Not the right sort of voice

In 2014 I recorded two of my poems for poetry films.  The Bristol-based film-maker Pru Fowler did a stunning job and we launched the films twice, once in her city and once in Leeds.

Paisley Quilt was shown and reviewed on the Moving Words website and, since making it available online, we received many positive comments about the film and its impact.

When Pru showed friends the other film, Pillion, they said they thought it hadn’t been accepted to film festivals because of the voice. It wasn’t the right kind of voice. The voice did not have the ‘gravitas’ to go with the images. Perhaps it should be a man’s voice or at least a deeper voice? Perhaps it was the wrong sort of accent?

The visual concept was inspired by the poem in which a woman speaks about and relives a moment experienced as a young girl. The poem is in the present tense and the diction slips between words that might be chosen by a child and those, at the end, that would only be spoken by an adult.

I chose to narrate most of the poem in a slightly higher register than my usual voice to give that sense of the child. I chose to make the voice somewhat dreamlike to reflect that this is a memory from childhood.

I was a shy child and this shyness was made more acute by having someone in my life early on who criticised everything I said, someone who repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t speak unless I had something worth saying (inferring in an inventive variety of derisive ways that I didn’t). In my early teens I developed an intense fear of the phone ringing because then I would have to speak. I took my voice inside myself, releasing it in short bursts onto the pages of my notebook.  Everything I had to say that I felt was important was said in writing.

Years later, when I was ill with a thyroid disorder, I was approached by a man who wanted to work in collaboration with me. At first the creative ideas were exciting and there seemed to be a synergy to the partnership. Then he started making comments that disturbed me, comments that, at the time, I put down to his eccentricity or a way of coping with difficult emotions. He spoke without any hint of empathy about an ex who had been sexually abused, without any emotion about a friend who was dying.  After some very dramatic romantic overtures, he told me I was a half-made person because I had a child, that he wanted to be with a woman who was unmade.

He told me that my voice was very annoying (he was editing a recording of my voice) and my voice would be bearable if I spoke in a deeper register. He said that I should speak in this deep register all the time. He obstructed me in multiple different ways that I found utterly baffling. Then he began to give me orders about how to go about my part of the work ‘I’ve told you to do this…’.  I’m ashamed to say it took me until then to put an end to that ‘collaborative’ working relationship.

I realise that, in contrast to those made by the men mentioned above, the comments made to my film-maker friend were not made maliciously; they were trying to be helpful.  I acknowledge that I may not have given a brilliant performance for the mic – it had been an exceptionally busy week and I had run my first 10k race the day before (I still had a thyroid then and it could affect my throat, especially when I was tired). The film-maker and I are considering experimenting with multiple voices for a future version of the film and this is something I am excited about.  But the idea that this little girl’s story should only be told by a Southern, received-pronunciation, male voice was bizarre to me.

Of course on reflection it is not bizarre at all. With a few notable exceptions, that is the voice we are used to hearing.

In her lecture, Women In Power, a summary of which was published in last month’s London Review of Books, Mary Beard spoke again about some of the ways in which women are silenced in public discourse. She examined in depth the significance of the deeply misogynistic and violent campaign images of Trump brandishing the Medusa-like head of Hilary Clinton.  She talked about how particular women ‘turn the symbols that usually disempower women to their own advantage’. Beard doesn’t believe that ‘exploiting the status quo’ is the answer.  She asks ‘if women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine rather than women?’

Over the years I have undertaken voice work with Maggi Stratford. Maggi works with the Roy Hart approach, a practice that explores the strong connection between voice and the body.  Through practical exercises, Maggi teaches people that their voices are powerful, that the secret to unlocking them springs from the individual body, whatever type of body that is. I rate her workshops and her singing highly.

If we find it ‘hard to concentrate’ on women’s voices, on northern voices, on non-standard dialects, on the voices of little girls, that is a problem we all need to address.  Isn’t it about time we made the effort to listen, to get over our own prejudices about what a powerful voice is and listen for those other voices?  After all they may have something important to tell us.

N.B. A link to Pillion, the film in question, is here.  The poem is published in in the e-anthology The People’s Republic of Poetry by A Firm of Poets and in my first collection Empires of Clay.

If anyone who has read Empires of Clay has time to leave a short review on the Amazon and or Good Reads page I would be very grateful.


Hosting Small Press Panel What do Editors look for in a Short Story? 3rd June, 10.30-11.30 am with guests Teika Bellamy, (Mother’s Milk Books), Jamie McGarry (Valley Press) and Becca Parkinson (Comma Press)as part of the Northern Short Story Festival. 10:30 – 11:30 / £5. Book your ticket here.

Reading at Albert Poets, The Albert, Albert Yard, Huddersfield. 8th June, 7.45-11.00 pm Free.

Creative writing workshop at The Hepworth Wakefield inspired by the JW. Anderson exhibition Disobedient Bodies, Clothing as Armour, 10th June 2017. 10.30-4.00, £60/£45. Please book in advance.


Reading at anthology launch of Writing Motherhood ed. Carolyn Jess Cooke at The Flying Horse, 6.30-8.30 pm, Waterstones, 82 Gower Street, London, WC1E 6EQ

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