Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Conversation with a reading coach


I had a great phone conversation last week with Mary Rose Betten. Mary Rose is a retired character actress, an essayist, playwright, poet and a reading coach!

I told her how excited I was to see a post from her on the WOM-PO Listserv which mentioned that she teaches people to read their work aloud.  I told her about Voice Alpha and how we started it in part because there seem to be so few resources available on the internet to anyone looking to build or hone their ‘reading poetry aloud’ skills. We talked about how little the poetry community in general seems to value the art of reading poetry aloud and how nearly all the focus of poetry-teaching and poetry-tradecraft is on the writing and on the page. What about voice? We all want to learn how to write poetry well, but, at the end of the day, who really cares about learning how to read poetry aloud well?

Mary Rose cares, that’s who!

Mary Rose works with both poets and with writers of fiction. She works best face-to-face, with groups, she said. The group synergy and back-and-forth and live individual demonstration is an integral part of her teaching methodology, so it’s hard to get an accurate idea of her she works through text alone. I understood that, but asked if she could summarize, for this blog post, some of the elements she focuses on in her group sessions. These are some of the things we talked about:

Pausing – Mary Rose said teaching people how to pause while reading is one of her biggest challenges. She encourages people to think of a pause as a live thing: “a pause is not dead air; a pause is fraught with meaning.” Pauses are a way to show you care about what you are reading – imagine helping a very old person move or lifting a baby, how carefully you put your arm around the person you are helping, how gently you cradle the baby’s head. Treat your words with the same care. Use pauses to give your audience time to absorb meaning and fully hear what you have said.

Stressing words – In order to build awareness of the possibilities and importance of stress in reading, Mary Rose says she will take a phrase like “I never said he stole your money,” and have the group repeat it, stressing a different word each time as an illustration of how stress changes meaning. “I never said he stole your money; I never said he stole your money” and so forth.

Group the words you read into ‘sense units’ and put a pause at the end of each unit – this gives your audience time to understand and absorb the sense unit.  Here Mary Rose gave the simple example of reading a phone number for someone to write down. We intuitively break the number up into manageable units – 703 pause 459 pause 2841. We don’t say 7 pause 03459284 pause 1, for example. The same with reading poems.

You at the podium – Use your position behind the podium. Mary Rose recommends you put your hands on the page and read along following your finger. With your finger marking your place at all times, you can feel comfortable raising your head, pausing, giving the audience ‘time to make pictures’ from your words. Breathe behind the podium – “take a big belly breath! No-one can see you do it behind the podium!” But no other body movement or gesticulating except lifting your head, Mary Rose says. “This is not about you or your personality, it’s about your words.”

Feeling words – this is not about drama and/or getting melodramatic, it’s about giving words their true emotional punch. Imagine someone close to you has fallen into a coma, Mary Rose suggests. You know they can still hear you and you want to get your words and meaning to them as convincingly and authentically as possible. Read your words like that – like they mean a whole lot to you and you are saying them to someone who also means a whole lot to you and only their sense of hearing connects you.

Volume – Another fear Mary Rose says she commonly sees is people reluctant to vary their volume and get LOUD or s-o-f-t.   “Dare to whisper! And don’t be afraid to get loud – it can be great fun,” says Mary Rose. “Take a big belly breath and just do it.”

Pace – Likewise. Vary your pace. The poem overall has a pace, but there are variations even within that overall pace. It doesn’t all have to sound the same – get fast or slow down, if that’s what the text wants, Mary Rose recommends.

Keep your voice up at the end of a sentence, says Mary Rose. This is part of showing that you care. Don’t let your voice drop or tail off at the end of sentences. Let the period be a signal to keep your voice up.

Most of all, says Mary Rose, remember that who you are and what you believe in – your true self – is in your words.  Remember that when you get up to read them aloud.

Mary Rose is available for group coaching sessions in the Hollywood/Santa Barbara area. Email mrbetten@VERIZON.NET for more information.


Mary Rose Betten is a retired character actress, essayist, playwright and Pushcart prize nominee for her first book of poetry:”Finding Your Best Angle, (Give This To An Actor”) Her chapbook, “The Prodigal Son’s Mother,” was selected book of the month for Finishing LIne Press. She won Women’s Artistic Network’s 2010 Carol E. Doering Prize, and serves as reading coach on the faculty of “A Room Of Her Own” and will direct “The Pepper Lane Review,” poetry reading at Center Stage Theatre, Santa Barbara, April 27th. Her poem and essay appear in Wompo’s anthology: “Letters To The World,”Red Hen Press her first chapbook was “Hanging Out With Loose Words,” Foothills Publishing, New York and her interview with host David Starkey on TV’s “The Creative Community,” won first place nationally. She will be a featured reader at The Carnegie Art museum, Oxnard, 02/12 sponsored by Poets and Writers magazine.

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.

16 thoughts on “Conversation with a reading coach

  1. Great post that offers practical, can-do suggestions.

    It’s interesting to think about the poetry readings I’ve attended and how the different poets have applied, or not, the advice here.

