sábado, 27 de junho de 2015

Poet Voice

Stop Using 'Poet Voice'

If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading, the following scene will be familiar.
After being introduced, a poet steps onstage and engages the audience with some light social speech. Maybe they* talk about their forthcoming book, what they plan to read, how wonderfully warm it is for autumn here, how surprisingly cool for summer, how nice the people of this village and how prodigious the public works projects. During this banter the poet uses a slightly performative but mostly natural voice. It’s the voice they’d use to introduce you to their grandmother. Then they read the title of their first poem and launch into the first line. But now their voice is different. It’s as if at some point between the last breath of banter and the first breath of poem a fairy has twinkled by and dumped onto the poet’s tongue a bag of magical dust, which for some reason forces the poet to adopt a precious, lilting cadence, to end every other line on a down-note, and to introduce, pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go.
Maybe the poet is the great Louise Glück or the US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Maybe the poet is a close friend. Whoever it is, that person has just slipped into Poet Voice, ruining everybody’s evening and their own poetry because now the audience has to spend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy trying to understand the words of the poem through a thick cloud of oratorical perfume.
“Poet Voice,” is the pejorative, informal name given to this soft, airy reading style that many poets use for reasons that are unclear. The voice flattens the musicality and tonal drama inherent within the language of the poem and it also sounds overly stuffy and learned. In this way, Poet Voice does a disservice to the poem, the poet and poetry. It must be stopped.
Take, for example, this instance of Gregory Orr reading his powerful poem “Gathering the Bones.” Because he’s locked into the cadence of Poet Voice, his reading voice doesn’t productively reflect or play against the content of his lines, which introduces unnecessary confusion and reduces the power and depth of the poem. At :34 his uptalk on the second syllable of “rafter” makes it seem as if we’re questioning whether rafters exist at all, and at 1:54 he seems to sound wistful or romantically nostalgic about a gun accidentally going off and killing a boy. In the context of the poem, the wistfulness and absurdity are accidental tones that distract an audience member from the greatness of the poem.
He also makes an ominous poem sound even more ominous, which renders it melodramatic. This idea is best illustrated in the line Orr reads at 3:28: “This smoke turns people into shadows.” This line is beautiful and it’s doing a lot of work. At once the sentence nicely describes what people look like when covered in chimney smoke, recalls the gun violence from earlier in the poem, and in its symbolism suggests that the technologies we use for convenience (staying warm, acquiring food) also have the power to end to our lives. Smoke foreshadows our shadow. I love that. But Poet Voice makes him read the line (and the rest of the poem) as if he were afraid of it, spooked by its truth, and thus it feels overdetermined, sappy.
Poet Voice doesn’t just mess up the relationship between music and meaning at the local level of a poem. In the style’s unwavering wavering, it steamrolls tonal variation and charges every moment in a poem with the exact, same, energy. This sonic flattening happens in Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Theories of Time and Space.” (Start at 11:00 to get a sense of the difference between her speaking voice and her reading voice.) When one reads the poem in the rhythm offered up by the sentences themselves, the tonal shifts that move us from the wise-but-jovial beginning to the foreboding-epiphanic conclusion are revealed. The Poet Voice rhythm doesn’t fluctuate with the poem’s nuanced tonal changes, but rather sets the poem’s metronome at “high lyric” and lets it tick away.
The chief injustice of Poet Voice is that the tone too accurately projects the kind of self-serious and highfalutin vibe that puts off potential audiences for poetry and gives fodder to writers who want to claim that poetry is dead, dying or has been dead a long time. (For the record, poetry is UNdead, motherfuckers. Do a page search of this article for “green face powder” or “Captain Eliot” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) In its willowy whisperings, Poet Voice screams, I am The Oracle and you are a hotdog cramping up in a plastic folding chair. It’s condescending and it makes me want to expose the man behind the curtain.
