Poetry, Performance, and the Poetry Center's Online Audio Video Library

Sarah KortemeierSarah Kortemeier has worked professionally as a poet, musician, and actor; she holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona and has taught creative writing at the elementary, high school, and university levels. Sarah has published most recently in Ploughshares, Spiral Orb, Sliver of Stone, and Folio, and was a finalist in 2011’s Gulf Coast and Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contests. She serves as Senior Library Assistant at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

What helps a poem to connect with an audience when it is spoken aloud? Each poet, and each listener, will answer this question differently, and there are few hard-and-fast rules that govern performance. However, many compelling performances of poetry do share a few characteristics, such as vocal energy, spontaneity, and rhythmic variation. Poems vary their textures and tempos on the page; their rhythms shift, dance, and play against one another, and effective performances usually acknowledge this, letting the text dictate the velocities and inflections of the reading.

Below is a listing of some performances from the Poetry Center's online Audio Video Library. Though each of these readers handles performance differently, all of these performances communicate both content and music.


Roger Bonair-Agard, "allegory of the black man at work in a synagogue"
Roger Bonair-Agard is a former Individual Champion at the National Poetry Slam. An experienced and accomplished performer, Bonair-Agard reads with passion, energy, and huge rhythmic variations depending on the needs of the text. Note, for example, his varying treatments of the construction "and ____ is holy" in this poem, his physical relaxation and spontaneity, and his vocal energy: this is a poet, one feels, who can communicate with or without a mic.

Billy Collins, "Litany"
Read by Billy Collins
Read by Samuel Chelpka
The AVL features separate performances of this humorous poem: one by the writer, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and one by three-year-old poetry fan Samuel Chelpka. Collins's performance is understated and full of dry wit; his reading varies in tempo, creating tension by juxtaposing certain lines and isolating others. Chelpka's performance is energetic, gleeful, and spontaneous; he revels in the sounds of the words, seeming almost to taste them as he speaks.

Tracie Morris, "Full Reading" (with Charles Bernstein)
This reading has not been broken into tracks; Tracie Morris is the first reader. Morris is a well-known voice in both the spoken-word and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry scenes, and her reading style varies dramatically with each poem. In this performance, for example, she intersperses vibrant readings of her own work with sung performances of other texts.

Tao Lin, "A Poem Written by a Bear" (read by David Fitzsimmons)
Syndicated cartoonist David Fitzsimmons reads this poem with gusto; his performance derives much of its humor from his ability to highlight moments of contrast and tension in the poem text. Note how slowly, yet energetically, he reads: each word is given weight and clarity, but the overall pace never flags.

Akilah Oliver, "Selections from The Putterer's Notebook and 'An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet"
Akilah Oliver read for the Poetry Center's Next Word in Poetry series in January 2010. In this performance, she displays a masterful control of tempo and rhythm; note the way that her musical use of breath in the repeated line "i'm extending to you this oh" suggests both song and suffering.

Jane Miller, "The yogi trained..."
UA Creative Writing faculty member Jane Miller reads from a series of prose poems in this performance. Her reading style here is relaxed and naturalistic, imitating the inflections and rhythms of everyday speech; there is a fascinating tension here between her conversational tone and the emotional intimacy of the poetry.

To browse the VOCA collection, please visit http://voca.arizona.edu/

Created on: 
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents