A series of articles at Ploughshares on poetry readings this week:
This is great. Please skip directly to minute 34 for Paley reading her poems. Before that, she reads a couple of short stories, and before that, there’s a lot of intro stuff (Pinsky) and another reader. After that, you get about 30 minutes of Grace Paley reading Grace Paley poems (with some sweet/funny pauses while she gets absorbed in looking for the exact poem she wants among her sheaves of paper). This reading took place in April 2007, when she was 84. She died in August 2007.
I’m a big fan of Grace Paley’s poetry, as various Very Like A Whale posts have shown. Sadly, though, liking a poet’s poems is never any guarantee that one will like that poet’s reading of his or her poems. In this case, however, we are definitely lucky.
So what do we have in this You Tube video? A short, elderly lady with big glasses, a red hat, a gravelly old-lady voice and a pronounced New York accent. She doesn’t look up at the audience much while she reads. She uses no hand gestures or body movements. And she looks tiny and unprepossessing behind the big lectern at which she stands.
She clearly has a wicked sense of humor and is just plain wise, but it’s not just that that makes her completely engaging. The first big thing she has in her favor from my perspective is that she reads the poems as if she’s talking to you – conversationally. No rising inflections or declamation, no plaintive lingering on the last word/syllable of a line, no self-conscious ahem, I am reading a poem voice. She is obviously a natural story-teller, which helps – lots of convincing variation in tone, pitch, pace. Clear delivery. Appropriation of the material. She is in the poem as she reads. To repeat what I said of a couple of different poets in a recent post: what you feel when Grace Paley reads is not: Here I am, reading my poem. What you feel is just: Here is my poem.
Here’s Rachel Dacus reading her own poem “I spend an afternoon with Monet.” It starts at 30 seconds in and ends at the 2-minute mark.
This is the kind of reading I like – conversational, engaged, convincing. Great breath control, volume and diction, beautifully varied tone and good pace, but Rachel also brings in that intangible – she is very much inside the poem, communicating out of it to you. You can tell she knows the poem well and has practiced reading it, but there is still an element of spontaneity to the performance which I find authentic and convincing. As a bonus, we get great eye contact and facial expressions too.
If I have one very minor nit, I’d vote for eliminating the hand-gestures – the reading doesn’t need them, and I found them a touch distracting and detracting.
Thanks for sharing, Rachel!
I have the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day feed in my Google reader. It’s rare, though (sorry, Poetry Foundation!), that I hear a reading there that I enjoy and appreciate.
Here’s one of those rare ones – A Pedestrian by Amit Majmudar. I love the lazy casual way he begins, his complete confidence in his pauses, and the way he sprints it all off at the end. More like this, Poetry Foundation!
Here’s a useful reminder of ways to think about and effectively use sound when writing poetry. I like the poetry sound check list at the end. Everybody does No. 1. How many do numbers 2 & 3, I wonder?
Poetry Sound Check
Try some of these activities to get a sense of how your poetry sounds.
1. Read your poems aloud as part of the writing and revision process.
2. Ask a friend or family member to read one of your poems aloud to you. Pay attention to where the reader stumbles. Try substituting different words in these places.
3. Record yourself reading your poems. Listen without copies of the poems in front of you, focusing on the sounds.
When I was at the Miami Book Fair back in November of 2010, I saw Susan Rich do something that I’ve never seen at a poetry reading. I had heard tell of interesting give-aways at her readings, so I was hoping for lavender scented chocolates, but I’ve since decided that what she actually did was far more valuable. She gave us the two poem warning.
Shortly before the end of her reading, she told us that we were two poems away from the end. Later I thought it remarkable that fewer poets do that. I would argue that more of us should.
A two (or 3 or 4) poem warning focuses the mind. The warning acts as a shepherd, herding us all back to attention. It’s so easy for our attention to wander, especially as we get deep into the reading. The two poem warning calls us back.
Lately, I’ve wondered if we should go even further with our poetry readings, in terms of providing signposts for the audience. I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t arrive with a program or a bulletin, much as we would get at a concert or recital–or performances of many kinds of art.
