Voice Alpha

about reading poetry aloud for an audience


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Recapturing Read-Aloud Magic

A quick post here to link to an article on poetry readings from Jess Lacher at the Kenyon Review blog:

“Whatever happened to the sort of reading out loud we got when we were kids– when your mom talked in a monster’s voice, when the scary parts became whispers and there was relief in her voice when the day was saved? Here’s an idea: treat your audience like the exhausted child-brains they are…”

Although some of her tips have been discussed here before, her goal and attitude about readings being for the AUDIENCE, not the poet, are worth a read.

Find her post here.


3 Comments

Reading advice: reading from outside the poem

Dear Voice Alpha,

I’m so glad I found your site! It’s been especially helpful hearing the different versions of Wonder Woman posted this month, because I knew I’d have a hard time reading it well when I was choosing poems to record.

I’ve attached readings of The Party and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these poems through recording and I hope that comes through. Looking forward to your comments!

Best,

Rachel Brown

(Rachel reads The Party by Nic Sebastian and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom by Donna Vorreyer from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)
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The Party


Voice Alpha responds:

Nic

Dear Rachel – thanks for sending in these readings! I found your reading here very clear – good confident enunciation, good breath control and good pacing. However, I have a fondness for a ‘conversational’ tone of reading, rather than a more self-aware ‘I am reading a poem’ tone and I felt more of the latter than the former in this reading. What was also missing for me here was a sense of your own emotional engagement with the poem – I heard you reading the words aloud without feeling that you were in the poem’s skin and communicating the poem to me. The delivery felt somewhat monotone to me, and this was probably a contributing factor.

Kristin

Dear Rachel – I thought the tone of your voice was lovely: no cracking, no squeaking, no breathlessness. Very even. Perhaps too even. I noticed that you never changed your delivery much: every word comes out exactly the same as every other word. Perhaps this decision was a conscious one on your part, tied to the theme of the poem. But in case it’s not, I thought I’d point it out.

I heard the slightest difference in delivery when you said these words: cinnamon, bergamot, Istanbul, and citrus. I could make the argument that these words are some of the most evocative (but someone who is not into cooking and scent, as I am, might choose other words). If you were to continue to work on this poem, these might be the words that are most evocative for you, evidenced by the slight shift in your voice.

Dave

Dear Rachel – Kristin is kind to suggest that the lack of inflection might have been intentional. Even if it was, I’m afraid I don’t care for it. I feel you need to slow down and think about what the poem is saying — to get inside it, as Nic says. This isn’t a terrible reading, and one can certainly hear the poem well enough to appreciate it, but it sounds like the way one might read a poem if one were encountering it for the first time. I suspect that after 15 or 20 more takes, you’d get pretty good at it.

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Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom


Voice Alpha responds:

Nic

Dear Rachel – I listened to your reading of The Party before I listened to this reading and noticed a definite difference between the two. This time it felt much more to me that you were inside the poem, feeling it, and communicating it to me. I’m wondering if that might be because you felt more confident in your understanding of the poet’s intent in this piece – you were definitely much more emotionally convincing. I find that when I’m not sure of a poet’s intent, voicing the piece several times helps build an emotional narrative that is cohesive and makes sense to me. The emotional narrative your voice builds for you doesn’t have to match the poet’s intent exactly (and no reader can do that any way) – but it has to be convincing to you, because if it’s not, your voice will betray you.

Kristin

I, too, noticed a difference between the two readings. I love the way you emphasize these phrases and words: “Hurl the heft,” “gutteral punch,” “whip crack,” and “honey.” When you said “hurl the heft,” your voice lifted; with “gutteral punch,” your voice went into a staccato punch of emphasis. Likewise, “whip crack” was delivered with a verbal similarity to the line, while you said the word “honey” with a long languidness, very much like honey.

Well done!

Dave

I did listen to this one first, and wasn’t completely satisfied with it, thinking it sounded as if you were trying too hard in spots. After listening to The Party, though, and three more times to this one, I tend to feel this succeeds where the other fails: expression slightly mis-fired is still a vast improvement over expressionlessness. I’m thinking the latter is your default style, and that here you were really studying how to place emphasis, as Kristin’s comment details. Keep doing what you’re doing here and you’ll be rocking the mike in no time.

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Rachel Brown recently graduated with a BA in mathematics and nine houseplants. You can read some of her poems here.

Previous Dear Voice Alpha responses.


2 Comments

Collin Kelley reads ‘Wonder Woman’

This week the Voice Alpha gang has been reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. To end the week, we have a reading by the poet himself.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman.’

Collin’s reading


Kristin’s comments

I love hearing Collin’s voice, that slight Southernness that is an interesting counterpoint to Nic’s accent.

I thought the part that describes the costume was a bit rushed. I almost missed a few words, and I wondered if I hadn’t already heard the poem numerous times (thus I knew what was being said), if I would have had more trouble with that part.

On the other hand, I approve of the words that Collin emphasizes by drawing out the enunciation of them: “magic,” “ounce,” “manly” and “dad.”

I feel the wistful tone of his voice, the slight underlying sadness there, fits the poem’s tone.

