This Poet’s Voice: in celebration of the imperfect

Two Sundays ago, I attended a workshop led by poet Hila Ratzabi as part of her Red Sofa Salon series^. It was a fabulous afternoon, filled with diverse poets and diverse voices (and tasty snacks!). We did a lot of reading aloud, including some favorite pieces by other poets, some favorite poems from our own work, and raw language we each generated during a 10-minute freewrite.

Irises. Vincent van Gogh. (via)
Irises. Vincent van Gogh. (via)

I’ve been thinking about voices ever since.

Thinking about how a reader’s choices always filter and shift interpretive frames in the listeners.

About how differently two readers can orate the same piece — and what limited control I (or any writer) have over how others’ voices might shape my words.

About the young man I met that day, whose rhythm, rhyme, and subject matter mark his poems as drawing on different genre roots than my own — and yet what a kinship I felt to him as a writer, watching him submerge, physically as well as vocally, into the sounds and cadences of his work.

I started thinking about a piece I wrote early last year — the first poem posted on this blog, I believe — in a process that involved reciting words and fragments of stanzas out loud obsessively (even for me) until it finally came together. And after, as well.

I thought about that poem, how important the sound of it had felt to me at the time, and idly wondered how it might sound in a recording of my voice.

Then thought, why not. And updated the post with a recording.

It’s not a professional recording. It’s not even the most perfect version of a home recording I could make — though also far from the worst I could do. It’s simply one snapshot in time, of one voice, giving one interpretation of what’s written.

Now lemme tell you why that’s precisely the point. 

Irises. Vincent van Gogh. (via)

I used to live with a musician. In addition to being a classically trained pianist, he was a sound engineer (with hearing LIKE A BAT) who recorded instrumentalists, and also mixed and mastered their performances. Precision and perfection were always of the utmost importance to him.

For recordings being prepared for commercial release, this made total sense.

When he brought in a professional voice-over artist to record the answering message for our home phone — and then spent hours tweaking the audio files to remove any traces of a splatting /s/ at the end of the vocalist’s plurals and possessives — that…made less sense. At least to me.

I like the rough edges. The sibilants and splats.

I like how in live performance, you sometimes hear the physicality behind even the most lyrical sounds: the singer’s sharp inhale, the pianist’s fingers striking the keys. At the theater, I prefer seats close enough that I can see an actor’s sheen of sweat under the hot lights, or hear a dancer’s feet scrape against the stage.

Van Gogh’s paintings in a book are just photographs. In life, the artist’s swoops and scrapes through thick paint make his irises and wind-tossed skies almost sculptural.

My partner once mastered an album for a flutist who preferred that these human touches be removed. She asked that he edit out any sounds of her breathing to create a particular melodic flow, ethereal and seemingly disembodied. I can understand that aesthetic. I just don’t share it.

Bedroom in Arles. Vincent van Gogh. (via)
Bedroom in Arles. Vincent van Gogh. (via)

I live in the middle of a big city. Barring the most extreme weather, I always keep at least one window open in each room, letting the street sounds and life noises in. They’ll appear, at least distantly, in any recording I make in my home. This too I like.

It’s hard to reveal the sensory dimensions of writing. My work can never take you into the feel of a pen scratching across the thick pages of an artist’s sketchpad, or the louder clack my keyboard makes every time I hit the space bar. But much of my writing process happens aloud: reading and rereading, feeling words in my mouth, tightening sounds before they trip off my tongue.

Having known that The Author Is Dead! since at least my sophomore year of college, I do not claim that my voice creates any truer any interpretation than that any other reader might bring. I simply share the human sound of my crafting.

The scrape of my writer’s feet, if you will, as we together dance.

Start of the poem I recorded: 

about masturbation and other words I am forbidden to say

It is undeniable. I am feeling better. I am feeling possible.
Many days I feel downright good
Save that one rotten spot in the back left corner of my brain
That I keep prodding like a bruise to see if it still hurts.
It still hurts. And I still don’t want to know that.
No. I want to know how I feel possible and not get distracted by how
As the animal reasserts itself in health
I find myself hungry again for things I still cannot have. . . . .

Click here for the rest — and to listen to my rendition of the whole goshdarn thing –>

[^If you happen to be a writer based in or near Philly, you might want to check out the Red Sofa Salon’s poetry reading series or writing workshops. Hila’s starting her next workshop series soon!]

4 thoughts on “This Poet’s Voice: in celebration of the imperfect

  1. Hi Alice. One thing came to mind as I read this and listened to your reading. As writer’s, we have no control over how our work is going to be interpreted by others. We may describe a luscious, vibrant red rose and see in our minds the perfect flower, a flower deeply rich in color while our reader may see something altogether different. Maybe they are color-blind and only see in shades of gray. Or maybe the reader is deeply depressed and can only see darkness in everything he reads. The same goes with a reading of poetry. One listener may pick up on intonations that another misses changing the whole meaning of the poem for her. And for me, this is the reason I never see the movie which is based on a book I have read. Because my imagination of what the characters look like, their personalities and characteristics almost never match the actors/actresses who portray them.


  2. I like this bringing to life, this revealing of you, this experience of your experience through your voice. I never feel confident when I read poetry, of any kind, and it’s difficult for me to connect, even in a minute way, to the poet, and often the words, because of this.
    Hearing your words provides a freedom to simply take in the sounds and emotions and halt the worry about hearing correctly, or with perfection, as you note.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you think so! That was certainly my intent.

      I often find that approaching a poem the way the poet crafted it can be helpful. (This earlier piece of mine was so aurally composed that I suspect it must be very difficult to fully enter into just reading silently.) I don’t know how familiar you are with Milton’s “Paradise Lost”? Or the fact that Milton wrote it after he became blind? Which means he wrote it entirely via dictation. When I first tried reading it in college, I found the verse both dull and difficult. Then a couple friends and I started reading it aloud to one another — wow! talk about powerful! I finally got why this epic has endured as a masterpiece. It became a completely different experience, well-worth the time we invested. 🙂


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