Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


Creating a Set List for Your Poetry Reading

Preparing for a poetry reading can be a bit unnerving, especially if you’ve got lots of poems in your folder and especially if you’re relatively new to poetry readings.  It might help to approach the event as if you’re a musician.  Create a set list.

And how, exactly, do we do that?  Before you start creating your set list, think about your goals for the reading.

Some of us approach the reading as a way to sell our books.  Those of you who see this approach as too mercenary can skip ahead a paragraph or two. 

Obviously, if you’re hoping to sell books, your set list should be composed primarily of poems from the book you hope to sell (on Thursday, I’ll address creating a set list if you’ve got several books to sell).  You don’t want people hearing your poems, falling in love with them, buying your book, and getting home to the crushing realization that they didn’t get a copy of the poem they loved after all.

That still leaves you with decisions to make; obviously, you can’t read the whole book.  Look at the book and choose the poems that best represent the book as a whole.  I’d end with a poem (or two or three poems) that leaves your audience in an uplifted mood.

 But let’s say you don’t have a book or you don’t want to focus on selling a book.  The basic advice still holds true:  which of your poems best represents your body of work?  Which poems go best together?  Which threads (of imagery, of musicality, of form) do you want to use to weave your poems together into a unified reading?

Or maybe you don’t want to be unified.  Maybe you want to show the diversity of your poetic skills.  Again, you can think in terms of a set list, but each set will be smaller:  the sonnet set, the surreal set, the set of poems that revolve around astronomical themes.

Be sure to read your poems out loud before you head to the poetry reading.  A reading in the privacy of your living room will let you be sure that you can read the poems smoothly.  Some poems are just too hard to read out loud.  That’s cool.  But you want to be sure which poems those are before you get to the reading.

If you’re sharing the stage, it’s even more important to practice before you get to the reading.  You want to be sure you know how much time you’re allotted, and you want to make sure your reading comes in under that time instead of over it.

It doesn’t hurt to have an extra set list or two stashed in your bag.  Once, I thought I would be sharing the stage with two other poets and a jazz band would perform after our reading.  For reasons that were never explained to me, the other two poets never arrived.  Happily, I was able to keep going until the jazz band arrived.  I felt slightly bad for the audience members who might have come to hear the work of the other poets.  But as a performer, my duty was to fill the time allotted, so that the jazz band had a full audience.

I travel with extra poems.  You never know when you’ll get a standing ovation, when people will demand to hear more.  Like a musician, you don’t want your audience to regret asking for more.  Leave them with two or three more poems, and then get ready to sign the books you’ve sold.  Or head to the champagne table to talk to the inquisitive and to your fans, old and new.


accents & dialects in reading poetry aloud

Check out this interesting exchange. Excerpt:

…one difficulty that will exist when we are reading poetry from poets around the world is the ‘musicality’ of the poetry.
Poetry is essentially to be read aloud but I am a Northern Englishman, Yorkshire to be exact, and my vowel sounds are distinctively different from any American or Australian voice. For me to read aloud the poetry of some one from Alabama, say, is like playing the violin concerto on a trombone, it doesn’t sound the way the composer wrote it or conceived it.

As a general rule, I wouldn’t make too much of this issue. After all, here at Voice Alpha and in Whale Sound group readings, we regularly have a whole bunch of different accents reading the same piece and to me, accent is just one of a range of interesting & individual elements the individual reader brings to any reading.

However, I recently had occasion to think about a related point. Whale Sound takes third-party submissions and recently a very cool poet sent in this poem as a third-party submission. It’s a tremendous piece by Bahamas poet Desiree Cox, and it starts like this:

Well. When I see Sister Sheila step out
Face paint up like Jezebel
Royal blue satellite dish of a Sunday hat
Kick off to one side
Breasts mountain ranging
Strapless, under skirt suit the color of Caribbean Sea
Striding, her hard farm funnel foot
Squeeze-up tight
In navy-blue battleship shoes
I thought my hour had come
Lord knows I likes to die.

