoke in your audience. Learned delivery involves one set of very specific and characteristic criteria; read delivery involves a distinctly different characteristic modality.
Many of you will be familiar with Aristotle’s treatise On Poetics, in which he differentiates between specific poetic genres. Certain of his propositions were subsequently reiterated by Goethe and Schiller, adapting them for their theatrical needs in the late 18th century, and then by poet and playwright Bertold Brecht in the early 20th century.
All three were particularly interested (albeit with differing emphases) in Aristotle’s presentation of the opposing modes of the Dramatic and the Epic. As narrative, the former provides the immediacy of the event unfolding in the moment through dramatic performance, structured so as to evoke in the audience emotional identification with situation and character and a sense of participation in the narrative. The latter provides the detached descriptive account, maybe delivered by a narrator or a chorus, relating events after they have occurred, structured so as to engage the audience’s capacity for objective evaluation as the story is told.
The plays of Goethe and Schiller – like their Greek counterparts – were written in verse. But Brecht, writing his highly politicised post-naturalistic ‘Epic Theatre’ largely in prose, refined the differentiation, actively requiring the distancing of the audience from emotional identification, encouraging instead, through a range of specific performance and design techniques, rational understanding and considered evaluation on the part of the spectator. Not least amongst these techniques was the actor presenting his/her part in the third person singular, as if commenting on the action as it actually unfolds.
I see similar contrasting dynamics at work in, respectively, the learned poetic text performed to an audience and the text that is read from a printed source, interposed, as it were, between reader and recipient, acting as barrier and conduit at one and the same time.
It seems to me that the entire point of the learned text in performance is the engagement of the audience’s emotional attention. Whether the performer is delivering the poem indirectly to the audience in the manner of a ‘fourth wall’ presentation requiring the fictional notion of an unobserved real event unfolding in real time or directly to the audience as a face en face encounter, an emotional commitment is being required. The very phenomenon of performance itself will engage the spectator/listener’s feelings and the greater portion of those subtle nuances and allusions that are part of any poem of substance will be hostage to its processes.
However, the physical interposition of text is also going to impose very specific constraints on both the scale and character of the delivery. Any emotive intentions on the part of the reader are going to be invested entirely in the vocal techniques that are going to be employed principally in simply ‘telling the tale’ – cadence, tone, pitch, pause, rhythm and the like.
But the very fact of this disembodiment of performance presents not just as limiting but as liberating too. Limiting because performance is invisible and thus purely oral/aural. But liberating because in the distancing of the audience from the emotional relationship with the performer, the reader can, in the manner of the ‘epic’ narrator, simultaneously tell the tale beguilingly and, in the manner of the telling, commentate on it too.
So for me the priority in the delivery of poetry to an audience is the integrity of the text. In this respect the poem should be speaking me: I am the vehicle, not the poem. And to my mind this priority can only be accorded via the medium of the read text (this being subject, of course, to whatever skills I can muster for the task!)
Having attended several different reading events over the last few months, I find myself wondering if an audience can separate the quality of a poem’s craft from the quality of its presentation by the reader.
Over the years, I have heard many less-than-interesting readings of poems that I found exquisitely crafted on the page. This is an issue I have thought about often, especially regarding “famous” poets whose readings have disappointed. I can always find comfort in returning to poems I have previously enjoyed on the page and rediscovering their merits in that way.
This separation is also easy when the readings are found on websites that feature audio. Here, I can listen and then re-read without the sound if I find that the reading does not enhance the poem for me.
At a live reading event, if I am hearing lines and phrases that I want to revisit, I am willing to purchase the book or seek out the poet’s work online to see how the words play out on the page. This part of the equation is easy for me to wrap my brain around: good writing stands out, whether it is well-read or not.
But I have been challenged lately by the opposite dynamic: what if the reader is engaging and confident, but the material seems amateurish, not well-crafted, or simply not to the listener’s taste?