The more I read/hear this poem, the more it seems like a love letter of sorts to patient parents. Suddenly I have a yearning to go back through all my poetry anthologies just to see how many poems there are that remember poets’ parents in this way. I’m willing to bet it’s a recent phenomena.

Ah, well, that’s a subject for a different day, for an academic paper perhaps.

Overall, I found this reading a pleasurable listen.

Donna’s comments

I agree with Kristin- Colin’s reading has a lovely sense of light-hearted nostalgia, added to by his accent.

I also thought the poem seemed a little rushed, but very conversational. I noticed and liked the same emphasized words as Kristin, but I also liked the way he gave a sense of resignation to the words “Superman” and “Batman” as if those were wistful, fatherly dreams that would never be fulfilled.

Colin’s reading was several seconds shorter than several of the others, and it did seem to go quickly. I think that his delivery, if slowed just a bit, would allow the reader to grasp the intricacies of emotion on first listen.

Carolee’s comments

I wanted Collin to slow down during the description of the costume, but once he arrived at the narrative about the father’s true wishes, the energy served the poem well.

Since we talked about the other readers struggling with what words to emphasize in their readings, I want to mention that the stressed (and un-stressed) words in this version seemed just right to me. For example, his tone is clear that “more than the dolls, mind you” was an aside, and he hits the action verbs “lassoed” and “demanded” hard enough that we feel — and can visualize — their superhero qualities.

Dave’s comments

For the most part, I agree with Kristin and Donna’s comments. But what they call rushed, I heard as intense, in a headlong, slam-contest kind of way that I tend to find exciting and engrossing. In fact, this reading (made, it should be noted, before Collin heard any of our takes, but after we had all recorded them, so that there was no influence in either direction) reminds me of what poetry readings by the author can sometimes contribute that readings by others cannot, especially where the subject matter is autobiographical. Kristin is spot-on about the sense of relationship between the narrator and his parents that Collin’s reading evokes. How come none of us were able to bring that out, or even hear it on our own?

Getting down to the nitty-gritty: I thought he nailed the delivery of the line “but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibres.” In fact, the reading really took off at that point. The opening lines, up through “be Wonder Woman,” were also very strong. I did think he trailed off a bit too much at the end. The other weak points, for me, were the rising intonation at the beginning of “wrapped around my seven-year-old sunken chest” and the pause before “made of cardboard.”

Like all the other readings we’ve heard this week (including, Lord knows, my own) this was imperfect, but somehow the imperfections were less of an issue. I’m genuinely surprised that this turned out to be my favorite reading of the poem.

Nic’s comments

Dear Collin – I loved your reading! I’m a sucker for a Southern accent, and I was aware that that fact predisposed me to like the reading from the get-go. I reminded myself of what I have previously said on the topic, in this post talking about the elements of a good reading:

Additional important note to self: In fairness to both the reader and the poetry, be sure to identify and clearly separate out your reaction (whether positive or negative) to factors beyond the reader’s control, such as regional accent, the sound of the reader’s voice, and any speech impediments she may have.

When I consciously separated your regional accent from the rest of the reading, I still liked it. Your enunciation was excellent, your base-note tone conversational and overlaid with good emotional variety, and I didn’t have any problems with your pacing. You read faster than the rest of us, but I think the poem’s content can support different pacings and your pace brought an energy to the poem that show-cased the content well. I found the reading of the costume portion not as strong as the second half (from lassoing ‘my poor father’ on), but part of that could be structural, as Donna pointed out in her comments on Dave’s reading. There was a sort of intimate tenderness in the second half that I found very touching, and I agree with Dave that your reading of your own poem likely here brought something to the piece the rest of us did not.

Where there could be improvement, I thought, was on the breath control side. I could hear you take breaths in what to me felt like random places in the text and this slightly undermined the reading for me. I’ve marked the places where I thought breathing could have been better placed in the text below with double asterisks. Looking at the text with the asterisks and listening to your reading as a whole, I see that you seem to have a tendency to view line breaks as occasions for breathing. While this frequently makes aural and substantive sense, I would counsel against automatically equating line breaks with breath-taking, as that can really interrupt the flow of meaning when the poem is being read aloud, as opposed to being read on the page. Finally on breath control, with the lines and the length of rope my father had / spray-painted gold in the yard I thought you sounded as if you were running out of breath and only just made it to ‘yard.’

The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
**G.I. Joe for Wonder Woman ** must have set off alarms.
I wanted to surrender my guns for the golden lasso,
more than the dolls, mind you, I wanted to be
Wonder Woman.
I don’t remember who stitched the costume,
blue underwear with glued on stars, a red bustier
**wrapped around my seven-year-old sunken chest,
the golden eagle oddly deflated.
The headband and bullet-deflecting cuffs ** made
of cardboard and the length of rope my father had
spray-painted gold in the yard hooked at my side.
I lassoed my poor dad first, demanded the truth,
but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.
If the rope ** could have squeezed out an ounce
of what he was really thinking,
I would have been dressed up as Superman or Batman,
a manly cape flying out behind me as I ran
**around the back yard, hidden from the neighbors,
while my dad devised a way to build
Wonder Woman’s **invisible plane.