I really hate to turn down third-party submissions, because (frankly) they don’t come along nearly as frequently as I would like, but I definitely quailed here. This wonderful poem is written in a dialect that (to my mind) is constituted by two aspects – one the grammatical conventions used and the second, actual pronunciation of the words. Reading the grammar as presented would be one thing. But I’m a one-trick pony when it comes to pronunciation and have never considered trying to adopt other accents in my Whale Sound readings. I think I’d be very bad at it and would just make everyone cringe in the process.

What do you think? Assuming you yourself are not from the Bahamas or its dialectically-related region, would you read Dr. Cox’s poem out loud for an audience? And if so, how would you treat it?

(And would you read this by Robert Burns to an audience?

Nae doubt but they were fain o’ ither,
An’ unco pack an’ thick thegither;
Wi’ social nose whyles snuff’d an’ snowket;
Whyles mice and modewurks they howket;
Whyles scour’d awa in lang excursion,
An’ worry’d ither in diversion;
Till tir’d at last wi’ mony a farce,
They set them down upon their arse,
An’ there began a lang digression
About the lords o’ the creation.)


‘meet for the eye of the younger alligator’ – Wallace Stevens

Nomad Exquisite is a terrific sound-and-feeling poem that pours itself out in one lovely unthinking glob. The kind of poem that would elicit rather bleating criticism in a workshop while asserting itself like a hot pulse that hasn’t the first idea what a workshop is, never mind caring what it might say. I love this poem.

Not so much this reading by Wallace Stevens, though:

Too declamatory and dramatic by half – takes itself far too seriously, is my sentiment.

This reading by a Rick Kisner at Lit2Go is more sympathetic – not so much too fast as failing to pay adequate attention to spaces and spacing, perhaps, but I like it better:


losing your voice

A moving meditation on voice from Christopher Hitchens who, defining himself by his voice, is losing his voice to throat cancer.


‘How To Make A Raft’ read by Brenda Clews

Brenda Clews is a poet with a Mac who blogs at Rubies in Crystal. Here she reads the poem read by the Voice Alpha gang last week – How To Make A Raft by Elisa Albo, donated by the poet to Voice Alpha‘s list of poems for which the authors have given advance recording permission for Dear Voice Alpha, the VA reading advice program. Feel free to add your observations on the readings! If you would like to send in a reading of How To Make A Raft for Voice Alpha critique, email the MP3 to nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

All ‘Raft’ readings

Brenda’s reading:

Dick’s comments
All the other readings took the poem along at a fair old clip, driven by the sense that there was some sense of urgency behind the directions being issued. There’s an interesting dynamic to this slower pacing suggestive of the need for the information to be absorbed carefully. If one goes with the scenario of there being time on the side of the protagonists then, with its clarity of diction and its use of cadence, Brenda’s rendition works well and provides an alternative interpretation to that underpinning the other readings.

Kristin’s comments
I, too, liked the different quality of this reading. There was a brightness and a bounciness that somewhat undercut the serious subject matter of the poem. At first I found it jarring, but then I decided that it fit: one must have a sort of bright, almost childlike outlook/faith to attempt that passage on such a flimsy craft. At one point, my speakers started to split, so that one item on the list came through the right speaker, then the next item on the left, and so on–it made me wonder if one could do that on purpose and what the effect would be if a whole list poem was done that way.

Nic’s comments
Hi Brenda – thanks once again for sending in your reading! I found your voice pleasant to listen to and your diction very clear. As a matter of personal taste, I found your pace somewhat slow overall, especially at the beginning, but I enjoyed the variety of texture you presented among the various lists, using pace, volume and voice energy to differentiate. In all, there was perhaps a touch of a ‘dramatic children’s fairy-tale/story-telling’ atmosphere, but overall, I greatly enjoyed the energy and enjoyment you communicated very clearly in your reading.


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