What is “voice”?
It’s what comes out of our mouths when we speak, the reverberation of air through our vocal cords that makes particular sounds, with a pitch and a timbre, a tone and a frequency. But is that all it is?
Is it the expression of our unique style, whether spoken or written (or even painted or danced)? A feel, a beat; a rhythm, a pace? The formality or informality of how we are communicating, indicated by our vocabulary and inflection and even our body language? Is it our accent, revealing our genesis, a region whose inhabitants have trained their vocal cords to reverberate in “ahs” versus “ohs,” a drawl, a click, a cadence–to say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain”?
Is it a descriptor, as in “professional voice” or “stuffy voice,” “silly voice” or “natural voice” (whatever that is)? Is it our way of interpreting a situation in which we vary our vocal cords to fit an environment, like a “church voice” versus a “teacher voice”?
Or is it even bigger than all this? Is it part of our identity, our very self . . . a power that we are given or that we develop or that we sometimes choose? And something that can be taken away in a suppressive and even oppressive way, as in “taking away someone’s voice”?
The six writers who gathered with me this past Saturday afternoon for the second Plume Service writing workshop determined that it could be all of the above. While the first Plume Service asked participants to step into a painting and experience it on all five sensual levels–seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling–this second gathering invited the writers to try on a different persona and develop his or her voice. No landscapes devoid of humanity this time. Only paintings which featured humans or ones with humans distant or obscured and therefore unheard. Their goal was to let these humans talk and to venture into the distance or through the haze to meet up with those humans who they could barely see.
The ultimate goal, as with the first Plume Service, was to amass creative pieces of writing inspired by the painting in The Pfister, from which I will be able to choose selections to accompany the paintings with placards and, I hope, audio.
After an insightful brainstorm around the definition of “voice,” the participants each wrote down three adjectives that they (or others) would use to describe them. Then I asked them to ask themselves “Is this how I talk?” and “What does it even mean to ‘talk’ this way?” For instance, I wrote down observant, gregarious, and kind. One way, I told them, that I speak gregariously is that I use people’s names as often as possible, addressing them often and referring to them as examples (a skill I mastered while a teacher). I also look people in the eye and try to engage them as interesting individuals worthy of my attention. The examples they gave were all quite personal and revealing, almost confessional at times. But we talked about what it means for someone’s voice to be “shy” or “sassy” or “anxious” and interrogated the validity or profundity of these meanings.
We could have talked for hours, I think. But the paintings were calling out: “Hear our voices” (whisper) or “Hear our voices!” (cry) or “Hear our voices” (lament or plea).
And off they went to explore. When they returned, I was surprised to learn that even more people had chosen to write about Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice (note to self: Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice is off limits for Plume Service III!). I have already published three poems from the first workshop all inspired by this one painting. I don’t know what it is about this painting: Is it enigmatic? mysterious? inviting? soothing? Is it that we all connect somehow with ships going out to sea and ships returning? A coming and a going? A longing for adventure and a yearning to return?
Whatever it is, I give you three more versions of Calderon’s oils. The first is by Cian MacDonald-Milewski, a senior in high school, who writes an interior monologue in the voice of a man returning to his wife and child. The second, by Iris Geng, steps out of the painting and describes the scene from the Calderon’s perspective. And the third is the first of a pair by Christina Oster: the Venice poem is in her father’s voice and a second, inspired by a different painting, is in her mother’s.
“Man in Tall, Docked Ship Thinking to Himself”
by Cian MacDonald-Milewski
I am so glad to be home to see my wife and child. It has been so long . . . I wish I wouldn’t have had to leave them for so long . . . When I left my child, she was so small, so bright, like a yellow daisy on a warm summer day in an open field. I pray that they have not struggled while I was away. Now that I have gained enough coin from my venture to secure us, I hope I will not have to venture again. I do not want to be ripped from my family because of finances . . . I will tell my wife the love that I feel deep inside my soul, this ember that has only been fueled while I have been away. When I see my child, I will whisper in her ear and tell her promises of being there for her forever and always. I long to embrace my wife and child and never part from their side again.
When participants heard Cian’s piece at the end of our workshop, they remarked at his vivid, poetic use of language and the formality of his thoughts, which, he says, he was trying to choose his words purposefully in order to replicate what might be a cultured voice from the late 1800s.
Iris’ poem chose a different angle with a short narrative from the perspective of someone observing the painter Calderon who was observing the scene on the water. She captures nicely a potential disruption to an otherwise peaceful day.
“A Partly Cloudy Day for Painting”
by Iris Geng
It’s a nice, partly cloudy day at the dock of San Marco Square. The painter had set up. A schooner with massive sails toward the dock and a gondola with six guests tries very hard to row to get out of the way of the schooner. The rowers sing out loud to coordinate and energize the gondola, but the three passenger couples are observant.
“Watch out for that sailboat!” cries the man with a red hat and white gown.
“No worry,” his friend says calmly. “We have the right of way.”
The fear on their women’s faces relaxes after hearing his remark.
“What a gorgeous day to be on the canal,” the woman in blue chants. “I am looking forward to our meal near the Riolto Bridge.”
This next Venice poem is the one by Christina Oster. It is written in the voice of her deceased father, who succumbed to dementia, writing an imagined letter to his wife. In a recent email, she shared, “Due to my father’s dementia right before he passed, they never had a chance to truly say ‘goodbye’ to each other. This exercise proved the perfect way for me to bring closure of some sort to his unfortunate passing 6 months ago.” The poem that follows is inspired by a different painting, Antonio Torres’ Grecian Girl, and written in the voice of her mother, writing to her husband. Both are haunting and sad, but also, as Christina writes, words of closure.
by Christina Oster
Demon vessels have demented my sails.
Waves crash, carrying away sediment filled with sentiment.
A mirage to think that my mast was made of steel.
It is not.
My mast is frail and feeble, getting weaker with the pelting storm.
But, my love, don’t ever question your presence through it all.
My view of Venice is not a blur.
I do recall.
I recall your beauty, your heart, your service.
I am soon approaching inevitable shipwreck.
But I will forever remember what the sea has forced me to forget.
by Christina Oster
Finally, our Parthenon crumbles to ruins.
The Aegean Sea sailed your ship to sunset well before I could perform a final tidy-up.
My exhaustion prevails, but faith through my passion and pain will pulse and persist until our life
is someday restored.
But for now, my love
I have poured my last service.
I am thankful that Cian accompanied his mother to this workshop and unabashedly shared the romantic words of the sailor.
I am thankful that Iris, who is Chinese, overcame her anxiety about her written English so that we could see the Venice painting (yet again!) from a new perspective.
And I am thankful that Christina felt empowered enough to share her work with six complete strangers, let alone see in the two paintings an opportunity for personal healing and growth. In her words, “Thank you for reuniting me with a style of writing that I’ve abandoned for far too long. I often think I can only write a certain way – a more edgy, promotional, advertise-ish way. I forgot that the romantic, compassionate voice still exists.”
It doesn’t matter who you are: there is surely a painting in The Pfister Hotel’s beautiful collection that is bound to hook you, draw you in, transform your vision, and help you find (or reconnect with) your voice. I hope you’ll consider joining me for Plume Service III. The January date is yet to be determined, so stay tuned!
As always, thank you for reading!
p.s. More Plume Service II stories and photos to come–including my own!
p.p.s. And stay tuned, also, for a little post on a little thing that happened to me this past Sunday: I got married and had brunch at The Rouge with 25 of my closest family and friends! 🙂