How to Read a Poem Aloud by Donald Dunbar
First, read the poem out loud, word after word, pausing a little at the minor punctuation and perhaps at the line breaks, pausing longer at the major punctuation. Read it as you would read a poem.
Then, read it real real real fast, then slowed way, way slow. Draw out the words. Now, pause between each word. How do the sounds of that last word fold into this next one? Read the poem again too fast for anyone else to follow. Starting at the end, read each word back up to the top. Do it again, sounding out the words backwards. Let your eyes pong across the page reading the words they cross. What kind of vowels are being used? Are there lots of diphthongs? Shuffle the lines, 1, 6, 3, 7, 5, 2, 9, 8, etc.. Read the poem as if a woman were reading it, then as if a man were.
Record yourself reading the poem. First, just a microphone, or the voice memo app on your smartphone. Isn’t it terrible? Now record yourself using your webcam. Don’t you look so fake?
Read the first sentence and keep it in your head. Close your eyes and start speaking; feel your tongue rising to meet your alveolar ridge, your lips pursing, the leak of air through your teeth. The poet has done this too, the same movements in the same order. Get drunk and do this again. Again, the poet has done this too, slips and slurs and all.
Now that you’re drunk, read the poem as if you were lecturing the president. Then read a very different poem by someone else, again addressing Mr. Obama, and imagine how differently he’d feel after this one. Now, again with the first poem, lecture the “democratically elected president” of a third-world nation who's ordered a massacre and who can’t speak English. Will the poem be enough to prevent your assassination?
Record yourself again, adding effects. First, play with reverb. How does the poem sound in a bulbous cathedral? In a cubby-hole, whispered, as if a prayer while the main room is searched? Add delay, or feed it through a vocoder attached to trumpets. How does it sound in D minor? Up and down E major? Do the esses disappear into the trumpets, or do the trumpets warble through? Add an arpeggiator. What the fuck does that sound like?
Read it like someone trying to sound like you. Read it like your parents would. Read it like how you’ll sound in forty years. What parts of it will go missing when you’re old, when you’re your parents, when you can only any longer imitate yourself?
Record yourself again, to have a record of what you sound like. Doesn’t that sound better? Use the webcam again. Aren’t you so charming now? Won’t your future self be glad you took the time to do this?
Now that you’re reading this poem as a record of yourself, try out silly accents. Australian accents are silly, as are most southern accents. If you can manage, do Italian, South African, Minnesotan, and Japanese. Try reading it like Donald Dunbar, all monotone and nasally and lethargic. Read it like you’re more or less educated than you are. Read it as if you don’t know half the words. Deeply, then falsetto.
Read it imitating Catherine Wagner, Ilya Kaminsky, Matt Hart, Joyelle McSweeney, Diana Salier, Abraham Smith, CAConrad, K. Silem Mohammad, Shelly Taylor, Dana Ward. If you haven’t heard all of them reading, go look them up! Find out what poems can sound like.
Start listening to hip-hop. Try to fit the poem into Gucci Mane’s flow. Into Lil B’s, 2 Chainz’s, Waka Flocka Flame’s. Read the poem as if the poet had a new name. Read the poem saying, “I am [poet’s name, original or new],” after every line. Stop listening to hip-hop if you start thinking too much about earnestness and self-parody, minstrel shows. Stop reading Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, C. K. Williams, everybody you had already heard about. Start listening to slowed-down hip-hop. DJ Screw.
Record yourself remembering as much of the poem as you can some hours later, some days later. Think about language as a tradition, poetry as a tradition, entertainment as a tradition, instruction as a tradition, strung along beside humanity and life, and then read the poem as if you’re the worthy heir to them. Read it as if you’re spending your life reading it. As if all life is is sounds, over and over. Read the poem timidly, in parody. Never read the poem timidly.
How do you know if you’re reading the poem timidly?
Me too. We’ll know when we’re not.
Donald Dunbar lives in Portland, Oregon, and helps run If Not For Kidnap. His first book, Eyelid Lick, won the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Series, and a chapbook, Slow Motion German Adjectives, is out from Mammoth Editions.