Lee Hannigan, Aurelio Meza, and Alexander Flamenco
When poets participate in the formal mechanism known as the poetry reading, sometimes embedded within the larger context of a reading series, they also participate in and sometimes break social and literary conventions. A similar break occurs when digital tools are used to record what was intended to be ephemeral. Consider a poetry reading series that took place at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal between 1966 and 1974. This series, simply referred to as “the Poetry Series,” was recorded on 65 reel-to-reel tapes, containing over one hundred hours of audio and featuring some of North America’s most influential schools of postmodern poetry, including work by members of the Beats, Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, and TISH, a Canadian poetry collective. In 1999, 25 years after the series ended, these tapes were discovered in an English Department Chair’s office at Concordia University; they were then deposited in the university archive, and by 2013 they were digitized, transcribed, and re-presented, or un-archived, online at spokenweb.ca, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded research project that explores methods of scholarly engagement with literary sound recordings.
SpokenWeb uses the robustness of new media to uncover and investigate the lost genealogy of a poetry reading series and its place within the larger history of institutional literary events. This investigation considers the effects of recording technology on cultural production since the 1950s, when magnetic tape devices were popularized in Canadian universities. The Poetry Series tapes are a case study for scholarly speculation on the influence of new media in literary studies, on the importance of embodied voice and materiality, and for discussing concepts such as “paraphonotext” (Filreis 2015), “performance” (Taylor 2003), and “archival effect” (Manoff 386) as they relate to poetry and literature. Digital archive projects such as PennSound, the Walt Whitman Archive, UbuWeb, Slought Foundation, the Emily Dickinson Archive, and SpokenWeb are examples of how digital content management systems allow mixed media to be consolidated and presented to facilitate the exploration of cultural material that exists at the periphery of the digital world. SpokenWeb uses its corpus to raise questions about the nature of poetry performance, or what Charles Bernstein (2009) calls the “ghostly presence” of disembodied voices (962), and the effects generated when documentary residues of a reading series reenter public space.
In this chapter, we detach from a (phono)textual-centric perspective and approach SpokenWeb as a digital venue for exploring the implications of, in Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler’s (2015) terms, “making the reading series discernible.” Through digitization, SpokenWeb transformed the Poetry Series from a collection of archival documents lacking both metadata and historical transparency to a properly contextualized moment in Canadian literary history. As the Poetry Series tapes demonstrate, the contexts and concepts that surround archival documents require a space outside the archive itself — a space where they can be re-presented not just as archival documents but as a comprehensive collection of literary recordings that depend on digital technologies for narration and circulation as much now as they depended on analog technologies for their original production in the 1960s and 70s. While analog media such as print or magnetic tape are transparent and accessible in their own way (as material objects with unique relationships to the technologies that produced them), digitization creates connections within the complex network of institutions and desires that make media meaningful. Just as analog technology made the Poetry Series tapes possible between 1966 and 1974, digital technology and educational institutions allow us to return to the past anew in the twenty-first century.
Since 2013, SpokenWeb has organized two conferences and three reading events that used the Poetry Series tapes to explore methods for engaging with recorded sound. Two key terms for approaching these critical performances are “un-archiving” and “re-presentation” (Camlot and McLeod). “Re-presentation” refers to the retrieval, remediation, contextualization, and dissemination of archival materials. Closely related, “un-archiving” makes analog material discernible as both an object of study and an accessible audio file. These terms contribute to what Camlot and Wershler call “the development of new critical methods and vocabularies, new tools, and new modes of presenting and disseminating knowledge.” The Poetry Series tapes are objects of scholarly study because they are preserved in different media formats (e.g., magnetic tape, WAV, and MP3), heard, transcribed, uploaded to SoundCloud, tethered to WordPress, and displayed at SpokenWeb. Each of these format migrations and content transformations ushers in another meta-level of transmission and analysis. SpokenWeb responded to these transformations with three critical gestures to examine how the material traces of a poetry reading series are presented and disseminated.
