Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


Reading poetry with video: some first impressions

In early August I was able to attend my first festival devoted to videopoetry, the 2013 Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar, Scotland. One of the high points of the weekend-long event was a live reading by classicist and poet Henry Stead of London Poetry Systems, a recitation of his translation of Catullus’ long poem (#63), “Attis,” in front of a screen onto which a film was projected. It was essentially a karaoke version of a videopoem, with the soundscape included but no words. As fellow audience member Graham Barnes put it,

The compelling Galliambic metre of the poem and Henry’s (1960s) ‘beat poets’ delivery style combined with the haunting soundscapes and film images representing scenes from the poem made for a powerful and memorable, multi-modal performance.

Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, the lover of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who in keeping with many members of the Cybele cult castrated himself as an act of piety and then lived out his life in regret and tormented exile.

Stead’s semi-musical recitation style was fairly understated — a good choice to balance the high drama of the poem. Because he was reciting rather than reading, he could stare out into the distance, and his clean-shaven white face became part of the large screen onto which the film was projected, a startling and effective technique for this ancient text about divine possession, madness and transformation. This video, made three years earlier, doesn’t quite capture that effect (and the video behind him is inevitably hard to make out):

I’d given readings with videopoetry interludes, which had always gone over well, but Henry Stead’s “Attis” made me realize I could take things to another level. This past Wednesday, I got my opportunity with a reading in a local bookstore-cafe, the inaugural event in a monthly poetry reading series organized and emceed by Jason Crane. (Thanks to Jason for the photos that follow.) As featured reader, I had 25 minutes, and the focus was to be on my new chapbook of poems about banjos.

For the month preceding the reading, I’d been beavering away making videopoems using texts from the book. As poetry films go, they are fairly unsophisticated because I lack either the software or the know-how to make “real” films, but fortunately we are living in the golden age of remix, and there are great troves of public-domain films and videos on the web that one can steal from, as well as free and Creative Commons-licensed sound and music one can borrow. Since the poems all reference or are concerned with banjos to some degree, musical videopoems seem like the logical next step beyond the print edition, and some of the imagery I found allows me to expand on things that are only suggested in the text with additional, visual metaphors, such as the round, white dome of Monticello suggesting something more about the “jars” in a poem called “How Jefferson Heard Banjar.” The point is that I was making these videos anyway, so why not try to give a reading with karaoke versions of some of them?

video-assisted poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

Here’s the set-up. I needed a high table large enough to hold my laptop and speakers. A set list with the poem titles and page numbers in black magic marker helped me quickly and easily find the next poem text while the present poem’s credits rolled on the screen. The projector sat on a separate table in front, projecting onto a screen off to my right:

the screen at my poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

In a bookstore-cafe still open for business, the challenge was to compete with ambient noise and respect the needs of other customers (e.g., to browse books with the lights on). Fortunately, the store was well equipped with an excellent mike and speakers. If I’d had the means to plug my laptop directly into their amp instead of having to use my own speakers for the soundtrack, I’m sure that would’ve been better, but the volume seemed sufficient — even, I’m told, at the far end of the seating area:

video-assisted poetry reading from a distance - photo by Jason Crane

I didn’t mind not having a large screen and movie-theater darkness, because frankly, my made-for-web videos aren’t as high-resolution as they could be. As usual for me, I chose a fairly relaxed, naturalistic style of reading, except for one video where I attempt (not too successfully) to imitate a 1940s film noir narrator. Based on my own sense of things as well as the numerous positive reactions afterwards (some even from people who weren’t friends or relatives), I’d say the reading went pretty well. It was definitely a very different experience from any other reading I’ve ever given.  I felt most complimented by the fact that the three children in attendance seemed spellbound, including a toddler who’d been restive earlier and Jason’s two boys, who I’m told are regular, football-loving American kids.


There was simply no question that I’d have to practice my ass off for a couple of days in advance, reading the poems over and over while the videos played in a VLC playlist on my laptop. With regular poetry readings, practice might seem optional (at least to poets who don’t read this site), but with audiovisual accompaniment, you have to come in on cue or the whole thing flops. I had assumed the screen would be behind me and prepared accordingly, but with it situated to my right, I didn’t have to glance exclusively at my laptop for visual cues.

Complete memorization of the poems would not have been a bad thing, much as I resist internalizing my own words to that degree. I wouldn’t have had to fumble with a book and set list, and possibly could’ve engaged more with the audience. However, with the audience focused on the screen, what really mattered was my vocal delivery, not eye contact. And with the accompanying music being generally melodic and at points down-right funky, it took off the pressure to give an absolutely flawless reading. So in a way, this approach offers a bit of a crutch to those of us (95% of poets?) who are not highly skilled performers.

There’s nothing like a live reading to improve one’s delivery, though. I had been afraid that the necessity to sync up my reading with prerecorded music and images might make for kind of a mechanical delivery, but I don’t think that happened. In fact, for some of the poems in the set, I found myself reading in a more intense, impassioned style than I used when I’d recorded myself alone in a quiet bedroom for the online versions of the videopoems. And since I had to pay close attention to the music for many of my cues, I think this approach actually improved my over-all sense of timing and rhythm.

With the laptop in front of me, it was possible to pause the videos for a few seconds when needed to make introductory remarks, though I think I only had to do that twice. In a regular reading, it’s all too easy to natter on and on about what prompted a particular poem, and forget that our job is to entertain, not to lecture. With this reading, I had to be mindful not only of the tight time constraint but also of the effect on the audience of interrupting the music and the flow. The next time I do this, I will add enough slack-time in the intros and credits of each video for all my brief contextualizing remarks.

Now, all this might seem like a huge lot of effort for a 25-minute reading in front of 30-some people, but I found it hugely energizing and reaffirming. More than that, it was useful to be reminded of the essential ephemerality of what we do. As Walter J. Ong points out in his classic study Orality and Literacy, sounded words with their inherent temporality are uniquely dynamic and close to the human lifeworld. Fans of online audiopoetry and videopoetry like to claim that we’re recovering an oral dimension and liberating poems from the prison of print. But if we’re serious about orality, it seems to me, we need to periodically test our words and images in the crucible of live performance.

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Who should read at poetry readings? – handy-dandy decision-making aid

There was a great deal of discussion recently on Facebook, on the Wompo Listserv (scroll down to Mon Oct 14 at 8.44am for subject ‘Recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?’) and at Very Like A Whale on one of our recent posts about recruiting actors to do reading at poetry readings. In following the discussion, I realized that at the end of the day there really is no ‘right’ answer as to who should read what at poetry readings (whether in-person, audio recording, etc). It isn’t a zero-sum, either/or question and the ‘right’ answer depends on your objectives.

So, what is the purpose of the reading event? When you consider the possible range of objectives, all of us should probably be doing ‘all of the above’ when it comes to poetry reading, and preferably all in equal measure, rather than hewing to the same formula (poet reads own poems to audience) 95% of the time. So, for example, consider the following preliminary handy objective-based aid to poetry-reading decision-making:

When to read your own poems to an audience:
– you want to convey to an audience what your poems mean to you.
– you want to improve your own public poetry-reading skills.
– you want to sell your poems.

When to seek others to read your poems for you (actor, fellow-poet, non-poet, whichever):
– you want to learn what nuances, connections & messages others perceive in your poems, particularly those you did not consciously intend to convey (which in turn will make you both a better poet and a more self-aware human being).
– you don’t yet have enough confidence in your public poetry-reading ability for the occasion.
– you want to learn how to improve delivery of your own poems by watching how others handle them.
– you want to sell your poems.