There’s a quite a bit of stuff about basic breath control on the internet (here and here for example – yes, it’s always for speakers and singers and not for poets – don’t get me started!), with suggested exercises to help one build and better control one’s breath capacity. One thing I find helpful when reading aloud a piece that confuses me breath-wise, is to go through the text and actually mark the places where I will take a breath, to avoid random breathing.

Again, much enjoyed your reading. Thanks for letting us read your poem and for sending in your own reading, Collin. I’ve enjoyed this week with Wonder Woman!


1 Comment

Kristin reads ‘Wonder Woman’

This week the Voice Alpha gang is reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. We’ll end the week with a Voice Alpha critique of a reading of the poem by the poet himself. Feel free to add your observations on the readings to the comments. If you would like to send in a reading of Wonder Woman for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman.’

Kristin’s reading


Donna’s comments

Kristin’s reading starts out a little flat and disinterested. When she gets to the lines about the costume, she seems to come to life. Loved the tone change for the word “truth” – very superhero! The reading is very articulate and clear, and the line breaks are handled well.

One criticism would be that, although articulate, the reading lacks emotion. As a reader, I think that the poem deals with wonder, disappointment, and affection, and I struggled to hear those in the reading.

Nic’s comments

Dear Kristin – Your volume, clarity of diction, breath control and pacing are all good, in my view. There is a lack of variety and inflection in your tone, though, and I don’t feel you are ‘inhabiting’ the piece overall (although there is a brilliant moment in L13 – I love the way you said ‘the truth’ – so evocative!). I suspect this may be a function of reading into a voice recorder, rather than directly to an audience.

Carolee’s comments

Hi, Kristin! Your words in this reading are very well enunciated. I can hear you getting your lips around every word without it seeming like a challenge. It may be natural for you, but I point it out because it’s something I struggle with in my own readings.

Otherwise, I wanted you to embody the piece a bit more. One easy thing that may help that is pacing — a slower reading with longer pauses. I feel that way because the narrator is remembering, and when we remember pivotal moments like this we are examining them even as we tell them and that slows us down in a good way.

Another thing to remember is that this is a narrative piece, which makes me go in my brain to all the wonderful storytellers I’ve heard in live performance. They create an aura with the tone of their voices (and the pacing, as well): “I’m going to tell you an amazing story,” it seems to say. And then they tell an amazing story (which this is).

Dave’s comments

More wonder, please! It may be that this poem is just wrong for you — if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it.


2 Comments

Dave reads ‘Wonder Woman’

This week the Voice Alpha gang is reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. We’ll end the week with a Voice Alpha critique of a reading of the poem by the poet himself. Feel free to add your observations on the readings to the comments. If you would like to send in a reading of Wonder Woman for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman’.

Dave’s reading


Dear Voice Alpha,

This was the last of seven takes. I did a couple of dry runs, too, but usually the recorder has to actually be running for me to put my all into a reading with no live audience present. Isn’t that weird?

I enjoyed the poem very much (once I consulted the Wikipedia article on Wonder Woman — the stuff about the lasso would’ve been lost on me otherwise). There were two places where I kept stumbling. I couldn’t decide how to space my breathing in the sentence beginning “The headband and bullet-deflecting cuffs,” and so I fear that might be the weakest patch in my reading overall. And for me the poem has a lot riding on the next-to-last word, “invisible,” and I found it challenging to decide how to emphasize that without sounding unnatural. Probably there are other problems in my reading about which I was simply oblivious, but those are the two that stood out for me. I thought about trying to put special emphasis on the “wonder” in “Wonder Woman” in the second or fifth line, but I think that’s one of those things you have to trust the audience to work out on their own.

Looking forward to your feedback.

Dave Bonta

Donna’s comments

Dear Dave – Your voice is the welcoming voice of the storyteller – it makes me want to pull up a chair and sit a while, which is a wonderful feeling and helped make the poem feel relatable. I hear the affection (and a little nostalgia) in your voice.

I noticed that you decided not to stress the word “invisible,” but you did stress other words to emphasize their importance – be, truth, magic, ounce. Most readers chose to stress these words, so they seemed natural choices for your reading.

You handled the transition into the “headband” line well. It is a difficult section as it goes from an end-stopped sentence into a fragment – since there is no subject/verb structure to distinguish the rhythm of the syntax, it is a challenge for the reader to decide how to handle it. You did honor the endstop, but used your tone to make the phrase seem like it connected to the sentence before.

Nic’s comments

Dear Dave – Your volume, clarity of diction and breath control were good in this reading. I thought your pacing overall was slower than the content of the piece required, though, and that the reading could have benefited from a faster tempo.

