Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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‘Does hearing a poem change its meaning?’

Poetry as the Heard Word – worth a visit.

(Hat tip: Donna Vorreyer)


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poetry out loud website – The Poeio Project

This is just charming. The project author writes:

I don’t know all that much about poetry – but I found this book – or rather, it found me – I walk around town with it, along with my little camera. I ask people on the street or where ever I go if they would like to read a poem from the little book – to my pleasant surprise most say yes.

What I like best about this project is at the very end when people finish reading the poem, there is an expression on their faces – a look of something genuine, and, well, I don’t know, innocence maybe… something pure meeting the threads of the self-conscious.

It’s nice to see people trying hard, struggling a bit, reflecting in the moment and then seeing that transition from introspection clash reality.

I think this is why everyone enjoys some kind of poetry, it lifts you up and out – there’s no helping it..

The year-long project started in July and seems to be posting a reading a day on both You Tube and Vimeo. Reminiscent of How Pedestrian, another poetry out loud website we interviewed here on Voice Alpha , but with its own unique approach. I don’t know exactly which book of poems forms the basis for the project, but I’m guessing it’s something Oxford Book Of English Verse-ish. Watch random passers-by obligingly read Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Gray, Blake, etc for the camera. And it’s true about people’s expressions when they look up after finishing their reading. Just delightful.

(all ‘poetry out loud websites’ featured on Voice Alpha)


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poetry out loud website: miPOradio – interview with Didi Menendez

(Didi Menendez is a Cuban-born American artist, publisher and author. Her publications have won the Pushcart Prize and have been recognized by Best American Poetry. She publishes MiPOesias and Poets and Artists and curates the poetry out loud website, miPOradio.)

Tell us about miPOradio.

miPOradio is a project all on its own. It has been around since 2005. I had the help of Birdie Jaworski in setting up the initial podcast’s rss feeds and interviewing some poetry personalities at the time that I was publishing including Ron Androla and David Lehman. She had the sound equipment to do this for me and we went into full production. Later I bought individual sound recording devices and sent them to several poets to record their poems for me. I sent one to Amy King, Ron Silliman, Gabriel Gudding (and a couple of others). Amy King lives in New York so she was able to use the little recording device to interview Daisy Fried, Annie Finch, Ron Padgett and Ron Silliman among others as well as record live readings for me. Most of these readings and interviews are still available for download for free at miporadio.posterous.com. That is where the problem came in. Where to store the audio. Placing large files on a server is not free. Even with the new opportunities today such as Posterous and Soundcloud, there are limitations as to how much free space you are allowed. After that there is a fee of some sort involved. The majority of the audio I have online is kept at Libsyn. There is a limit as to how much I am able to upload a month depending on the package purchased. I originally had a server for miPoradio and had several files uploaded there but I could not afford it any longer and started resorting to Posterous and my monthly quota with Libsyn.

Another problem is at the poet’s end. Not so much with recording devices because there are plenty of recording options already built in to computers, ipods, etc. that were not around in 2005. The problem is the actual recordings. Very few poets are able to deliver a good reading of their own work. Amazing but true. That is my biggest challenge with miPOradio. Not so much the technology (which I still run into problems with when I ask someone to record their work) but the actual outcome of the recording. Maybe some poet’s works should be read and not heard…. I will continue to offer the media of sound with my publications regardless of these obstacles. There is always a way around whatever situation presents itself.

Talk about the response to your different publishing initiatives. Have the sound initiatives had greater or lesser response than the others? Why do you think this is?

Most readers still prefer to read and not hear. To me what is most important is how the work is presented on the page/browser, than if the poet is able to do a good job reading of their work or not. Visuals are more important to me.

Is there a next level to which you plan to take your sound-related projects?

I was planning on leaving all the recordings of miPOradio to PENNSOUND. I already have several recordings there but the mandate on how a file is to be submitted to PENNSOUND became too much work for just one person to handle. I am not a University. I do not have monies dedicated to any of my publications. Everything I do is out of pocket, love, sweat and yes sometimes tears. So I fathom if I die, I will just let PENNSOUND figure out what to do with all of it if they are able to get to it. This is an official statement I just made here.

If you could wave a magic wand and have anything you wanted to fulfill a sound-related project, what would it be?

