Multi-voice poetry beginnings

Ashby McGowan
Glasgow G20 6HG

MULTI-VOICE POETRY. At the school that I used to work in, I used to organise an Amnesty UK Human Rights group for pupils. For the Elimination of Violence Against Women Day (in 2005), I wrote a performance poem about Domestic Violence (Another Night). Then, I couldn’t write plays, so I thought of using the six girls’ – who wanted to put on something for the Day – to each perform a different voice in a poem.
While performing the poem, the readers sometimes speak at the same time and it sounds a bit chaotic, but as it is repeated the listener tunes in to a specific voice and makes sense out of the chaos (this was intentional, and was appropriate given the subject of the poem). It was also intentional that the performers have to do a bit of work to fine-tune the piece so that their timing and volume are correct. The pupils enjoyed working on the piece. It was performed by the Hillpark Secondary School Amnesty Youth Group to Assemblies of first and second year pupils and to audiences of Teachers and Higher Drama pupils. It was received with a lot of applause, one standing ovation, and a few tears from Staff.
Near the end of 2006, I sent some multi-voice poems to the Literary Group, ConFAB. They (Rachel Jury in particular) have been very helpful. They applied for and received funding so that some of Scotland’s best Performance Poets could display the work (some of my poems) in front of an audience. Funding was provided by, the Scottish Book Trust, and Glasgow District Council. Many thanks to them both!
The VOICES performance was held on International Human Rights Day (December 10th), 2007, in front of an audience of about 35. It took place in a small venue in Glasgow’s Merchant City. The Production was very theatrical, and, I think, worked well. I believe, from the comments of the Performers (who are all performing Poets), that the cast enjoyed experimenting with the rhythms and timing of the poems.
I performed one poem on my own and was terrified-I was not a Performing Poet then (Initially, I wrote intending others to perform my poems).
These multi-voice poems often conform to a style that I call, Sideways Poetry. Sideways, because it is meant to be read sideways backwards and forwards along the adjoining verses, as well as top to bottom (of the page). The meaning travels across the page as well as up and down. And, quite often in these poems, more than one speaker speaks at the same time. It sounds confusing, and it is. Well, only for a few moments. But, I hope, it does yield interesting results.
I can use a number of devices to increase the sense of stability (as the poem proceeds) in some of the poems: increasing use of alliteration, words (or sounds) repeated by more than one reader, increasing strength of rhythm…
The person listening in the audience can listen to the effect of two or three voices intermingling and creating strange rhythm patterns, or they can tune in to one particular performer and look to that performer for the sense of the poem (or one aspect of it). Individual members of the audience usually do both during the performance of one poem.

I believe that this style of poem could become very popular. So far, the performances have met with a very good response from audiences.
These multi-voice Poems do require rehearsal and (of course) more than one speaker. However, I believe the performer learns a lot from performing this type of poem. At its easiest, two poets could perform one of the simpler poems after about one hour of rehearsal.
I have kept the language in my poems simple. I believe this allows a greater depth of experimentation. Also, I do not feel a listener should have to have a degree in Ancient Greek literature to be able to understand a poem. Most of the multi-voice poems are both 1. Poems in their own right (i.e. they show reality in a new and useful way) and 2. They are also exercises in multi-voice rhythmic experimentation, which is meant to be enjoyed for the sounds created.
Some Performance Poets make their poems more interesting by using visual effects while reading their poem (e.g. jumping about or using elaborate hand movements). Some poets make their poems more interesting by the use of their richly textured voice. In a multi-voice poem, it is the interaction of the words read by the different poets that makes the interesting effects. The rhythms and complexity that can be heard in one of these poems arise naturally when more than one poet reads words at the same time. Anyone can read these poems and can get the same rhythms and complexity: it is inbuilt into the poem’s structure.
The hardest work in a multi-voice poem is done by the audience. But, audiences like having to listen hard, question what they are hearing, and feel for the hidden rhythms.
Some Poets I have worked with have initially disliked the idea of their well crafted words being obscured by the words of other Poet performers-in a multi-voice poem. However, I have found that audiences listen extra carefully to the words because of this partial blurring of sounds and meanings. Multi-voice concerts are the only poetry events where I have seen members of the audience coming up to performing Poets to ask for the words of the Poem they just have performed.