My mother is a classically trained musician, so I’ve had the chance to go to many concerts. I’ve always found the program invaluable. It lets me know where we are and where we’re going. It gives me background information. I can stash it away as a souvenir, to provide happy memories later. Why don’t poets provide programs?
There are some drawbacks, of course. Even as I write this, I hear the howls of protest from my environmentalist friends. We can take some steps to mitigate the impact (like using recycled paper, planting seedlings), but handing out paper programs does mean that some trees will die.
Then there’s the issue of spontaneity. Handing out a program means that we have lost some chance to deviate from the plan. I know that some poets have several different readings in their heads, so that they can choose poems and go in directions as they sense audience response.
Of course, audiences might be willing to forgive a bit of spontaneity, especially if properly introduced: “This poem reminds me of a poem I wrote earlier, and I just can’t resist giving you this extra poem.” If we deviate too much, it defeats the purpose of having a program, of course, but like the two poem warning, like the program, a deviation calls the audience back to attention.
The most important reason to have a program is the potential to gain new audience members, and this reason trumps the environmental concerns or the desire for spontaneity. Often, we assume that we’ll be reading only for poetry fans, but unfortunately, that assumption means we’ll forget about all the others in the room who aren’t already fans, who can use some guidance.
Who might these people be? The students who come for extra credit, the spouses (or significant others) and children of the poetry fan who drug them all there, the curious friends of the poetry fan, the people who just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Many people, even the ones who come to poetry readings, feel that poetry is a tough art form to appreciate; a program or bulletin would help them find their way. A program gives us a place to put background information, if that’s important–then we don’t have to bog down our readings with lengthy explanations. If we’re reading from an assortment of our books, the program can serve as a playlist; then later, perhaps an audience member will say, “I really loved that poem about modern big, bad wolves. I’d love to buy the book that poem came from”–and there’s the program, serving as handy reference. A program gives us a chance to advertise our upcoming readings and publications. We might even promote other people.
A program gives people a souvenir, something to remember us by. A program might serve as a prompt, helping people to remember to support the world of poetry, whether by attending more readings, buying more books, or simply by reminding people of what a wonderful reading they enjoyed–thus encouraging them to go to more readings.
A program offers all sorts of potential. We shouldn’t overlook the possibilities.
(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.
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).
I had a great phone conversation last week with Mary Rose Betten. Mary Rose is a retired character actress, an essayist, playwright, poet and a reading coach!
I told her how excited I was to see a post from her on the WOM-PO Listserv which mentioned that she teaches people to read their work aloud. I told her about Voice Alpha and how we started it in part because there seem to be so few resources available on the internet to anyone looking to build or hone their ‘reading poetry aloud’ skills. We talked about how little the poetry community in general seems to value the art of reading poetry aloud and how nearly all the focus of poetry-teaching and poetry-tradecraft is on the writing and on the page. What about voice? We all want to learn how to write poetry well, but, at the end of the day, who really cares about learning how to read poetry aloud well?
Mary Rose cares, that’s who!
Mary Rose works with both poets and with writers of fiction. She works best face-to-face, with groups, she said. The group synergy and back-and-forth and live individual demonstration is an integral part of her teaching methodology, so it’s hard to get an accurate idea of her she works through text alone. I understood that, but asked if she could summarize, for this blog post, some of the elements she focuses on in her group sessions. These are some of the things we talked about:
Pausing – Mary Rose said teaching people how to pause while reading is one of her biggest challenges. She encourages people to think of a pause as a live thing: “a pause is not dead air; a pause is fraught with meaning.” Pauses are a way to show you care about what you are reading – imagine helping a very old person move or lifting a baby, how carefully you put your arm around the person you are helping, how gently you cradle the baby’s head. Treat your words with the same care. Use pauses to give your audience time to absorb meaning and fully hear what you have said.
Stressing words – In order to build awareness of the possibilities and importance of stress in reading, Mary Rose says she will take a phrase like “I never said he stole your money,” and have the group repeat it, stressing a different word each time as an illustration of how stress changes meaning. “I never said he stole your money; I never said he stole your money” and so forth.