I don’t believe in magic wands. I believe in hard work and determination. Hopefully if there is such a thing as a magic wand it would allow me the energy and creativity needed to continue providing this venue.

What are we poets not doing with sound technology that we should be doing?

They are not listening to their own poems. The are not reading them out loud. They are not stopping in the periods. They are not pausing between stanzas. They are not reflecting emotion in their words. They are writing poems as big as a mountain and reading as if they were a mouse.

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Readings Didi likes:

Emergent by William Stobb.
You painted your teeth read by Ron Androla.


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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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poetry out loud website: How Pedestrian

(This is one of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Katherine Leyton, founder of the online audio-video poetry journal, How Pedestrian.)

What made you start How Pedestrian?

I had been frustrated for years by the common misperception that poetry is boring, pretentious and/or simply beyond the average person’s understanding. My relationship with poetry has always been defined by pleasure – pure, spontaneous, unrestrained pleasure – and it has the potential to give each and every individual this. As I say over and over again in the project’s manifesto, I believe poetry should first and foremost interact with the reader on a gut level. No formal education required. I wanted more people to realize this, and I wanted, somewhat selfishly perhaps, to demand a wider audience for poetry.

Why did you settle on the current format?

The visual element of the project, of course, was the main idea. I wanted to bring poetry to people in pubs and streets and taxis around Toronto, capture it on video and post it online. However, the visual aspect of a poem itself is also very important, and I think to fully absorb a poem you need to actually read it; this is why I decided to post the work next to the video. I really wanted the viewer be able to read along.

I also thought it was essential to provide a biography of the poet, not only out of respect for him or her, but also because I believe it gives the viewer important context and, hopefully, inspires them to explore the poem or poet further.

What has the response been like?

The response has been wonderful! The enthusiasm with which pedestrians agree to read for me is astonishing. I would say that out of every ten people I ask to read a poem, nine say yes. When I started, I never expected a 90% response rate, which speaks of my own misperceptions about the way the Canadian public views poetry. People are willing and curious, they just might not be inspired to seek it out on their own – they need a push. Many of my readers want to discuss the poem or poet with me after they read, and almost all are fascinated by the project. Of course, certain contexts and/or groups of people are not as easy; the day I filmed the video for Haiku and High Finance week in the financial district, for example, I probably only had about a 40 percent success rate. Everyone was simply too busy. Nevertheless, getting hurried business types to read poetry during lunch hour was an immensely rewarding experience.

What are your main challenges?

Honestly—money and time. Working a full-time job and running this is exhausting, and the quality of the project suffers for it. Between selecting poetry, choosing a location, filming, researching and writing biographies, editing video, moderating comments, corresponding with contributors and doing promotion, I simply can’t do everything as well as I would like to. I have a number of incredible occasional volunteers, but no one that contributes in a regular, scheduled way. I also need better equipment – an external microphone, for example, and a camcorder light for shooting at night, but I literally just don’t have the extra cash to invest in such items.

What’s fun about it?

Almost everything, but above all else, the process of actually going out and filming people reading. This aspect is by far the most rewarding; I am continuously exploring wonderful new places and activities around Toronto for the project, while simultaneously meeting incredible people along the way. Among many others, I’ve had a priest, a Caribana queen and a man with a parrot on his shoulder read for the site, all in amazing locations. I often have those ‘aha’ moments while I’m out filming where I realize how much I love this city, and the people in it, and how grateful I am to be running a project that constantly reminds me of this.

Describe the hardware and software you use.

I use a Canon FS200 video camera for filming and Final Cut Pro 7 for editing.

Is there a next level to which you hope to take ‘How Pedestrian’?

Although I never want to lose the rough charm of the current HP videos, I do hope to eventually improve their quality, both through the use of a better camera and by bettering my video editing skills. I’m also planning to purchase an external microphone so that sound quality improves. Most importantly, I’d like to expand the number of contributors we have filming videos of pedestrians reading in various locations around the world. We’ve already had videos from India, Italy, Scotland, and the US, and I’d love to continue reaching more places and more people. In sum, How Pedestrian wants to take over the world.

What tips do you have for anyone reading a poem for an audience?