CHROMATIC VOICES. The next obvious step was for other Poets to write multi-voice poetry. ConFAB got all the People together who were involved in the Voices show and formed them into a new group called, Chromatic Voices. All the performers began writing multi-voice poetry.
Chromatic Voices performed during Refugee Week, at the Tron in Glasgow, on June 20th and 21st , 2008. Paragon Kaleidophone Ensemble worked with the Poets to produce original music that enhanced the Poems. The event was a great success, with members of the audience coming up at the end to ask for copies of the Poems and to shake the Poets by the hand. It was a tremendous occasion.

On 16th April, 2008, I was interviewed live on Radio Café. Two Poets (Wendy Miller and Tawona Sithole) read two of my multi-voice poems.

How to Write a Multi-Voice Poem, some ideas for Workshops
Cascade Effect. The first multi-voice Poems that I wrote (Another Night) is also one of the most complicated. Many of the multi-voice poems use Trigger words. This is where one performer reads the Trigger words and they are also the first words read by another performer, who goes on to read their own verse. The Trigger words being read at the same time by both performers. Then, usually, the first performer who was reading, stops reading (to stop too much cacophony).
In Another Night, the Trigger words used by the first person are different from the words used by the second person-which makes it slightly harder to do. Another Night also makes use of a Cascade Effect. This is where the Trigger word starts two or three performers reading, and this Cascade Effect may be repeated. This is hard for the listener to keep up with, so Another Night is read through three times.
The Cascade Effect looks and sounds very effective. The Trigger Words can be printed on large cards which are held by the reader of the trigger word/phrase.
When working on a new multi-voice poem, usually I start by writing out all my notes, and all the words spoken by the different speakers, freehand in a jotter. I work on these until I have a rough idea of how the various speakers will combine. I then transfer this rough draft poem to a word processing package on a computer. For two part multi-voice, you can just have the lines going down the page next to each other with a line of dots at various points to show when a speaker is not reading any lines. For three or more speakers, I put my page on “landscape” mode (sideways) so that I can fit more columns on the page. I try to get every speaker fitting in side by side on the page (so it is easier for the performer to understand what is happening). I highlight (put in bold) all the Trigger words and try to ensure that if they are spoken at the same time, that they are at the same level of the page as each other. I spend some time making sure that the poem on the page will be easy to read in performance (you can then of course, go on to learn them off the page). Another way of writing is to firstly write out the form of the poem (with all the Trigger words and columns) and fit your writing into this. In practise, I have found this the harder method.
When doing first readings it helps to have an actor look through the column of words that they are reading and underline in coloured pen any words/phrases they are speaking at the same time as another performer/s (and underline those actor’s lines too). Each speaker must ensure that their own lines are not overwhelmed by that of the other speaker/s.
Multi-voice is excellent for having each speaker show different views of the same situation. As an example, when there are only two speakers, these voices can be used effectively in opposition to each other, this being emphasised with the speakers facing each other and using inflammatory language.
Types of Multi-voice. There are at least four types of MVP (Multi-voice Poem).

1. Trigger word MVP. The “Poems” running side by side down the page are linked using “trigger” words and phrases. The Cascade Effect can (doesn’t have to be though) be used with a Trigger word MVP.

2. Conversation. In Poems like Twins and Loving You, two protagonists carry out a kind of conversation using MVP. Occasionally in these Poems, the speakers speak at the same time. But, quite often, they speak one at a time. Sometimes, however, the speakers’ lines cross-over and each takes over the words of the other.

3. Side by Side. In this type of MVP, the two or more strands of Poetry going side by side down the page (“Poems”) are very similar. The small differences between the lines spoken create internal additional rhythms.