Beyond all that, I felt that your ‘base note’ register is ‘I am reading a poem so my voice should get declamatory’ and for me that base note really gets in the way. It infuses the whole reading, so it’s hard to point out particular lines where it comes into play, but I have bolded below the points where I thought it most intense:

The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
G.I. Joe for Wonder Woman must have set off alarms.
I wanted to surrender my guns for the golden lasso,
more than the dolls, mind you, I wanted to be
Wonder Woman.
I don’t remember who stitched the costume,
blue underwear with glued on stars, a red bustier
wrapped around my seven-year-old sunken chest,
the golden eagle oddly deflated.
The headband and bullet-deflecting cuffs made
of cardboard and the length of rope my father had
spray-painted gold in the yard hooked at my side.
I lassoed my poor dad first, demanded the truth,
but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.
If the rope could have squeezed out an ounce
of what he was really thinking,
I would have been dressed up as Superman or Batman,
a manly cape flying out behind me as I ran
around the back yard, hidden from the neighbors,
while my dad devised a way to build
Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.

I’m going to refer back to my comments at this post, where I noted:

“I continue to meditate on Paul Stevens’ comment at this post where he defines authentic readings as ones where the reader “seems to be talking (italics mine), not self-consciously reciting.” I think reading a poem as if you are ‘just talking’ to your audience is excellent advice. Trust the text and trust your voice – they will give you the stresses and inflections and variety of tone called for by the poem, if you just get out of the way and let them do it.”

I guess not so long ago poetry was written to be declaimed and somewhere along the line we have internalized that method of delivery as the correct one for any poetry. I don’t think it works for contemporary poetry, though.

In this clip, at 1 min 20 secs into the video, you can hear Anne Sexton reading her poem ‘Menstruation at 40.’ I feel she automatically adopts that declamatory base tone which, in my view, detracts from the sensitive inflection and variety of tone of which she is clearly capable. Later in the video she herself says: ‘My husband hates the way I read poems. He says I sound like a minister.’ I agree with her husband!

Carolee’s comments

I understand what Nic is saying, and I hear the “i’m reading a poem” tone most often in the words that you stretch out in length, much like a song. where a conversational tone might have a short pronunciation of a word and then a pause, some of your words hold onto their vowel sounds to fill the space. does that make sense? like alaaaaarms and staaaaars.

However, I felt like I heard more of the pieces of the story (and understood more of their irony) in this reading than in any of the other readings. I wonder if it’s because you practiced it so much and really focused on the emphasis (which I understand b/c that’s what I had to do when reading the Emily Dickinson pieces for your podcast).

Anyway, there is a lot hidden in this poem, and I think you brought more of them out than some of the other readings did. Of course, there is the variable that we can’t predict — that yours is the fourth one I’m hearing so maybe I gathered up the hidden bits along my way. :)

Kristin’s comments

I, too, like Dave’s voice here, the warmth and the slight gruffness. I like the way that his voice deflates a bit as he reads a word like “shrunken.” I liked the tempo, and didn’t hear as much of the “I’m reading a poem” tone as other commenters noted here. This reading was my first listen and comment session, so I don’t know how much that element might play a part.

Gender of the reader and gender of the poem’s speakers . . . I started thinking about how readers might react differently to Dave’s reading, in his male voice, and our other readings, our female voices. It’s clear to me, from reading the poem on the page, that the speaker is male. Is it clear to readers who hear a female voice? Is it disconcerting when the female voice doesn’t match the speaker’s voice? Topics for a different post, I suspect.


4 Comments

Nic reads ‘Wonder Woman’

This week the Voice Alpha gang is reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. We’ll end the week with a Voice Alpha critique of a reading of the poem by the poet himself. Feel free to add your observations on the readings to the comments. If you would like to send in a reading of Wonder Woman for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman.’

Nic’s reading


Donna’s comments

I thought that Nic’s reading was very conversational. as if she was an old friend telling a story just to me, and I liked that approach. All of the words that were stressed were done so naturally, without artifice, something I (and evidently Dave) struggled with when approaching the poem.

It’s hard to critique Nic’s reading, as she approaches each poem so carefully. But… if anything was lacking, I felt that the humor/light touch of the poem was absent – although the subject matter is partially about the disappointment of the father, there is affection there for the man who spray-painted the rope and let himself be lassoed. I heard the disappointment but not the affection, except maybe in the phrasing of “poor dad.”

Carolee’s comments

I like the pace of this and I love how this opens — there is something in the tone of your voice, Nic, in those first lines about setting off alarms, that sounds somewhat foreboding.

I liked hearing that very much because the piece is about the father and the line he tries to walk between affection and embarrassment (shame? fear?). Your reading of those opening lines set up that teetering for me — how we aren’t sure how anyone will end up handling this in the end. It also sets up an awareness about the seriousness of what is in the lines. It made me aware that the frame (the wonder, the superhero, the glitter) of this poem surrounds a really serious question. Thank you for that.

Because I was aware of it, I struggled a bit with this reading in places because the inflection seemed a bit cheery (I apologize if it’s just me ascribing cheer because of the lovely accent) in spots where I wanted to hear again the daunting tone from the opening. A couple of examples: “the golden eagle oddly deflated” and “if the rope could have squeezed out an ounce.”

Kristin’s comments

As always, I love Nic’s voice, the beautiful accent–no squeakiness or creaking of any kind. I like the way the tone was somber at first, and a bit more animated as the poem went along. I like the stress of “sunken” chest and “deflated.”

I thought there was an unnatural pause at the end between “Wonder Woman’s” and “invisible.” A small quibble.

