By Catherine Keefe
Up until 1963, when home movies were silent and telephone answering phones didn’t exist, the only way to know your own voice was to hear the sound you made in your head. And then one day right before Christmas my father brought home a small silver box encased in black leather. It’s a tape recorder! He invited me to sing into a microphone.
I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…
I sang with my whole heart and soul. The family sat around the living room waiting to hear how well the new gadget worked. Rewind. Play. Rustle, rustle. Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel… I was certain the new toy was broken because the sound was wincingly loud and distorted and much too big for the living room. All the laughing it caused made the paneled walls vibrate. What was that?
“Stop!” I stood up and shouted. “Stop it now!” In my head I sounded like a choir girl. In reality I made a reverberation like a cross between a goat bleat and toad croaking with swollen adenoids under a mossy river in spring thaw.
Demosthenes spoke with pebbles in his mouth. I tried that once.
The first time I saw my poetry in print, I hated it too.
i’m not really sure.
It was ten years after the tape recorder incident and my small poem, “i am” was published in the high school literary journal, not a small feat for an underclassman. I’ve spared you the last stanza. I’d submitted five poems to the journal and was surprised the editors picked this example of Descartes redux, even though at the time I’d not yet heard of cogito ergo sum. I thought the poem was too simple then, and when I finally met Descartes’ work in college, I wondered how he got so famous arguing for what I’d already intuited. i am. i think. I dropped the ellipses and began calling my poetry philosophical.
Today I was invited to read my poetry aloud at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle at the end of February. I’m thrilled and terrified, though I probably shouldn’t admit to either. The event is a gathering of more than 12,000 writers, editors and book lovers and though I’ve read my writing aloud before audiences of one, of dozens, and hundreds, I’m still unused to my voice in public. I relate completely when poet Sarah Kay says in her TED talk, “My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons.”
But there’s something worse than hearing my voice and seeing my words in print. Silence.
“All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939.” It was one poet’s response to the outbreak of World War II.
What’s the distance between silence and sound? There are 30 decibels between pure silence and a library whisper. Decibels are sound units based on what the human ear can hear. The sound of typical conversation reaches 60 decibels.
I imagine that each decibel is one step in an average 10-step staircase. I know I can climb three stories. I whisper. I know I can climb six stories and speak aloud even if it leaves me breathless.
My students, this first week of the new semester, wanted to talk about voice too. After they asked a variety of questions about assignment word count and final exams and if it was fine to miss class for the Coachella Music Festival, it was my turn to ask a question.
“What do you want from me?”
Silence. That kind where you hear sniffles and shoe scuffs and the lawnmower outside three blocks away.
Then somewhere between a library whisper and full conversation volume, one girl spoke out. “Can you help me find my voice?”
Like frogs slowing waking up to sing in the night rain, voices rising upon flights of stairs, a chorus began murmuring, “Yes, that’s what I want too. I want to sound like me.”
“Me too,” I say. “We’re all in this together.”
from “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. –
You can read Auden’s complete poem here: “September 1, 1939.”