Phew! I just got back from a four-hour writing workshop on the topic of “Speech, Speed and Structures of Voicing in Poetry and Prose,” led by NYC poet Anselm Berrigan, whose work is about as far from mine as it gets. I’ve just had an amazing powwow with my ms’s first-ever readers, and I thought maybe I’d need Something Completely Different to clear the decks before diving into a new round of revisions.
I’m also starting work on the second book in the series, and the main narrator of this book has a completely different voice than the last one. I’ve been listening very hard for the sound of his voice to distinguish itself, trying to hear its unique phrasing and diction, its music.
Oh, and I love the romantic name of the bookstore hosting the workshop (Of Swallows, Their Deeds and the Winter Below), and I’ve always been a bit envious of the cool kids that gather there to do poetry.
So there I was, voicing. Or trying to figure out what voicing is, exactly. Yes, it’s an abstract concept. Not at all the same thing as author’s identity or persona or characterization. I don’t even think it needs to be consistent within a poem, let alone from one poem to another. According to Berrigan, “voice” is something recognizable in the poem itself but also something activated through the act of reading silently or aloud. It’s a set of idiosyncrasies that creates a kind of consciousness unique to the piece.
Vague enough for you?
Here’s what I liked about the workshop, though: Berrigan shared everyday strategies he’s used to generate new material when life is stressful and there’s no time to write. Every night he wrote ten unrelated sentences, by hand, into a notebook. He stopped when he reached a thousand and typed them up, only then allowing himself to edit and rearrange.
I also felt inspired by what his poet mother, Alice Notley, has written about voice in poetry:
“It seems to me that there are at least two important qualities that a poetic voice should have. The first is fearlessness or courage, the voice must be clear about itself in some way, believe itself, and be consistently unafraid. We are speaking now of a voice and not a person. . .The second quality that a good poetic voice must have is difficult to characterize, it’s something like vividness, actual presence of the live poet in the dead words on the page” (Coming After 156-57).
Does my book have a voice like this? I mean, I know a novel isn’t a poem, but if a novel is going to come alive for its readers and excite them, wouldn’t it have to be written with a voice that’s fearless and vivid? When I think about the book’s writing style, the word “juicy” pops into my head—I want the book to be ripe, rich, ambrosial. Flowing over with flavor.
Maybe I’ll try the nightly-ten-sentences exercise for my WIP, aiming not to move the story along but to experiment with sound and open the story to unexpected things.
I’ll keep you posted on the results. . .