4. Prose/Poem MVP. Here, much of the text is in prose. But at various points, the text changes into MVP.

Using cacophony with care. Cacophony can sound awful if kept up for too long. But it can emphasise a situation of change or peril out of which freedom (no cacophony and freedom for the character in the Poem) can arise. I think this is almost always a good thing, it shows optimism in any situation. But someone could argue (and someone has so argued) that some situations don’t change into a happy state quite so easily. You also have to imagine how much Cacophony your audience can take. Cacophony can be, so many voices reading at the one time that individual words cannot be heard. Or it can mean, just too much going on for the listener to keep up with events.

Blending the Voices Correctly. Take great care with how the voices blend. Even when not blending with another voice, the sound of each word should be appealing and effective. Sometimes the two (or more) performers read lines that are Almost identical. The one word or phrase that is different produces a “Beat” and these “Beats” can be built up line by line to produce a Rhythm. The down side of this is that performers find it hard: reading lines-that are nearly identical-at the same time.
Some of my Multi-voice Poems were developed with me using a voice recorder to take the part of a different voice (i.e. I would record myself as Voice 1 then would speak the part of Voice 2 while the recorder was playing). A solo Poet could perform Multi-voice Poetry by reading one set of Verses while a recording of his/her voice-reading a complementary set of verses-was played at the same time.
If you have the same number of syllables in two adjoining “verses” then there will be a harmonious result. If you have different number of syllables in each adjoining “verse” then you will get a more chaotic sound.

Still try to have meaning in the Poem. Do not be held back by the writing of others writing. Use the Poems already in the Medium as an inspiration or a starting point. Not as the final word. Let your imagination be the final word. Also, Multi-voice Poetry should have more than just clever techniques and nice sounds. If planned well, it can allow more subtlety of meaning than one-voice Poetry. However, sometimes I think it is acceptable to have a Poem that works mainly because it just sounds really nice!
Multi-voice Poetry is new to most people and can work extremely well. Use the Medium with care and you can get great results. The Poems can be fun for the performance Poet as well as the audience. For the performance Poet, because they allow lots of experimentation. For instance, with the fine-tuning of the timing that is involved.
From my own, limited, experience, of performing poetry, I felt a slight edge of competitiveness when all are reading single voice. However, I feel that when you are reading a multi-voice poem, that you do so knowing that you are part of a team. And that you are creating (hopefully) something beautiful together. The group of people that I have been performing multi-voice with have all bonded together quite strongly (or it may just be that they are all naturally nice people). Also, we each took part in each others Poems (this increased the sense of bonding in the Group).

Other examples of Multi-Voice. After doing multi-voice for some time, I then looked at the Internet, and went through various books to see if anyone else was doing multi-voice. I found that at various points in time and place, poets have written and performed multi-voice. But the few examples that I have found are very different from the type of Poetry that I am writing and have described above.

Large Number Multi-Voice. Since I started writing multi-voice I have been writing different versions that are suitable for large numbers of people: these people being either the audience or the performing Poets taking up the tasks/voices between themselves. I recently devised a version which I think allows maximum variation around the basic idea.
Firstly, I wrote a Poem about something that flows or changes (in my case it was the sea, but it could be e.g. time or emotion). There are definite points in the poem were things change by a large amount/in steps. This basic poem has words taken from its text and written up on cards for the audience to read, or for other members of the Performance Group to perform between them. Instructions on how the Poem is meant to be read are enclosed on the card for each member of the audience. The words should have meaning and should fit the various “steps”. In my Poem, I read about the sea and each verse has the sea becoming softer and softer. So, the audience have to read words that are very loudly spoken (in verse 1), then loud (verse 2), then normal volume(verse 3). The words themselves change from being harsh words like crash to softer words like lap. Each verse that I read has a number which relates to a number on the card the audience has: so members of the audience with card one read out their bit according to their instructions while I am reading verse one at the microphone. Similar occurs for verses two and three. Hopefully this relatively simple set up should keep the audience involved and should let them feel part of the poem-in meaning and in sound. This set up might sound a bit complicated but should allow audiences of thirty and upwards to take part in a poem
I have recently written (and successfully performed) a multi-voice Poem which has three Voices in it (My Mate Paul) but the audience only hears one voice (from the one speaker) and from the limited information available has to fill in the gaps. The “gaps” obviously can’t be that big.