Group the words you read into ‘sense units’ and put a pause at the end of each unit – this gives your audience time to understand and absorb the sense unit. Here Mary Rose gave the simple example of reading a phone number for someone to write down. We intuitively break the number up into manageable units – 703 pause 459 pause 2841. We don’t say 7 pause 03459284 pause 1, for example. The same with reading poems.
You at the podium – Use your position behind the podium. Mary Rose recommends you put your hands on the page and read along following your finger. With your finger marking your place at all times, you can feel comfortable raising your head, pausing, giving the audience ‘time to make pictures’ from your words. Breathe behind the podium – “take a big belly breath! No-one can see you do it behind the podium!” But no other body movement or gesticulating except lifting your head, Mary Rose says. “This is not about you or your personality, it’s about your words.”
Feeling words – this is not about drama and/or getting melodramatic, it’s about giving words their true emotional punch. Imagine someone close to you has fallen into a coma, Mary Rose suggests. You know they can still hear you and you want to get your words and meaning to them as convincingly and authentically as possible. Read your words like that – like they mean a whole lot to you and you are saying them to someone who also means a whole lot to you and only their sense of hearing connects you.
Volume – Another fear Mary Rose says she commonly sees is people reluctant to vary their volume and get LOUD or s-o-f-t. “Dare to whisper! And don’t be afraid to get loud – it can be great fun,” says Mary Rose. “Take a big belly breath and just do it.”
Pace – Likewise. Vary your pace. The poem overall has a pace, but there are variations even within that overall pace. It doesn’t all have to sound the same – get fast or slow down, if that’s what the text wants, Mary Rose recommends.
Keep your voice up at the end of a sentence, says Mary Rose. This is part of showing that you care. Don’t let your voice drop or tail off at the end of sentences. Let the period be a signal to keep your voice up.
Most of all, says Mary Rose, remember that who you are and what you believe in – your true self – is in your words. Remember that when you get up to read them aloud.
Mary Rose is available for group coaching sessions in the Hollywood/Santa Barbara area. Email mrbetten@VERIZON.NET for more information.
Mary Rose Betten is a retired character actress, essayist, playwright and Pushcart prize nominee for her first book of poetry:”Finding Your Best Angle, (Give This To An Actor”) Her chapbook, “The Prodigal Son’s Mother,” was selected book of the month for Finishing LIne Press. She won Women’s Artistic Network’s 2010 Carol E. Doering Prize, and serves as reading coach on the faculty of “A Room Of Her Own” and will direct “The Pepper Lane Review,” poetry reading at Center Stage Theatre, Santa Barbara, April 27th. Her poem and essay appear in Wompo’s anthology: “Letters To The World,”Red Hen Press her first chapbook was “Hanging Out With Loose Words,” Foothills Publishing, New York and her interview with host David Starkey on TV’s “The Creative Community,” won first place nationally. She will be a featured reader at The Carnegie Art museum, Oxnard, 02/12 sponsored by Poets and Writers magazine.
I just got (if I understood it correctly) an excellent question from Shelley at this post (which talked about the new Voice Alpha poetry reading advice column). Shelley asked what the Voice Alpha criteria are for deciding if a poem is read well. I responded: We have been mulling over the different elements that would ideally go into a good reading, but don’t yet have a single formal coordinated Voice Alpha position on criteria.
We’ve talked a lot at Voice Alpha about the logistics & mechanics of reading (how to organize a reading, what to bring, how to use a mike & accessories, whether to read your own or others’ poems etc). We have also talked quite a bit about the separate elements of reading itself. I was imagining that a coordinated Voice Alpha position on criteria would naturally develop itself during back-channel conversations about readings people sent in.
Since no-one has yet sent in a recording, however, (hint!) this may be a conversation we could usefully have on Voice Alpha while we are waiting for the first brave person to do so (we will be kind, remember! and we don’t have to use your name in posting if you’d rather we didn’t!).
For purposes of this exercise, I’m referring only to audio. The visual aspect of things is important at live poetry readings but doesn’t play where people just send in MP3 recordings (which is I think what we are mainly expecting).
So, what does ‘reading well’ mean? This is my personal list of elements of a good reading at the moment. (They are actually real questions I ask myself about and fret over for every single Whale Sound reading I do myself, but they are transferable, I think.)
