Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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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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


“Why We Still Hate Poetry Readings”

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.

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a poet needs her mouth!

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.


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


To read or to recite? Dramatic versus Epic

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!)


Separation Anxiety: Poem and Performance

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!


Reading OPP (other people’s poems) for an audience

(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)?


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