Overall, a wonderful rendition!

Dave’s comments

I wanted the kind of expression present in the last quarter of the poem, beginning with “If the rope could’ve squeezed out an ounce of what he was really thinking,” all the way through. Although it’s difficult to criticize so fine a reading, when I compare the rest of it with those last few lines, I do feel you missed a number of opportunities to vary tone and stress. The humor of this poem ends up seeming somewhat submerged by the delivery.


3 Comments

Donna reads ‘Wonder Woman’

This week the Voice Alpha gang will be reading Wonder Woman, the poem donated by Collin Kelley to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given readers permission in advance to record for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. We’ll end the week with a Voice Alpha critique of a reading of the poem by the poet himself. Feel free to add your observations on the readings to the comments. If you would like to send in a reading of Wonder Woman for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All Voice Alpha readings of ‘Wonder Woman.’

Donna’s reading


Nic’s comments

I thought this was a great reading, Donna! Your volume, clarity of diction and breath control were good throughout (one minor ‘breath control’ moment noted below) and your pacing was great. I loved the way you brought out the humor in the piece, especially in your emphases on three key words – alarms in L2, the truth in L13 and invisible in L21. I actually laughed when I heard how you did ‘alarms’ and ‘the truth’ especially. In the same vein, you also did a great job in L4-5 in presenting more than the dolls, mind you, I wanted to be / Wonder woman. Beyond that, I felt you really inhabited the poem and were reading it from the inside. You used a kind of mock declamatory voice which I thought suited the overall self-mocking feel of the piece very well. You adapted out of it appropriately in L14 to capture a wistfulness in there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.

Two very very small nits: In L8, I thought you had a ‘breath control’ moment, where you paused noticeably to take a breath at what seemed to me a random moment (between ‘around’ and ‘my’). In L15 I was not sure about your inflection on the word ‘ounce’ – it does need emphasis, but I thought your inflection turned it into something of a question.

Carolee’s comments

Donna, the energy in your voice in this is a great gift because it shows there’s more than one effective way to read the same text. while Nic’s and Kristen’s chose the reminiscing route (which i liked), yours goes in the direction of telling a hero’s tale. it makes me think of how one would read comic strips out loud, and that’s perfect!

I think some of the words you emphasize are right on and some seem off (in the YARD, for example). in the cases where they are off, it takes the reading toward that stereotypical poem-reading voice (lilting and dropping, like I am READing a POEM right NOW) we hear when someone forgets the emotion and story of a piece and only conveys the lines and the rhythm.

It happens to all of us, of course, and I think it’s a matter of practicing this so that you could sustain that comic book energy all the way through.

Kristin’s comments

I like the way you said words like “cardboard,” “ounce,” and “manly.” The word “plane” at the end almost gets lost, which may have more to do with recording technology than your voice.

I thought you captured a bit of the voice of the speaker as youngster, even though the speaker is clearly years beyond these events. I didn’t think about it at the time I read it, but I think one of the potential traps of the poem is a possible sinking into sadness or melancholy over the way we saw the world as children or over what’s been lost. Your voice nicely sidesteps that possible bog.

Overall, very well done!

Dave’s comments

This says more about me and my preferences than anything else, of course, but I do prefer your energetic style for this poem over what Carolee calls the reminiscing route. To me, this sounds like the voice one would use to read a story aloud to children — an excellent choice, given the subject matter. The several lines beginning “I don’t remember who” might’ve been a bit too declamatory, using an even rather than falling tone at the ends of clauses. I like this effect in moderation, but when used too many times in a row, it becomes tiresome. (Nic calls this “mock declamatory,” so maybe I just missed the point.)

One thing you and at least one other reader do wrong, I think, is to over-emphasize “manly” at the expense of “cape” in such a way as to imply that Wonder Woman too had a cape, just not a manly one. Also, it seems odd to say “really THINKING” rather than “REALLY thinking.” (Presumably, the father played along with the Wonder Woman schtick and at least pretended to tell the truth when lassoed.) And “invisible” is a bit too strong at the end.


3 Comments

Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection

First reading:


Second reading:


Dear Voice Alpha: I am submitting herewith audio recordings for your online clinic.

Sincerely,
Scot Siegel

(Scot reads The Fires by Ann Tweedy from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)
_______________________

Voice Alpha responds:

Kristin

I listened to both recordings several times, but didn’t hear much difference. So, if you’re thinking that the two interpretations are radically different, that fact didn’t come through to me (it has occurred to me to wonder about the quality of sound as I listen on a very old work computer, so I offer that as caveat).

I think your voice has a lovely timbre; it made me think of a dark wood somewhere with a distant cottage glowing in welcome. I also admired your even pacing and how you didn’t rush to get to the end.

However, I noticed that your voice got quieter and quieter throughout section 2 of the poem, and by the end, I thought it was almost too quiet, with no variation or moderation (except for the way you said “not”) in how you said the words.

But I did like the way you gave the word not (in the last line) special emphasis. I listened before I looked at the print version, and I was expecting the word to have its own line in the print version. Your interpretation of that line really worked for me.

Donna

Dear Scot – I also didn’t see much difference between the two recordings. The second reading sounded slightly more natural or conversational, yet I got the same feeling from both.

Your pacing and the way you handled the line breaks was good, but the tones of your voice, although welcoming (as Kristin said), were singular and hushed, giving me the effect of being lulled rather than engaged. For some poems, this might be effective, but I think that this piece, especially the second stanza, needs some variation in stress and tone to give the same impact that it gives on the page.

Kathleen

Dear Scot: I am fascinated by the sound of the vehicle in the second reading, just when the truck goes lurching on down the road. Is that intentional? I also hear very faint background music… I appreciate the clarity of your voice in these readings, and the somber tone. I don’t hear much difference in the pacing or emotion between the two readings, though, and they are both a bit slow, too measured. I yearn for more energy and restrained emotion in your voice. I like that your voice has a simplicity to it, matching the bare honest statements in the poem, but I think you can let yourself respond to the terrible and fearful truths stated there. Oh, the poor oxen! Oh, the real fear of being swept away! I’d like to hear a wince in the voice as the blood spurts out of the hole. I’d like to hear the real possibility of being swept away by the ocean of love.

Dave

Dear Scot – In the first reading, your approach to the second section of the poem struck me as too lacking in expression, too close to monotone, but I feel as if you went at least half-way toward fixing the problem in the second reading. I think the pacing is great in both; it’s just a question of intonation. To be specific, I’d give more emphasis, in the form of higher (or possibly sharply falling) intonation, to loved and engulf and a bit more to choose, along the lines of the emphasis you’ve already applied to words, shimmery ripples and slake. I didn’t care for the pause after straight. Donna is right about a lulling effect from this reading, but I don’t think you’re very far at all from something more fully engaging.

Nic

Dear Scot – I find your volume, clarity of diction and breath control all excellent. Your voice is warm and very pleasant on the ear. Where I had issues was with your pace and tone/inflection choices. I felt there is a lot of movement in this piece (the verb choices in themselves are so dynamic – spurted, squirmed, lurched, consumes, cresting, engulf, swept away) and seem to demand both a faster pace and a more energetic & varied delivery. Your slow pace and somewhat unvaried tone presented to me a melancholy and resigned speaker who is not the conflicted, anxiety-ridden speaker that I find in the text.

All that said, I can well see that these are subjective ‘editorial’ choices and that your reading of the poem is informed by your personal understanding of the piece which is just that – your understanding. (And, as Rachel Dacus said in her excellent recent blog post for Voice Alpa “the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader.”)

Now I’m going to get all nit-picky and zero in on upward inflection as I did in my response to Risa’s post. It seems to me that inflecting upward is the most over-used and ‘lazy’ habit in the poetry-reader’s book, and one I think it is easiest for us to fall into – I think because at some subconscious level we all just naturally think it is poetic. I speak from experience. Inflecting upward was something I did frequently in the early days at Whale Sound and still do more than I like. Once I heard it and began listening for it, I was embarrassed by how much I used it. I’ve been training myself to avoid and/or use it sparingly, and it’s a continuing daily struggle.

I find it helps to think of one’s voice as a musical instrument, one that needs – as any instrument does – care, attention, understanding, coaxing. Get to know your voice – what it likes and doesn’t like; what about it you can control, what about it is beyond your control; what it does well, where it is weak. If it does something you like, stop and focus on how it did it, so you can reproduce it the next time. Catch it where it’s lazy. Think about substitutes for the lazy tricks. Record yourself reading other people’s poems (not your own – they are no use here!) frequently; listen to your own voice, in its own right, frequently. Develop trust in your voice, let it guide you – it often knows things your brain is completely clueless about.

As I said to Risa, inflecting upward is not necessarily bad in itself – we just don’t want so much of it in any one piece that it ends up being a fundamental element of the aural texture of the piece as we are presenting it. I bold below where I heard it in your first reading and underline where I heard it in the second reading. I heard these words – different words, appearing in different ‘emotional places’ in the poem – presented nonetheless with the same tone/inflection each time. The ear remembers these things and joins the dots when deciding on a final overall impression.

i.
today i remember the two oxen
tied by their horns to the rails
of a flatbed truck in mexico.
the horn of one had come off and
blood spurted from the hole.
the animal squirmed with pain
as the truck lurched along the road

ii.
today the fear of being loved
consumes me. i stare straight
at the cresting wave that will
engulf me and report how weak
and hesitant it is, as if my words
could hold it at bay. as if
shimmery ripples would slake me.
as if i could choose
not to be swept away

I continue to meditate on Paul Stevens’ comment at this post where he defines authentic readings as ones where the reader “seems to be talking (italics mine), not self-consciously reciting.” I think reading a poem as if you are ‘just talking’ to your audience is excellent advice. Trust the text and trust your voice – they will give you the stresses and inflections and variety of tone called for by the poem, if you just get out of the way and let them do it. I’ll end with this effective reading (hat tip Kelli Russell Agodon), which is one where I think the reader does just that:

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Previous Voice Alpha reading advice:

-What to do about ‘slavish attachment to iambic pentameter’ (W.F. Lantry)
-Issues with breath, returning to reading in public after years (Risa Denenberg)


11 Comments

Reading advice: What to do about a ‘slavish attachment to iambic pentameter’?


