Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading Poetry Aloud

It's been happening all semester, but I really never paid attention to it until today. Every time a student reads a poem aloud--their own or someone else's--they launch right into line one without mentioning the title. The title is part of the poem. When you read a poem, one should say the title, pause for a moment, then start reading the poem.

It's hard to say why this omission of titles happens. Because my classes are fast-paced and involve a lot of energy from both myself and the students, there isn't that old shut-up-and-learn mentality some teachers might call a lack of discipline. Perhaps this loose-and-free philosophy carries over into how one reads a poem. Maybe it's that most student poets don't think much about titles and their relationship to poems. It might also be that they've never heard professional readings of poetry before to model their own reading after.

You don't start with, "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary." You say, "The Raven . . . by Edgar Allen Poe." Then you launch into Poe's classic about an unnamed narrator and his lost love, Lenore. (If it's your own poem, you can dispense with naming the author--an audience will assume it's you if you don't say).

Since we're on the subject of reading poems aloud, here are a few general ideas to keep in mind (beyond actually saying the title of the work prior to reading the poem, as we now know) that might help improve your poetry reading performance :

1) Read slowly. Whether it's from nervousness or excitement, the tendency is to read too fast. Poetry is high-powered language. Fire words at the audience like bullets from an M-60, and most will be hard-pressed to follow you no matter the quality of your work. Read slower than you think you should. For most, the proper speed for reading poetry might feel almost painfully slow to you, the reader. That's okay. Your audience will appreciate it.

2) Use your this-is-important voice. Be proud of your work. Stand tall and let air actually fill your diaphragm from bottom to top. Don't speak into the book or piece of paper you're reading from--it muffles your voice. Enunciate clearly and speak directly into the microphone (if there is one). Though if you are using a mic, don't get so close as to cause that irritating PPFFFTT noise with your letter Ps or, God forbid, summon that screech-owl feedback. Above all, believe in your work. Read pieces you are genuinely proud of.

3) Pause between your pieces. If you're reading more than one poem, don't just shimmy-shake-thank-you-Yeats from one to the next without a breath. Most experienced readers will chat the audience up a bit between pieces, the way the singer from Limp Bizkit (or Styx or Good Charlotte) leans out into the audience and hollers, "How you feeling tonight, Dallas?" And the crowd roars with delight. (Of course, it's perfectly acceptable to just talk about what inspired the poem, if that suits your personality more than the Fred Durst work-the-crowd plan.)

4) Test your poems aloud prior to the official public reading. Make sure that if you have a time frame to work within, you can manage it. Nothing is worse than knowing you're over time and you've still got a few stanza (or a few pages) left, which will make you want to read faster.

For another take on how to read poetry aloud, check out what Billy Collins writes on the subject in his Poetry 180 website. Who better to add to our discussion than a former U.S. poet laureate who is one of the most famous practitioners of poetry alive today? This site also includes a short audio clip from Billy (about 1:30) where he explains how to read a poem, then models his method by reading a Sharon Olds poem, "My Son the Man."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Getting the Blog Underway

I've been giving workshops to poets and teachers of writing for years, so I finally decided to start up a blog to discuss and share some of my teaching and poetry-writing ideas. I'll also include some book reviews, interviews, craft discussions, and other poetry-related things as they interest me.

I intend to blog at least twice a week, and I hope to soon include podcasts of up-and-coming as well as well-known poets reading some of their own work. Wish me luck!

I welcome your comments and feedback.