Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Carey McHugh on reading poems aloud during the writing process


I was blown away by last Friday’s selection at Poetry Daily: [      ], by Carey McHugh, so I Googled the author to see what else I could find by her. The top result was a small selection of her poems at the “audio archive of emerging poets” From the Fishouse, which includes her talking about reading her poems aloud when she writes.

She makes important points about the need to actively consider sound as an element every step of the way during composition, but I’m not sure whether this “composition awareness” translates into “performance awareness.” Listen for example to McHugh reading “Farrier” — a serviceable enough reading, but rather lacking in expression, I thought, as if the poet were still hearing that writerly voice in her head.

A terrific young poet nonetheless, and one whose first full-length collection I will be eagerly anticipating.

Author: Dave Bonta

I'm the author of several small, odd books, including Breakdown: Banjo Poems, Words on the Street: An Inaction Comic, and Odes to Tools, but my real work is at my literary blog Via Negativa. I'm the editor and publisher of Moving Poems, a webzine showcasing videopoetry and poetry film. And I've been a dedicated if somewhat unorthodox homebrewer for more than 20 years.

17 thoughts on “Carey McHugh on reading poems aloud during the writing process

  1. Thanks for making this key point, Dave. Yes, there are two separate ‘sound’ processes at play.

    One is indeed the central awareness of sound that should reign during the composition process. And all of us seem to have a keen awareness and good practice in that regard. But there is also sound in the performance.

    What of that? Somewhere along the line we seem to have decided that sound in the performance doesn’t matter all that much, really….

  2. Pingback: sound-in-composition vs sound-in-performance « Very Like A Whale

  3. Interesting to think of process as something that happens out loud, silently (in our rooms, in our heads).

    I read aloud for editing (my poems and for editing other work), but have never tried it during…I will give it a go! What an interesting idea from McHugh, and from you, Dave.

  4. I agree that the reading you linked to seems to stay in that measured, writerly voice – but I disagree that it is only serviceable. There are points where the tone does change, and it certainly a practiced reading, more than I have heard from some recordings.

    Or is this her “reading” voice? We all know poets who have a “poetry reading voice” that is not necessarily their natural one. At a reading in September, I was disappointed to hear that difference in a poet I admire – after listening to this poet speak on a panel, I highly anticipated the reading only to hear flat, quiet versions of text that is very much alive.

  5. I’d be interested to know how many of us consider orality to be an integral constituent of the compositional process and actually prepare for it practically as we write.

  6. I read aloud as part of the composition/revision process, so I can hear the words and the sounds I’ve chosen, to test the flow via line breaks, stanza breaks, and punctuation. It is a dual process for me. The silent/neutral voice I hear in my head when I read on the page, I hear for anybody’s poem, not only my own, so it can’t help me 1) compose/revise or 2) prepare for a reading for an audience. Only my actual voice can help me in these ways. Reading aloud makes me attentive in a different way than just seeing, writing, thinking, doing research, looking up word definitions/origins does. I can no longer even conceive of writing a poem without reading it aloud to “test” it, to discover what’s there, to let it live in the air, and certainly I cannot imagine offering my work at a poetry reading or open mic without having read my poems aloud several times, to hear how they sound.

    • I must admit, the most I do is mutter. I think I will have to give your practice a try.

    • Me, too! Another consideration is the self-critic – I often listen to my recordings and think, “Oh, I don’t sound poet-y at all,” especially when I hear a voice like Nic’s. But I have had listeners tell me that they like that I sound natural when I read…I take that as a compliment, though I don’t know if natural equates to reading well.(Dave, you’ve heard me read on qaartsiluni… ?)

  7. i also read out loud when i’m writing. i find that even though our intellectual brains anticipate fairly accurately how words sound, the words sound a bit different when spoken. the better words are only clear (can only be discovered), i think, by testing them out with the ears. and also testing them out with the lips and tongue — how often have we written something (even non-poetry) that we think is just great but then it sounds clunky when we read it out loud?

    i love the metaphor mchugh uses — that of a musician building on a score!

  8. Responding to Dave – yes, I do from the start. Nearly all of my poems start to arrive whilst I’m driving alone so the speaking out loud of words, phrases and lines happens before anything gets written down. First of all I’m simply trying out verbal connections (I was going to say ‘road-testing’ but it’s such a crap joke I’ll leave it out), but as material accumulates I’m putting a degree of oratorical spin on it simply to remember what I’ve got until I can scribble it down at the next traffic lights!

    No need to write it up further. The other comments have it covered.

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