    • Maureen: Thanks for the affirmation I too often look at poets and think if I just had one hour with you….I was lucky enough to study with Billy Collins and I would cite his reading aloud as a perfect example of body reverence. He usually keeps both hands on the pages NOT on the podium where folks check for wedding rings and liver spots, etc. Billy also keeps his face AND body under control No mariache (sp)work with those legs. I mention Billy because he gets great laughs and never pounces on lines. His face remains the same
      reading humor as it is proclaiming feeling words. Dramatic he ain’t but he gives every ounce of his strenth through the words. I had to learn not to make a “rabbit mouth” I didn’t even know I did little purses/jerks with my lips until I co-starred in a film, “Little Darlings,” and saw not only did I make rabbit mouth BUT I felt lifting my eyebrows helped stress my words. I played the camp director and my “pith helmut” Went up and down every time I gave an order. Our words come from our breath, heart and gut not from gesticulations. Just claim your space and take care of your listeners. Let them make rabbit mouths while I take care of brining my head up. Never looking eyeball to eyeball but over the audience heads: left right and center. We all become one through the poets words, we should be busy propelling the image. “Washing feet.”Thanks for commenting, MR Betten

  2. This is delightful. I especially connect with the ephemeral, in-the-moment aspects of good live poetry readings–how what happens then is what matters! And also trusting and feeling the words, allowing the emotional content and value to come through.

    • Hey Kathleen: I can’t even spell ephemeral but I can tell you one thing, going fast or slow pulls you right into the now & out again. Take these two lines:
      I come to bury Caesar
      Not to praise him
      Just for fun. Do one line fast and the other slow by stoping to stress each word. Then reverse the process and read the same lines in the opposite manner.
      Feel how reading slow and fast connect you to the listener in ways that enable them to share your intent by the pacing of your words? Kill! Maim! Lift your head.
      Break a leg Kathleen, MR

  3. Mary Rose’s ideas are very simple and so effective. Many writers seldom give enough thought to this and tend to feel ‘my words speak for themselves,’ and they do, but not if they are being choked to death in a very dry reading. Having attended her workshop, I am still working on this, but it does make a huge difference.

    • Hello Rita: It is curious how an audience changes our breathing our body language. I ‘ll tell you this, I’ll never read with a hat on. I’ve heard people say give it more Umph! Hello? What does umph mean? What do you want your words to mean? If you give a #$% then pause, breathe deep, lift your head. Be present with them as the image forms. It is a sacred moment for the poet to lift your head and simply BE. It’s like the old saying “your words will come back to haunt you.” Thank you next, I’d rather my words come forward to bless me. Get them out out and about by pausing.
      Recently my little 7 year old neighbor girl had a friend from school over. She called out: “Mary, would you like to meet my friend?” Like we were playing Emily Post. I was in a terrible hurry but sensed someone must have taught her how to do an introduction. She literally gestured with her hand to her friend and then to me: “Mary this is Ann. Ann, I would like you to meet Mary.” And then she put her hands together. I wanted to both cry and laugh, she was terribly proud of what she had just done. Well there we are with our words..we dont make a 3 act playout of them and we don’t rush and shove them. So..how do you introduce your friend “the word” to your audience? I wish you could have seen her. Thanks Rita, for the vote of confidence. M. R.

  4. Hi Nic,

    Dave sent me over because we were talking about some of these issues on a “qarrtsiluni” comment thread.

    And, in fact, one commenter on the thread came over here and read this post and mentioned it. And after reading what he said (which was related not just to this but also to my own recollection of a time when many, many poets read in an nasal, affectless manner with a rising note at the end of lines of poetry), I wonder if “Keep your voice up at the end of a sentence” is wholly clear at referring to volume. That business of rising in scale at line end is still with us in some quarters, so maybe it should be “Keep your volume up.”

    In the late 70’s, there was a little book called “Language and Woman’s Place” that talked at length about how many women ended their sentences by lifting their voices in a questioning manner as though uncertain–the observation reminds me of how many read poems with just such an inflection.

    • Marly: I am old enough to remember that affectation. Argh! I use the term voice as opposed to volume when working with a group because I ask them to see the period as a life line bobbing in the water and you pick that period up with your best voice and thr-o–o-w them “Mary’s lifeline.” I use their first name and Well…maybe you have to be there to picture it. I talk a lot about voice attempting to get them to own their own, and while using voice instead of volume repeat their first name. Sure it’s Mickey Mouse but people are afraid to be bold and never think of themselves as a poet let alone someone who reads poetry aloud….that is a great deal of responsibility. When I teach I always have them wear name tags (first name only) and give their name. My dear, people are actually afraid to announce their own name. I know I HATE to give my name because I’m your basic actress and I have lived a full and happy life in character. To this day I still find it difficult, I can tell a joke better than I can announce my name. I grew up with 7 brothers and they called me “Mary Nose.” That’s my excuse. Last point: get people to remain silent when they come to the podium. This enables them to be a ease with pauses another word for silence. Ask htem to feel the silence to BE with us in silence. See?…that didn’t hurt did it? Ah, life is hard and then we die. Write on Marly and thanks for sharing,
      Mary Rose. (Sure, it’s easy to write my name)

      • Hi Mary Rose,

        Interesting! But I hope you don’t regret unleashing “Mary Nose” on the world!

