ONE OF THE STRUGGLES for any writer is developing a sense of voice, a way of writing that seems authentic to that person. For me, this has always involved getting the sound of a poem right, something intuitive rather than taught. For better or worse, I’ve not gone through an MFA program or made a circuit of workshops and retreats – just undergone the hard slog of putting words on paper and then hearing them aloud, or in that semi-aloud way we “listen” for rhythm and meaning and how they intertwine. These days I think I have a pretty good sense if a poem works for me or needs to marinate further, a decision arrived at by ear more than anything else.
The process becomes more complicated, though, when the poem is in another’s voice, and I’ve used quite a few over the years – strippers, football coaches, anthropologists, and factory workers. When it’s successful, I can hear that person’s own voice in the words I’m reading, and in the cadence and word choice. Getting there requires attention to how a particular person really speaks, much the same way an actor prepares for a part. Some of this would be the accent, some the choice of words, some the rhythms employed.
I first stumbled on this idea of voice back in my teens when I was struggling to read Faulkner, and happened upon a recording of him reading from his works. I knew he was from Mississippi, but that didn’t really mean anything until I heard his voice, how Southern he was, how this old man sitting in a rocker out on the porch with a tumbler of sippin’ whiskey was going to tell this story if it took all day and into the night, which it probably would, given the meandering pace of the tale and everything it was tied into. That might be the best way to read Light in August or As I Lay Dying.
Some poems are attempts to capture a particular moment, a feeling – like haiku, if not necessarily in that form – but others have more narrative to them, and these poems are often best told from a perspective other than your own. I saw a note from an old acquaintance that reminded me of that ancient time when telephone systems had party lines and the semi-private conversations you might overhear, accidentally or not. In the poem spawned from that reminiscence, my poet voice used a line I once heard about a long-dead neighbor who’d be upset to see Johnson grass growing on his grave. It was a line that had waited over thirty years to find a home, but I’m glad I waited, and I’m glad I gave it to “Nancy Turnbough” to speak, because it seems more democratic, more neighborly, to consider that others have poems within that are aching to get out, and maybe you should do something to help.
George Perreault has served as a visiting writer in New Mexico, Montana, and Utah. His poems have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and selected for fourteen anthologies and dozens of journals. Recent work appears in The American Journal of Poetry, High Desert Journal, and Weber – The Contemporary West.
His poem “That Time I Was Lost in the Wild,” appears in the WS2018 issue of The Timberline Review.