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“If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated,’ asserted another protesting blogger, adding that ‘one only has to go to a TS Eliot prize-giving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets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 Voice Alpha. Hat tip Dave Bonta for pointing out the Forward story.)

poetry out loud website – The Poeio Project

(cross-posted from Voice Aplha)

This is just charming. The project author writes:

I don’t know all that much about poetry – but I found this book – or rather, it found me – I walk around town with it, along with my little camera. I ask people on the street or where ever I go if they would like to read a poem from the little book – to my pleasant surprise most say yes.

What I like best about this project is at the very end when people finish reading the poem, there is an expression on their faces – a look of something genuine, and, well, I don’t know, innocence maybe… something pure meeting the threads of the self-conscious.

It’s nice to see people trying hard, struggling a bit, reflecting in the moment and then seeing that transition from introspection clash reality.

I think this is why everyone enjoys some kind of poetry, it lifts you up and out – there’s no helping it..

The year-long project started in July and seems to be posting a reading a day on both You Tube and Vimeo. Reminiscent of How Pedestrian, another poetry out loud website we interviewed on Voice Alpha , but with its own unique approach. I don’t know exactly which book of poems forms the basis for the project, but I’m guessing it’s something Oxford Book Of English Verse-ish. Watch random passers-by obligingly read Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Gray, Blake, etc for the camera. And it’s true about people’s expressions when they look up after finishing their reading. Just delightful.

(all ‘poetry out loud websites’ featured on Voice Alpha)

trompes loude and clarioun & Chaucer interviewing Margaret Atwood

Yesterday I posted a terrific reading from the Knight’s Tale by UPenn Professor David Wallace at Voice Alpha, and today found this at Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog, one of my all-time favorite blogs.

In other news, I’m a ‘bits and bobs’ teaser at the Best American Poetry blog, where I start my blogging week this Sunday. It’s going to be poetry out loud, intensively, in all my posts throughout the week, so be warned…

new & frabjous since last time

three poems at MiPOesias

invitation to blog at Best American Poetry blog for a week starting Feb 27. It’s totally going to be ‘poetry out loud’ at the BAP blog that week, so watch out

interview with Linebreak editor Johnathon Williams at Voice Alpha

two great posts on reading vs reciting poetry by Dave Bonta and Dick Jones at Voice Alpha

Homer on You Tube. I love this!

Introducing: ‘Dear Voice Alpha’ – poetry reading agony column

Are you a poet or reader of poetry interested in improving your ‘reading poetry for an audience’ skills? Send a recording of yourself reading (or a link to one) and a note on where you think your problem lies to Voice Alpha at voicealpha at gmail dot com. The Voice Alpha gang will review it and give you feedback and recommendations.

We encourage you to consider reading poems by other people so as to remove the potential for “author’s blinders.” Because copyright may be an issue, several generous poets have donated a poem for free use in this project and you may choose from a range of donated options here. You may also use any poem that is out-of-copyright or Creative Commons-licensed, or (if you must!) one of your own poems.

Voice Alpha’s stable of regular contributors will publish our collective responses along with your recording and initial message, and invite further comments from the community.

sound-in-composition vs sound-in-performance

Dave Bonta makes a key point at Voice Alpha today. Yes, there are two separate ‘sound’ processes at play in the poetry process.

One is indeed the central awareness of sound that should reign during the composition process. Many/most of us seem to have a keen awareness and excellent practice in that regard.

But there is also sound in performance. What of that? Somewhere along the line we seem to have decided that sound in performance doesn’t matter all that much, really…. (Why Don’t They Teach Us To Read)?

How do you like your poetry served?

Poetry is like steak, isn’t it? Everyone wants it served in a particular way.

We realized this at Whale Sound only a little bit after realizing that we have suddenly become a poetry-deliverer. Thanks in major part to the conversations at Voice Alpha and backroom exchanges with our, um, backroom consultants for Whale Sound . (You know who you are, guys – thanks!!).