When to seek out opportunities to read others’ poems for an audience:
– you want to honor their work and improve your understanding of it (bearing in mind that what goes into and what you get out of reading aloud for an attentive audience differs materially and exponentially from muttering fragments aloud to yourself while you read on the couch).
– you want to practice the art & science of getting into someone else’s head (which in turn will make you both a better poet and a more self-aware human being).
– you want to find out if you are – or already know you are – better at presenting others’ poems than you are at presenting your own (apparently happens more than one would think).
– you want to improve your own public poetry-reading skills.
– you want to sell your poems.

I commend once again the excellent Voice Alpha blog post by Rachel Dacus on this and related themes.

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recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?

That’s what the UK’s Forward Arts Foundation did at their big poetry prize day in London last week, provoking much indignation among UK poets.

“On the way in to the event, a Forward Trustee told me that the origin of the actorly coup came from the premise that poets can’t read their work,” wrote a protesting blogger. She went on to characterize the evening as “a solemn, ponderous series of readings by a group of actors who made heavy weather of the poems.”

“If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated,’ asserted another protesting blogger, adding that ‘one only has to go to a TS Eliot prize-giving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets are somewhere between competent and excellent at reading.” Am not sure I completely understood the rationale she then used to explain her position, but she went on to say that “most of the actors just didn’t inhabit the poems effectively. I think it was harder, hearing most of the poems for the first time and not knowing several of the poets’ work, to ‘get’ each poem than it usually is at readings. I don’t mean the ostensible subject, if any, but the motive force and the magical something that might make the listener/reader connect with the work.”

The Foundation’s response was, um, snarky: “The controversial decision to use actors to read the shortlisted poetry has provoked vigorous debate: some poets, publishers and bloggers insist that poetry should be read aloud only by its authors and no one else, while others reckon that a poem lives in the voices, ears and minds of the many, not the few,” it said on its website.

As my long-suffering readers know, I’m a big fan of the you learn way more about pretty much everything by reading other people’s poems to an audience or by having your poems read to you, than you do by reading your own poems to others school of thought. As such, I am very intrigued by this idea. Note that the actors provided their services free for the event.

Has anyone ever tried this? Asked an actor friend or friends to take the poet’s place at a reading? If not, do you think it might be a good idea to try, or a stinker? Why?

Meanwhile, here are some of the readings from the controversial Forward prize-giving event last week. There were three big winners – Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem.

Best Collection – Michael Symmons Roberts (see him read on a different occasion here – jump to about 1:17 for the reading). At the prize-giving, actress Natascha McElhone read one of his poems, here. Roberts struck me as a competent reader, but I thought McElhone did a really fabulous job with her reading.

Best First Collection – Emily Berry. See her read here. Actress Helen McCrory read one of Berry’s poems at the prize-giving, here. An unfortunate stumble on the last line of the poem, but an otherwise engaging performance, I thought.

Best Single Poem – Nick MacKinnon. I couldn’t find any readings online by MacKinnon. His winning poem was read at the prize-giving by actor Samuel West, here – an excellent reading, in my judgment.

Very interested to hear others’ thoughts on all this. To close things out, here’s a great post from the Voice Alpha archives by Rachel Dacus (with discussion in the comments), on the advantages of having someone than the author read poems to an audience.

(Cross-posted at Very Like A Whale. Hat tip Dave Bonta for pointing out the Forward story.)


I am fearfully and wonderfully made – and so are you

watch this beautiful child

(cross-posted at Very Like A Whale)


poetry doesn’t sell because it isn’t performed well enough

(Cross-posted from Very Like A Whale) Interesting reading from the folks at Commercial Poetry:

… poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet’s work or of poetry in general. Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:

– it must be a performance, not a reading; and,
– it is ass-backwards: live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.

This was true even in poetry’s heyday. Shakespeare’s plays were not collected and published until well after he retired. How many copies would his scripts have sold without production? Just as you don’t buy MP3s of songs/artists you’ve never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*. If enough of that writer’s work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour. Contrast that to poetry’s status quo: to no one’s surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general. How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?

I especially love the footnote corresponding to the asterisk above:

* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today’s poets. As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry’s reanimation.


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