I suggest poets look to the theatre for direction. If you’re a poet writing poems that have a speaker—no matter how reliable or fragmentary—do what actors do. You are on stage, aren’t you? Pick a character that makes sense with the poems, square your shoulders to the audience, and project to the back of the room. You’re not trying to talk down a bear; you’re trying to be the bear. Deciding on reading styles that suit or productively play with the content of your poems will add meaningful layers to the poems, which will make for a richer performance experience for everyone involved.
Another thing poets can do is just say no. Don’t read. These days, poets are expected to be very good not only at writing poems but at promoting those poems, performing those poems, sending those poems out for publication, networking and organizing tours. It’s a rare bear who can operate gracefully in all of those arenas, but not everyone can or has to be that bear. If someone’s not good at performing on stage, they can even get someone else to perform their poems for them or use one of the many social media outlets to promote the poems instead. Put it on Instagram! More people will see that than will go to a reading. 
Don’t get me wrong! Sometimes Poet Voice is an effective and affecting style. Quoting William Morris, W. B. Yeats once said before a reading, “I am going to read my poems with a great emphasis on their rhythm. That may seem strange if you are not used to it…It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems I’m going to read. And that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” Then he proceeded to read his famous poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in a Poet Voice to end all Poet Voices. He’s basically singing. It sounds amazing, and not only because he’s got a great tenor but because his employment of Poet Voice matches up with the style and content of the poem—they make sense together. 
I’m also not trying to tell anyone how to love poetry. If someone gets off on the mellifluous machinations of lyrical pulchritude (needle scratch), I envy that person more than anything. They’re the true humanist. Poet Voice has, in the past, been a good drum. It was Yeats’s drum. And E. E. Cummings’s drum. I’m just saying that in the land of free verse many poets use this drum in a way that isn't in conversation with the rhetorical movements of the poem itself, and that’s a missed opportunity.
In his 1961 takedown of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, John Updike provides an instructive definition of sentimentality, and in it I see a corollary for the relationship between Poet Voice and poem. He takes the definition from the mouth of Seymour, a character in Salinger’s own Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters: “[Sentimentality is giving] to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Poet Voice gives to the poem more tenderness than the poet gave it. Potentially wonderful poems are made cheesy and the outsider’s suspicion that poetry is a field full of weepy couch-fainters who don’t deserve the time and attention of busy people with real problems is affirmed.
It might be too late for the boomers and aging Gen X-ers to change their reading styles. But to the poets who are starting out and to the poets who haven’t settled on a style: Please think for a long time before adopting Poet Voice as your mode of lyric delivery. Luckily, there are amazing emerging and established poets whose reading styles serve as compelling alternatives. For my money, I like Heather McHughTim SeiblesMary RuefleJane WongEd SkoogLisa CiccarelloJessalyn Wakefield andAnthony Madrid. If you don’t like any of those folks, go to more readings and find more poets! They’re out there and they’re part of the solution.
Why is Poetry Voice ubiquitous in the US? Why do so many poets reach for it? Is it an echo from the era of received metrical forms? Is it the result of many poets writing lyric couplets with medium-length lines? Is it just that young poets hear successful poets using Poet Voice and so assume it holds the key to success? Do you know how Poet Voice came about? If so, point me toward your sources in the comments!
*I’m using “they” as the singular gender-neutral pronoun here to avoid suggesting that “Poet Voice” is a gendered thing (it’s not) and to avoid the clunkiness of “his or her.”
Photo: video still of Gregory Orr

