Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

poetry-aloud websites: Karsten Piper’s “Belly Up, it’s a Poetry Feed”


This is the first in an occasional series of interviews on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Karsten Piper of Belly Up, it’s a Poetry Feed.

What is the mission statement for Belly Up?

The blurb at the bottom of the site reads:

Because a poem aloud is the rest of the poem on the page. Because I teach college writing and literature classes, many sections online, and want to grow a custom hoard of poems for students to hear read out loud. Because I’d rather be writing, myself, but don’t always, and reading aloud often makes me feel like doing the work again. And because you, friend, may discover something here that feeds your spirit or imagination a little bit.

That’s maybe more of an apologia than a mission statement, but it’s what I’ve got!

Why did you start Belly Up?

All the reasons in the previous answer, for sure.

Ever since I started teaching online about ten years ago, I’d had it in the back of my head to record a few poems each term and gradually fill my hard drive. I rarely got around to it, though. When a friend recommended People Reading Poems to me on Facebook last spring, I couldn’t shake how easy it would be to use a blog as my archive, and I started to think I might really enjoy it. Which I have!

Why else? Sometimes I get weary of hearing from students or others that there’s no good poetry these days, or that it’s all confusing, or that there’s no music in it, or whatever. I’ve never, ever won an argument with one of these folks except—sort of, once in a while—by finding a poem that grabs hold of them. So this is also me offering a little evidence to the contrary (Hey, that’s a good poem!)

How frequently do you post and how do you choose your readings?

I post three times a week, give or take.

The poems are a mix of my own lasting favorites, poems that have a place in one class or other that I’m teaching, and hits from whatever I’m reading at the time. Almost all of them are recent poems by living authors. That’s who I am, after all, a living poet who writes recent poems. And this is me doing unto others as I’d have them do unto me (Hey, you read that like you care!).

What percentage of readings are your own poems and what percentage are other people’s poems?

Let’s see, the score today is about 120/others to 1/me.

The time I read my own poem was last August, which marked five years since I left Minnesota and teaching for a sabbatical year in Scotland where I studied poetry-writing at the University of St. Andrews. That week in August was drenched with nostalgia for me anyway, so I read poems by our instructors on the course and a poem by each of the students on the course. We had worked very, very well together, the eleven of us, and I wasn’t about to be left out of the little mp3 reunion I’d fabricated.

What are the differences in approach, rewards and challenges that come into play when you read other people’s poems, as opposed to your own?

That’s a great question—I hadn’t thought about that before. My first thought was that I read other people’s poems more times to get a sense of the sounds, the pace, the movement of emotion or idea or story from the beginning of the poem to the end. Words I don’t know or don’t know how to say. But that’s not true at all. By the time I’m reading one of mine to an audience, I’ve spent a chunk of life with it that I almost never spend with someone else’s poem.

So honestly, I feel less pressure to “get it right” reading other people’s poems than I do my own. If the voice is the instrument that plays the poem, I go at other people’s poems with the half-trained, mostly-literate, semi-skilled gusto of a kid at the piano. And if my reading is clear and expressive and gives the poem with an amount of dignity, I’m well-satisfied.

As for rewards? I really like reading aloud, especially poems–it’s like coffee for me, makes me a little sharper in the head and softer in the heart . I understand the poems better having used my tongue, teeth, and ears to read them, too, not just my eyes and brain. I get to learn and try out words I might never have thought to use otherwise.

After I read and posted her poem, “My Beloved is Mine,” Heid Erdrich left this comment: “Out ego-surfing and found this. LOVE the way you read the poem. Who are you?” That was triple-gratifying. The compliment about my reading, of course. And then that she enjoyed her own poem anew because I’d read it. And the “Who are you?” suggests the connections with other poets and appreciators that can come from putting these recordings out there.

What are your plans/hopes for Belly Up? Is there a next level to which you hope to take it?

Of course, I think about thousands and thousands of visitors to the blog. Belly Up Nation! A Poetry Feed Army! Then I could live off of the revenue from ads for poetry workshop cruises and A Poetry Feed thong and mug sales.

