Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

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.

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.

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

  1. Great post, Kristin! It is indeed enlightening to hear your poems in the voices of others. And the Bizarro Feature Night is so great – I have only been to one, but I love the idea.

  2. That event sounds like a blast. It’s good to remember that reading aloud is an act of interpretation.

    Humor and poetry is also interesting–different audiences find different things funny.

  3. Now I want to hear (and read) all poems in funny accents. (My kids are already rolling their eyes at me, as I speak in various accents around the house all the time.)

    Enjoyed this post and also your reading, and the group’s reading, of Ruth Foley’s poem over at Whale Sound. Maybe it was because I was hearing it for the third time, or maybe it was Nic’s rendition, but I was really floating and drifting in and on the blue ocean when I listened to her. But, since we are discussing the double life of the poem through voice, I want to pursue this a bit: I think that Nic lets her whole self–body, mind, heart, voice–go to the poem. There is trust and emotional connection, and the poem lives in her voice.

    Kristin and Donna, and all Chicago area people, the next RHINO Poetry Workshop, in January, will feature cin salach, a wonderful poet and performer, who says good reading is essentially HEART. Go to the RHINO website to learn more, and attend her workshop if you can, or any performance by cin!!

    • Thanks, Kathleen! Yes – the double life of the poem – as-text and as-voice. Just read Donna’s post today on ‘separation anxiety’ – speaks sort of to the same issue, I think.

    • I appreciated Nic’s reading as well. Knowing Ruth, I kind of knew how she’d read it. That may have influenced me. Nix reminded me to slow down more. But we didn’t hear each others’ versions, well Nic heard mine, to judge different readings. But faster and slower does change the tone quite a bit.

  4. Kathleen – I was wondering where you saw that Rhino workshop posted. I was just on the website, and the most recent workshop listed was in late November.

  5. This is my first step in trying to figure this out, but is there a way to put audio on WordPress? (Obviously there is, since you have it.) Then let me rephrase: is it hard to do?

  6. A great read, Kristin. I like the comparison of band reinterpreting old material and some one else presenting their take on your work.

    And once again I’m struck by the apparent vitality of the poetry group scene in the States. Not only do there seem to be many more such groups available, their infrastructures and general approaches to the sharing of poetry seem so much more imaginative and exciting than the rather staid processes that have typified most of the poetry groups I’ve attended (generally fairly briefly) here in the UK.

    • Yes, the cultural differences that go into poetry readings and how they are structured/unfold in different countries – would be fascinating to read comparisons.

    • I think it depends on where one is in the States. When I lived in the middle of Texas, there was nothing, but in Austin, TX there is. If I went outside of metro Chicago to central Illinois it would be the same. But culturally, yes, maybe Americans are more open about these things. I know there’s been some general revolt against “poet voice” and more varieties if readings from open mics that go from academic to raunchy and slam venues that also range from more rap style to monologues. Maybe with people getting more open on places like Facebook, they’ll be more willing to try different things.

  7. Yes, humor is a very… Challenging aspect of reading. I have a poem about scarring that I read straight, and most audiences are very thoughtful (as in full of thought) when they hear it. But I once had a nurse in the audience who kept smiling and holding back laughter. When I asked her what she found funny, she explained that it sounded like a report a nurse might write, not a poem. So the idea of her notes being at all poetic struck her as funny. It’s given me the idea to read it as a funny poem, taking the time to point out the scars and interact more with the audience.

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