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“If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated,’ asserted another protesting blogger, adding that ‘one only has to go to a TS Eliot prize-giving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good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

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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.

9 thoughts on “recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?”

  1. It’s a good question. With no straigforward answer. I work with audible poetry a lot in my videopoems and I must admit, I often came accross poems that I realy liked, but never used because of the ‘poor’ reading (and I’m not talking sound quality)
    Poetry is music to me and I love a good musician delivering the music…
    I love it when the poet wants to do their own reading/recording, but the reading must be a a good one. To me ther’s also no such thing as a definitive reading of a poem. Different voices make different readings make different interpretations. Yes I used professional actors to read the poems for my short poetryfilm Circle ( but that was also decided because of the storyline (3 characters in the storyline, so 3 voices to read the 11different poems)

  2. Yes indeed, there is no one answer. There are poets who have a natural talent for delivery and who combine it with hard work and practice to become fabulous readers (I collect them over at Voice Alpha!). There are others who don’t have the natural talent, but put in the hard work and practice needed to become competent readers. In general, though, I would argue that our poetry community culture does not emphasize enough the importance of taking the time and doing the hard work necessary to becoming a competent reader. More whining about that in this post. Thanks for commenting, Marc, and for sharing the Circle link – I thought the actors did an outstanding job there!

  3. I’ve got a translation of Blaise Cendrars’ blockbuster poem ‘La prose du Transsibérien’, illustrated by Natalie d”Arbeloff, due for publication in 2014. Because of its length and epic nature, we’re planning a launch performance with accompanying music and projections of Natalie’s illustrations. I enjoy reading very much and have shared my views on the process with Voice Alpha in the past. But such is the scope and scale of this piece we’re very tempted to engage an actor to read it. In the final analysis, the decision will rest with an objective assessment (i.e. Natalie’s!) of my capacities to read out loud beyond the normal demands of a relatively self-contained and concise poem. The communication of the essence of any poem is crucial – you just get the one chance – and the skill to apply a set of performance techniques must be the determining factor.

    1. Dick – quite an epic adventure you are having with Cendrars! Would be very interested to hear which way the decision goes in the end, and why. Would you consider writing a Voice Alpha blog post on the topic?!

  4. Of course, if you begin with a premise (announced) that poets are crappy readers, you are bound to piss people off. But was that announced or a sour grapes rumor. In my experience, it all depends on the actor, just as it all depends on the poet, over who does the “better” job. In the 1980s and 90s in Cleveland we did many “Poetry Mirror for the Arts” performances, sometimes with poets reading, sometimes with actors. Some were terrific, others just good. My sister was a performance instructor, and though I am a good reader, I would have been glad to have her be the reader of my work any day.

    1. Hi Diane – I have to say I agree with you – in my view it doesn’t matter what the reader’s calling is, what matters is the degree to which they either have natural talent or (and) have worked at honing their reading-aloud skills.

  5. Some very interesting exchanges on the WomPo list regarding this issue at this link. Scroll down to Mon Oct 14 at 8.44am for the first post with the subject: ‘Recruit actors to do the reading at poetry readings?’ Responses follow just below.

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