Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

a talent *not* owned by every poet? reading their poems well aloud


Oregon is organized! They are archiving voicings of poems by Oregon poets here. (Hat tip Maureen Doallas).

I love the idea of archiving poems-as-voice, and absolutely think more states and entities and people should do it. So yay, Oregon!

What I do argue with, however, is the seemingly universal notion that the best way to aurally present a poem is to have its author read it aloud.

So not true. Just take a listen.

What Oregon (and other collectives looking to create aural poetic archives – are you listening, people?) should do is actively look for and select those among them who read well and have them volunteer to read for everyone else.

Screen writers and playwrights don’t act their own films and plays. Fashion designers don’t model their own clothes. They look for people with the specific talents and attributes acting or modeling requires. My argument is that to do their own work justice, poets should do the same.

It’s not as if good readers are desperately scarce – like good actors or good models, they most definitely are not. All that is required is the baseline intellectual/emotional acknowledgment that most poets just don’t read aloud well – just as most playwrights or fashion designers aren’t good actors or good models.

And a decision to proceed accordingly.

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.

12 thoughts on “a talent *not* owned by every poet? reading their poems well aloud

  1. So true! I was at a reading recently where I wish the poet had found someone else to read her work. I think ego gets in the way, or the fear that people will get confused as to who the speaker/poet is.

  2. Thank you. I found that site two or three months ago while doing research on a poet. I’d written down the link but forgot to add it to a Saturday Sharing until this week. Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon are among others who have also noted the site.

    Your points about readings are well-taken, and I’m sure we all have listened and been dissatisfied with how a writer reads his or her own work. I wonder if the assumption may be, especially for a site like this, that archiving poets reading their own work is deemed to be of some value historically.

    Who makes the judgment call on an issue like this? Would poets readily accede that they are not their own best readers of their work? (Some of the most well-known and popular are not.) I can imagine someone putting a site like this together trying to explain, when asked, why only some and not all the poets are reading their own work. Rather delicate situation, perhaps. If it were commonplace that poets didn’t read their own poems at their own events and their audiences did not have the expectation that the poets themselves would do so, employing others to read in poets’ place might not be an issue.

    I’d like to hear what other poets have to say on the issue.

    • Hey Maureen, great to hear from you as always! I think it would be easy in the set-up to explain – ‘Dear Poet X – We would like to archive your poems as audio, as read by one of our stable of in-house readers, who are Poets A, B & C. Please let us know if you would like your poems archived here. PS If you are interested in becoming one of our in-house readers, please follow the following procedure.’

  3. Given that many poets and other writers need to go round doing readings in situations where it would be impractical or odd to have someone else doing it (eg Book Festivals where people want to meet the writer and hear them read their work), I think the solution is to train poets and other writers to be able to read convincingly in public. In Scotland the Scottish Book Trust, Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh City of Literature are three organisations that offer free advice to writers to help them confidentally present their own work in public. Of course not all writers then take up that training but it is there.

    • Hey Juliet

      “I think the solution is to train poets and other writers to be able to read convincingly in public.”

      Yes! I like that idea! The fundamental problem preventing effective implementation of that eminently sensible solution, however, is that no-one really thinks there is a problem to begin with. Because *of course* writers of poems are the best *readers* of them…

      As one example, we offer rudimentary assistance here at Voice Alpha, but have hardly been overwhelmed by demand…

  4. I developed a course about Poetic Performance for grad school. I did research where I polled poet’s through a Google Form about how they prepare to read their work (among other things). I was stunned to find out how many people do nothing! They simply grab a bunch of poems about beforehand and then decide what to read on the spot. Some people drink. Some respondents practice reading their poems, but a lot of poet’s felt that there was something phony about “performing” your poems. “The poem should speak for itself,” was a common response. These same respondents were less likely to enjoy collaborations between poets and musicians or other types of performance/art/music. Clearly there are differing opinions on this subject, some of which are very strongly opposed to the idea of being an engaging, prepared poet-reader.

    I personally love reading my poetry out loud. I have some theater background and I’m an outgoing person (usually) so, while I do get nervous, I that will just add to my energy during the reading. I also love reading other people’s poems, even when I’m asked to read. I often open with someone eles’s work to set a tone or pay homage to poet’s who have inspired me. Sometimes when I’m at readings I want to get up and read for the poet because they aren’t doing their work justice. I can see why these poets get frustrated and I think that having other’s read their work is an option, but ultimately, until perceptions/attitudes/traditions change, they might just have to suck it up and practice.

    • Hey Laura –

      “because they aren’t doing their work justice”

      yes – that’s really the crux of the matter. Poor readings do disservice to the poems themselves and to poetry at large.

  5. I am so glad to see you write this. I often feel like a terrible grouch when I don’t want to read my poetry in public but I never wrote it to be read aloud. Some of it can be and works fine but not by me. I recorded ‘Lonely City’ to go with the wee video for the this.collection project but I don’t think I do an especially good job of it besides it’s edited. I went into Audacity and cleaned the thing up, shortened some of the pauses and took out all the lip smacks. And it certainly wasn’t my first go at it. I’m looking forward to hearing your interpretation of ‘As Is’ later this year and I quite enjoyed doing the wee animations using robots as readers but, for me, the poem exists on the page and in the mind.

    Larkin never did poetry readings. He did record his poems to show how they could be read but he never suggested that was how they should be read and as much as I think he has a great speaking voice I’m not that crazy about his style of reading.

    I don’t enjoy poetry readings – it’s different online where you can replay and often read along with the speaker – but I can never keep track of what’s going on at live readings. Poetry is something to take time over and yet what do you get at a poetry reading? Poem, after poem, after poem, after poem with hardly a breath in between. As an excuse for socialising, fine, but that’s it for me.

    There is also the point of a view that a reading of a poem is an event in itself separate in many ways from the poem on the page. I get the point, I’m just not sure that’s necessarily a good thing.

  6. Jim – great to hear from you.

    “I can never keep track of what’s going on at live readings. Poetry is something to take time over and yet what do you get at a poetry reading? Poem, after poem, after poem, after poem with hardly a breath in between.”

    It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but frequently the reality. I think overall our poetry reading culture could do with some overhaul. One day, maybe…

  7. Pingback: recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings? | Voice Alpha

  8. Pingback: recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings? | Very Like A Whale

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