The first gesture is preservation. As Christine Mitchell (2015) notes in her media archaeology of SpokenWeb, the Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) Instructional Media Office (IMO) recorded and stored the Poetry Series readings even though it was not entirely sure how or why the tapes might be used. Because the IMO staff was often concerned more with preservation than usability, the survival and usefulness of the tapes depended on collaborative efforts between records management personnel and humanities scholars. And yet, preservation processes do not necessarily guarantee historical value. Before the SpokenWeb tapes were digitized and transcribed, their content was contextually opaque, preserved in human memory and inert documentary materials — press releases, reviews, photographs, and the analog tapes themselves — housed in the school’s archive. This inertia is partly why Camlot, SpokenWeb’s principal investigator, referred to the Poetry Series (even after its tapes had been digitized) as “a perfectly useless collection — hundreds of hours of audio that someone would actually have to listen to in order to find out what [was] there” (Filreis, Camlot, and Evans). The matter of utility is of primary importance when approaching this reading series and its recordings, first as materializations of ephemeral performances and then as digital renditions of them. The endeavor to update an analog audio archive into a digital form does not necessarily resolve concerns about usefulness. As Wendy Chun (2008) notes, “Digital media, through the memory at its core, was supposed to solve, if not dissolve, archival problems such as degrading celluloid or scratched vinyl, not create archival problems of its own” (153). So how does SpokenWeb operate as a useful repository, and what are the implications of preserving a so-called ephemeral literary event?
SpokenWeb’s second gesture responds to these two questions by resuscitating phonographic or disembodied voices and then studying the consequences (Bernstein 962). While the reel-to-reel tapes extend the series’ ephemerality, turning the readings and thus the authors’ voices into what Chun calls an “enduring ephemeral,” their digitization renders this extension even more accessible. As Marlene Manoff (2010) notes, “Our notions of the past are shaped by our exposure to various selections or packagings of historical artifacts, by hybridized versions of older cultural objects, and by new media that incorporate and frame pieces of the past” (388). SpokenWeb mediates its audience’s engagement with the Poetry Series by arranging its content into a media assemblage for discovery online. More important, the project exemplifies how projects like the Poetry Series are useful because they help to qualify and even develop the digital vocabulary of literary scholars who are studying historical materials such as poetry readings in new contexts. As a repository, SpokenWeb is shaped by the instinct to create but likewise exists as a unique cultural artifact that “[describes] and [understands] the new ways in which we experience reality” (386). In fact, SpokenWeb is digital research-creation in its own right, as it produces critically reflexive discourse from what were supposed to be ephemeral events, demonstrating its role — and embodying its third gesture — as a performed archive.
In 2013, SpokenWeb and the Concordia Department of English invited a group of archivists, oral historians, librarians, developers, and literary scholars to participate in a two-day mini-conference called Approaching the Poetry Series. Each participant was asked to present work that explored methodological and/or technical approaches to documentary sound recordings of literary performances. There was, however, a creative/critical constraint: each participant was asked to engage directly with SpokenWeb, integrating specific examples from the Poetry Series to explore ongoing work about, say, avant-garde poetics or the digital re-presentation of literary artifacts. Most of the presentations were developed, peer reviewed, and published in a special issue of Amodern, called “The Poetry Series.” While the Amodern papers focus on the first and second gestures in the genealogy of SpokenWeb, the re-presentations and “new live events” organized in the later stages of the project focus on mediality and the relations between new and old media, forcing audiences of live performances and digital archives to rethink media experience, performance, and the objects through which an archival impulse and narrative continuity are reconciled. Consider an example.
