Between 1965 and 1974 members of the Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University) English Department in Montreal hosted a series of poetry readings that was conceived as an ongoing encounter between local poets and the avant-garde poetics of some of the most important writers from the United States and the rest of Canada. Sponsored by “The Poetry Committee” of the Faculty of Arts and the SGWU English Department—and organized primarily by English professors Howard Fink, Stanton Hoffman, Wynn Francis, Irving Layton, Roy Kiyooka, and (from 1967-71) George Bowering—these readings involved more than sixty poets from across North America. Known simply as “The Poetry Series”, audio recordings of these readings were made on Mylar 1 mil. tape using mobile reel-to-reel tape machines. The Concordia University Archives received a grant in 2007 that has allowed all 65 reels of tape (more than 100 hours of audio) to be digitized. So, this sound from an interesting period of transformation in Canadian poetics, and of self-scrutiny for Montreal poetry, represents a rich and useable archive for scholarly research. A primary goal of our project is develop an interface that will improve scholarly engagement with the archive. We are also interested in generating research about the questions that arise from an attempt to work with literary audio materials. And, we are interested in developing research that is specific to the archive at hand.
“The Poetry Series” recordings document the appearance within Quebec’s English-language writing community figures such as Robert Creeley (who already had a long creative correspondence with Irving Layton in the 1950s), Michael McClure, Charles Reznikoff, Ted Berrigan, David Bromidge, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, Jackson MacLow, and Jerome Rothenberg. In addition to these experimental American poets, many local figures—poets such as Layton, D.G. Jones, Michael Gnarowski, Henry Beissel and Richard Sommer—are documented as having participated in readings of their own. The series also brought in major “Canadian” poets from outside Quebec, people like Al Purdy, Bill Bisset, Frank Davey, Eli Mandel, Earl Birney and Margaret Atwood. Thus, the Poetry Series archive represents a unique audio record of a local poetry community interacting with and literally performing its engagement alongside contemporary national, and international poetic philosophies and practices.
The distinctions between local (Montreal), national (Canadian) and international (mainly American) are interesting to consider in the context of the series as they suggest different senses of purview, reach and imagined audience in relation to each other. Attempts to define what “Canadian” literature is, and to account for its status in relation to the rest of the world—topics of great debate during this period—represent another interesting context to consider in relation to these public performances. Further, the reading series documents two competing versions of literary modernism pronouncing themselves from the podium concurrently, and, in a sense, challenging Montreal students, readers and poets to reconsider its sense of the position that English Montreal writing held in relation to the future of Canadian literature.
For the purposes of the present Research Development Initiative (RDI), the value of a local archive of literary recordings such as “The Poetry Series” lies in its status as a coherent body of spoken materials upon which to test the process of transforming an analog collection into a full-fledged web-based archive. The existence of such coherent institution-based audio collections is widespread across North America, and thus our own development initiative will provide an adaptable template for general consultation and use by the international scholarly community.
Using “The Poetry Series” archive as our repository of test records has enabled us to conceptualize the web-based Digital Spoken Word Archive (DSWA) from the ground up. We feel it is extremely important to take this comprehensive approach, as it identifies best practices of archival preservation as a key factor in the conversion of collection materials into digital audio file formats suitable for online use, and it will allow us to provide a thorough account of all the steps necessary to move from an analog collection to a web-based DSWA.