Poet Voice and Flock Mentality: Why Poets Need to Think for Themselves
Posted: 09/16/2014 4:54 pm EDT Updated: 11/16/2014 5:59 am EST

Poet. Author of APOCRYPHAL. Editor of Luna Luna Mag. 

I hardly need to mention that poetry isn't dead.
The very discussion prevents its death, and that is that. But what happens when poetry kills itself little by little? What do we say then? The poetry "scene," as it were, is made up of mostly poets and some enthusiasts, with academics littering both groups. This is fine, but in order for poetry to actually flourish and reach a greater audience, we ought to strive for something more authentic. People always try to discuss "sincerity" in literature, and the truth is: it's subjective and intangible. But there is one tangible insincerity in poetry: Poet Voice.
Why is it a problem? Well, why do we question God's existence? Because we cannot expect to live our lives by the rules someone else designed for us. In poetry and in religion, this outrageous, quiet acceptance of the status quo is dangerous and boring. So, if you do think poetry is dead, it's probably because you've experienced the blood-let that is most poetry readings.
There are so many incredible poets who get up to read and all of a sudden, the poetry's power is simply reduced because of their delivery. After countless readings, we ask ourselves why did she put on that voice?
Poetry has reached a time of great change. From Poetry Magazine's dedication to emerging voices to the hundreds of innovative literary journals publishing mindblowing work each month, we are clamoring for more more more. How can Poet Voice still be tolerated, much less a default?
"There can be no progress without head-on confrontation," Christopher Hitchens said. At the risk of being histrionic, I will certainly liken the religious flock mentality to the thoughtless appropriation of Poet Voice. It delivers two messages: I am educated, I am taught, I am part-of a group, I am better-than and I feel safe; This is all I know. But more often than not it just says I am afraid to tell my own story in my own voice. Don't be.
Poet Voice, if nothing else, is simply a regurgitation of someone else's massive failings. It appealed to the literate masses (as socio-cultural trends do) and it crept up into our classrooms and bookstores and communities, like texts, ideas and expectations of White male power. It is not questioned often enough. It should be questioned with exigency.
The lack of diversity and the lack of personal accountability for this mindless mimicry goes unaccounted for, and it, I think, is connected to social issues at large.
People have countered, but not everyone using Poet Voice is rich or educated, so how can it be linked to class discrimination or power? It's the assumption that the highfalutin performance will empower it, because being oneself is ordinary or lacking or unrefined. These poets won't admit it, but some like to feel distinguished more than they like to write.
Poet Voice depersonalizes the poetry, rendering it robotic and strange. It says, "I am not for you. I am a performance. I am better than." The poem, even if written with love, becomes a dead version of whatever it was before. It is too good, too clean, too careful, too restricted -- like the high society that values everything but the truth. It is as if almost 90 percent of the poetry community is trying to be the one percent, and we're not buying it.
The Poet Voice is often proliferated by MFA programs with overwhelmingly White, straight professors. The educated are taught to enunciate clearly and so they do. And in their long-taught and long-learned efforts to rise above the ordinary people, they disseminate a viscous sound pattern embedded with something much, much deeper. The students become their shepherds and the voice lives on.
MFA programs aren't inherently problematic; they often offer remarkable opportunities to students, but like real life, it is up to the student to explore the world for themselves and not guzzle the slop they will inevitably be fed by world around them.
Outside of MFA programs, similar learning occurs. If one attends a reading or searches for a poet's performance on YouTube, they are often greeted with this voice. Like a childhood without options, most are unknowingly forced to imbibe and participate in this sound. If you're brought up speaking one way, then it is natural to you. But if your voice changes within the poem so drastically that the you that wrote it evaporates entirely during the poem, we, the audience, are left fooled and a little bit curious: Who the hell are you? Do you think I don't see through you right now?
So, what makes the Poet Voice such a problem? Why can't people simply speak the way they want? The issue with demanding the end of Poet Voice is clearly problematic and hypocritical; how can we anti-Poet Voice warriors tell the people that it is Poet Voice -- the very tool by which we build our arsenal of immortality -- making poetry dull? How can we ask you not to use it when we're so against those telling you to use it?
The difference is that we are asking you to question your reasoning. I do not agree with Rich Smith ("Stop Using 'Poet Voice'") that it might be too late for some to change. I've had active discussions with poets who recognize the issue and who actively try to undo what come to feel nature.
We might ask poets to ask themselves:
1. Why do I speak like my professors, peers or other acclaimed poets?
2. Am I aware that I am speaking with this lilt?
3. What does Poet Voice offer me?
4. What will happen when I abandon it?
5. Do I think my lineation really sounds like this?
6. Have I recorded myself reading with and without Poet Voice? Can I hear the difference?
7. Most importantly: Have I tried to read the poem simply as myself, with no preset ideas of "performance."
8. Will I become my own performance "style"?

If the issue is fear, you have just found yourself in a lucky position. Fear is one of the catalysts for change and growth. Fear means you know you may be incorrect. You may find that when you read your poem as you -- when you abandon those auto-subscribed notions of sound and musicality -- you will reach and offer a much deeper attachment to your work.
Simply asking, "Why do I feel the need to do this?" is good enough. Or, it's good enough for now.
I have never met a friend for dinner who told me something beautiful or exciting or moving in such a way that her sentences ended at strange intervals. One would never end an important sentence in forced down-speak or up-speak. The sincerity would be lost. When I was writing my poetry collection, APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, Oct. 2014), I would read and re-read the poems out loud. I focused on the work's musicality, but I knew that I needed to present that sound at readings, too. So, I followed the work's natural music and took note of when I slipped out of my authentic voice. It's easy to let popular sounds control you, but it's freeing to work against it.
What, then, separates the poetic performance from everyday life? The poem is itself the life of the moment. It dictates the reality of that little box of time: those three minutes, that room filled with listeners. It is a poem. It is built in such a way that it is the only thing delivered. There are no "ums" or "errs," in most cases, and so you are tasked with translating the truth of that piece into an honest, authentic moment.
How can the authentic be translated in Poet Voice? It can't. The poem itself might well be incredible, but then, it might be better left to the page.
While Poet Voice is incredibly common (even fiction writers read this way), there are various styles within the poetry community where performance is concerned. All of these are inherently problematic. Reading "styles" strip the poet of their natural identity and of the poem's power. Why would you limit your own work in such a way?
Expect more from yourself and from poetry. Go to readings and hear new poets. Take note of your emotions when reading poetry. Be open. Read your work alone in your bedroom until your voice is no longer contrived. Get drunk and do it again. Don't listen to what everyone tells you. Don't accept everything the lit journals tell you. Read about musicopoetics at Sound Literary Magazine. Decide for yourself. Hear the inherent -not forced- music in poetry. Give yourself the option.


