Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


Separation Anxiety: Poem and Performance

Having attended several different reading events over the last few months, I find myself wondering if an audience can separate the quality of a poem’s craft from the quality of its presentation by the reader.

Over the years, I have heard many less-than-interesting readings of poems that I found exquisitely crafted on the page. This is an issue I have thought about often, especially regarding “famous” poets whose readings have disappointed. I can always find comfort in returning to poems I have previously enjoyed on the page and rediscovering their merits in that way.

This separation is also easy when the readings are found on websites that feature audio. Here, I can listen and then re-read without the sound if I find that the reading does not enhance the poem for me.

At a live reading event, if I am hearing lines and phrases that I want to revisit, I am willing to purchase the book or seek out the poet’s work online to see how the words play out on the page. This part of the equation is easy for me to wrap my brain around: good writing stands out, whether it is well-read or not.

But I have been challenged lately by the opposite dynamic:  what if the reader is engaging and confident, but the material seems amateurish, not well-crafted, or simply not to the listener’s taste?

I understand that any discussion of quality relies on subjectivity – the eye of the beholder, and all that. I have become frustrated, however, when a reader performs a poem that pays little attention to craft, relying solely on stage presence (and sometimes on intimidating volume) to “sell” a poem to an audience. It is akin to watching a band full of musicians jump around and make a lot of noise, but not really know how to play a song.

Many audiences respond positively to these performances as entertainment, which means the reading evidently works on some level. Yet I often have a difficult time separating the entertainment value of a reading from the level of writing in the poem. I have no strategy (as I do above for the other problem) to separate the words from the way they are being spoken.

So, what do you think? Should the quality of the poem itself be considered when you are deciding whether or not a reader is effective? If you can separate the two, please leave a comment. I would love to know how!


On Performing Other People’s Poems or You Mean, Not Everyone Does This?

(Guest post by Kristin LaTour)

I am pretty naïve about some things. And I assume that if I, who am generally behind the curve on most things, know about something, then most everyone else probably knew about it way before I did. But here’s something I know. It’s good to hear someone else read your poems. It’s good in workshop when you already know how you want your poem to sound, to hear how someone else reads it. It’s good when you’ve read a poem 50 times and can’t think of anything new to do with it. It’s good when you’re revising. It’s good when you need a laugh. It’s just all good.

I’m part of a group that calls itself the Waiting 4 the Bus Poetry Collective. We’re a very eclectic bunch of poets who don’t really workshop poems, although we do ask for help now and then, but who perform poetry. We perform our own, but we have a lot of fun performing each other’s work. The group holds a twice monthly open mic with feature, and the features tend to be area poets who are pretty well known, or who have been to the open mic often enough to be asked. After a person has been coming for a good long time, we have what we call Bizzaro Feature Night. This means that during the open mic, people don’t read their own work, they read poems by the featured poet. It might be a poem they love, or one they haven’t heard in a long time. But it’s fun to hear someone’s work read by 6 or 7 people before the feature gets up to read. And it makes you think about how to read that person’s work. We also have Under the Influence Night when poets read work by a poet who has influenced them. And there’s Lyrics Night, and Bad Poem Night and other opportunities to read other people’s work instead of always our own.

When it comes to reading other people’s poems, the closest comparison I can think of is a band deciding to remake an old song. They make it so similar that it sounds just like the original, which is boring and seemingly pointless. Or they can totally rework it so the song doesn’t sound anything like the first version. The one that comes to my mind is Kiss’ “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Nite,” which was covered by Toad the Wet Sprocket for a tribute album. They took a beer-drinking, slam-dancing, head-banging song and turned it into a pot-smoke-hazed, black-light-dark room, comfy couch song. Bob Dylan does the same thing with his work, I’d guess because he gets sick of singing the same songs over and over. The last time I saw him in concert, he was practically finished with “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I figured out that was the song he was singing. He completely changed it.

I have a poem called “Surgery” where the speaker is explaining in very clear terms how to change a person surgically using basic tools one has around the house, practicing on foods one would find in the fridge. When I read it, I read it straight, seriously. I see it as a comment on what people do to each other, coldly and callously. But one night a friend, got up and read the same poem with a strange quasi-Nigerian accent. It was hilarious! It was as if the poem was suddenly some kind of strange info-mercial, or something you’d run into by accident on YouTube. I love hearing him read the poem that way. I never would have known there was humor hiding under it.