So some tweaking has occurred at the site of Whale Sound‘s first audio chapbook publication – Heather Hummel’s Handmade Boats.

Some people like to tackle a chapbook slowly and methodically, beginning at the first entry and ending at the last. The main page is for you – it allows you to click your way through the poems, viewing text and hearing audio, one by one.

Some people want the whole text at their disposal all at once, to be able to skim forward, backwards, stop here and avoid there, with audio options when they choose. The ‘all text and audio on one long page‘ is for you.

Some people just want the text, forget the audio. They want text that is printable, physical, holdable. The PDF version is for you.

Some people don’t want any of the above, they just want a chapbook they can listen to on their iPod. The MP3 download is for you.

And some people want some or all of the above at different points in time – the text, the audio, the text and the audio, either, both, any.

Is there anything we haven’t thought of?

On looking (or not) at your audience when you read poetry

Subject of a new post I just put up at Voice Alpha.

Voice Alpha is a companion site to Whale Sound. It grew out of the Whale Sound experience, which underlined the fact that there are very few resources online specifically focused on assisting poets to build or hone their ability to effectively read poetry aloud for an audience.

Voice Alpha is a repository for thoughts, theories, suggestions, likes and dislikes and anything else related to the art and science of reading poetry aloud for an audience. It’s meant to be a community effort. If you would like to guest-blog at Voice Alpha, or have any material you think might be a useful addition to the site, please email nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

reading-as-performance – tradecraft for poets?

I’ve been comparing poets to musicians/composers, noting that the latter undergo rigorous formal training for two complementary aspects of music-craft – a) how to create a score on paper – essentially, a visual artefact – and b) how to master the musical instrument (s) that turn the score into an aural artefact.

Now I’m wondering why it is that for poets, the vast majority of tradecraft emphasis goes to the first part only — mastering the craft that creates the poem-as-text, the visual artefact — while very little attention goes to the second part: mastering the instrument (voice/body) that turns the poem into poem-as-voice, the aural artifact?

This is very obviously not to assert that existing poetry tradecraft does not consider sound. Far from it. We all know from workshops, reading and study what careful emphasis should ideally be placed on addressing the sound element while composing poetry – including the importance of reading work aloud as it is written – and many (many!) books have been written containing formal wisdom on sound and how to manipulate/understand it in poetry.

What I’m talking about, though, is the physical tradecraft associated with reading-as-performance for poets. Starting up the Whale Sound project and lacking such formal training myself, I spent a lot of time looking for reading-as-performance wisdom for poets on the internet. It seems there’s almost nothing out there. (If I’ve overlooked anything, am happy to stand corrected.)

There’s a ton of information out there for other voice performances – for singers, actors and speakers. How to warm up and protect your voice; how to breathe correctly; how to stand correctly; how to project your voice; how to find the right singing or speech coach for you; how to relate to your audience. Much of it is relevant and/or adaptable for poets (although some of it is actively wrong for poets, in my view), but almost none of it is directed specifically at poets.

What does that mean?  Do we poets as a community assume that honed poetry-writing skills automatically translate into honed poetry-reading skills – that the ability to write good poems comes packaged with the ability to read them aloud well? Or do we simply not care enough about the value of reading-as-performance for poetry and are collectively ok with a wing-it/seat-of-the-pants/take-it-or-leave-it approach  when it comes to reading poetry for an audience? There are certainly many naturally-talented performers/readers out there, but surely there are also many many more poets who would really benefit from a discussion of different approaches and key considerations for the poet reading-as-performer.

I’m cross-posting this at Voice Alpha, a new blog that will focus only on reading-as-performance tradecraft for poets and hopefully in time grow into a some sort of resource for the community.

If you would like to guest-blog at Voice Alpha on any topic related to reading-as-performance for poets, please email nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

(Note: This is a topic I discussed with Dave Bonta during the recent Woodrat podcast in which he interviewed me about Whale Sound. I’ll be writing one or two more posts that pick up on other topics we discussed.)