In 2012, George Bowering and David McFadden participated in the inaugural Performing the Spoken Word Archive event, which invited those who read in the Poetry Series to return to Montreal and re-read alongside their former selves. Two years later, in 2014, Daphne Marlatt and Diane Wakoski were featured in the second installment. And in 2015, as part of the Can Lit Across Media conference, a “recording party” was hosted in Concordia University’s de Sève Cinema. Billed as All the Poets in Town, the party featured over 30 readings, mostly by Montreal poets, of single poems, each no longer than three minutes. After informing the audience of these constraints, Camlot gave a disclaimer during his opening remarks: the de Sève Cinema had been wired. Microphones were onstage, directed toward the audience as well as the readers, placed throughout the theatre, and installed on the building’s exterior to pick up some sounds of Montreal’s Grand Prix Weekend. This self-reflexive gesture encouraged audience members to think of the event as both a display of poetic virtuosity and a poetry reading about poetry readings. By inviting “all the poets in town” to give brief readings, the event directed attention away from a unidirectional exchange between speaker and listener (common to many poetry readings) and toward the event’s convivial nature (the idea of forming a community around poetry’s oral and aural dimensions). By installing microphones in unusual places, such as in the audience and outside the building, the event worked to “make audible” or give discernible presence to aspects of the poetry reading, such as sounds of the audience and venue, that tend to be neglected. These sounds are so often captured accidentally, at the edge of a microphone’s range. Audio-acoustic technicians monitored and recorded the event from a sound booth at the back of the cinema so that the tracks could be made available on SpokenWeb for listening, interpretation, mixing, and alteration at a later date. By including the sounds of the audience and venue alongside the poets’ and speakers’ voices, the All the Poets in Town recording party performed the poetry reading as not simply a demonstration of authorship and orality but also a community-forming event within a larger aural context, inherently connected to the space- and time-capture technologies that surround it.
In a similarly critical fashion, the theaters in which the Performing the Spoken Word Archive events took place resembled art exhibitions: documents from the university archive — photographs, newspaper clippings, and posters — were put on display, allowing audience members to move through the space and interact with some of the Poetry Series documentary material. Guests partially assumed the role of archivists, piecing together a moment in literary history. The event also featured listening stations, which gave audience members access to the full versions of the original Bowering and McFadden and Marlatt and Wakoski readings as well as other Poetry Series recordings, affording even deeper immersion in history. Audience members who wished to share their experiences were given an opportunity to do so: “Inspired by the community memory clinics organized by the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, SpokenWeb designed a ‘memory booth’ and set it up at the back of the project’s public events to record the thoughts, stories and remembered experiences of audience members” (Clarkson and High). By allowing audience members to record their experiences — by giving them their own “venue” for hearing — the Performing the Spoken Word Archive events retrieve audience members, if only in part, from the passive interlocutory role often assumed in exchanges between speaker and audience. As they incorporate digital re-presentations of archival documentary material into new live events, audience members are forced to reconsider their understanding of what it means to collectively gather and listen to poetry performance.
Not only did the Performing the Spoken Word Archive events invite and at times force their participants to rethink and reengage with poetry performance, the act of preserving spoken performances, environmental sounds, individual reactions, and prerecorded materials through various media also underscored the relationship between text and spoken word. The recording parties and performances showcased and further contributed to building comprehensive collections of audio that prompted their participants to conceptualize text as something less tangible than a written document. True, this audio could not exist without the technology that preserves, replays, and consequently solidifies it by virtue of its medium. Still, the content is foremost the substance of vocal expression, which is inherently fleeting. The recording parties and performances thus enabled their participants to reflect on aural documents and consider the position in which they existed as participants who were actively contributing to the production and reproduction of text, and ultimately making traces for future examination, provided anyone is willing to listen.
Marlatt, Wakoski, Bowering, and McFadden all commented on how uncanny it was to recite poetry alongside their former voices. They laughed and showed signs of embarrassment and nostalgia, sometimes cringing at the ghostly recitations of their past selves, as though their sense of individuality were being folded in time. Both poet and audience witnessed the illusory closing of a temporal gap, as if the recorded voices were emitting from physical bodies. And yet, the grainy textures of the recorded voices reminded everyone of discontinuity. Poet and audience experienced time-axis manipulation — the same experience ushered in at the start of the twentieth century by the very electromechanical media that made playback and editing possible. Similarly, the All the Poets in Town recording party encouraged both poets and audience members to question the place of media in literary studies.
