When I was younger, I had several voices: the heavy and assertive voice for home, the lithe and overly polite voice for school, the quiet and unassuming voice for adults, the high and lilting voice for friends, the reticent near-whisper for acquaintances, and the severe voice in the back of my head grilling me, asking me why none of these voices were my own. An extremely nervous child, I perceptibly altered my speaking voice to fit the situation I found myself in. It would soar to a high and breathy place during one particularly uncomfortable social situation, dip a little lower in the next, rise higher still for the following—and I could give no explanation for it. I was painfully conscious that it was happening, but the process itself was not deliberate. I don’t remember when or how it started.
I began taking voice lessons at nine years old to learn to sing classically, and I recall clearly the evening when, after a lesson, my instructor told my mother that we’d need to work through my “speaking issues” before we could continue with the musical component. I was too anxious, she said, and my speaking voice too breathy, too inconsistent as a consequence. I sat up that night, my breathing shallow, trying to pry some comfort from the notion that I could not be totally isolated in this. The voice I did have was not mine, because it wasn’t anything like the steady voices I heard in other people—it changed so often and unpredictably that I could hardly call it my voice at all. I knew no one like myself in this respect, and as it felt too strange to discuss, I remained the solitary worried girl without a voice that was truly my own. The word “voice” made me sick to my stomach. I could not speak without feeling estranged from whichever voice my body had assigned to the occasion. In lacking a sustained manner of speaking, I often felt that I utterly lacked an identity, too—and in one’s early teens, when self-conception is fluctuating wildly to begin with, being able to anchor down a single piece of oneself is crucial.
Writing offered a chance to reclaim that piece, whatever it might be. I wrote hundreds of poems. I was always writing, in journals and in textbook margins and in the backs of books and on napkins. And people took note of it. In sixth grade, a teacher I had not previously met asked me if I could recite something for the school at an assembly. In a breathy half-voice I told her yes, absolutely. I wrote a poem the night before the event, a few simple quatrains, and memorized it, and recited it to myself in my head and aloud and in the mirror and to the wall. I swear I heard myself reciting in my head upon waking the next morning. If I could get the poem ingrained in me, it would come out more easily, and I needed it to come out as easily as possible, because things had the tendency to come out of me only with extreme difficulty or not at all.
I still recall the first line I read to an audience. “She walked along a sandy beach”—I spoke the words and the voice I assumed was nothing I’d ever heard come out of myself. I had stepped onto the auditorium stage with trembling knees. I was standing before some three hundred peers whose faces were difficult to make out through the potent white light shining down on me. I was red, hot, and certain I would faint. My whole body shook. I made no introduction. Coming through the speakers, that first line startled me—it was so clean and unwavering. I let the remainder of the poem carry out the voice I’d found in that first line.
What struck me was how natural it felt. Here were words that I had strung together so as to make them distinctly my own—riding, for once, on the current of a voice that matched them. It was lucid, supple, perfectly tuned, assured in a way I never thought possible. My poem and my voice had aligned, and maybe for the first time, I felt that I had communicated some notion of the person I was. I would not have been able to give a concrete description of myself, but I knew that I was more present, more I, than I had ever been before. I wanted to hold onto this, and the only way I could see of holding onto it was continuing to read my work, so I did. I still do.
My current poetry professor’s first words of advice to my class: “When you read something aloud, read it.” This is critical, so critical that I’m surprised no one had told me so before. To read my own poetry effectively, I have had to own every word. Owning every word requires a voice and elicits a voice. It has been 10 years since my first night sitting up worrying about my lack of voice, and eight since I read my work aloud and claimed my voice for the first time. This past August, I partook in my longest reading yet. It was my 19th birthday and I would be a featured poet in a reading hosted by the poetry collective my high school English teacher was involved in. I had driven the hour to the venue alone, and when I stepped into the sitting room of the small borough hall, I found myself in an intimate crowd of people who knew each other but, for the most part, did not know me. A smiling man with a shock of white hair asked me about myself—where I went to school, what types of things I wrote—and in a voice that I recognized as mine, I told him everything I could. We talked until the host reached the podium and cleared his throat. It occurred to me that I had a good deal more to say about myself at this point in my life, at 19, than I ever had in the past.
I was the first to read. I shook upon arriving at the front of the room—I still had the habitual case of nerves I’ve known all my life. But I made an introduction this time. I told the 30-some faces sitting before me that I would be reading my poems in chronological order of their writing, beginning two years previously and spanning through that same morning. My intention in all of this, I said, was to show the progression of my poetic voice (I did not tell them about the other voice I had in mind).
I recall the first line I read then: “The knots in your skin are coming loose.” And from that first line, my voice took over.