        I can see that it is hard to describe in words that business of maintaining the strength of the line and not dribbling away… and if one does fade at some point, to do it for a reason. It’s probably much easier when you can demonstrate in person. I definitely had to read that section through twice to make sure what you meant, and then still thought it a bit misleading–it’s still evocative of that old style of reading to me. And I think a number of people still read that way… It is like a verbal mask, that mode.

  5. Marly’s question / comment is just what I was going to add. I hope Mary Rose means we should keep the “volume” up at the end of the line. If the reader lets it drop significantly, the line is in danger of being lost. The other kind of up that makes each line end with an upward lilt–oh, that’s so annoying, so affected, especially is accompanied by the hand gesturing upward too. This also has the effect of making each line sound like a question.

    • So Diane, I know this is familiar:”There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.” There are people on this planet who have never heard this quote so we have to break it down for them, bless them with Martha Graham’s words, assure them with her observation. Perhaps have two people read this same quote and ask the audience to close their eyes and listen as each reads. ” Viva la” ….huh? We have to stop and give Jack and Jill examples because people have been frightened and wounded about their bodies and their ideas and this is our chance in a group situation to free them from their childhood bondage. The AA of Poetry. Somehow in a group people hear better. People learn by what they see as well as what they hear. I had to SEE my “eyebrows lifting my hat” on screen to believe that could happen. Diane, I send big hugs, MR

    • Diane: Hand gesturing upward! I didn’t remember that, but it sounds right! Hilarious.

      Though I don’t remember clearly (probably for the best!), I suspect that almost everybody fell into that mode, no matter what sort of poetry they wrote. But it connected particularly well to a sort of tediousness then in vogue.

  6. Ha, yes, I read this and immediately thought what Marly Youmans and Diane Lockward just articulated.

    For a long time it seemed as though every writer was reading with that upward lilt at the end of the line. Not a good thing, for the reasons they mention.

    Volume up, yes. I have been to many a reading where a good poem lost its impact because endings (line and poem both) didn’t have enough vocal power.

    Readers should also pace their breath so they have enough strength at the ends of lines (see “pausing” and “pacing” above, though I do mean here a slightly different kind of pacing).

    • Greetings Neile: When teaching I say, ‘I’m going to teach you 7 points and if you use these 7 points you will read well. This means one must have names for things ie pauses and WHY we pause and not confuse it with pacing. A pause if we teach it well and they KNOW WHY they want to pause, should take care of pacing. Like the old joke “Sister, do you know why Mother cut off the end of the ham when she baked it?” They phone their older sister, she doesn’t know either, they call their Mother…she answers: “Because I never had a pan big enough.” So we have to teach people WHY they pause and that takes care of the pacing. I know you know this Neile but people trying to learn have barriers and this is personal so we must use as few definitions as possible. Do they care? It’s really that simple. Pause so we are taking care of people not manipulating them. I hope I’m making sense. Peace and light in the new year Neile and thanks for caring. M.R.

  7. Poets: I say keep your voice up not keep your volume up because you may choose to whisper a line ie: WHISPER: I come to bury Caesar
    RAISE YOUR VOICE: Not to praise him.
    Remember Diane, Neile and Marly: I teach authors of both fiction and poetry. I teach ORGANIC reading not something somebody told you to do or you saw someone do or some one shamed you into reading a certain way (Thus the reason for the “cut off the end of the ham” story) what do you want your words to say? Why on earth would I teach someone to keep their voice up at the end of a sentence because that was in vogue? I encourage the courage to read what you wrote because you believe what you wrote. We are out of high school we don’t read something a certain way to be accepted, we want to be encouraged to find our own meaning we chose to impart.
    Keeping your voice up arbitrarily would have nothing to do with what you intended your own words to mean. I teach them to read their work considering it word by word. This is organic, not pacing. You don’t consider pacing a sentence when you are honest, you take it word by word. Say what you feel and use pauses to do it. If you have a list to read you don’t read it like a grocery list, you read each word with a different inflection. My apologies I didn’t make that clear. And Marly no, I have no fear of unleashing Mary Nose, it is a good example of how one can be afraid of saying their own name because they have been shamed. If someone should use “Nose” today I would be able to laugh because I’ve been lucky enough to have learned to overcome the shame. If the humorous example helps people realize that shame can cause us to misuse our voice then I live a full and happy life not regretting by using humor and I’m glad to do it. They were also fond of taunting me with: ” Mary Rose sat on a tack. Mary Rose.” Again I caution you I teach best with a group. That’s why the facilitators book was built around a video. People need to see this to believe it. Does that get me back in your good graces? Hope so. Thanks for your patience. MR

  8. Pingback: Group reading: ‘The Interior Weather of Tree-Clinging Birds’ by Sandy Longhorn « Whale Sound

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