Dear Voice Alpha: In response to your impassioned plea for a brave poetic soul to step forward to accept friendly advice on their reading technique from the Voice Alpha gang, I attach a poem sound file of Möbius (originally published at Umbrella Journal where it received a 2010 Best of the Net nomination) read by my husband, W.F. Lantry, the resident professional poet.

Obviously, the poem is his own work, and I admit that it wasn’t until we had made the sound file, after many, many false starts and discarded takes, that I reread the guidelines and saw that you prefer the poem to be someone else’s. Well, it may be more instructive for Bill to read his own poem so you can hear his often slavish attachment to the iambic pentameter – his preferred form, sometimes at the expense of the meaning. He smoothed out several lines after hearing how it sounded, but finally admitted that he and I have a ‘theological’ disagreement over how to read. I would go for meaning over iambic pentameter accents every time. Even after we put the poem into sentences and removed all the line breaks, he still read it in pentameter. Is this some form of poetic heresy on one of our parts? Perhaps we should invoke an inquisition into offenders against the Canon. We’ll let you decide….

Awaiting the decision of the Tribunal,

Kate Fitzpatrick
on behalf of W.F. Lantry
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Voice Alpha responds:

Kathleen

Dear Kate: I’m with you in preferring meaning over meter in the reading of this poem. The meter will underlie the reading, anyway, so you can trust it rather than emphasize it.  I think the reading would be more musical and more mobius-like, more winding and seamlessly flowing, if the poem is read at a slightly faster pace, respecting the enjambment of lines by carrying the voice past the line break onto the next line without a noticeable pause–a pulse of awareness would be OK, but not an actual pause.  There are enough places where the line has end punctuation, or a dash, or a colon, and there a pause is fine, but the poem needs the energy of flow and meaning to come through fully. Respecting the grammar and punctuation in general (the mid-line commas) will reinforce the meaning, which is good.  Right now, this is leaning toward sounding artificial, and since the art of it is there, I think letting it lean more toward the natural will keep the listener with you, listening.

Nic

Dear Kate: I concur with both your assessment and Kathleen’s. This is a beautiful technically-accomplished poem on the page. In Bill’s reading, the volume, clarity of diction and breath control are all good, but I feel the reading suffers in pace and quality from over-enunciation and from an over-emphasis on technical tools (meter and line breaks) that should buoy, but are instead weighing down, the performance. My impression is one of technical ‘over-explaining,’ which evidences to me a lack of trust, both in the text and in the audience.

I think there is a risk inherent in reading one’s own work to an audience. When you read someone else’s work, you are ‘explaining’ the poem to the audience. When you read your own work, in addition to ‘explaining’ the poem, I think you also have the opportunity – and run the risk of trying – to explain yourself. This latter process, if it kicks in, naturally undermines your trust in both the text and the audience, and from that it is a short step to ‘over-explaining.’

Let’s say reading a poem aloud is like making a model of a woman using green modeling clay. The risk when you read your own work is that as you make the green lady model which explains the poem, you may also be tempted to stick on additional bits of yellow modeling clay which explain yourself and where you were coming from when you wrote the poem. However, since those yellow ‘self’ bits inevitably lack context and relevance for the audience, the latter usually only end up wondering why there are yellow lumps on the beautiful green lady.

Bill is clearly a very accomplished poet who has a wonderfully visceral relationship with words-as-voice – he obviously lives, tastes, and feels them with great sensitivity. I would love to hear Bill read someone else’s work.

Kristin

Dear Kate: At first I liked the measured voice, the slow cadence.  Then it began to annoy me.  I noticed the pauses after certain words, and I wasn’t sure why they were there (to emphasize the word?  Because we were at the end of a line?).  The pauses began to distract me, and I began to lose the meaning of the poem.  The voice itself, on the other hand, was easy on the ears–no annoyances with the actual quality of the voice.

Donna

Dear Kate: I agree with Kristin – the slow, unvaried cadence interfered with the meaning of the poem for me. I felt disconnected from the reader and thus from the poem. Reading the poem on the page, I was impressed with the beauty of the language and the sound choices. I felt that some of that was lost in the audio version of the poem.

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9 Comments

Reading Advice: Issues with breath & returning to reading in public after years


Dear Voice Alpha: I’m giving a reading on Saturday, so I’m grateful for any advice. I haven’t read my poems in public in years.  Just listening, I could see where some of the problems are – breath is an issue for me, but also, clearly I did not read the poems carefully enough and prepare before I made the recording. This will be less of a problem with my own poems, of course, but it gives me even greater appreciation for how hard [Nic works at Whale Sound] to make [her] natural and true readings. I also realized that it is easier for me to read poems that are more narrative, less abstract, but again, reading aloud makes the reader have to work for the syntax and meaning in the words.

from Risa Denenberg

(Risa reads Dreaming in Couplets by Kathleen Kirk and Storage Unit by Hannah Stephenson from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)

_______________________

Voice Alpha responds:

Kristin

Dear Risa: I think your voice has a lovely quality, with the perfect amount of somberness to match the subject matter.  In places, however, your voice trails off, which I wondered if you did intentionally.  It can be a nice effect, but if you do it too often, you risk it sounding odd.  In the first poem that you read, I began to notice the trailing off effect, which makes me think you did it too often. Overall, a good job!

