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Alice Friman: What Is This Thing Called ‘Voice’?

To my way of thinking, your poetry matches who you are. Not just in the subject matter you choose or that chooses you, or even in the words you select, but, more importantly, in the rhythm of the lines themselves—the cadences. I’m talking about a poet’s signature, one’s DNA, if you will. You can’t fake it, cadence being so basic to the way you speak about the world. It’s more akin to the way you walk or how you laugh or hold a fork. No two people do those things exactly the same way. It is the way the words come out, the way, in my case, the words struggle to come out, set themselves down on the page, adjust their skirts.

And because that signature, if you will, that DNA, is capacious—just as you are, since it is you—there’s room in it for every one of your facets: humor, tragedy, melancholy, lust, even wickedness. Yes, even that. Poetry being the great permission, there’s room for everything. I see so many beginning writers who are tied up in knots with all their “thou-shalt-nots.” I suppose it’s easier to teach what you shouldn’t do, than say, Go ahead, do anything, just remember to be true to your vision whatever it is and not be satisfied with almost getting close enough to it. This, of course, means lots of rewriting. Trying to find the words to chisel out that vision you see in your mind’s eye or what you see in front of you, and how you do that, how you forge that over the years, feeds into your “voice,” that is to say, feeds into who you are. I can no more tell you how to develop your “voice” than I can tell you how you should breathe. You already have a voice, you were born with it, and each experience you have adds to it. Your voice is the cadence of your innermost self speaking, and it will come out naturally when you write what’s yours and yours alone to say. If I have any advice and tips it’s to forget about this “voice” thing and concentrate on getting as close as you can to that kernel of an idea you are trying to develop. For a beginner, I’ve heard that there might be some benefit in copying, that is, writing in the style of a favorite poet for a while. You might try that. If it works, it’s because you are adding to your bag of tricks, but it’s no substitute for a distinctive style, your style, which can only be attained by writing.

Speaking of myself, I grew up in New York City. I roller-skated in the streets, took dancing lessons, went to Brooklyn College—three hours a day on the subway. I hiked the George Washington Bridge, spent summers in Long Beach—which in those days was a child’s paradise, empty and wild—or in the country with my cousins. My immediate family was problematic; my childhood, troubled. I have had a hard life. I have been told I have a distinctive “voice.” If I do, it’s because of all the things that went into it, all the unhappiness mixed with the cadences and toughness of the New York streets. I did not choose my “voice.” It is who I am. Perhaps “voice” is what readers or critics hear in my work; if so, it’s an outside construct to be defined and described by someone else, someone other than me. In other words, it’s what other people see/hear in my work, not me. Of course I am grateful for their opinions, but I can no more control what they take in than I can control the funny way I sneeze. A writing tip? Forget about “voice.” Leave that to other people to define. Your job is to write, to keep the pen moving no matter what. And that’s a hard enough job as it is.

copyright 2015 Alice Friman


3 comments on “Alice Friman: What Is This Thing Called ‘Voice’?

  1. amcory
    January 17, 2016

    I was absolutely blessed to have Alice Friman as a professor in several classes while at the University of Indianapolis. I remember so many of the things she taught me – about voice, about word choice, and about finding inspiration from everything around me. This is huge, considering I was too college-girl drunk to remember much else about the late 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. zenitheus
    March 7, 2015

    Wow.. Magnificent insight..
    Brings that wisdom to my own self
    Annihilation ..
    Gives me that feeling that I just passed sum special ritual of self.
    An initiative of examination.
    I feel like u understand.
    That has made my day!
    I thank u

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia A. Nugent
    March 6, 2015

    If you belong to a writing group, this link is definitely worth sharing. It transcends the writing of poetry to be applicable to any genre – and to life in general. As she tells us, “Your job is to write, to keep the pen moving no matter what.” Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on March 6, 2015 by in Poetry and tagged , , , , , .

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