Some people have that reading voice.
You know it. It’s not good. Not by a long shot. It’s most often heard at poetry readings. Every word is pounded with emphasis and the upturning lilt of what might be a question mark, but is not a question mark. Even articles push heavily through the air, bobbing through coffee shops, auditoriums, bookstores. Cartoonish iambs. Outlandish spondees. Choking trochees. If some reading voices were graphed, the difference from one word to the next might involve sharp spikes and valleys. Or none at all.
Sadly, just as not all good writers make good writing teachers, not all good writers can perform their work.
Regardless of what superficial label we might use to sum up that voice while walking home (pretentious, affected), the key is that it is unnatural. I cannot believe that poets develop this speech on their own when preparing for a reading. This must be a voice passed from person to person -- a virus of pretension -- because it seems to enhance a poem's gravity. If you’ve ever heard that voice used by multiple readers in a short period of time, though, you know that it takes away more than it adds.
The overwhelming desire to make a poem sound good by stretching out syllables, by encouraging certain words to flutter, by gesturing towards the emotions on the page instead of naturally embodying them results in a monotonous listening experience. What’s worse, some poets try to apply this voice to every piece, regardless of subject matter, tone, or length. Why not adopt the right voice for each poem, giving each it’s own identity? Even if all of one’s poetry is “serious” and “dramatic,” why read every one as if they are all discussing the same topic? Shouldn’t each poem should sound fresh to the audience? Consider a rock band. While they might have trademark sounds found in each song, the rhythms and energy levels change from track to track.
Of course, if poets are guilty of masking the true flavor of their verse with a marinade of importance, then fiction writers are guilty of under spicing. (How we got from rock bands to cooking is beyond me.) Too often I hear fiction writers who treat their own story as nothing more than a collection of sentences: reading in a monotone voice; reading dialog like narration; reading the wrong lines with too much flair (as if they have never read the story aloud); or failing to pace themselves by either making eye contact with the audience or drinking some water.
Fiction writers: give your paragraphs room to breathe. A fear of silence, it seems, pushes all the text of story together in a clump, leaving the audience with no time to savor the best lines and best feelings. Further, and at the risk of confusing everything, be like poets.
Yes. Fiction writers and poets can teach each other about performance -- a topic that may not come up often enough when these two breeds get together.
The best fiction performances I’ve seen and heard included a mixture of the author’s natural, narrating voice with specific voices for dialog. Some writers were more comfortable “acting” than others, but even a more stylized voice for dialog that separates it from narration keeps the audience alert and charmed.
The best poetry readings I’ve seen and heard involved a varied pacing -- where not every single word was hammered home, but some beautiful strings of words galloped, leading to lines that were read more slowly. I always appreciate poets who select a setlist of poems that work as a group. A poem that ends with a dramatic, slow line might be followed by something just as dramatic, but perhaps brisk in meter. Or, consider following a poem that ends on the abstract with one that begins with a concrete image.
I’ve refrained from quoting specific lines of poetry and prose for fear of confusing good writing with a bad reading. Still, some behaviors can be used to bring a subtle energy to a reading regardless of genre. Most good readers make eye contact. Some enjoy themselves by laughing with us during the funny parts. Others build key emotions with a rising voice, one that pulls the feelings off the page so that the reading space is filled with the electrified writing. As a writer, I’m always interested in hearing about the inspiration of a poem or short story, but when the explanation outlasts the work itself, it does more harm than good. (I've had too many pieces ruined by preambles.)
Not all of these techniques will fit with every writer’s personality, and the most important advice is to find the best way to read your work. Don’t adopt the style of others just because you enjoyed their reading. Being comfortable and unique in front of an audience without being overbearing will mean people remember what you say and how you say it. And maybe they’ll even come to see you again!