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Doing a Reading

As a rule, students read abysmally out loud.  They variously rush, stagger, monotone (if you don't mind me verbing that word), mispronounce, misspeak, and mangle whatever they're reading.  It's not their fault, really.  Reading out loud is a skill that takes time to improve.

I was talking to my Creative Writing class yesterday about how to do a poetry reading after they'd butchered each other's verse for a while. 

It seems to me that there are two schools of poetry reading.  The first says that a reader should forefront the language of the poem and efface the reader.  To do this kind of poetry reading, take any poem and read it out loud about a half step higer on the register than you normally read, and when you reach the end of the lines upspeak them a little.  This produces a lilting reading that lingers on the sound of words but makes all the readers sound alike.

The other school of poetry reading is the one I advocate: treat the poem like it is a tiny script for a very small play.  Like a play, the reader has to know ahead of time the motivation and mood of the speaker.  As the poet Lew Welch said, the basic tool is speech.  Writing is just speech transposed to the page.  He said that a poem should at least be as interesting as any ordinary conversation, and I agree with him.

The discussion with the students made me think about prose readings too.  One of the programming tracks at a science fiction convention is readings.  I almost never go to readings, mostly because the students who read poorly when they were students grew up to be science fiction writers who read their own works badly too.  Not to the same degree, of course, because writers have a lot more involvement with language than your ordinary high school student, and they also have some time to practice.   But, still, often times not good. 

There are some science fiction writers who read their own stuff well.  I never miss Howard Waldrop, Connie Willis or Neil Gaiman when they read.  I also have three writer friends who read well: Ken Scholes, Daniel Abraham and Carrie Vaughn.  I went to Kij Johnson's reading of "Spar" at World Fantasy, and she was mesmerizing. 

I think people can learn to read better, though.  They don't forever have to be a poor performer of their own work.  They can take steps:

  • Practice reading the piece before hand.  A reading shouldn't sound like  you are a reader.  It should sound like you are a story teller.
  • Think about a reading as a performance.  A story has slow and fast parts.  Quiet bits and loud ones.  It leads to a climax.  The parts should be read with inflection that reflects the different functions.
  • Since a reading is a performance, think of yourself as a performer.  That doesn't mean out heroding Herod, as Shakespeare would say, but at least "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue."
I'll keep working on young readers to improve their performance.  For folks who are not in my classes, there are ways to get better.  At least don't go into your readings like so many folks I've seen at conventions who haven't decided what they are going to read before their session starts, and then who read as if each word is another step on the Bataan death march.

Who else reads well, by the way?  I like a good reading when I can get to one, but, as I said, I avoid them.  I need advice on who to listen to.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
I so agree with you about the second kind of reading being best! I really dislike that first kind (I think of it as the Declaiming Poetry Voice) which to me totally destroys the natural rhythms that are so important to the poem, as well as killing the voice. I definitely go for expression and natural rhythms.

Sometimes people at poetry slams do a nice job because they're either working with music or thinking dramatically. Sometimes they don't. Readers at universities, etc., almost always Declaim.
Feb. 12th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
The first method of reading reduces a poem to trivial noise, disregarding anything that makes the poem unique.
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
One of my peeves was when my classmates would treat every line of a poem as a complete sentence, regardless of punctuation.

"I think that I shall never see."
"A poem as lovely as a tree."

David Weber wasn't too bad, the one time I heard him read. I suspect Ray Bradbury would be someone you could get lost listening to, judging from memories of his tv show when I was younger.
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
I don't have reader recommendations, Jim, but a thought about the inevitable student complaint: "I'm never going to be a writer or an actor, why do I need to be able to read out loud well?" (In high school, mine was algebra - since I couldn't foresee that I'd become a bilogist, snerk snerk.) That's the answer, of course: You never know what you'll end up doing. It may just be a reading at a favorite aunt's funeral, that you passionately want to do right by. It may be a statement you want to read at a city council meeting about a neighborhood issue that is vitally important to you. Or you may end up screwing up an important job opportunity because you can't read intelligibly in public. At the very least, it's a great handy tool to have in your belt so as to have one less thing to worry about, should fte throw the need in your way.
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
...and I do wish I could TYPE.

I'm a biologist, not a bilogist. And the last sentence involves Fate throwing need in your path, not fte.

Feb. 12th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
LOL! I always wondered how I would meet my fte.

"fte" in teacher speak is "full time equivalent." It's how we count how many students we are teaching for budgetary purposes.
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
FTEs - same for us gummint workers.
Feb. 12th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
If David Brin is at a convention and doing a reading, I make it a point to be there.