Poetry readings will continue to be performed and preserved in different ways, and the media formats through which these events are preserved and disseminated will continue to call attention to how robust new media actually is. In light of digital media’s inherent instability, how enduring databases will prove to be is at best unclear. Nevertheless, each time the SpokenWeb recordings are re-presented as part of an event such as an academic conference or a poetry happening, both the poetry reading and its interpretation become self-conscious, self-referential, and self-reflexive activities. To think about the implications of re-presenting a literary reading series, the SpokenWeb project — using a defined collection of literary sound recordings — experiments with the possibilities of poetry performance in the wake of digital sound studies, and in doing so establishes a critical discourse about a very particular literary phenomenon: poetry readings and the larger series of which they are often a part. As Camlot and Wershler observe, “The data of the poetry series can be approached up close and at a distance . . . [T]he aggregation of data from multiple, historically parallel reading series . . . may prove to provide a complimentary macro-analysis of the data, a potentially informative mode of ‘Distant Listening.’” The genealogies of poetry readings and reading series are areas of research that have been underheard, underaddressed, underrepresented, and underperformed in literary scholarship. This, however, is beginning to change, as processes of uncovering, un-archiving, and digitally re-presenting archival material are helping to stitch together important pieces of cultural fabric.
1. We prefer the term “performance” over “reading” in light of the many ways in which poetry can be performed and understood, and in reference to what Diana Taylor refers to as “vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior’” (2–3). This “twice-behaved behavior” can be the reading of a poem or the starting point for other forms of embodied art, such as dancing, theater, happenings, and so on.
2. We understand these two terms as they were used in this two-day conference, which sought to examine “the complex ways in which media records and re-presents literary events.”
3. For a discussion on the history and polity behind the term “research-creation,” see Manning and Massumi 84–89.
4. A comprehensive collection of these and other oral-history interviews can be heard at http://spokenweb.concordia.ca/oral-literary-history.
Bernstein, Charles. “Making Audio Visible: The Lessons of Visual Language for the Textualization of Sound.” Textual Practice 23, no. 6 (2009): 959–73.
Camlot, Jason, and Darren Wershler. “Theses on Discerning the Reading Series.” Amodern 4: The Poetry Series (2015). http://amodern.net/article/theses-reading-series.
Camlot, Jason, and Katherine McLeod. “Can Lit Across Media: Un-Archiving the Canadian Literary Event.” Conference promotional poster, January 19, 2015. http://spokenweb.ca/blog/cfp-can-lit-across-media-un-archiving-temporal-literary-event.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2008): 148–71.
Clarkson, Ashley, and Steven High. “Playing with Time: Oral History and Literary Studies in the SpokenWeb Project.” Amodern 4: The Poetry Series (2015). http://amodern.net/article/playing-time.
Emily Dickinson Archive. http://www.edickinson.org/.
Filreis, Al. “Notes on Paraphonotextuality.” Amodern 4: The Poetry Series (2015). http://amodern.net/article/paraphonotexuality.
Filreis, Al, Jason Camlot, and Steve Evans. “Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century.” Amodern 4: The Poetry Series (2015). http://amodern.net/article/beyond-text.
Manning, Erin, and Brian Massumi. Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Manoff, Marlene. “Archive and Database as Metaphor: Theorizing the Historical Record.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10, no. 4 (2010): 385–98.
Mitchell, Christine. “Again the Air Conditioners: Finding Poetry in the Institutional Archive.” Amodern 4: The Poetry Series (2015). http://amodern.net/article/again-air-conditioners.
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.
The Walt Whitman Archive. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, eds. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. http://whitmanarchive.org/.