Why are poets' voices so insufferably annoying?


When I was in grad school I'd meet my thesis advisor, Catherine, on Tuesday nights at a café on New York's Upper West Side. We'd sit together at a small table, where she'd have me read my fresh, newly written poems out loud.
It was an exercise to hear how the poems sounded, a way to help pinpoint any hiccups in the rhythm, line breaks and so on. (It also taught the regular café-goers that, yes, poets gather over black tea and read poems about death, just like you imagined.)
One particular night, I started reading a new poem — but I only got through two lines before Catherine stopped me.
"Don't read it like it's a poem," she said. "Read it like you're talking to me." In other words, read like a human.

Without realizing it, I had been talking in "poet voice" — that affected, lofty, even robotic voice many poets use when reading their work out loud. It can range from slightly dramatic to insufferably performative. It's got so much forced inflection and unnecessary pausing that the musicality disappears into academic lilting. It's rampant in the poetry community, like a virus.
Ironically, the community itself pushes back against poet voice. Various op-eds have urged everyone to drop the act. It can reflect poorly on poetry itself, perpetuating the myth that poems are unattainable high art — elitist, even.
It's like that friend who visited London a couple of times and magically brought back a British accent.
"Dude. You're from Brooklyn."
Often, it's unintentional. Is there some subconscious reason poets are prone to the contrived "poet voice"? The answer may just lie in linguistics.
"I think it frames it as poetry," says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don't Understand. In linguistics, "framing" signals what you think you're doing when you say something — your relationship to the words and to the people you're saying them to.
We might read poems this way simply because other poets do — we learn indirectly that this what a poem should sound like. Contemporary poetry, Tannen explains, can be quite conversational, so poets might use "poet voice" and intonation to frame what they're reading as poetry.
You want to sound like your peer group, and you want to sound like a person you identify with should sound," Tannen says.
That poses a social dilemma, however. Poets span race, gender, class, sexuality — there's no singular brand of poet to identify with. The poet Lisa Marie Basile brings this fascinating discussion to the table in a Huffington Post op-ed from last September.
"Poet Voice, if nothing else, is simply a regurgitation of someone else's massive failings," Basile writes. "It appealed to the literate masses (as socio-cultural trends do) and it crept up into our classrooms and bookstores and communities, like texts, ideas and expectations of white male power. It is not questioned often enough. It should be questioned with exigency."
In many ways, "poet voice" then becomes a class issue — the pretentious becomes holier-than-thou, and therefore misguidedly empowering. "It says, 'I am not for you. I am a performance. I am better than,'" Basile argues.
In a video for the literary magazine SOUND, which comments on contemporary poetry writing and reading styles, Basile reads Marosa di Giorgio's "The History of Violets," once with "poet voice" and once without:
You can still hear a sort of affectation in Basile's voice in the second version, but it's less lofty, and more indicative of her own style. In her op-ed, she says the least poets can do is question why they use "poet voice." "Decide for yourself. Hear the inherent — not forced — music in poetry. Give yourself the option," she writes.
But when it's intentional, assuming a unique voice can also give the poet more agency, power or emphasis over his or her own words. Tannen talks about W.B. Yeats, whose recording of "The Lake Isle at Innisfree" at the British Library moved her to tears. He used bizarre intonation, elongating and wavering the end of each line.
"It gave everything extra meaning because it wasn't the intonation you expected. It makes you pay more attention to it in a more intense and special way," she says.
A more contemporary poet who assumes such a unique voice is Dorothea Lasky, who reads her work loudly and deliberately.
"I think when I read loudly, it is about my own power and intent," she said in a Bookslut interview. "I want my poems to be large animals — enormous, grotesque and beautiful animals — that you can’t help but notice ... I want the poems to be bigger and stronger than I could ever be."
Whether you enjoy "poet voice" or detest it is personal preference. But I agree with Basile that it's something poets should think about. I know I have been, ever since Catherine mentioned it that fateful Tuesday night.
Now that we know there could be a linguistic basis for the phenomenon, the question is, what can we do with that information?

Off the Page and Off the Stage: The Performance of Poetry and its Public Function Cornelia Gräbner, http://dare.uva.nl/document/2/52585

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