Do I Have ‘Poet Voice’?

Here’s an interesting article about poets and poetry readings a friend shared today on Facebook.

Which got me thinking about various poets I have known and how much their ‘poetry reading’ voices differed from their speaking voices. The standout in my memory is the late Shelton Lea, who could switch between broad Strine pub-speak and plummy highfaluting melodiousness in the time it took to take a sip of beer.

We all knew he was doing it, HE knew he was doing it, and somehow there was something incredibly amusing about the whole thing, as if he was deliberately taking down academics and literary soiree types by speaking ‘their’ language.  Before reverting back to speaking like a Fitzroy lagger and spruiking for another beer.

As to the question of whether I have a tendency towards ‘poet voice’, you’re about to find out!  My days of attending poetry readings, performing all around the country, and entering Slams are long-gone. But an archive exists, and the Queensland subtropical damp and mould was threatening its very existence.  So I have invested in a cleanup and digitisation service before all of it is lost forever – and soon all will be revealed.

Stay tuned for the imminent upload of a bunch of video clipped performances from the late 1980s and early 90’s, when I was a younger, slimmer, and a whole lot less cynical ‘performance poet’.  This was before Hip Hop, before ‘Spoken Word’, and just on the advent of the Poetry Slam in the USA.  Perhaps it was way before anyone had ever even coined the term, ‘poet voice’!

Getting filmed was an expensive and laborious process back in the day, which is why so little footage exists of my generation of Australian poets from this period.  An online conversation with some rather annoyingly self-confident and much younger Slam poets convinced me to spend the money on this project, after one told me she hadn’t heard of me, and that was no doubt because I ‘wasn’t very good’!  Thanks, Love!

Now we all have a video camera in our back pockets, there’s a shitload of oral poetry all over Youtube, and the internet generally, and some of it is pretty bad. Because you can film it yourself in your bedroom, and post it yourself, with no quality control whatsoever.  I like to think that on the occasions I was filmed, it was because the work was considered meritorious. (By other people, I mean. Or, as my family was fond of saying, ‘Self-praise is no recommendation’.)

Anyhow, that’ll be for you to decide.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s a (flood damaged) photo of me performing in Byron Bay, circa 1993.  I loved that dress, it was a 1950s fully-lined silver brocade number I picked up in a Melbourne op shop. This was probably poetry performance number seven hundred and fifty-five point seven, or thereabouts … I can’t quite be sure …


Liz at Launch, ‘Writers of the Storm’, Byron Bay, 1993.


EDIT:  FYI here’s my response to the original poster of this article.

“I would just call it clearly enunciating so listeners can get all the words. Oh, and ‘reading’ the punctuation to give a sense of the form on the page. But that’s just me …”

Seriously, whether I used ‘poet voice’ or not is irrelevant.  We do what we have to do to communicate the work, and the form and meaning of the work. If people want to sit back and pass these kinds of snarky judgements, they’re welcome. As far as I was concerned, I was always simply communicating the poem to the best of my ability.

You get on the stage, you’re already wondering whether the work is ‘good enough’, if it will translate for the audience, and if they will like it.  Being a woman in the sexist boys’ club of pub poetry readings, back then I also had to worry about whether some entitled asshole was going to come over and verbally attack me. Or sexually harass me. Or both. (See my #MeToo posts.)

Now we also have to also worry about how our voice sounds?  Gimme an effing break!

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