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Words, Voices, Bodies: the ethics of voice in writing and performing poetry

What happens when poetry is performed by different voices? How does this affect the performance space and reception of the poem? When is re-voicing in/of poetry appropriate (e.g. when does it enable expression of solidarity or community of voices)? When is re-voicing in/of poetry inappropriate (e.g. where unjustly marginalized voices are potentially lost or silenced)? How might re-voicing works of poetry and re-voicing words in poetry bring communities together?

The project investigates these questions with the poetry community through collaboration with poetry organisation, Poet in the CityLink opens in a new window, to connect the theoretical discussion of philosophy of voice with recommendations for writing and performing poetry. The recommendations will ensure that the poetry performance space continues to provide an important civic function of bringing people together and creating spaces for the most vulnerable voices in society to be heard and acknowledged.

In performance, some works appear to resist re-voicing since they are intimately connected to the body of the poet. For instance, Claire Collinson's award-winning poetry performance 'Truth is Beauty,' which is staged as part of a life-drawing class, presents her poetry as connected to her body (Collinson describes this as her 'single-breasted monologue' having undergone a mastectomy as part of her treatment for breast cancer). In advertising her performance, Collinson comments: "Why are the thousands of women like me so hidden? What anxieties do we share as a society, where disguise is regarded as important as treatment? And how can women make informed treatment choices when there is so little representation of us within mainstream culture?'" Her performance attempts to disrupt mainstream culture and challenge dominant views of the female body by using the performance space as a place to be heard and be seen. Given the deep connection between words and the embodied voice in this performance, the poetry performance would lose its power to disrupt dominant views of the female body if it were re-performed by someone whose body did not share a similar history. In other cases, re-voicing allows for multiplicity of perspectives to come to the fore. Take, for instance, the re-voicing of ‘Strange Fruit’ by the poet Abel Meeropol in the performances of jazz singers Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Such re-voicing is empowering and offers the potential for community building by connecting the words of the poem about racism with the body of those who have been victim of racist abuse themselves. In this second case, such re-voicing makes a positive contribution to meaning-making activities and gives voice to those who have been marginalised in society.

In writing, some poets draw directly on the voices of others, incorporating their words and stories in their work. For instance, for their project ‘Poetry from a vaccination centre’ (2021), Poet in the City commissioned twelve poets to write poems inspired by the words of those visiting the Francis Crick Institute during the vaccination programme. In his artist statement, poet Will Harris writes “I decided to keep to the language of the responses, only altering personal pronouns and syntax where appropriate. I wanted the multiple voices to come together of their own accord, expressing the simultaneous anger, grief and hope of this moment.” It is Poet in the City’s hope that these poems help to build and strengthen community through poetry. However, poetry can never be a mere collage of other voices, the poet must weave these voices together and in the process re-shape and re-voice the words from the community.

Our co-produced research involves designing and delivering a series of workshops focusing on voice, embodiment and performance space for empowering those who have been unjustly marginalized in society.

'Words, Voices, Bodies' Workshop (online): 11th-12th January 2022

Can the multivocal poem bring people together and does it reflect the voices of many? What is voice and how does it relate to the body? Who gets to speak on behalf of others? What does it mean to be heard?

Speakers: Elisabeth Camp, Aurelie Debaene, Maria Jose Alcaraz Leon, Hannah Kim, John Gibson, Alice Lagaay, Anna Pakes, Anna Christina Ribeiro, Joy Shim and Tzachi Zamir.


If you would like to attend, please email

Publications connected to this project:

  • 'Of Many Voices: A Poetic Gift of Togetherness', essay with a poem by Momtaza Mehri, Poetry Review autumn 2021
  • 'We Must Become More than Strangers', a poetic-manifesto by Selina Nwulu (Poet in the City, February 2022)

Poet int he CityLink opens in a new window

"We are thrilled to be undertaking this piece of action research with Karen Simecek on re-voicing words in poetry. Poet in the City’s work is committed to listening to the stories that matter to communities and using poetry to forge new connections across people, places and histories. This piece of work will be vital to our understanding of the ways in which involving community voices in new poetry commissions and events can continue to be useful, empowering and inspiring" (Jasmine White, Poet in the City)



Connecting Cultures through Co-production fund (University of Warwick)

Faculty of Social Sciences Research Development Fund (University of Warwick)

Department of Philosophy (University of Warwick)