Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

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.

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

9 thoughts on “Reading Advice: Issues with breath & returning to reading in public after years

  1. Thank you everyone for the careful reviews. Gives me a lot to ponder, but doesn’t scare me off. The experience of reading others’ poems is humbling, you really want to ‘get it right’ but have to trust your own interpretation too. This is a great exercise. Thanks again, all!

  2. Scare you off!? I hope not – ever! We’re all rooting for you in a big way, Risa.

  3. Well done, Risa! Very excellent feedback here.

  4. I guess I like the way “Dear Voice Alpha” gives Risa a range of options: if you don’t like this advice, how about this? But really, you can ignore what I wrote and go straight to Nic’s!

  5. Yay, brave Risa! What is the setting like for your reading? I hope you report back and let everyone know how it goes.

    I’m sure you’ll be terrific. Enjoy it, and best of luck!

  6. Yes, Risa, definitely let us know how it goes!

  7. Hope you found something in our conglomeration of advice that will help. Let us know how your reading goes!

  8. Pingback: Reading Advice: pace, tone and upward inflection | Voice Alpha

  9. Hi folks, checking back in after my reading on Sunday. It was a pouring-down rainy day in Seattle and the audience was very small, about 15 people including 3 readers, the setting was a public library, readers had 15 minutes each, a few others read afterwards, open-mike. We were also being taped for use in a radio show that the host presents.

    I’ve taught for years and I’m not at all nervous speaking to a room. I choose and ordered the poems carefully and practiced my readings a number of times. So, not surprisingly, I enjoyed reading, even read again at the end, because there was time for more. I think I read well, and certainly used many of the suggestions offered here. Taking water to the podium, such a good idea, Nic!

    The weird thing is that I found it is so hard to read the audience. I looked up often (trying hard not to lose my place!) to see the response. People listened, I thought there were some murmurs of liking at points, polite clapping. But still … I’m used to work-shopping poems and getting very specific feedback. Negative feedback is meaningful, positive feedback is a pleasure. At the reading, I just wasn’t sure how it came across. I got a couple of after-reading comments about specific poems (and like a Jewish mother, I thought, “so you didn’t like the other poems?”) but the room cleared quickly. No one bought anything (I didn’t have anything to sell, but one of the readers brought her books). I had been to my job before the reading, and afterwards, I was exhausted!

    But I’d do it again! I certainly felt fortified by everyone’s careful attention to my voice recording here. And knowing that you were all rooting for me to do well.

    Thanks again! Risa

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