Do what feels right for you. The poem is yours now, even if you didn’t write it. Beyond that, just read loud and slow. Remembering to breathe is important.

What are your thoughts in general on the current state of the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience, in Canada and/or elsewhere?

I would say I generally find traditional poetry readings boring. In my opinion, the majority of your run-of-the-mill readings simply don’t add any value to the actual work, and I think that’s a key thing to consider when it comes to reading aloud for an audience. You need to add an extra element.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t feel qualified to make a general statment on the art of reading poetry alound in Toronto – I haven’t explored the scene enough. The Toronto Poetry Slam at the Drake Underground is an incredible event, and demonstrates just how dynamic and exciting poetry can be, but it’s a very specific type of poetry – it’s Spoken Word. I think there are a lot more ways we could make traditional poetry readings more entertaining. When I was studying in Edinburgh a few years ago, for example, there was a fantastic monthly poetry event called The Golden Hour; it involved musicians, poets, short story writers and artists all performing in one night. The atmosphere was always lively and light-hearted and fueled by wine. The audience didn’t take themselves seriously, and neither did the performers. Indeed, the audience performed as much as the performers did. I think Canada needs more of these – unrestrained, unscripted, anything-goes poetry events.

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Katherine Leyton gets paid to write about porn & lust every weekday from 10 to 6. At night, she writes poetry. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Malahat Review, The Feathertale Review and Room. She is also the founder of How Pedestrian.

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More interviews in this series.


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poetry out loud: must-visit websites

naturally, Voice Alpha is at the top of the list

Stop by and add your own favorites!


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poetry out loud: interview with ‘Linebreak’ editor

(This is one of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Johnathon Williams, editor of the online audio poetry journal, Linebreak.)

Most online poetry sites with an audio aspect feature poets reading their own work aloud. Linebreak is highly unusual in that it is specifically predicated on readers reading other people’s work. Would you give us the background on how/why Linebreak developed in this direction?

It was mostly by accident. We’d intended to include audio from the very start, but when we began soliciting that initial batch of poems – before the website even existed – a few of the poets we accepted didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to record their work. The most obvious fix for that was to have someone else record those poems, and once we tried that, we knew immediately it should be a permanent fixture.

What is specifically beneficial/intriguing/productive about marrying voices to poems that the voice owners have not written?

The benefit is that performance is a form of interpretation, so that in hearing someone else read the poem you’re exposed to a new interpretation of it. It’s a little like hearing a cover of one of your favorite songs performed by a different band. A good cover can completely reinvent a song. It’s the same with poems.

As a weekly magazine, we also benefit by increasing the number of poets that we feature. We only publish 52 poems per year, so the weekly addition of a reader allows us to feature two poets at a time instead of one. There’s a benefit to the poets as well, in that it encourages a connection between two writers who might not have known each other. It’s been fun to watch our performers and writers become friends on Facebook, or write us to ask for each other’s email addresses.

Please describe the process of selecting Linebreak poems. To what extent does the fact that they will be vocalized on the site influence your choices? (E.g. are questions of length, format, the sonics of the poem itself, actively weighed?)

The audio portion doesn’t influence our selection process at all. I certainly don’t think about it when I’m reading submissions, and I’m pretty sure the other editors don’t, either. We have to fall in love with a poem as a written artifact first, before we even think about how it sounds out loud. As an online publication, we’re open to poems of all lengths.

Please describe the process of selecting your readers and the criteria you use in those selections.

Our first criteria is that all readers be poets themselves, with at least a couple of publications to their credit. We have a standing call for volunteer readers on our about page, and lots of the folks who read for us are pulled from those volunteers. Pairing a particular reader to a particular poem is sometimes deliberate — as when we asked Leon Stokesbury to read Seth Abramson’s “Cash at Folsom” — and sometimes coincidental. Sometimes it’s Monday afternoon and our update is due the next morning and the volunteer reader doesn’t come through and I find myself trolling through my Facebook chat list, randomly accosting any poet who happens to be online for some impromptu audio.

What tips do you have for anyone recording a poem for an audience?

First I’d say to get rid of your poet voice – that dreadful, droning affectation that’s become all too popular these days. (Hearing one of those always makes me think of that scene from The Golden Child where Eddie Murphy is in Tibet confronting the mystics: -“I, I, I, want the knife…. please.”) Your regular voice will do just fine. Other than that, you can do a lot worse than to simply slow down a little, and speak. A recording isn’t live, so there’s no pressure. You can always do another take if you need to.