And of course, you already mentioned my favorite, Connie Willis. Her readings are better than some people's stand-up comedy routines.

And since the subject is reading aloud, I recently stumbled across this, which is an audio clip of actor Ben Barnes reading a chapter from Prince Caspian. It made me think that reading aloud is definitely something that everyone should do more often. I don't have kids, but if I did, I'd definitely read to them.

As far as reading poetry aloud, I know it's something I struggle with. I've known very few people who could make it sound like conversation. I did have one friend who did it exceedingly well, but he moved away and I haven't kept in touch.
Feb. 12th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
A lot of the problem with students reading poetry is that they are asked to read it before they've had a chance to figure out what it means. It's very hard to read language that you have no understanding of, which is part of the reason they're so bad with Shakespeare too. Also, public speaking is tough for most people. They get tied up inside about it.
Feb. 12th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Mary Robinette Kowal gives a pretty good reading. Maybe it's her theater background. :)
Feb. 13th, 2010 12:07 pm (UTC)
I like Stephen Fry's voice - he did the audio for the Harry potter books in the UK. You'd probably know him best as the voice of The Hitchhiker's Guide in the movie of the same name.
Feb. 13th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
FWIW, some of our favorite audiobook readers are Richard Ferrone, Michael Kramer, and Blair Brown. Two authors who we really enjoy hearing read their own works are Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen King. To our ears, the dramatic stuff can be taken too far; we can't handle Frank Muller (a favorite for many people), who does that to the max. (Still sorry about his accident, though.)

Thanks for all your writing, Jim, especially the books but the blog too :).
Feb. 13th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
Hey, Jim. I'm teaching creative writing this semester for the first time.


We just finished up (except for some revisions) the poetry unit. Now it's nonfiction. Fiction comes last. Each kid writes, is "workshopped," and revises within each form. Then each kid chooses one form for a semester-ending project. (Semester ends early, too, since our seniors stop coming after the APs wrap up, and I have mostly seniors.) How do you structure things?

Among the first items I talked about: How to read a poem aloud. I taught half those kids how to treat enjambment back in 8th grade; you think they'd remember!

Best wishes.
Feb. 14th, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)
I start with poetry first also. Everything I teach in poetry is a part of any other kind of writing we do, and if I can sell them on poetry, the rest is a cinch. We have an 18 week semester, starting with poetry, moving on to fiction, and then ending with script writing (for stage or film). They do a project for each unit.

At the college, I end the class with creative non-fiction instead of script writing. Different curriculums that I didn't design.
Feb. 14th, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
Two kids (I have about 30 split between two sections) asked about script writing; it hadn't even occurred to me, in truth. I've worked with kids' film scripts in independent studies I've taught, but I feel like there are a host of technical issues to cover that would take extra time. Plus, to focus so solely on dialogue would be rough on a lot of kids, weak as they would be. I'll have to think about it for next year. (But then, you're not doing nonfiction at the high school, which I wouldn't want to lose.)

I agree, what's learned in poetry (word choice, rhythm, tone, concision, avoiding cliché, movement through an argument) carries over, and ditto for nonfiction (narrative arc, paragraphing, diversity of form, point of view, expansion and contraction of time . . . ).

Do you mean you didn't design either curriculum?
Feb. 14th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
I did design the high school curriculum for the district. I was on the text book adoption committee (which also rewrites the curriculum to go with the text), and I was the only member of the Creative Writing thread. I don't remember what text I chose since I don't use a text for high school. I use Minot's Three Genres text for college, although what happens there is I assign the chapters that are related to what we are doing in class for reading, and I even have quizzes on them, but I don't refer to them when I'm presenting.

I've never been much of a text book guy.
Feb. 14th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
I've never used a textbook, and we're free to order what we want. I'm using Mayes's The Discovery of Poetry, Gutkind's The Best of Creative Nonfiction (Vol. 2), and Moffet and McElheny's revised and updated Points of View.

You must be so much more efficient than I am. You have many more students and you manage to produce your fiction as well. And you're also teaching a college class!
Feb. 15th, 2010 02:02 am (UTC)
George R. R. Martin does killer readings. Stand in line for one. It's worth it.

Ellen Kushner is downright magical at a reading, too. She has that silky NPR voice and tells a story every time.
Feb. 15th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
oh, yes - chiming in for Ellen Kushner. I was surprised and delighted when she didn't use the Ahem, I'm an Author voice.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )