Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On reading your work in public

This is my first post for 2013 so Happy New Year and may all your New Year's resolutions be happy and achievable ones.

Apart from spending some  - okay, quite a lot - of my time lying on the couch or sitting on the deck reading as part of my summer holiday, one of the things that has occupied me has been reflecting on the experience of reading my own work in public at the Inside.Out open mike evenings held once a month in Cafe 121 in Ponsonby. This is pretty much a new experience for me and one that I still find nerve wracking. (The only other time I read in public was a few years ago when I won second prize in a short story contest and, sadly, I can only remember before and after the reading not the event itself.)

I would have thought being a teacher (in the tertiary sector) for over twenty-five years would have knocked the nerves right out of me and I'd be capable and confident but, alas, it isn't so - reading my own work is not the same as teaching.

Part of my anxiety is to do with the thorny issue of voice. Do I read in my own everyday voice in a conversational way as though I'm just talking to friends or family, or should I be  much more overtly 'dramatic'  and take on some kind of public reading persona?  Many poets do this and have a special voice they use when reading or reciting.  Is it 'me' who should speak at all or should I be channeling the character and speaking in their voice like an actor would? Then there's the voice of the piece itself, its emotional structure, mood and tone, all of which would be so much easier to convey if it was a song (rather than prose) and the words were only part of the story and supported by the music.

One of things I do to help me work through these issues around voice is to listen to an old CD I have of Lauris Edmond reading her own poetry. There's something about her voice, as well as the poems themselves, I find comforting and sustaining. Somehow she is completely herself, grounded, no bells and whistles, no smoke and mirrors; there's a quiet plainness in the way she reads that makes me want to listen. The rhythm and intonation of her speech are familiar to me, and, most pleasing of all, she never feels the need to shout to get my attention or involvement.

Apart from trying to get to grips with nerves and feel my way towards an authentic reading voice, I've  realised how useful preparing to read is for me as a writer. It makes me think very carefully about what might capture and hold an audience, what images will resonate, what language is clumsy or overblown and what sections need a lot more work. It's a reminder that reading writing out loud, even if only to yourself, quickly shows what works and what doesn't.

The other up side of the experience is, of course, the priviledge of listening to others read their work and to get that sense of being part of a local writing community.

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