I have long been a big fan of the cadences and musicality in Sara Mithra’s unique poetry reading style. A poet, performer and film-maker, she recently contributed a wonderful reading (Warning by David Sullivan) to The Poetry Storehouse project. Sara answers some interview questions from Voice Alpha here and shares how audio recording and film making are an intrinsic part of the poetry-making process for her. Watch one of her videos directly below and follow the links in the text to more of her work.
VA: You have rich and active accounts at both SoundCloud and Vimeo. Would you describe what you do with poetry in both places?
SM: On SoundCloud, I’m accumulating an archive of recordings made when poems were “fresh,” usually within two weeks of first seeing the page. Although the text suffer from clutter and rough, I’m capturing a kind of _emotional_ text that’s legible. I use recordings as part of my editing process, learning from my voice more about a poem’s pacing, density, and dramatic arc. Playing with accent and dialect can go on and on. When the play congeals into something worth repeating, I post the track.
On Vimeo, with my found footage poem-videos, I’m engaging a distinct medium — video — that acts like a carrier oil for perfume. Poetry can be too rarefied to carry scent alone. Unlike recording my performances, the process for editing video out of archival footage is _not_ closely related to writing. Finding home movies from the 50s and splicing them into a three minute video is a subtractive process, like sculpture — paring away excess scraps of image to create a tone more than a narrative. It’s a decadent and aesthetic practice that gives each poem a visual soundtrack. I love editing video — it eats away hours of time and allows pleasure, plus gives me the chance to collaborate with musicians on the score. These massive projects take months, so I need to commit to a poem that bears scrutiny without boring me.
VA: I love your cadences when you read, and include you among what I call ‘musical readers’ (more on that here). How does that thought strike you? Can you talk a bit about your cadences?
SM: I recorded myself last night to hear in it what you called musical. My cadences and thought to when my voice rises and drops originates from my childhood. Reading aloud, I wanted to impress teachers with exaggerated enunciation and varying the pitch to keep it dramatic. Mix that with my interest in highly formalized types of speech (evangelical preachers’ sermons, preschool teachers, tour guides) and I get the itch to carry my voice along songs. I also listened to the Carl Sandburg tracks on Voice Alpha — tickled by his dismantling of words and movement between colloquial interjections and full-on nursery rhymey singsong. The exaggeration in my cadences often helps me distinguish one setting or one stanza from the next, set off quoted text (I always write with a lot of dialogue), or inhabit two characters. It keeps me delighted rather than getting too serious or prosaic.
VA: You recently contributed a great reading of a Poetry Storehouse poem by David Sullivan. Do you regularly record other people’s poems, or focus exclusively on your own? Why or why not?
SM: I regularly perform other people’s poems for my friends or intimate writing groups, but I don’t regularly record them because I don’t believe I have the right. The Poetry Storehouse introduced me to a less conservative understanding of cultural and artistic property vis a vis poems. I learned so much recording the hilarious David Sullivan piece, because he uses entirely different diction and quoted text than I do. To find the right performance, I had to crawl inside the poem — or most of the way inside — and face out, a deeper experience than being an audience member. I plan on recording more of other people’s work, self-servingly to develop vocal diversity, and to promote a new understanding of community and collaboration.
VA: What is your preparation process for audio recording? How is it different from the way you prepare for a live performance?
SM: Audio recording isn’t a way for me to present a finished piece — it’s part of the process of editing. If a line doesn’t sound right, it isn’t working. If sound isn’t a key element, it may not be a piece to get off the ground at all. Last week, I recorded poems in a real recording studio for a project with electronic musicians, and I prepared by reading a bunch of old work, selecting a few pieces, and practicing with my laptop. So that was the formal side. Usually, the laborious prep involves finding a quiet enough place to put the mic. Honestly, I don’t really “prepare,” I just turn the mic on. If I had to “prepare,” I wouldn’t get anything done.
For a live performance, I am no longer actively editing a piece. The poem finds a temporarily congealed state. I prepare for features and even open mics by considering the order of poems and, most importantly, my costume. I like dressing up as a spinstress, cowboy, or muralist, depending on the subject matter of the performance. If I know the venue, I weigh the appropriateness of the poem. I’m guilty of tending to perform “fresh” work rather than my “best” work. The power of performing live comes directly from the audience and the poem itself. (At least for me, the power of audio recording is about my voice, disembodied and decontextualized.) For my first two features, I ended up memorizing most of my set because I practiced and honed it so much. Memorizing the lines allowed me to pay more attention, live, to the energy of my presence. When performing vulnerable work, my main focus is on being vulnerable, not pronouncing everything perfectly, and connecting with the audience.
VA: Please describe your recording/editing process. What software/hardware do you use? Are your final recordings edited from more than one audio version, or do you get the job done with a single recording? Are there any tips or best practices you would like to share?
SM: Sound Forge Audio Studio and Movie Studio, two basic programs, work fine. I am not an audio person. I’m fulfilled by writing and performing, not engineering, so I record versions until I stop making major mistakes and haven’t run out of emotion. When listening to it makes me GIGGLE, I publish that version. Fancily mixing audio? That’s like a whole other hobby, so I keep it bare bones.
In terms of recording, I make do with what I have, like draping a blanket over my head to dampen sound or waiting until everyone is asleep. I listen to myself on good headphones. Listening to sounds or foley and trying to repeat them builds range. Experiment with accent; exaggerate. Lots of things that work on paper don’t work when you say them. Homophones can interfere with meaning. Obviously, sound conveys the poem differently than the page, so choose a poem that _sounds_ compelling. For me, I struggle with the twin drives to create a bizarre _experience_ and to communicate an idea. If I really wanted to communicate ideas, though, I’d join a punk band. Tips I give poets at open mics are to record themselves and listen and record and listen. And don’t make your voice go up at the end of the line!
VA: Is there anything else you’d like to share on this blog’s theme ie ‘reading poetry aloud for an audience’?
SM: Reading and listening to poetry live creates a spiritual experience. If you honor the spiritual experience by being present and mindful, not egotistical and bombastic, you’ll create a memory. I like to think of it as doing honor to the poem — which means you need to own the poem’s content and understand what it means to you. No amount of technique or tricks will make up for alienation or fear. Performance opens up a space to bare ourselves, and if we’re careful, the space will bear our outpouring.
“With powerful strangeness, Sara Mithra recites tales of desire at the margins. Her pieces, often troubling and folkloric, give voice to characters that might otherwise be drowned out by the calliope or train whistle. Her handmade chapbooks and zines include The Better to Teeth You With, Dig, Neither Thirst, and Wood: A Handbook.”