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.)

Published by

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 “reading-as-performance – tradecraft for poets?”

  1. I did a workshop last year on Reading Poetry Aloud for RHINO magazine, indeed focusing on how to help the listeners really hear what you have written, how to take the care reading aloud that you do in writing the poem. And it involves really looking at and following the visual cues and structure and chosen sounds in your poem.

    But, Nic, here’s something I’ve learned over time. Some “page” poets hold themselves apart from “stage” poets, and so do some editors. Some editors don’t trust the work of performance poets, or spoken word poets, and say it doesn’t work on the page. Perhaps sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a spoken word event is just that–an event, and a performance, and marvelous as that! But many times, of course, perfectly wonderful poems on the page are also perfectly wonderful poems out loud, and vice versa.

    Sometimes if you read your poetry well out loud, there are people who think the poem is not as good as you read it. It’s unfair and infuriating at times!! My own case is compounded, because people will say, “Oh, she’s an actress!” as if I am performing my poems, not reading them. I’m not. Because I worked as an actress, I know the difference (also because I was on speech team in high school, I know the difference between reading aloud and oral interpretation; and because I’ve talked to people who taught oral interpretation courses in college–are those gone now?), and, anyway, I am a naturalistic actress, so I don’t do much “performing” anyway. (I live onstage, rather than “pretend.” And I’m not in a sitcom.)

    Do I sound bitter? Argumentative? Sometimes I am, but mostly I am serene with a sense of humor about this, and I shrug it off and read my poems as well as I can when given the opportunity. But I recently heard a disparaging comment at a reading about “poets who read well but just don’t cut it on the page.” This just astonished me, so I am here defending all the poets who DO read well, and who are a joy to listen to, and who strike me as reading and revealing the poem they have written, not hiding from it, and not disguising it with false modesty or somebody else’s style they heard on a record.

    And I continue to admire how YOU read poems. You are finding and revealing what’s there, sometimes even revealing it to the poet! So poets listening to you could learn by listening. There is a simplicity and calm to your voice that lets the words of the poem float in listening space, and you are not “over-performing” anything, and people could learn a lot from this.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Kathleen! I get what you’re saying, but do return to the idea of the “duality” of the poem – its ‘double life’ as both poem-as-text and poem-as-voice. In my view, a fully-realized poem should stand strong and independently in both forms/either form. I wouldn’t be on board with arguing for ‘value’ precedence to be given to one over the other.

  3. I hope Kathleen’s comment makes it into a guest post at the new site. I don’t get out enough, so some of this is new to me, though not surprising. I’ve wondered if the near-monotone often deployed by “difficult” poets wasn’t meant to convey the high seriousness of their work.

  4. I enjoy reading my work, but struggle with it. I love talking in front of people, and to people, but I am weirdly concerned that listeners are being excluded as I read (if they fail to catch a word, or if I zoom past line breaks). I am not this critical of other readers, and I love even the most uncomfortable readings…so I don’t know where it comes from.

    Partly, it’s got to be self-doubt because I don’t know how excitingly my poems translate when read aloud. I have heard poets read that are VERY exciting (I think of Cat Kidd, who memorizes all her work and truly performs it beautifully), and I worry about measuring up there.

    I love your concept for Voice Alpha. I think a lot about the difference between songwriting (I write songs, too) and poem-writing, and performing music vs. poems.

    Interesting stuff!

    1. Guest-blog for Voice Alpha, Hannah – go on, do! The whole concept of memorizing (for page poets at any rate) is huge and interesting – should it be urged upon page poets, or not? If so, why and if not, why not? And the whole songwriting/music comparison would be endlessly fascinating!

  5. Yes, Nic, I’m not on board with a value judgment, either. I’m astonished by it. I’m pondering the poem-as-text and poem-as-voice thing, and I think of the poem as both. I read aloud as a way to compose/revise, to hear what I’ve written. And I love to read aloud at an event. I do know some poems by heart, just through repetition, but I tend not to memorize, so there is still a “read” quality. I remember that E. B. White liked to read his books to children, and not create separate voices for the characters, just modulate his own voice a bit.

    And a sort of weird thing for me is that I hear poems in my head in a neutral voice–anybody’s poems–while I am reading silently. If I speak them, they come out in my own voice, but the voice in my head is a different one. I don’t know how to understand or even describe that, really.

  6. Love this discussion! I know that an important part of revision for me is how the words sound (and this is true for my prose writing as well). We all read out loud or with our little in the mind voices so how the writing sounds is vitally important! I don’t like when people down play the power or purpose of primarily spoken word poetry. I mentioned a poetry slam anthology on my holiday shopping guide this year and the only time poems in it bothered me was when I saw how well they were crafted for speech but how little attention the poet then paid to how they looked on the page. If you think so much about where you pause and emphasize when reading why wouldn’t you do so as well when typing up the line breaks etc?

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