Some people might cringe at the thought of other people “messing up” their poems. What if they don’t read the line breaks how you planned? Or what if they read it with a silly pitch, or leave out a line? But that happens every time someone picks a poem off a screen or a page. If they’ve never heard the poet read, they are going to put a voice to it. Who knows how they’ll read it? And what a gift to find that a poem that was written one way has another side to it.

When I heard about this blog and the webpage that accompanies it, Whale Sound, I was so excited. I love to read aloud. I love to read other’s poems. I love them to read mine. I encourage all poets to listen to others reading their work, and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for performing other people’s poems they can get.

Kristin participates in a group-reading at Whale Sound today.


Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection

First reading: Second reading:

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

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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:


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)


Multiple readings of the same poem

Dick Jones, Kate Fitzpatrick and I tackle The Slender Scent by James Robison, sent in to Whale Sound as an audio submission by Kate.

Listen here.

Thanks to James for letting us read his poem!


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

Voice Alpha responds:


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.


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.


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.


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.


Would you like Voice Alpha to review one of your readings? Send it in! Guidelines here.


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:


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!


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?


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.


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.


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.


Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas

I must be honest:  I never thought much about what to bring with me to a poetry reading until last April.  Don’t get me wrong—I did the obvious things.  I checked to make sure I had enough poems to read and a few extra for good measure.  I brought more copies of my  chapbook than I thought I could sell, along with plenty of money with which to make change.  I even thought far enough ahead to create order forms, for the people who wanted my chapbook but didn’t bring enough money with them.

But then, in April, I read this post by Kelli Russell Agodon, which made me think about poetry readings in a whole new way. A poet could bring handouts!  A poetry reading could have a door prize!  It would all feel so much more festive.

Kelli described (and took photos of) the bright colored copies of one of Susan’s poems, which were on the chairs when the audience arrived, and which they later held up when prompted.  At the beginning of the poetry reading, a young man passed out mint leaves.  At the end, a basket of lavender chocolates made the rounds.  One of Susan’s poems talks about throwing a ball, so after warning the audience, she tossed them a ball, and the person who caught it won a prize.

Immediately after reading this post and Susan’s post where she talks about what she learned (reprinted as a post on this site not too long ago), I started thinking about my own poetry readings.  What would make sense to have on hand for audience members?

I haven’t come to any conclusions.  As I’ve looked at themes in my poems for my forthcoming chapbook, I’m struck by how many metaphors come from my experiences in an office, but the idea of handing out shredded paper or office supplies doesn’t appeal.  I have several poems that mention exotic fruit, but it’s not always possible to find pomegranates.  A bottle of wine might make a nice door prize.  Or perhaps a fruit basket would be better, since I’d hate to give a bottle of wine to a person in recovery.

I also like the idea of a single poem on people’s chairs, perhaps with my contact information on the bottom.  I don’t want to give away too many poems, since one of the purposes of a poetry reading is to generate some book sales.  But perhaps a poem might prove tempting.

Dave Bonta wrote a previous post about bringing text to a poetry reading, and he talked a bit about technology.  Instead of paper handouts, we could bring ways to project our poems onto a screen.  In some ways, I love this idea.  I love the thought of a more multimedia presentation.  I’ve been experimenting some with videopoems, although I’m at the more rudimentary stage of creation.  I choose photos taken by me and my friends, and I pair them with lines from my poems.  The same thing could work nicely at a reading.  And if I was reading in a busy bookstore, I imagine I might attract more attention that way.

Of course, the downside to anything that involves non-paper media is that I’d have to rely on technology in a way that makes me uneasy.  I know what my voice will do.  I can’t always be sure that all the technology equipment will work easily in a different space.  Far easier to bring paper handouts.

And chocolates!  I must look back through my poems to find out if any of them would work as an inspiration for a chocolate handout.  Or maybe I should look to find chocolates with bits of exotic fruits.

I know that some of you might write in to say that the poems should be sweet enough to stand on their own.  At one point, I would have agreed with you, that poetry should be its own reward.  But after twenty years of teaching, I also understand the benefits of a treat.  I like the idea of a poetry reading being more like a festive party and celebration than a dreary affair that we attend because poems are so very good for us.


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