I am a School Technician who, twenty years ago, started to write short stories and Scottish History articles that I had researched myself. Over the years, I managed to make a couple of important discoveries relating to Sir William Wallace (detailed in, The Double Tressure, 1999, No. 22).
At the school that I used to work in, I organised 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). 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. [Nowadays most of my MV poems are not repeated.]
The Animals and Amnesty Poems were written to be performed at Animal Rights and Human Rights stalls and events. I wanted to make stalls a bit more interesting. I am a Human Rights and Animal Rights Campaigner.
The Amnesty poem was written so that the performers at a workshop can rewrite it and then perform it (the skeleton of trigger words remaining the same). The trigger words can be printed large on A4 card and held by the reader to let the audience see them; I think this reinforces the link between those words and the body of the poem.
Near the end of 2006, I sent some 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. We had six rehearsals before the show.
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 usually conform to a style that I (used to) call, Sideways Poetry. Sideways, because it can be read 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 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.
One of my poems is multi-voice but has only one performer. The audience imagine the other character and their words.
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 feeling for the hidden rhythms.
Some Poets initially dislike 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 I have been at where I have seen members of the audience coming up to performing Poets to ask for the words of the Poems 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. It worked well, but usually I prefer poems without the addition of anything (Music or sound effects).
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 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 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. 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 (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 CCA and GOMA 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).
Since I wrote the above I have worked out how to do this on my own and now have a few interactive multi-voice poems (and one short play) on You Tube. Check my multi-voice web site for details. One example:
How to Write a Multi-Voice Poem
Cascade Effect. The first multi-voice Poem 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 to be held by the reader of the trigger word/phrase. This draws attention to the word.
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 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.
If words are at the same vertical level on the page then they are spoken at the same time. There is a timeline going down the page through all the columns together. I sometimes use dots to signify where a speaker does not speak. Whenever I have performed with actors they often ask for the lines to be placed as is usual in a play i.e. with no more than one column. Having written and learnt this type of poetry (MV) for many years, the way I recommend does work. Actors very soon are able to visualise the different performers’ words in their brains. Indeed, in the Poetry Challenge on my multi-voice website, a group in Canada performed one of my multi-voice poems with just the text as I had written it and these notes you are reading now (about how to perform multi-voice).
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Voice1 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. When learning a three or four part MV poem I can use a recorder to record all the parts of the other performers (I speak their parts myself) and rehearse with this recording playing.
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 other’s multi-voice 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.
In a Gaelic / English audience participation poem, I envisage some of the audience’s cards being translated into Gaelic so the Gaelic sounds are also part of the poem.
MV PLAYS. I recently finished work on the World’s first multi-voice Play. 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. www.iristheatre.com/Contents/IrisShows/NewStylePage/WorkinProcess/WorkinProcess2.html
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 (for some of the scenes) 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.
The full length multi-voice Play that I wrote is called, Birth of a Selchie.
Other languages. During 2010, Rachel Jury and confab found Funding for an English / Gaelic Multi-voice collaboration to go ahead. The idea was mine, as I had always wanted to do a multi-language multi-voice work. ConFAB however improved my idea by making the Show also have short plays and music as well as multi-voice multi-language poetry. The multi-language pieces worked. This was a huge thrill to me. I intend doing something similar with another language. For instance, I would like to work towards having a show where English and Japanese languages intermingled. I wrote the material for a Japanese and English multi-voice event but could not find Japanese poets to work with. I think there may be another Gaelic Voices as many of the Gaels who were involved expressed strong approval for the project (there never was).
When working with a poet who speaks a language other than English, I ask them to send me their poem, a phonetic rendering of it (in their language), and a poetic English translation of it. If I could get one, I would also like a “bridge” translation i.e. a literal translation. I then fit both languages together in the one poem. It helps if you have some knowledge of the sounds of the language and I spent years studying Gaelic and then Japanese. You obviously give full credit to the non-English speaking poet for all the work they have done.
When listening to ordinary translations of a poet’s work, I find that it does not always work that well. The listener hears a strange language. Then five minutes later hears the translation. Most people’s brains don’t fit the two together. With multi-voice you weave both languages so that you hear enough of the original language to enjoy the sound and the translation is also there mixed in. Even though the listener does not get all of each (original and translated poetry) they do relate to the poem much better. It does work!
For me, I see Multi-voice Multi-language Poems as something that can bring different communities together.
I have written a piece which can have lines inserted in any language (e.g. Urdu or French). It has a set of words that can be translated and fitted into it (a template). These words work when translated into any language. So someone performs the English speaking and someone performs the any other language speaking part.
TOUR OF GAELIC VOICES, 2010
Friday 6th August: CCA, Glasgow.
Saturday 7th August: Eden Court, Inverness.
Tuesday 10th August: Ceilidh Place, Ullapool.
Wednesday 11th August: An Lanntair, Stornaway.
Thursday 12th August: The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen.
Saturday 14th August: Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Isle of Skye.
Monday 16th: Henderson’s at St John’s Church, Edinburgh.
The Tour was very successful. Audiences were usually around forty in number-which wasn’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.
I would like to thank Rachel Jury of conFAB who has found Funding for most of the Chromatic Voices Gigs (and one of the Chromatic Voices 2 events). 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 (yet) have heard of Multi-voice Poetry.
Since I wrote the above I have been working with a new group of performers (actors) and we are called Chromatic Voices 2 (and they come from everywhere):
I have talked about multi-voice on National Radio. And have performed it at the Scottish Parliament.
Video clips of my solo voice are on YouTube and Vimeo..
I have a
multi-voice website. Web address is:
And another at:
And also at: