Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Reading advice: reading from outside the poem


Dear Voice Alpha,

I’m so glad I found your site! It’s been especially helpful hearing the different versions of Wonder Woman posted this month, because I knew I’d have a hard time reading it well when I was choosing poems to record.

I’ve attached readings of The Party and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these poems through recording and I hope that comes through. Looking forward to your comments!


Rachel Brown

(Rachel reads The Party by Nic Sebastian and Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom by Donna Vorreyer from Voice Alpha‘s donated poems list. If you would like Voice Alpha to comment on your reading, guidelines for submission are here.)

The Party

Voice Alpha responds:


Dear Rachel – thanks for sending in these readings! I found your reading here very clear – good confident enunciation, good breath control and good pacing. However, I have a fondness for a ‘conversational’ tone of reading, rather than a more self-aware ‘I am reading a poem’ tone and I felt more of the latter than the former in this reading. What was also missing for me here was a sense of your own emotional engagement with the poem – I heard you reading the words aloud without feeling that you were in the poem’s skin and communicating the poem to me. The delivery felt somewhat monotone to me, and this was probably a contributing factor.


Dear Rachel – I thought the tone of your voice was lovely: no cracking, no squeaking, no breathlessness. Very even. Perhaps too even. I noticed that you never changed your delivery much: every word comes out exactly the same as every other word. Perhaps this decision was a conscious one on your part, tied to the theme of the poem. But in case it’s not, I thought I’d point it out.

I heard the slightest difference in delivery when you said these words: cinnamon, bergamot, Istanbul, and citrus. I could make the argument that these words are some of the most evocative (but someone who is not into cooking and scent, as I am, might choose other words). If you were to continue to work on this poem, these might be the words that are most evocative for you, evidenced by the slight shift in your voice.


Dear Rachel – Kristin is kind to suggest that the lack of inflection might have been intentional. Even if it was, I’m afraid I don’t care for it. I feel you need to slow down and think about what the poem is saying — to get inside it, as Nic says. This isn’t a terrible reading, and one can certainly hear the poem well enough to appreciate it, but it sounds like the way one might read a poem if one were encountering it for the first time. I suspect that after 15 or 20 more takes, you’d get pretty good at it.


Imagine Saying It In Your Middle School Classroom

Voice Alpha responds:


Dear Rachel – I listened to your reading of The Party before I listened to this reading and noticed a definite difference between the two. This time it felt much more to me that you were inside the poem, feeling it, and communicating it to me. I’m wondering if that might be because you felt more confident in your understanding of the poet’s intent in this piece – you were definitely much more emotionally convincing. I find that when I’m not sure of a poet’s intent, voicing the piece several times helps build an emotional narrative that is cohesive and makes sense to me. The emotional narrative your voice builds for you doesn’t have to match the poet’s intent exactly (and no reader can do that any way) – but it has to be convincing to you, because if it’s not, your voice will betray you.


I, too, noticed a difference between the two readings. I love the way you emphasize these phrases and words: “Hurl the heft,” “gutteral punch,” “whip crack,” and “honey.” When you said “hurl the heft,” your voice lifted; with “gutteral punch,” your voice went into a staccato punch of emphasis. Likewise, “whip crack” was delivered with a verbal similarity to the line, while you said the word “honey” with a long languidness, very much like honey.

Well done!


I did listen to this one first, and wasn’t completely satisfied with it, thinking it sounded as if you were trying too hard in spots. After listening to The Party, though, and three more times to this one, I tend to feel this succeeds where the other fails: expression slightly mis-fired is still a vast improvement over expressionlessness. I’m thinking the latter is your default style, and that here you were really studying how to place emphasis, as Kristin’s comment details. Keep doing what you’re doing here and you’ll be rocking the mike in no time.


Rachel Brown recently graduated with a BA in mathematics and nine houseplants. You can read some of her poems here.

Previous Dear Voice Alpha responses.

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.

3 thoughts on “Reading advice: reading from outside the poem

  1. I always like hearing someone else read my poems – I’m so sorry that I didn’t have a chance to comment with the other Voice Alpha folks. I, like the others, enjoyed the clarity of your voice and your enunciation. I did think, however, that there was more of a connection with my poem than Nic’s – it could be that my subject is more accessible and narrative than Nic’s poem, which requires a real sense of mystery, I think. Thanks for trusting us to give you feedback – I hope it is helpful.

  2. Nic, Kristin, Dave, and Donna–
    Thanks for taking the time to give feedback on these clips.

    A poet friend of mine who performs mostly in the slam community gave a reading at my local bookstore a few days ago, and it was really interesting seeing how much more engaged the audience was than at a typical reading.

    Nic, I’m totally with you on preferring conversational to “I’m reading a poem” voices, and Dave, you are spot on with the “default” comment–I think part of it is that on some level I’m linking together the writing process and the performance process. Ideally when I’m writing I like be in a receptive, fairly meditative state, which isn’t necessarily the best way to communicate with an audience. I think my challenge will be trying out a wide range of styles for a particular poem before settling into what seems most appropriate.

    Lots to think about! I look forward to hearing other people take a crack at these.
    Thanks again,

  3. Thanks for sharing your readings with us, Rachel, and best of luck as you continue to build your reading aloud skills!

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