Please describe the technical side of your audio operation. How do you receive sound files? Do you edit the audio at all? If so, to what extent? What software and equipment do you use?

We receive sound files through email, generally, or through a service like DropBox when the files are too large to be emailed. We tell our readers that files in WAV or AIFF format are preferred (those are uncompressed formats that give us the most leeway if we need to edit them), but a lot of people don’t know how to create those files, so we accept MP3s as well.

As far as editing goes, we edit most of the files that we receive at least a little. The most common edit is to remove the dead air at the beginning of a recording, or the shuffle and click of the recorder being turned off at the end. The second most common is removing background noise.

Our software workhorse is GarageBand, which comes bundled with all new Macs, and which I use for 90 percent of our editing. Occasionally I need something that’s more capable at removing background noise, and when that happens I use Audacity, a free program for both Macs and PCs.

On the hardware side, I have a Zoom H2 recorder, which is probably the best purchase we ever made. I’d recommend it for all poets. I use the Zoom to record audio for the site whenever I can, which is usually when a new poet happens to be visiting the local university, or when I’m at AWP.

Probably the most valid criticism you could make against Linebreak is the variance in our audio quality. There are weeks when we post studio-quality audio, and there are weeks when we post … something else. We have on occasion rejected recordings — or more commonly asked the reader to re-record something — but we hate to do that too often. My thought is that it’s better to err on the side of a greater variety in voices than to be too stringent about audio quality.

What sort of feedback do you get from poets on the readings of their poems? Does anyone ever object to the way their poem has been interpreted?

Usually, our poets love hearing their work read by another poet. No one has flat-out objected to a reading yet, but a few poets have grumbled a little about our choices. A more common problem is the rejection of a poem by a potential reader, although even that has happened only five or six times in the last three years. When that happens, we generally just send the reader a different poem.

If you could wave a magic wand and get a long-wished-for thing for Linebreak, what would it be?

My wish would be for the ability to make Linebreak and my own writing a full-time gig. Right now, I balance those with running my own web design and development shop, as well as being a husband and father.

What are your thoughts in general on the current state of the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience?

I think there’s a fascinating split between the academic side of poetry – those of us who came through MFA programs, and tend to focus on poetry as a written art – and the slam side. It’s fascinating because, in general, the academic folks tend to be better writers, in that they tend to be better read and more aware of the tradition they’re working in. But slam poets, by and large, are better performers. And by “better performers”, I mean they’re less likely to bore the audience to tears.

We’ve all been to poetry readings on the academic side where the reader could’ve been replaced by a robot and hardly anyone would’ve noticed. Sometimes I think that refusal to perform is a deliberate effort by some academic poets to separate themselves from slam poets. But it’s also true that many writers are introverts who are uncomfortable with the entire idea of performing. To those people, I’d simply remind them that, in the absence of performance, there’s absolutely no reason for public poetry readings to exist. Everyone in the audience is perfectly capable of reading the work by themselves. The only reason to invite the author to read it aloud is to hear it interpreted in a new way, in a voice other than the listener’s — in other words, to hear it performed.

Anything else we should have asked but forgot?

If I hadn’t taken so long to get these questions back to you, you could’ve asked about Linebreak‘s first book project, which went on sale on Jan. 26. Two Weeks is a digital anthology of contemporary poetry, released exclusively as an ebook and audio book.

The entire project was compiled, edited, designed, coded, and recorded in only 14 days. My co-editor and I took public submissions for the first week, then spent the second week editing and producing the book. We received more than 1,000 poems. In the end, we selected 58 of them, from poets such as Dorianne Laux, Bruce Bond, T.R. Hummer, and others. You can listen to samples and download it immediately on our website, or order it directly from Amazon.

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Johnathon Williams is a writer, editor, and web developer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His poems have appeared in The Morning News, Unsplendid, 42 Opus, and various print magazines that can’t be linked to. An essay he wrote about his personal relationship with zombie movies is required reading in university writing programs across the county. (Not really).

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Johnathon at Whale Sound.
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