GAELIC VOICES. Rachel Jury and conFAB also found Funding for my idea of an English / Gaelic Multi-voice Poetry collaboration to go ahead. I have always wanted to experiment with different languages and how they interact.
The Tour of Scotland, in 2010, was very successful. Audiences were usually around forty in number-which isn’t bad for a new experimental work. After each show the cast would meet with audiences in the Bar of the Theatre and each member of the cast would talk to individuals from the audience and get their views on Gaelic and on the show.

One of the greatest difficulties relating to translations is that normally you listen to a Gaelic Poem (for instance) and then after it has finished – perhaps two minutes later – you listen to a translation. It is hard to relate anything to anything. With multi-voice a skilled person can have the translation read in an interesting manner at the same time as the original. The translation can be read by different performers on alternate lines and perhaps the Gaelic lines reinforced by another Gaelic reader every second line. In reality a reader will hear bits of the Gaelic and English at the same time. In my experience it is a more accurate and enjoyable way of dealing with translation. And also it sounds nice in its own right.

POETRY KARAOKE. Making Poetry accessible to everyone.
Someone goes along to e.g. the Glasgow Tramway Theatre (where I know they have the technology to do similar things, and I have seen similar things exhibited there) and stands in front of screen 1. and watches four poems being read out- one a single voice poem and three multi-voice poems. Each of the poems is read through on screen 1 by the performance poets. Then, on screen 2 (next to screen 1), the words come up for the lines of a poet’s part (from one of the poems just read). The other performance poets read their lines on screen 1. While the visitor to the theatre reads the missing poet’s lines i.e. replaces one of the poets. I think this would be fun to do and could work well.
The Tramway had a production recently with two screens where screen 1. showed a person talking about how they felt and screen 2. showed them saying what they really felt. It looked good. It would take a bit of technology to do, but the tape / disc would just be left to run on repeat all day and could be used at a number of sites. People could even buy the disk to do Poetry Karaoke in the house (OK that is taking it a bit too far). In practise, someone would listen to a single voice poem, then try and repeat the poem using the words on screen 2. They would then listen to (e.g. my poems) Rhythm in the Trees, and then take part in it as one of the voices. This would be repeated for Happy the Dawn, and then Daybreak. I honestly think it would work.
Four poems should be enough. A lot of people would probably even like the extra technology involved.
The Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow and the Gallery of Modern Art could also probably cope with the technological demands
Perhaps it may even be possible for a CD copy of the “collaborative” poem to be produced for each visitor (one which included the three Voices Poets and the visitor speaking the lines). Another option, is to have the Poetry Karaoke on the Internet.
People tend to feel left outside the poetry experience and I think this is a way of letting them really take part. They would also learn, as they practise, how to change the volume and tone of their voice in order to complement the other poets.
I have been interviewed about this idea on National Radio. I have also applied for Funding to put on such a show (at the CCA) with the help of an Audio Technician (didn’t get the money).
I would like to thank Rachel Jury of conFAB who has found Funding for most of the Chromatic Voices Gigs. Nowadays, I am not the only Poet who writes in the Chromatic Voices style, but without Funding for shows I personally would not be writing any Poetry. I am not someone who can write without a readership or audience.
The term Multi-Voice seems to put people off, or so people have told me. If it didn’t sound so presumptuous I would call the Poetry Chromatic Voices do: “writing in the Glasgow Style”. This is because most of the Chromatic Voices Poets are from Glasgow. And few people outside of Glasgow have heard of Multi-voice Poetry.
I have tried to get Poetry magazines interested in Multi-Voice for years, but I am always told something along the lines of, “I am sure it performs well but we don’t publish performance poetry”. To me, MVP look good on the page as well, they are certainly intriguing and different.
I genuinely think that Multi-voice (or the Glasgow Style of writing-if you prefer) could become one of the pillars of mainstream Poetry across the world. The potential is enormous!
People are welcome to email me for ideas and help. I would like to see Poets (and Poetry mags and websites) pay much more attention to multi-voice.
In March 2011, I finished work on my Audience Participation Play (Peace Treaty) based on the idea of getting the audience involved in arguing out a Peace Treaty. And just after that finished work on a multi-voice Play based around my anti-war multi-voice Poems.

