changing voice and mood


Next week I’m taking part in an evening of readings and yesterday I received an email reminding me that I needed to supply a biography and also give some idea of genre and tone for the pieces I’ll be reading. The suggestions offered were: “prose/ poetry; fiction/ non-fiction; light/ serious”.

I understand that the running order will probably work better if tragedy isn’t sandwiched between doggerel, but I don’t usually make decisions very far in advance – after all, I might yet write a new piece that is just perfect for the occasion – so just at the moment I have no idea what I’m going to read.

It’s helpful that there’s a theme – change – but I’m going to have to do quite a bit of rummaging around to find something that fits.

It’s only a five-minute slot, so I suppose it will have to be poetry as my prose tends to spill over to at least twice that. But it might be prose poetry, or perhaps a poetic monologue.

What about the tone, though? Will it be light or serious?

I’ve said before that I reckon half my poems could be tenuously connected to light, but that isn’t at all the same as describing the pieces themselves as “light”; certainly, very few of them would actually qualify as light verse.

In many respects, I am an optimist, but my subject matter can get quite melancholy. My narrators tend to accept their lot with as good a grace as possible, although there is a recurring mood of quiet resignation.

Where there are no narrators, my poems – a bit like the photos for these blog posts – often tend to the floral, and I have to rein in the language as it can get quite florid**. Someone once described as “cloying” a piece where I had failed to kill my darlings, but when I pay attention and carefully keep the adjectives in check, I’d say that these tightly controlled vignettes are one of my specialities.

Even so, this is not a style or voice I’m particularly fond of: each time I write a successful floral vignette I remember an essay I read years ago that asked what happens when the poet finds his voice and doesn’t like it. (I don’t think the author actually provided an answer.)

No matter. Whatever the tone, voice, mood or style, I have to find something to read on Thursday night. And it’s worth remembering that it isn’t always the best writing that works best at readings.

And that’s a good excuse to post the following, which is the final essay in A Poet’s Dozen:

A choice of reading matter

If you have the opportunity to read your poems in public, think about your audience when you plan your selection.

Over the last few months, I’ve read my poems in public several times: as well as regular open mikes, I had a 20-minute guest slot at one poetry evening, while at another I was presenter, so wanted some short pieces to segue between the different readers.

For the link pieces, I simply took along half a dozen pages of assorted vignettes and fragments, and trusted to luck to make a quick choice based on at least a tenuous connection. But when it came to being a reader myself, I wanted a planned coherence between poems: even for the five-minute slots I wanted a ‘set’ rather than a handful of unrelated bits and bobs.

Our local open mike includes music, song and spoken word of all types, so many of the audience aren’t specifically interested in poetry. Light-hearted subject matter works best here, and metrical poems with easily recognisable rhymes that reinforce structure. The pieces that go down well at this type of event are often not solid enough for publication, but they can still be fun.

Even an audience made up of serious poetry lovers has a limited attention span. They might be expected to recognise subtle allusions, appreciate each carefully crafted phrase and enjoy skilled language play when they read for themselves, but if they are hearing a piece for the first time and someone shuffles a chair or coughs at a critical moment, a whole layer of meaning may be lost, and their interest with it.

Be wary of using the space between poems to give explanations. At one reading I attended, a poet pontificated on the circumstances surrounding the poem he was about to read, giving a full account of the inspiration and the writing process itself. Finally, he looked down at his papers, crumpled the page up, tossed it aside and moved on to the next piece, realising that no poem could stand up to the grand introduction we’d just heard.

Choosing a theme, however loose, can help your audience by providing a framework for what they are hearing, or you might link pieces by form or by narrator. But even if you are aiming to tell a complete story, it’s always good to have one or two pieces you can omit if necessary – preferably from the middle of the set – rather than being forced to stop short and miss your chosen finale piece.

There are many reasons to cut a reading short: if the audience is restless, if the previous reader over-stayed his welcome, if your patter takes longer than you planned, or if you’ve realised a particular piece should be repeated to allow a better appreciation… I’ve known all these things to happen at poetry nights, and the audience is much happier with a reader who adapts to the situation. And a happy audience means you’re more likely to be asked back to read again.


**I chose the photo as I thought it represented both a process of change and a variety of states or moods on a single stalk; now I see that the elaborate purple curlicue is really quite appropriate to illustrate the “floral voice” of some of my poems.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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