Article ReMix

Institutions in Sound: Re-mediating the Sir George Williams Poetry Series for Re-presentation in the SpokenWeb Digital Archive

Lee Hannigan
Article paru dans Littérature et résonances médiatiques: nouveaux supports, nouveaux imaginaires, sous la responsabilité de Sylvain David et Sophie Marcotte (2015)
Barnet, Drew, 2014. Reel-to-Reel Tape Box; Robert Creeley, 24 Feb. 1967; I006-11-089.1. 8 May, 2014. Reel-to-Reel Tape Box

Barnet, Drew, 2014.
Reel-to-Reel Tape Box; Robert Creeley, 24 Feb. 1967; I006-11-089.1. 8 May, 2014. Reel-to-Reel Tape Box
(Credit : Concordia University Records Management and Archives Audio Visual Database)

Institutions assign meaning to cultural objects and events. Poetry reading series, scholarly lectures, conferences, and seminars are platforms for creativity, collaboration, critical engagement, and the dissemination of research among universities and, sometimes, the general public. These events are sites for cultural exchange, made possible through institutional force: university funding, education, curriculum, actors (administration, professors, students) and theories. One such cultural event was the Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, which took place in Montreal between 1966 and 1974. In his essay titled “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms,” Jason Camlot states that the SGWU Poetry Series was “conceived as part of an ongoing encounter between local poets and a diverse range of writers from across the United States and Canada” (2012: 30), one that took a unique position “in relation to established cultural institutions, traditions, theories, and practices”. (2010: 29) In addition to “the specific geographical location of the scene of encounter,” the cultural significance of the Poetry Series was informed by “the organizational efforts of professors and writers working” at Sir George between 1966 and 1974. (2012: 29)

One facet of these organizational efforts was the decision to record the series readings on magnetic tape using a mobile reel-to-reel recording device. In a panel discussion at Yale University in 2013, Camlot describes how the series tapes were discovered, digitized and eventually made available in the SpokenWeb digital archive, an online repository housed in Concordia University’s English Department:

Camlot’s recollection raises important questions surrounding the implications of remediating a comprehensive collection of documentary audio material and engaging with it in a digital environment. In approaching any live event, literary or not, it is important to understand that the ‘event’ does not exist at all, but is rather a material production brought into existence through time-capture media technology, a digital facilitator of human memory. Indeed, when ‘reading’ historical audio, one must consider the social, institutional, and technological frameworks that inform the act of listening in a digitally remediated setting. In other words, we must ask ourselves, “What exactly are we listening to” and what structures -past and present- are informing our experience? (Camlot) In his introduction to Phyllis Webb’s reading on November 8th, 1966, Roy Kiyooka, one of the event’s organizers, provides a sematic contextualization of the Poetry Series by describing how it was intended to function as part of the North American literary scene.

While the Poetry Series may not have privileged one particular school of poetry, its organizers were nevertheless gatekeepers of an institution. Kiyooka and the other Poetry Series organizers (George Bowering, Howard Fink, Stanton Hoffman, Wynn Francis, and Irving Layton), who were well-know poets themselves and professors in Sir George Williams University’s English department, were authorities who determined which poets would be invited to read in the series. According to Camlot, the Poetry Series was, at least in part, envisioned as an instrument “to define a national Canadian literature in relation to American poetics, as a platform for the performance of contending definitions of modern and avant-garde poetic practice, and as a site for developing models of artistic community” (2012: 28). It is not surprising that most of the poets who read in the series, including Bowering, Layton, and Kiyooka, if they weren’t already recognized and celebrated as cultural icons, went on to have significant careers as scholars and writers, and many are considered today to be canonical figures in North American postmodern poetry. Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg, George Bowering, Robert Creeley, and Dorothy Livesay are just a few of the writers invited to read in the series who continue to be anthologized and included in post-secondary curriculum. Certainly, whether or not the organizers or invited writers were aware of it at the time, the series was a canon-building event, facilitating what was already an ongoing organization of American and Canadian schools of poetry, including such groups as the Beats, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York School, and TISH, a Canadian poetry collective.