Volume – can you comfortably hear the reader? Is she too loud? Too soft?
Enunciation – Does the reader pronounce words clearly and understandably? Does he mumble? Or does he over-enunciate, thus slowing down and undermining the emotional/narrative pace of the poem?
Pace – Is she going too fast or too slow for the content of the poem?
Breath control – Is the reader able to pace his breath so that his breathing works with the poem content and is quiet and unobtrusive? Or does he run out of breath in mid-sentence and have to breathe obviously and inopportunely in random places?
Tone/inflection – Do the reader’s tone & inflection choices match and/or enhance the poem content? Do they vary in accordance with the emotional journey contained in the poem? Does the reader use a ‘poetry voice’!? (see no. 5 here).
Engagement – is the reader reading to you from inside the poem, or is he reading at you from outside the poem?
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.
So what are your ‘reading well’ criteria?
1. People like to laugh. I wanted my friends and family to have a good time. Since many of my poems deal with heartbreak and aging, this is not a simple task. How to strike the balance between play and profundity? I made sure to include a few lighter poems. I spaced them in-between more somber ones.
2. Make it inter-active. This was my first reading for The Alchemist’s Kitchen so I wanted a party-like atmosphere. Since this was also the Broadsided Post-a-Thon weekend, I printed up broadsides of one of my poems and before I began my reading I had everyone hold up their colorful copy. This brought everyone together in a communal effort. I took a photo of the group and have submitted it to the contest. I promised to let everyone know if I won.
3. Read at a pace slower than you are used to reading. I re-learned this listening to Katherine Whitcomb’s reading last week. Poetry lives in the air; let it linger there so others can take it in, apprehend it. Nerves will push you to speed up, practice reading slowly and clearly. Listening to poetry takes effort by your audience; you can help them by slowing down the lines.
4. Pay tribute to your community. I spent the first few minutes thanking my sisters for flying in from San Fransisco for the day, John and Christine – the awesome owners of Open Books, my South Grand Street Poets, COPR’s (Community of Poetry Readers) and fellow BooklLift members for supporting me. I am deeply thankful for my poetry community.
5. Give prizes! Okay, I only really gave one prize. My final poem, “Letter to the End of the Year” has a line about throwing a ball and so I warned everyone beforehand that I would be throwing a ball into the audience and that the recipient of the ball should see me afterwords . The prize: a limited edition broadside produced by Joe Green of peasandcuespress went to Martha Solano. A lovely final moment to the reading.
6. Lavender chocolate. Yes, that’s right. Everyone received a piece of lavender chocolate (again, associated with a particular poem “Curating My Death”) to eat, on cue, when lavender chocolate appeared in the poem. The backstory: three days before my reading, I’d emailed Christine to ask her about creative ideas for my reading. She gave me a lovely list of what other poets had done (sung songs, showed movies, played tapes) and ended her email with “anything but chocolate.” And in that moment, handing out chocolate became the thing I most wanted to do.
7. Practice, practice, practice. I spent hours deciding on which poems to read and in what order. I read the work aloud over and over so my mouth would know what to do. I wrote out page numbers and marked pages in the book so I would be able to move with some fluidity through the pages. I was so nervous that often I had to read my notes 2 or 3 times to find the page numbers. I had confidence that everything I needed was in those pages because I had gone over it so many times.
8. Provide visuals. Since the middle section of my book is based on the photographs, paintings, and imagined life of Myra Albert Wiggins, I wanted the audience to be able to visualize some of her work. I don’t own a projector so instead I downloaded an image off the internet, printed up 40 copies, and glued each copy to a postcard. A number of people told me it was really helpful to have the image in front of them when I read the poem.
9. Make the event your own. I know giving out chocolate and prizes isn’t right for everyone or for every book, but it worked for me, for this book. Doing something outside the box, something that people would enjoy and perhaps remember, was important to me. It took extra work but it was well worth it to make the day my own.
10. Your cool idea goes here. I went to many events to study what other poets and writers do to make their events successful. One other thing I learned: bookend your reading by starting and ending with strong, clear, powerful work. And share ideas: let me know what you’ve done that’s succeeded or what reading you attended that stays in your mind as a great one.