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Guest Blog: Poet Kendra DeColo on The Making of an Audiobook

We're excited to release BOA's first audiobook this spring! Poet Kendra DeColo had the opportunity to reflect on her experience recording the audiobook for her new collection I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World—new from BOA in print, as an ebook, and as our first ever audiobook in April 2021!

The Making of an Audiobook

Before audiobooks were popular, my grandmother would sit at her desk and read The New York Times into a recording device each week for the visually impaired. It was something she did post-retirement from her career in politics (where she helped craft legislation preceding the American Disabilities Act), but more than that, it was a deeply personal act. As an orphan in the 1930s, my grandmother was saved by mentors who saw her potential and guided her through a brilliant academic and political career. One of these mentors was a lawyer who was blind, and I imagine that during the decades she spent reading the Times, she imagined someone like him listening, returning the gift of feeling cared for through words.

When I was given the opportunity to record the audiobook of my new poetry collection, I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World, I immediately thought of my grandmother and how moved she might be to know I was following in her footsteps. And when I arrived at Nashville Audio Productions studio, poems in hand, surrounded by misleadingly modest bungalows that housed world class equipment and produced everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Kris Kristopherson, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that Kathie Lee Gifford had sat in the same leather seat weeks before, or envisioning Willie Nelson filling a recording booth with plumes of blue smoke. I was thinking about my grandmother at her kitchen table, reading for a single person in her memory.

When we write we are never alone. As I nursed my daughter and wrote poems into my notes app, I was with her, my milk nourishing her tiny body, and I was surrounded by all of the patron saints I could summon, imagining this assembled team of punk musicians, artists, and mothers cheering me on. Recording an audio book is a little bit like speaking back to these ghosts and saints, or, sitting with them in the same way that they guarded you as you wrote, tatted-up and ink-stained hands on your shoulder, whispering, “say it.” It is a little bit like thinking of the people who got you to this moment, and how even if they have long since passed, might be there with you, nodding as they listen.

I’ve spent years reading poems in dive bars and comedy clubs where I’ve been heckled, hurled obscenities at, and sometimes threatened. Once the head of a non-profit whose fundraiser I was performing at said: “your poems made me think, and gave me an erection.” I’ve also done readings where, almost worse, no one says anything at all, and I quietly pack up my box of unsold books and slink out of the room to stop at Waffle House on my long drive home. But then there are readings where someone says the thing you always hoped you might hear, the reason why you wrote these poems at 4 am, tits sore and leaking: “I don’t feel so alone anymore.”

When I started touring for my first book, someone gave me the advice to not try to connect with the audience but instead connect with the poems and myself. There is nothing worse than standing on a stage and trying to do what Brené Brown calls “hustling for approval,” watching the light fade from people’s eyes as you try to play up a joke that you’re sure will land. Every time I’ve left a reading feeling demoralized, it’s usually because I was focusing on a miserable looking person, codependently trying to change their mood, instead of connecting with what I’m saying in that moment. I’ve even taken to quoting Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights who shouts “Stay inside yourself!” to his players as they run onto the field.

Preparing to record the book, I thought about pace and tone, how I wanted my voice to sound immediate and maybe a little ethereal, the way listening to words can be a portal, as Lester Bangs said of Van Morrison in his brilliant piece “Astral Weeks”: “He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along.” I listened to Tracy K. Smith and Ada Limón read from their stunning collections and marveled at how they sound both intimate and expansive, their poems radiating beyond the pulpit of the recording booth like a sermon. How does one do that? How does one enter a studio and create space for a vision to unfold, for someone else to experience?

I grew up listening to my father, a saxophonist, play the same three notes over and over each night as I fell asleep in my room directly below his studio. He played this miniature scale as a warm-up, but I like to think of it as an invocation, telling the spirits that you’re ready to pass through whatever door might open, the way I sometimes copy words from the dictionary and repat them until I feel loose, ready to let something happen. You prepare, you show up, and as Charlie Parker said: “when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

Reading my book aloud at the recording studio was a way to embody these poems that lived inside me for so long, to hold them a while, to connect, before I let them go. I hope that they land somewhere they’re needed, like the speakers of a parked Honda where a mother is drinking drive-thru Dunkin Donuts while her baby sleeps. Or someone taking their pandemic walk, noticing the way the daffodils are coming up by the gas station. I hope it sounds like I’m speaking to someone I care about, and in this way, that the listener feels cared for, the way my grandmother read the New York Times like a love letter. The way a love letter can extend to the world.

—Kendra DeColo, March 2021

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