BLOG Nia Davies

NWR Issue 95

Good Vibrations

Poets. We’re not natural performers, or so the usual story goes. For many poets, (particularly English-born poets like me, not schooled in the old art of recitation), reading our poems to other people is something we have to force ourselves into. A poet facing an audience can feel all manner of nervous ticks: sweaty palms, shifty eyes, nervous gripping of soggy papers, hyperventilation, blushing, clamped up throats and, in my case, rigid fingers (when normally I always talk with my hands). We also often seem to forget that performance is not about just about reading aloud.

I’ve done lots of readings, I should say ‘speakings’, but there’s always something that doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to. So here I am at a course called ‘Freeing the Poet’s Voice’ at Cove Park, the artists retreat that overlooks a loch on a birch-clad peninsula west of Glasgow. I’m here with a group of poets and the distinguished Mid-Atlantic voice coach Kristin Linklater. We’re trying to find our voices. By this Kristin means the voice that the poem was made in – the voice that carries the original meaning and emotions of our poems.

It starts with a warm up of our physical apparatus: humming, sighing, swearing, yawning, trying to relax our tense shoulders, backs and tummies and even calling across the loch at imaginary friends. We learn techniques familiar to actors but we also return to the images that started our poems. We’ve been taken out of our comfort zones, but we’re also loosening up, trusting each other and feeling more confident. So after four days of work we stand up and speak our poems learnt by heart.

There’s a big difference: Stevie Ronnie’s poem about familial tensions deeply disturbs us, brings us to the edge of our seats, Jackie Saphra’s love poem brings tears to everyone’s eyes and we come to understand the full range of emotive textures and shifts in memory in Kate Potts’ poem Incredible Horse. My voice seems to have dropped an octave. Instead of hovering above my poems in the familiar poet’s sing-song voice I feel it come from the whole of my lungs and my audience now understands everything I’m saying.

A poem is created with a certain emotional colour – but that emotion is a tricky thing to reveal to a pub full of strangers. But through these new voices, instead of wanting to choke back or deaden that feeling, we can control it, free it and make it live. Communicated from their source, the poems become truly moving, funny, sad, sexy, exciting or energising for the listener and the poet.

A version of this was published in the Western Mail’s Insider column on Saturday 14 April 2012.


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