Of course, the role of organizers in determining which poets would be invited to read in the series is only one example of how institutions assign meaning to poetry’s live performances. Artists themselves have cultural authority, which the value of their spoken words depends on. According to Jacqueline George, “[t]he success of the public reader of literature relies on a blending of feeling and reason that […] requires imaginative work on the part of an increasingly participatory audience” (2009: 377). Reading deeper into George’s statement, it might be suggested that the ability to convey authority and inscribe meaning determines, at least in part, the success of a public reader of literature. So what happens to this ‘success’ when a poet’s intended audience is no longer present to confirm and reflect his or her agency? Asked differently, what happens to poetic authority when a poetry performance is recorded, deposited in a university archive, digitized and reformatted for re-presentation in a digital environment? Do poets maintain agency when they are no longer physically present to convey it, when their voices re-sound prosthetically, when their audience is no longer the one that was originally intended? Camlot states that “the trope of apostrophe is automatically literalized […] in a live performance” (2002: 282), and that “[t]he confusion surrounding apostrophe seems to lie, in the broadest sense, in the issue of audience. Who is listening in the first place, and who is being asked to listen subsequently, when the poet turns away from the first addressee to address another?” (2002: 277) In beginning to unpack Camlot’s inquiry, an equally important question might be: where are these people speaking/listening, and what happens when their voices are deposited in new and unintended spaces?

University buildings are policed spaces. The Poetry Series readings were held in Sir George Williams University’s Hall building, a ten-story structure made up of classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, and mezzanine galleries. Because poetry performances put cultural objects (literature) and subjects (poets) on display in institutionalized spaces to be experienced by invited audiences, they might be understood as cultural artifacts. Camlot, however, takes issue with the idea of voice as artifact: “Talk leads to the construction, discovery and articulation of previously unrecognized things, but is talk itself a thing?” (2002: 280) Citing George Dickie, Camlot states that “for something to be a work of art it must be an artifact, ‘an object made by man, especially with a view to subsequent use’”. (2002: 280) Thus, while hosting a poetry reading in a university lecture theatre inscribes both poet and event with what Walter Benjamin calls “exhibition value,” that is, a “uniqueness […] that is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition” (2007: 222-23), the live event must have a material, man-made presence to be considered art. And yet, according to Arthur Danto, this fabric (a material gesture) is not enough to discern between art and non art: “something being a work of art is dependent upon some set of reasons […] [W]orks of art are not such by nature”. (1992: 39) While space is certainly one constituent of Danto’s ‘some set of reasons,’ it “does not finally suggest that venue confers the generic status upon an artifact” but rather that “artistic theories make art possible, and aestheticians make artists”. (Camlot, 2002: 279) Elsewhere, Camlot classifies “[t]he voice recording as ‘wandering’ artifact,” i.e. “artifact speaking without its bodily context [that] is still meant to be understood as an artifact of presence”. (2003: 154) So if voice can be thought of as artifact, then what constitutes a theory of poetry performance, how is that theory related to a theory of art, who are the authorities responsible for determining such distinctions, and how are they elected? As Danto acknowledges, “what came to be known as the Institutional Theory of Art, according to which what makes something art and something else not is something the art world -i.e. the ‘experts’- prescribes. This leaves only the question of who belongs to the art world”. (1992: 35)

It is clear that the organizers, poets, and audience members were the officials who made the Poetry Series an important event. Less clear, however, is how this particular structure changed over time and through processes of remediation. As Christine Mitchell rightfully observes, “the poetry reading’s phonic and linguistic significance are buoyed by its relative absence as an institution, but only so long as it remains unacknowledged that it is tape (and subsequent media and archival translations) and its operators that institutionalize poetry readings” (29). Indeed, when one turns to the Poetry Series to mobilize or interrogate theories of performance, or to investigate the literary significance of contemporary North American spoken-word poetry, he or she is reminded of the ephemerality of the live event, of which we are left traces that are of a much different nature than the period in history from which they were rendered. Thus, the question of who belongs to the art world becomes something different, and the same glaring questions arise: How is meaning assigned to historical events when they are recorded, digitized, curated, and displayed in an online digital archive? Who are the new members of the art world and what is their relationship to the organizers, poets, and audiences that experienced and inscribed the event with meaning firsthand? What does it mean to remediate or re-produce a structure of listening? Indeed, the Poetry Series recordings are inseparable from the technology that produced them -the material presence that made it possible for a team of literary scholars to investigate a moment in post-modern North American poetry.

The series tapes are a material embodiment of the relationship between page and performance. Citing Peggy Phelan, Christopher Grobe states that “performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, [or] documented”. (1959: 216). George goes on, however, to revise this statement and suggest that “[i]f we lose the intimacy of the connection between literature and performance, we diminish something vital in and between them”. (1959: 216) To recover this something vital, Grobe “[challenges] the notion that there exist two such pristine and separate realms as print and performance”. (1959: 216) To further complicate Grobe’s binary, one might add a third media realm, that is, the reproduction of poetry (print) performance such as the collection of audio housed in the SpokenWeb digital repository, an online re-presentation of archived documentary sound recordings that speaks to “the ways media bring performances into material existence and literary circulation”. (Mitchell: 2) Indeed, mediality has made this particular digital archive of poetry sound recordings possible. The SpokenWeb corpus is “a form in which the medial and the literary are materially conjoined”. (Mitchell: 1) While the Poetry Series as live event is steeped in a cultural history that provides new ways of looking at Canadian poetry and institutional practices in the 1960s and ‘70s, as Camlot and Mitchell have discussed at length, the material traces found in the SpokenWeb digital archive, which are tethered in multiple directions between past and present, like a “tape [that] unravels along multiple trajectories at once” (29), offer a unique position from which to investigate the ways that sound technology has affected the way we ‘read’ spoken-word poetry.

Live poetry performance features a unidirectional exchange from reader to listener. Similarly, digital archive users engage in one-way listening experiences. Our computers, their hard drives, digital processors, monitors, and ‘speakers’ do not recognize our presence in the same way a human being might. In contrast to the speaker at a live event, a computer’s speaker does not care whether the digital archive user listens at all. It does not care if the listener stays or goes. It does not care what the listener thinks or says or how he/she feels. Stated differently, the exchange between an audio file (speaker) and a digital archive user (listener) might be considered artificial. But to what extent can other forms of reading be considered authentic? To various extents, the ability to read and comprehend narrative is a practiced activity; it is performative; it requires protocols, techniques, and mechanisms. “Reading,” states Camlot, “is never a simple or quiet activity, but always a technologically informed and culturally rehearsed practice”. (2003: 168) As Ben McCorkle suggests, poetry performance (or speaking in general) is not “a natural, organic outcome of the workings of the mind […] [but rather] a performative act subject to the constraints of a given medium of communication [allowing] for the machine-printed page to determine how the handwritten page and the speaking body are to behave, both rhetorically and materially -creating, in effect, a hidden theory of delivery”. (2005: 27) Thus, the distinction between artifice and authenticity in the act of speaking and listening is difficult to make. For example, when one presses play on the recording of Robert Duncan’s 1969 reading, he or she is not in fact listening to Robert Duncan but to a magnetic rearrangement of sound waves that have been captured and preserved on the surface of a magnetic tape strip, transferred to digital format and then played back through a digital audio interface. Below is a sample of Duncan reading from his poem titled “The Law I love is Major Mover.”

Now the same sample after a reverb effect has been applied using Audacity, an open-access audio editing program.

Duncan’s voice (or its mechanical reproduction) is easily manipulated: pitch, tone, volume, tempo, speed, and equalization are just a few effects that can be applied with the click of a button, (illustrating the extent to which the recorded human voice (artificial, material) can be manipulated. This should not suggest that it is the act of recording that renders the human voice artificial. Like reading, speaking and listening are also practiced activities that can be manipulated at will. One can wad their ears with cotton to mute sound, reposition their body in relation to its source, or remediate what he or she is listening to by using a speaker’s words for purposes of their own imagination. With this last example in mind, it might be argued that speaking and listening are in fact mediating by nature – both acts depend on the space between mouth and ear (microphone and speaker) to be brought into existence. Still, the listening experience of someone present at a live event will be much different than that of one listening after the fact. Indeed, the only thing authentic about the human voice is its trajectory toward silence. Within that trajectory, sounds are best understood as reflections of the structures that shape language. To access and reveal these structures, as Camlot and Mitchell have demonstrated, we must pay close attention to what we are listening to when we encounter historical documentary sound recordings.

In his essay titled “The Three Listening Modes,” Michel Chion defines Pierre Schaeffer’s model of “reduced listening” as “the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning. Reduced listening takes the sound – verbal, played on an instrument, noises or whatever – as itself the object to be observed instead of as a vehicle for something else”. (2012: 50) One benefit of sound recording technology is that it allows for the “fixing of sounds” that permit users to interpret “the fine details that particularize a sound event and render it unique”. (2012: 50-1) When listening to Duncan’s recording vis-à-vis the SpokenWeb digital interface, listeners become absorbed in what Chion calls an “acousmatic situation” -that is, one “wherein [the listener] hears the sound without seeing its cause”. (2012: 52) This rift between cause and effect creates space for digital archivists to give context to what cannot be easily made sense of through listening, as well as provide supplementary digital content (photographs, newspaper articles, etc.) to the recordings themselves.

By making visible what would have been transparent to the scholarly community, that is, by being “ready to interpret [the Poetry Series recordings] in terms of what and how [they] mean,” the SpokenWeb project has made contributions to both the scholarly community and what Danto calls “the common culture of [our] time”. (2010: 41) Until the Poetry Series tapes were discovered, archived, reformatted, and re-presented online, they were inert documentary material. Just as the Poetry Series did not become a literary artifact until the tapes were officially deposited in the university archive, the recordings did not become literary content until they were listened to and interrogated. This interrogation is an ongoing, self-conscious process that has undergone a series of transformations. The SpokenWeb team has populated its site with a number of tools to facilitate user interaction and contextualize the Poetry Series. The first of these is transcripts, which are tethered to the audio tracks, thus allowing users to ‘read’ the audio file and navigate its content. In addition, SpokenWeb has made available: poet bios; bibliographies of the works a poet read from; information about what projects (if any) a poet was working on around the time of the reading; a poet’s connections to Montreal; and lists of references used to generate context for the poet and his or her reading.

Current practices in digital archiving such as the one embodied by SpokenWeb disrupt(s) the boundaries between time and space and affects how the bodies that occupy that time and space generate meaning. According to Emily Thompson, when we are listening to a poetry sound recording made in the 1960s, what we hear when a cigarette is lit or an audience member laughs is not space itself but the ghosts of space emerging through the technologies that both produced and sought to silence them. (2012: 123) Culture, as Thomson suggests, “is inseparable from technology itself”. (2012: 123) So when one sits down -on a bus, in the subway, on a park bench, in the classroom- to listen to a digital re-presented audio recording, he or she meets itmerges with it- and engages in an exercise of imagination and creativity. Listening is a productive act. “The history of acoustics,” writes Thompson, “intersects with the history of the urban environment”. (2012: 123) While the sounds made manifest through audio recording are indeed prosthetic (voice is not voice, but sound), the intersection between production and consumption gives way to (or returns to) kinesis. As the human body senses its surroundings, listening, whether to live or recorded sound, becomes just one constituent of how the listener’s physical presence assigns meaning to recorded audio. Just as an audience member helps shape a live event, the digital archive user and his/her surroundings represent a physical presence that informs how the recording is interpreted.  

In her reading on January 24, 1969, Muriel Rukeyser asks her audience to consider poetry.

One might also wonder why we gather to listen to poetry readings; or, better still, why we sit alone at our desks and listen to digitally re-produced versions of them. In her essay titled “Radio and the Imagined Community,” Michelle Hilmes observes how radio broadcasting is a “machine for the circulation of narratives and representations that rehearse and justify the structures of order underlying national identity”. (Sterne, 2012: 352) The digital audio archive might be thought to perform a similar kind of rehearsal and justification. It too creates space for the dissemination of cultural narrative – but perhaps a more specific or culturally narrow narrative than that provided by radio. As mentioned, however, the archived historical materials that have been remediated and made available in the SpokenWeb digital archive, before they were contextualized and narrativized, were meaningless, a collection that needed to be ‘worked’ to find out exactly what was on the reels themselves -to find out what the story was. Before being digitized the tapes were a material manifestation of a series of events silenced without an analog tape player. Before being converted to MP3 and contextualized -dates, names, venues- the materials were still rather meaningless, at best the aural resonance of what might be thought of as an imagined community -that is, a group of unknown people who gathered to read their poems in an unknown setting to an unknown audience. Of course, we know now that the Poetry Series was a significant event because it was organized and carried out by institutional forces that helped frame it as culturally significant. But this information (context) and the significance it carries is not available in a comprehensive way (although some contextual information is certainly available in the recorded audio); nor is it generated by the university archivists who collected and stored the reel-to-reel tapes. Rather, it is the digital archivist’s job to contextualize the archived materials and re-present them in the public sphere. As Hilmes suggests, just as radio broadcasting brought “the public into remote private spaces, as to the household, the ill, and the infirm,” SpokenWeb, through the access and mobility afforded by modern sound technology and the internet, has resituated the Poetry Series into contemporary public and private spaces; and, just as space assigns meaning to the live event, the private and public spheres into which the SpokenWeb sound recordings are listened to inform our understanding of what it means to engage with poetry’s performances.