I understand that any discussion of quality relies on subjectivity – the eye of the beholder, and all that. I have become frustrated, however, when a reader performs a poem that pays little attention to craft, relying solely on stage presence (and sometimes on intimidating volume) to “sell” a poem to an audience. It is akin to watching a band full of musicians jump around and make a lot of noise, but not really know how to play a song.
Many audiences respond positively to these performances as entertainment, which means the reading evidently works on some level. Yet I often have a difficult time separating the entertainment value of a reading from the level of writing in the poem. I have no strategy (as I do above for the other problem) to separate the words from the way they are being spoken.
So, what do you think? Should the quality of the poem itself be considered when you are deciding whether or not a reader is effective? If you can separate the two, please leave a comment. I would love to know how!
(Guest post by Hannah Stephenson)
Last week I was delighted to attend a reading celebrating Poets of the American West (1910-2010) at the beautiful Hammer Museum in L.A.. The event was held in honor of the Poetry Society of America’s 100th Anniversary. The featured poets were brilliant and highly-acclaimed: Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Carol Muske-Dukes, Michael Palmer, and (two of my all-time favorites!) Jane Hirshfield, and Robert Hass.
I know. Sorry you weren’t there to bask in auditory pleasure.
I loved the format of this reading, as most of the poets spent a majority of their stage time reading work by other writers (identified as West Coast writers). It was clear that poets had chosen work that resonated with them. Most intriguingly, this style of reading allowed the audience to see poets as both speakers and listeners; we got to watch a reader giving voice to and taking pleasure in someone else’s words.
Wanda Coleman’s readings were characteristically rousing and dynamic. I appreciate how she let the audience see her having fun; after reading one piece by Ishmael Reed, she laughed appreciatively. Juan Herrera’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bomb” was exciting and impassioned, and he involved the audience by giving us a line to echo, responsive reading-style (we sounded a bit like congregation gone wacky, which I imagine Ginsberg would have appreciated). Herrera praised Ginsberg’s performances, fondly recalling Ginsberg’s “beautiful breathing” between words or lines.
Robert Hass’s style of reading is fascinating. He manages to sound both conversational and authoritative, and I sometimes had trouble distinguishing whether he was reading a poem or providing commentary (which is a good thing, in this case). I admired how natural he was while reading; he was so blissfully easy to listen to. As he read a piece from Gary Snyder about the California coastline, he spoke as a tour guide might, punctuating the poem with occasional asides like, “Now we’re near Diane Wakoski’s home,” or “And here’s John Muir.” The audience was eager to laugh with Hass (at his own sequence of punchlines with no joke), and to learn from him.
Jane Hirshfield’s readings were calm and careful; though she spoke deliberately, she read her poems (many of which were quite short) comfortably, slowly. She also provided the audience with clapping instructions (always appreciated, right?), explaining that since she would be reading many brief poems, there was no need to clap in between each of them. It’s so refreshing when poets communicate to an audience in this way.
These readings allowed the audience to experience a poem on multiple levels: the original material, the reader’s feelings about the material, the poet’s own voice leaking into and reshaping the words. The experience reminded me a bit of hearing a musician cover a song that they desperately love, and bringing something new to the work. At one of the very first concerts I attended on my own (well, with girlfriends, but still with no parents) at 14, I heard Ani Difranco cover Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” I remember wondering why she chose that song, and what she loved so much about it.
So what poems would you cover, given the chance? (I’d head straight for some of Wallace Stevens’s Florida poems, Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” or something by Hirshfield, maybe “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested”). Would this work at every reading, or only in some circumstances (like thematic readings)?
In a recent post, Nic asked whether a poetry reader should make eye contact with the audience. One way to complicate this issue is to give audience members the text of the poems and let them read along as they listen. Then their eyes are on the text much of the time, rather than on the reader. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing for shy readers — more on that in a minute — but I do think it’s a strategy worth considering if you really want to grab and hold people’s attention.