MV PLAYS. I recently finished work on the World’s first multi-voice Play (Birth of a Selchie). On 9th June, 2011, a five minute shortened version (dealing with some multi-voice aspects of the Play) was performed by the Workin Process Team as part of an Evening of Poetry / Drama interactions at the Iris Theatre in London. My short Play was one of fifteen picked from over 250 entries.
On 27th February, 2012, one scene was workshopped at the CCA for the Stage to Page workshops organised by Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland. It met with a fantastic response and eight actors from out of the audience approached me offering to help develop the play.
In August 2012, a Director started having auditions for the play. However, he then became too ill to take further part in it.

A MV Play has to be mainly MV but can have sections of single voice. Indeed MV benefits from varying from 1 to 2 to more than 2 speakers. Because there had to be a greater level of clarity needed (for the play format) I developed a new type of multi-voice which does not obscure the words (and so the dialogue is easier to make out). I used the technique of having different minor speakers emphasise different words and phrases spoken by the main characters.

MUSIC. Some people on first reading multi-voice text imagine it should be sung i.e. that it is choral. Choirs are intricate and lovely to hear, however I hope there is more to the multi-voice form than just blending. People often say, “Why don’t you have the words put to music? That would be pretty.” When I go to poetry and music nights the highlights for most in the audience are the songs. If someone plays a few chords everyone loves it. Yet, I believe that poetry has to be able to be as exciting as music. To me a poem makes a person listen to the sounds and rhythms of the words and makes them consider the meaning of the poem. In music, the words come a poor second. Poetry performance has to be good enough to make people notice it. I think multi-voice is as exciting as poetry gets. I believe in multi-voice and I am a purist about poetry. It should not be diluted. Nothing else does the job it does. Poetry does its job very well.

Firstly, don’t panic. It looks complicated but is all do-able. When doing first readings it helps to have an actor or poet look through the column of words that they are reading and underline in coloured pen any words/phrases they are speaking at the same time as another performer/s, and underline those actor’s lines too. (Or words spoken at the same time can be put in italic) Each actor reads down the page until they come to a bit with words and then they read them. So all bits of text at the same height on the page get read at the same time. It helps to print out the text double space.
Lots of dots on a line of text signify that words that another speaker are reading are not to spoken by yourself. The gap is not meant to be exact and will be fine-tuned in rehearsal.
I have written and performed multi-voice for six years and this is the simplest way to get the actor to understand the lines.
Multi-voice is much more than just interruptions in text and so slashes in text aren’t used by me.
Basically, words and phrase can be spoken at the same time. The resulting joining of sounds creates a new sound that can vary greatly-anything from Chaotic to Melodic. This sound is used to amplify or reinforce an action or emotion the character is portraying at that time.
Each speaker must ensure that their own lines are not overwhelmed by that of the other speaker/s.
Multi-voice is excellent for having each speaker show different views of the same situation. As an example, when there are only two speakers, these voices can be used effectively in opposition to each other, this being emphasised with the speakers facing each other and using inflammatory language.
Complex rhythms can be built up by the combinations of speaker’s words.
Multi-voice is not a gimmick. Audiences love the complexity and having to work to understand the words that are spoken-they listen harder.
Although people don’t normally speak in multi-voice, the technique is (in my opinion) as viable as Ballet or Opera. It is another dimension to the play. Anyone interested in multi-voice is welcome to email me for more information.

To close, I would just like to say that most of the Glasgow Poets who have worked with Chromatic Voices material have said that writing and performing Multi-voice gave them new insights into their own work and made them try out new experimental approaches.
As part of Shows, the MV Poems are also performed in as varied and as interesting a way as possible. Some Poems quite obviously set out to confuse the audience at first, and then reassure them as the disparate bits “come together” near the end of the Poem. Some Poems are very Theatrical, and some are just (I hope) good fun.

Some of the above was written a few years ago and was printed in an experimental Poetry magazine (Infinity’s Kitchen) and thanks to them for permission to re-use some of the article.

6 thoughts on “Multi-voice poetry beginnings

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