While SpokenWeb has resituated the Poetry Series in contemporary public and private spheres, the event itself, because it is a mechanical reproduction, is dislocated from history and tradition and, as a result, does not necessarily maintain the cultural authority or resonance it possessed during its reproduction. (It may, however, accrue new kinds of cultural authority and resonance). By relocating the Poetry Series in space and time, and by performing scholarly work to provide documentary materials with context, sound technology and mechanical reproduction allow us to perform more thorough analyses of historical sound events. In other words, the microphone picks up what the ear does not, and the recorder allows us to return hermeneutically and interpret soundscapes of the past. According to Benjamin, the “process of reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye [or ear] yet accessible to the lens [or microphone], which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will”. (2007: 220) Indeed, just as with “photographic reproduction, [and] the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion,” audio reproduction allows users to return at will to the space between mouth and ear, where meaning is generated, and “capture [sounds] which escape natural [hearing]”. (2007: 220)

The SpokenWeb digital archive is an example of how sound recording technology has mobilized and therefore greatly broadened how we listen to the past. Practices in the digital re-presentation of poetry’s sound recordings allow listeners (audience members) to transcend institutional walls by choosing exactly when, where, and how they listen. According to Shuhei Hosokowa, access and mobility allow those who are interested in poetry performance to move away from “territorialized listening [and toward] a de-territorialized listening, [in which] every sort of familiar soundscape is transformed by that singular acoustic experience coordinated by the user’s own ongoing pedestrian act, which induces an autonomous ‘head space’ between his Self and his surrounding in order to distance itself from -not familiarize itself with- both of them […] It enables us to move towards an autonomous pluralistically structured awareness of reality, but not towards a self-enclosed refuge or into narcissistic regression”. (Hosokowa, 2012: 112) Still, even while projects like SpokenWeb allow users to experience and investigate specific moments in literary history that were unavailable before analog tape recording and digital reproduction were introduced to universities, the live poetry reading continues to be a popular medium for literary engagement. Today, it is hard to imagine a university institution that does not host a poetry reading series.

Returning to Rukeyser, “Apart from all critical standards, all criteria, all faculty and institutions, apart from any of that […] why do people come and listen to poems?” (1969). Jean-Luc Nancy suggests that poetry performance situates audience members at the “edge of meaning”(2007: 6); but with no tables or chairs, podiums or microphone stands, how are we to situate ourselves and identify our relationship to the sound events that stream through our headphones? What does “the shared space of meaning and sound” (2007: 6) look like in the digital realm? George puts it another way: If “the art of reading is cultivated by the imitation of naturalized passions that correspond to the manner of the author or character with whom the text originates, then what is the relationship between the reader [or listener] and the text at hand [i.e. a digital manifestation], if not that of actor and script?” (2009: 381). Camlot advances this question in his essay on the work of American poet David Antin, whose ‘talk poetry’ “of the past twenty years has explored with great ingenuity [the] apparently defining characteristics of poetry with the ultimate aim of dissolving each one in its turn”. (2002: 277) Like Antin’s talk poems, which are [artifacts that emerge] first as ephemeral speech that is simultaneously rendered from the oral into the ‘literal’ by a tape recorder […] and then further fixed into the ‘literal’ as opposed to the oral, when Antin later transcribes the talks and reworks them onto the printed page” (2002: 277), SpokenWeb, by remediating ephemeral speech and making it available on a digital ‘page,’ challenges the ways in which we categorize literary works and asks us to rethink our role, as audience members, alongside the authorities and institutions that assign meaning to cultural objects and events.

The digital archive is a shared landscape whereupon listening communities are developed and new ways of investigating history and culture are made possible, where sound can “spread in space, where it resounds while still resounding […] ‘inside’ of the subject”. (Nancy, 2007: 6) As R. Murray Schafer reminds us, “We are disadvantaged in the pursuit of historical knowledge,” and must therefore turn to “earwitness” (2012: 99) accounts to gain a sense of how historical acoustic environments have contributed to current political, social, and cultural affairs, as well as how the self is informed through the structures that support those environments. The Sir George William’s Poetry Series’ archival inscription in the SpokenWeb digital repository is one such site, where we may eavesdrop on the past to gain a better understanding of the present, where we might cup our ears and strain them into the past, into the “realm we still do not know”. (Nancy, 2007: 10)


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