Dave

Dear Risa – I noticed in each poem you misread one word: towards for toward, there for here. Trivial, perhaps, but confirms, as you say, that you aren’t quite as familiar with the poems as you need to be. In the first poem, I thought you lapsed into something of a monotone rather soon after the beginning, but then, as if remembering to concentrate, you began to put more expression into it. Your reading of Storage Unit was pretty good all the way through, I thought, although the intonation seemed a little forced, a little artificial in parts. You perked up at “Barbies naked together,” as one would expect, but I have to say I failed to hear any hint of fearfulness at “horror of spiders” (though I liked how you did the “shhhh”). I think you are on the right track and just need to internalize the meaning of the words, and maybe relax, a bit more. Would it help if you imagined you were telling a friend some scandalous secret where every delicious detail deserves its due?

Kathleen

Dear Risa: Lovely reading! Your pacing and clarity of diction sound just right for a public reading, and I am so impressed with the quiet confidence in your voice, which relaxes an audience. In Dreaming in Couplets I heard the moments of discovery and quiet awe, starting at the flying moment and carrying through to the end, so that emotional connection and sense of dreamlike mood worked very well. Likewise, you then adjusted your mood and tone to the more conversational and reality-based content of Storage Unit while maintaining that clarity and steady, slow pacing. I was very moved while listening! Thank you. Well done.

Nic

Dear Risa – You’ll be fine at your reading! You are clear and have good pacing. Your voice is warm and pleasant to hear. You are unhurried but not over-slow and you don’t over-enunciate. Mostly, I feel you are ‘in’ the poems and reading to me from within (more so in Storage Unit than in Dreaming in Couplets). What follows is really nitpicking:

Hydration – I could hear that your mouth was a bit dry at the mike. When recording I always have a glass of room temperature water to hand. Taking a quick swig before starting to speak eliminates those ‘dry-mouth’ sounds the mike picks up so easily.

Of the two readings, I preferred the second one, Storage Unit. You sounded much more natural in this one, overall. In Dreaming in Couplets, I felt you went off a bit into ‘poetry voice’ (see No. 5 here) at the end in S6 and S7 and didn’t feel you were ‘in’ the poem at those points – more just pulling it along. Also, at a couple of lines in S5/6 – I did not see the patterns of these wings//waiting in the grass – your breath control wonked out on you (as I think you are aware) and knocked the emotional sense out of those lines for me. There’s a quite a bit of stuff about basic breath control on the internet (here for example), with suggested exercises to help you build and better control your breath capacity.

You identified in your note the challenge you felt you faced in coming up with a convincing emotional narrative to back your voice in the more abstract Dreaming in Couplets. In cases where the poem does not offer a traditionally straightforward narrative, I have found that my voice is a good ‘investigator’ in its own right and can ‘find’ a cohesive emotional narrative to ride on if I trust it and let it connect directly to the words without putting too much brain into the process. Sometimes it takes several voicings to get there. (A couple of random examples at Whale Sound here and here.) This kind of vocal/emotional investigative work is so important for a reader of poems, I feel, and it’s a process that is completely side-stepped when we read our own poems – because of course we feel 100% confident we have total grasp of the emotional narratives within our own poems. (Whether we actually do or not is a different question, of course! :))

Quick note on inflection – you have a trick of inflecting upwards, which in itself is not bad, but I think it was somewhat over-used here. I heard it in Dreaming in Couplets as underlined here:

I walk into the heat
of Miami, after the rain.

And again in Storage Unit as underlined:

at home. You visit once or twice a year,
dread the shhhhh of cardboard being slid
on concrete, the horror of spiders nesting here,
the uneasiness rooted in lifting up lids.

Upward inflection is good for asserting or implying a question – very effective sometimes also where there is not obviously a question – but it has to be used sparingly. I have this same trick and am trying to train myself to be very stingy with it.

Other minor beefs in Dreaming in Couplets. I would have liked to have heard more energy in this line:

No one cares, no one fears for me!

And this line:

I must leap the swamp to reach the meadow.

As these are two points where I feel the poem shifts briefly from meditative/contemplative mode to a more active and urgent mode.

But these are nits! You will definitely do a great job at your reading – I hope you will let us know how it goes.

Donna

Dear Risa: In the first poem, Dreaming in Couplets, you seem to fall into a bit of a monotone after the first two lines. The tone is very nice throughout, but you seem to pick up your expression on the words “over the water” before flattening out at the end. Perhaps some choice about which parts of the poem need more “vocal light” – even if a poem is serious or quiet, there are places where the voice can shine (like the lines about Miami…)

Second poem, Storage Unit, was well done – I especially liked how you handled the onomatopoeia of the SSHHH sound of the cardboard, but you seemed to trail off every-wise at the end.

All in all, very clear, easily understood, and a pleasure to listen.

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