Find Your Voices

If Shoes Could Talk
There is so much voice in this soundless, faceless image…Even a mute voice can find ways to bellow.
Photo by Lesley Clinton

Do you remember voices more clearly than faces?

When it comes to memories of my friends and loved ones, I do.

Guffaws, giggles, grumbles, and groans freckle my childhood memories. Snippets of past conversations mark the plot developments of my personal history.

A person’s voice reveals so much about him or her. Sometimes, when a poem doesn’t work, the missing element is authentic voice.

Perhaps you haven’t used dialogue at all, but a particular poem would benefit from it. Maybe the dialogue you have used feels fabricated, generic, or stilted. Maybe your poem doesn’t need dialogue, but the speaker needs to be developed and textured a bit. (The speaker is the imagined voice that “says” the poem’s words. The poet and speaker can be very different…or almost identical.)

Ultimately, you have to assess whether your readers can hear the voices in a poem. And are those voices authentic? Do they feel real in the gut? Do they spark a sense of recognition in the reader?

An effective writer is like a super-stenographer, able to capture more than words: the spaces between words, layers of words, and words left unsaid. And a good writer makes this look effortless and natural.

Where can I get mine?

Cadences you can use in your poems flit past you all the time. All you need do is listen…and perhaps carry around a notepad to collect them.

Listen to the ways people express themselves. Hear them even when they do not speak. If you can train yourself to notice and value details of human communication, you can hone your artistry. To portray people in your poems powerfully, you will want to find ways to suggest their phrasing, gestures, and vocal tones with your written words.

Exercise: A Study of Voice

Are you ready to try your hand at creating authentic voices? Summer travels and family gatherings offer great opportunities for you to spend some time quietly appreciating nuances of differing speech patterns and manners of expression.

Note as many specifics as you can, and listen for the less obvious details. Whenever you notice any of the following, make notes for use in future poems:

  • the unique—or clichéd—phrases and analogies people use
    •  keep a list of analogies and favorite phrases
  • the way a person’s voice rises and falls with various emotions
    • try to describe this – use adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphor
  • how someone insinuates opinions without directly stating those opinions
    •  through tone of voice? particular words chosen? silence?
  • how people talk when they get excited
    • try writing a paragraph in the voice of an excited:
      • child
      • teenager
      • adult speaking to acquaintances
      • adult speaking to a close friend or family member
      • someone boisterous
      • someone emotionally guarded or reticent
  • colloquialisms (local sayings) and accents
    • different pronunciations create color and texture of sound
    • accents and sayings also hint at cultural, regional, or socioeconomic values, such as beauty, authority or strength, storytelling ability, practicality, deliberation and wisdom, or education
    • it can be difficult to portray non-standard accents without taking attention away from the poem itself. can you find ways to portray an accent without altering word spellings or being to obvious about it?
  • the speed or slowness with which people speak
    • can you portray this in writing without the writing feeling awkward or forced?
  • styles of laughter
    • use descriptive nouns, verbs, and analogies to portray people’s laughs
  • nonverbal intonations and communications
    • log in your notes various sounds, snorts, facial expressions, body language, and gestures
    • try to include notes about what you think these sounds might mean or simply how people get in the habit of making them
      • sounds picked up from a show or movie
      • inherited or learned sounds of habit
      • sounds attached to funny incidents or inside jokes
  • vocal resonance or softness
    • …and every shade of sound in between
  • word choices
    • concrete or abstract?
    • straightforward or interpretive?
    • terse or grandiose?

Prompt: Character Sketch in Voice

Use your notes to write a poem that captures the essence of a person using only the person’s own words, gestures, and sounds. Some suggestions:

  • Focus entirely on the character so that your poem becomes a sort of still life portrait in sound.
    • For example, if you describe light filtering in through the kitchen café curtains, let it shed light on the character’s facial expression or metaphorically link it to the sounds of her words.
    • Don’t include any outside details that are not somehow linked to voice.
  • Use entirely dialogue or a combination of description and dialogue.
  • Consider recreating one side of a conversation, whether telephone, Skype, or in-person.
  • Use as much sound texture as you can to indirectly explore this person’s character and wants.
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About Lesley Clinton

Lesley's poems have appeared in the 2016 Houston Poetry Fest Anthology, the 2017 Texas Poetry Calendar, Sakura Review, Haiku Society of America members anthology, Euphony Journal, Frogpond Journal, and others.
This entry was posted in Building the Fire, Gathering Tinder, Prompts and Exercises and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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