Sharing the text with the audience at a poetry reading is something that never would’ve occurred to me on my own. I rather enjoy the feeling of being slightly lost, like listening to a challenging piece of music for the first time, letting it wash over me and not necessarily focusing too hard on what it means and where it’s going. The sound of well-chosen words is often enough for me, and I read so much poetry on a daily basis that I’m able to develop a pretty good sense of a spoken poem even on first listen. But my number one priority in giving readings is to try to reach people who are not themselves poets, or even poet-geeks — that elusive general readership I think most of us fantasize about — and I’ve been told by a couple of good friends who fit that description that having the text in front of them greatly reduces the intimidation they otherwise tend to feel at readings.
As an environmentalist, however, I am loathe to print out a bunch of handouts that are only going to end up in the trash. I suppose one approach, if the reading is in support of a published collection, would be to have a whole bunch of copies on hand and loan them out at the beginning of the reading, but I’d be wary of putting that much emphasis on the product, and possibly making people feel like heels if they don’t shell out for it at the end of the reading. Another approach might be to spend a little money at Kinko’s (or wherever) and make handouts, optimally on recycled paper, of a high enough quality that people will want to keep them afterwards. Still another strategy could involve making a nonce website for the reading on a mobile phone-friendly platform such as Tumblr or Posterous, and encouraging audience members to log on at the beginning of the reading and follow along.
At the last public reading I gave, I projected the text of my poems onto a screen, using that dreaded software synonymous in the public mind with bullet points, ridiculous transition effects, and droning presenters. Yes, I used PowerPoint! But if you have a PC, it’s simply the most convenient tool, and this reading was all about tools: it was in support of a collection called Odes to Tools, consisting of poems I’d originally posted on my blog. Feedback from online readers had taught me that some of the hand tools I wrote about weren’t as commonly known as I’d assumed. So it actually made a great deal of practical sense to have a slide show and include pictures of the tools. For a few of the more obscure ones, I turned it into a quiz: show a picture of a tool, ask people to guess what it was, then proceed to the text of the poem about it. So there were lots of opportunities for audience interaction. Since one of the poems was about a musical saw, I was able to incorporate an audio recording as well, a minute-long snippet of a subway performer in New York City. PowerPoint handles audio inclusion really well.
As for eye contact, I ended up reading from the screen rather than the chapbook, though I had an annotated copy of the latter along with me just in case. I positioned myself at a right angle to the screen so I could glance back and forth from the screen to the audience, and they of course glanced back and forth between me and the screen, but the fact that we were reading from the same text made it into a kind of communal experience, faintly reminiscent of church, minus the piety. The house lights remained all the way up, because we were in the middle of a busy bookstore.
It was gratifying to see how easily passing customers could be snagged. Ordinarily, I think unwary bookstore customers tend to be annoyed to find themselves suddenly trespassing on poetry readings, but here they could stop, glance at the screen, and immediately get a sense of what was going on. So I guess I do recommend this approach for readings in any kind of busy public space, if you can pull it off. A good mike is probably a must, and you might need to bring your own screen in addition to all the other equipment.
I concluded the reading by showing some of my videopoems, which went over rather well, though it meant giving up the live-reading feel and letting people turn their full attention to the screen. But the videos were each just a couple minutes long, and of course I gave spoken introductions to each one. My videopoetry style is to include the poem in the audio track rather than as text, however, and I think the opposite approach would actually be a better fit for a live reading. It would be fun to try swapping slides for videos altogether and doing something like a hybrid between a poetry reading and a video installation. The only question is whether I have the technical skills and stage presence to pull it off.
So is this a way for shy performers to escape the dilemma of whether to force themselves to make eye contact and risk utter befuddlement? Not being very shy myself, I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer, but I think the public perception of PowerPoint is pretty well founded. A hell of a lot of mediocre public speakers apparently believe that giving people things to look at while you drone at them helps keep their attention, but in reality, I think it just makes them feel trapped. And in poetry, more than in any other form of verbal expression, the goal is to open new windows, right? So having visual aids can be great, but it doesn’t leave you off the hook. You still have to read as if your life depended on it.