Archiving and Un-Archiving Literary Events Across Media
Dr. Katherine McLeod (PhD, University of Toronto)
Postdoctoral Fellow, SpokenWeb / Department of English
Supervisor: Dr. Jason Camlot
Now perhaps some of you are wondering what these readings are all about and how the choices made, I have here a slight commentary on that which I would like to read to you.
Our answer to this is that we have not attempted to make the series an exhaustive coverage of any particular school or faction of poetry. Nor has our concern been an attempt to seek out the so-called, quote, “great poets,” unquote. Our choices have been made with the desire to present to you, hopefully, the possibilities of utterance that is more than parochial. In short, this is our attempt to sound just that diversity that so much characterizes the North American poetry scene.
[Roy Kiyooka introducing Phyllis Webb in 1966]
You are listening to an audio-essay entitled, Broadcasting Can Lit: Archiving and Un-Archiving Literary Events Across Media. You have just heard poet Roy Kiyooka introduce a poetry reading by poet Phyllis Webb. The reading took place in 1966 here at Concordia, or what was then known as Sir George Williams University. The audio recording of this reading is now part of the digital archives of SpokenWeb, an interdisciplinary SSHRC IG-funded project that has been investigating scholarly engagement with recorded poetry recitation and performance. I have joined this project in its fourth and final year as a postdoctoral fellow whose work brings the audio archives of SpokenWeb into dialogue with audio archives of CBC Radio literary programming during the same time period of the 1960s. This audio-essay provides a short introduction to SpokenWeb as a project, including audio clips from its online digital archives, and then concludes with specific questions informing my research on audio recordings of poetry readings and broader questions relating to Canadian literature across media.
Between the years of 1965 and 1974, the English Department of Sir George Williams hosted a series of poetry readings called the SGW Poetry Series. The reading series brought more than sixty poets from across North America to Montreal: among the many readers were Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Daryl Hine, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Gary Snyder, F.R. Scott, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Phyllis Webb, Alden Nowlan, Margaret Avison, Roy Kiyooka, George Bowering, bpNichol, Victor Coleman, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, and Dorothy Livesay. Recordings of these readings were made on reel-to-reel tapes and, in 2007, Concordia University Archives received a grant that has allowed all 65 reels of tape (more than 100 hours of audio) to be digitized. These digitized recordings are the materials of SpokenWeb’s investigation into critical engagement with these audio recordings as literary archives. The interface of this audio-essay is designed to mimic the transcription of the poetry recordings in that, for each reading, there is an audio file at the top of the webpage and then, as the recording plays, the page scrolls according to time-stamps in the audio file. You can read along with the reading, but, always, you are guided by the sound. You are listening.
I should apologize to begin with for my voice. I don’t usually sound quite this much like Tallula Bankhead. I have the Montreal plague. The first poem is called “This is a Photograph of Me,” and it’s the first poem in The Circle Game. [From Atwood’s reading at the SGW Poetry Series in 1967]
My research examines the recording and archiving of Canadian literary events across media (print, radio, TV, digital), namely in relation to a comparison of the readings that took place on CBC Radio at the same time as the SGW Poetry Series. During the 1960s, all of the Canadian poets who read in the SGW series also read on CBC Radio in their literary programs, such as Ideas, Critically Speaking, Anthology, and CBC Wednesday Night. My work, which is part of a book-length project, explores the audio archives of CBC Radio in order to understand how this sounding of Canadian poetry came to be selected and broadcast on national airwaves. In other words, how was “Canadian Poetry” produced and disseminated to a national listening public vis-a-vis literary broadcasts on CBC? How was Canadian Poetry produced on air? Whereas the SGW Poetry Series has been digitized, the CBC Radio recordings, for the most part, remain as material objects that must be listened to in person, either at the CBC Radio Archives (Toronto) or at Library and Archives Canada where copies of the tapes have been sent. In some cases, the archives of individual writers hold recordings of the writer on CBC Radio, such as in the case of Irving Layton’s archives at Concordia. By listening to these unexamined audio archives of CBC Radio alongside the SGW Poetry Series, I am arguing that there is the possibility of re-telling the story of 1960s Canadian literary production through temporal literary events and the archiving of these events — and, moreover, I suggest that the process of accessing of these archives raises the important question of what is at stake in un-archiving the recordings as objects of literary analysis and re-situating them in digital and/or public environment.
This next poem is called “Continuum” and it’s not a very extraordinary or terribly good poem even, I don’t think, but it came out of a rather extraordinary experience, which was television. And it was simply a news clip from Vietnam, but this one had soundtrack on it, which made it rather more touching and inspired me to wire the Prime Minister. And shortly after that and I didn’t know I was getting to the wire in the middle of it until I got there and it has to do with the almost total impossibility of separating out objective events that happen out there in history and in time and one’s own private history. “Continuum.”
That was the voice of poet and broadcaster Phyllis Webb, introducing her poem “Continuum.” This clip is excerpted from her reading in the SGW Poetry Series in 1966. Here, she speaks of a poem being inspired by another medium — television — and even leading to communication via another medium. This network of radio, television and live reading is what I am pursuing in my research and Webb as a poet and broadcaster herself is an exemplary figure in the SGW Poetry Series for this type of analysis. Moreover, how do the introductions to poems provide their own narrative for the poem itself and how do they differ from one reading to another? How does a live reading differ from a reading on radio or on television? A 1967 episode of the CBC television program Extensions, hosted by Phyllis Webb, features Margaret Atwood reading two of the same poems that she had read in the SGW “Poetry Series” — with this example in mind, I ask: how does a visual representation of Atwood reading on TV stage Canadian poetry and the poetry reading itself as a performance? It is with Atwood that I will conclude this audio-essay— with a few words from her in response to a question that concluded her second reading at Sir George Williams in 1974. Thank you for listening…
Audience #17 (male)
Um the poems that you read tonight, would you consider those the best or the most significant ones from your collection, and if neither of those things, why did you select the ones that you read? The reason that I’ve asked that is because I’ve read your latest book quite carefully and I think that you read the, some of the best poems from it. I was wondering if you thought they were some of the best poems.
Yeah. I think that one of the best things in it is section number 3, but that consists of 24 poems, which seem to me to be too long. I read some of them that I like quite a lot, yes, this is true, but I left out some others that I also like quite a lot because it seemed to me that they were too long and at this particular night anyway I felt that I should get through as quickly as possible because we were all stifling to death. Um, and with that I think that I will now end the question period and we can all go out and have a drink of water. [Applause.]
I’d just like to thank Margaret Atwood very much for being with us tonight– [Laughter.]