Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Take Two: Alternate Reading Formats


(Guest post by Rachel Bunting)

About two weeks ago, I had great fun giving a reading.

Let me explain that statement and why it’s a strange one. I don’t like to give readings. It creates a sense of anxiety in me: Are these the right poems? Am I forgetting to breathe? Is the audience bored? Would I be able to tell? Usually I’m asking myself all these questions while I’m still reading aloud, which means I’m not really present in the moment, not really living the poem as it’s coming out of my mouth. I often sit down at the end of a reading and think, “Oh. Did I just do that?” I dislike that sense of losing time, of being outside it.

But two weeks ago I was invited to read, along with my friend and fellow poet Anna Evans, at the public library in Princeton, NJ. We planned as usual: each prepared for a 20 minute set, choosing our own poems with no discussion. We flipped a coin upon arriving – I would read first. And then that plan fell apart.

We were waiting on a mutual friend’s arrival. About 5 minutes after the reading was due to start, his name appeared on the caller ID of my cell phone: “I’m about 15 minutes out, Rach, can you delay the reading at all?” No, of course we couldn’t. I mentioned to Anna that he was likely going to miss my entire reading (or most of it), and her face lit up. “I have an idea,” she said. And so we decided, in that moment, to alternate. This threw the host for a bit of a loop, but he was gracious and accommodating, introducing us at the same time. I started with two poems, then Anna followed with two of hers, and so on, back and forth, for 40 minutes. We closed with 3 poems each, and then settled in for the open mic.

While the idea of alternating readers is not entirely new (see: this oddly jerky but still relevant video of BJ Ward & Joe Weil doing just that), it’s still not exactly common. I think it worked well for us, and for the audience, for a few reasons.

Anna is mostly known as a formal poet, working a great deal of the time in meter now. She has written more sonnets than I can count, along with her fair share of sestinas, villanelles, rondeaus, triolets, and even a Chant Royal. She writes what we call “guts and knuckles poetry,” the kind of writing that makes you feel something in your stomach, poems that are image-driven, full of the grit that finds us every day, that follows us and sticks between our teeth. On the other hand, I am comfortably situated in the world of narrative free verse, having discovered fairly early on that if I write a sonnet, I need Anna to “fix it” for me before I can show it anywhere else.

Anna is a good reader, with a strong voice full of expression. She avoids the trap of sing-songy readings but even so, she knows to break up her readings with the occasional free verse piece. In alternating our poems, we were able to balance the measured voice of meter against the weight of free verse. This gave Anna the freedom to read almost exclusively from her formal catalog, which is where her voice is strongest these days. And it provided the audience with enough variation that they didn’t tune out when they heard her say “And this is another sonnet…” The audience was engaged through the entire reading.

I think this was pretty important for the reading, as it gave us an opportunity to play off one another. And this is where I really felt the reading was good for me: instead of losing time while wondering if I was engaging enough, I was listening to Anna, and trying to shift the order of my poems to follow off something she’d just said or a tone she’d set. She did the same, and there were two particularly successful transitions: in the first, I read a poem about a loved one’s car accident, a poem that celebrates survival, along with the mundane moments that we don’t acknowledge until we are challenged by some traumatic event; Anna followed on that with a car accident poem of her own, in which she examines guilt, anger and accountability in the wake of a death. Later she shared a beautiful and difficult philosophical meditation that focused on a few French phrases after I read my love letter to a French chef. Our poems presented somewhat opposing, but balanced, views of similar situations, and it was a nice complement.

Considering that we had only about 30 seconds to prepare our sets after deciding to alternate, the transitions were impressive. This is due in part, I’m sure, to our long-standing friendship – we’ve been close friends for about 11 years, and have learned to anticipate each other’s movements and alter our courses as necessary. So imagine the reading we could have planned, given enough notice. As it was, several members of the audience commented on how fun it was that we’d been able to coordinate our readings in this way.

This was especially exciting for me, as I see it as the closest poets can come to the jam sessions that musicians can have: the eye contact, the minute body language that communicates a shift in key, a new chord progression. I felt something like that with Anna at the library, and it was a new, challenging and rewarding energy from which to feed.

Presence / Energy
Listening to the same poet for 30 minutes, no matter how interesting, can be a little tiresome. Alternating poems gave the audience a chance to shift focus and be receptive to new energy. They didn’t have a chance to get bored to tears before the next one of us was up. And fortunately, Anna and I have very different energies: she tends toward a more serious, dramatic presence, while I am the one cracking corny jokes that only the true nerds in the audience respond to.

This is my new favorite way to read. Although I’d like an opportunity to plan a reading like this with Anna, I enjoyed the spontaneity, the shift in energy, and the challenge to stay focused and relevant. And I think the audience enjoyed how much we were enjoying it, too.

Rachel Bunting lives and writes in Southern New Jersey, between the Pine Barrens and the Delaware River. Her poems can be found in Muzzle Magazine, Weave Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, and forthcoming in PANK. She is currently at work on her first full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled A Door Opens at Night. Visit her website here.

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.

8 thoughts on “Take Two: Alternate Reading Formats

  1. Pingback: look at me | Rachel Bunting

  2. I love this idea….it’s like musicians riffing off each other….sounds very refreshing!

  3. Yes, this sounds fabulous. Must try.

  4. I love this idea as well. I think that what it would give to the audience is most exciting part. That alternating set of voices is a sure way to maintain attention and keep the tone fresh.

  5. I have alternated with my friend and co-editor, Wendy Vardaman–but we carefully planned out beforehand what we would read. It’s a successful format, and really does keep the audience engaged. Doing it the way you describe, without advance planning, sounds like a real challenge. I would like to try it sometime!

  6. What a great idea–and likely as close to being a jazz musician as I will ever be! Thanks for your insights.

  7. Pingback: unwritten « reflex the noun

  8. Pingback: 2011: looking back | Rachel Bunting

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