Yep, I think about that. What I’d really like, though, would be that the site would include more communication and participation among the visitors and between them and me. Active comment threads, questions for an “Ask the Feed” feature, and definitely submissions of other people besides me reading poems they admire. I’d love to encourage some real interaction among my reader/listeners and that a lively community would be part of what characterizes the website.

The following sites also feature people reading other people’s poems aloud. Please comment briefly on each. How do they differ from or resemble your own site?

The similarities are stronger than the differences, I think. I think we all feel a generosity, something like: I’ve just been given something good, here let me pass that on to you. And gratitude, too, because what thanks a poet more than reading their poems with respect and life? (Except maybe a check, right? But I like to imagine that once in a while our listeners might go out and buy a book because of our publicity and links.) And I bet we all get a kick out of the process of reading, recording, and interacting with others about the poems. There’s a verve in each of these sites that comes from being close to something—part of something—we relish.

Having said that, I’m really, really enjoying the differences among the sites.

How Pedestrian is great! Videos of ordinary people caught in public places and asked to read a poem on video—and they do it! I love this. It’s entertaining, and the moments of awkward reading and making-sense-of-it on the fly totally disarm me. It would make my day to be at the science museum or gas station when these folks ambushed someone nearby to read—way better than getting caught in a College Gameday or Girls Gone Wild shoot. Plus, among these sites, How Pedestrian is probably doing the most to demonstrate that no one should be afraid of poetry—and then making sure a moment of fearlessness happens.

The fellow at Classic Poetry Aloud has created a very strong anthology of good, old poems. I’ll certainly be referring students to it in the future. He’s obviously more cautious about copyright than I am, though, since he only ever records works in the public domain. I, on the other hand, lean hard on the factors considered in determining fair use: specifically, that my use is entirely educational/nonprofit, that I use only a small portion of any whole publication, and that the effect of my recordings on the market for the work I’m using is almost certainly positive. I cite the source of each poem, and I link to the book for purchase. It’s my sincere hope that poets’ work will sell as a result of my posts. Encouragingly, about two dozen of the poets whose work I’ve read have communicated with me, and every one has been enthusiastic about the project.

Hans Ostrom’s YouTube channel and Whale Sound probably seem most like mine. If his channel and my blog passed each other in a strange city, they’d probably look at each other twice, furrow their brows, and walk on, wondering if it was possible to have a twin you never knew about. Of course, his twin was raised in a photo-rich environment, while mine is a little more conversational.

As for Belly Up and Whale Sound, no video, mostly living poets, one main reader. But you’ve thought of a couple of features I’m envious of. The group readings and the audio chapbooks are terrific ideas. They make good listening, which is plenty, but both of them also grow and enhance the listening in unusual ways. The group readings, by letting us hear how three different poets make sense and music out of each poem. And the chapbooks, by extending the reading of one poet’s work. That satisfies the urge we have for more after just hearing one good poem, as well as giving the words and sounds and ideas in more than one poem a chance to play off of each other. Furthermore, Nic, you’re unusually open and thoughtful about the process of reading aloud. On your various sites, you write about a lot of reading and performance issues many of us only think about. And more, too.

Karsten Piper lives in southwest Minnesota. He teaches English at Minnesota West Community & Technical College, especially enjoying his developmental and creative writing classes. A few years ago, he took a sabbatical year to study poetry-writing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Since then, he has continued to write poems and send them off to be rejected or published by poetry magazines. Karsten blogs at Belly Up, It’s a Poetry Feed, which is also on Facebook.

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 “poetry-aloud websites: Karsten Piper’s “Belly Up, it’s a Poetry Feed”

  1. Pingback: Voice Alpha Interviews Me About Reading Aloud | Belly up, it's A Poetry Feed.

  2. Thanks, Nic–I really enjoyed the whole exchange.

    Cheers, Karsten

  3. Thank *you* – and keep up the good work!

  4. What a wonderful interview and bunch of links! Thanks to both of you!!

  5. Hey, thanks so much for linking to my site. I know I’m going to really enjoy checking out all these other links too!

  6. Pingback: Ask the Feed: Agony Aunt Lets Karsten Answer For Himself a Question About Copyright & Fair Use | Belly up, it's A Poetry Feed.

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