Mi, a name I call myself; or, More on Voice

In response to my last post, friend David Graham wrote, “I’ve finally come to believe that ‘voice’ is not something to concern myself with. Others will or will not tag me with such a thing, but it just messes me up to think about it. I simply (ha! it ain’t simple!) try to write as well as I can & in the process figure out what I want to say (which for me always happens in the revision process, not before.)…In a similar way, worrying about originality is for me mostly a dead end. I love something Levertov said: ‘Originality is nothing else but the deepest honesty.'”

I thought about that for a while, and replied, “I wonder if it’s not the author that has a voice but the poems themselves. I know I get annoyed when a poem of mine starts having a kind of woff woff self-aggrandizing tone of some British lord or Oxford don. I have to shove it off its high horse. Then other poems just think they’re so damn funny they start laughing at themselves so hard I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

And soon after that exchange I found this notion by Richard Russo in the eponymous essay of his new book The Destiny Thief: “I’d been told before that writers had to have two identities, their real-life one…as well as another, who they becomewhen they sit down to write. This second identity, I now saw, was fluid, as changeable as the weather, as unfixed as our emotions. As readers, we naturally expect novels to introduce us to a new cast of characters and dramatic events, but could it also be that the writer has to reinvent himselffor the purpose of telling each new story?”

That feels both interesting and true. I don’t think it’s contradictory to think about an author’s voice and the voice of a poem or a story. Both voices exist, creating a mini chorus with every piece.

As I look back on my work, I discern a certain McCabeness about most of it, even as the tone and timbre, rhythm and diction, impulse and objective, snap or murmur, are quite different. (Although I confess, I sort of feel like if I’ve read one Russo book, I’ve read them all….)

How else to explain this than there is a voice in the poem itself that it’s my job to summon in creating it and honing in revision? And yet because of the limitations of my own self (even with all its multitudes) the range of voices summoned in the poems will be limited as well, and will sound like me without my trying, or worrying too much about it. If my poems sound too much like someone else, then, as David indicates, I’m probably not clear on what I’m trying to say and am not working from that “deepest honesty,” and it’s my job in the revision process to sort that out.

So this idea of “finding your voice” may be like so many other classic pieces of advice — overly simplistic, often taken too far, yet containing some useful truth. Like “write what you know” or “never lend money to friends.” Well, yes…but, I have this thing called an imagination. And I could really use $20.

I guess you find your voice by finding your deepest concerns and writing from some authentic core. Or that’s the task, anyway. Easier said than…well…said.


Waltzing Mathilda; or Finding Your Voice

When Tom Waits sings a ballad I want to weep. Is it the contrast between that hard-lived, pack-a-day, whiskey chaser, broken glass voice and the tenderness of the tune and tone and text? Would it move me as much if I didn’t already know that voice rasping about keeping the devil down in the hole, or how the piano has been drinking? (Can we only know something through its contrast — pleasure/pain, happiness/misery, or is that that duality of thinking we fall prey to? Do I need to know hot to know cold? Nah.) I went to the opera recently and enjoyed how one of the main singers, playing that darling of theater, the prostitute, soared upward in full operatic voice, then burred and hardened it on the way down as the text called for bitterness, regret. We all have a head voice and a chest voice. Our voices can travel up and down between the two, and ideally meld them in the middle. Some of us get our voices stuck in our noses, some of us sound like our voices come from a disembodied throat. The two readers I heard last night both had pleasant voices, just burred enough, and read with just enough emphasis and character, but not too much, not too much flourish or drama. It was easy to listen to them. Their warm tones were invitational. A friend of mine makes fun of her own tendency to let her voice get small and high when she’s uncertain or nervous. It’s wonderfully full-throated when she lets it. I love my mother’s voice, for its chesty tones, for the memory of being read to as a child, and her hint of a Maine accent. My sister and I have an array of funny voices we use. Others find it odd. I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would speak of how we hide emotions in the body — the throat, shoulders, the diaphragm. Singing can break it all open. Let’s notice our voices today. Let’s unsqueeze our adenoids, open our throats. Let’s make some joyful noise. Let’s laugh out loud. Then get soft and wistful. Let’s whisper. And then, later, let’s open our throats to all our late night laments, our wee hour longings, half-forgotten dreams, and let’s sing a blue valentine.