Towards a General Index of Literary Audio

Literary Audio Symposium, 2 December 2016 is a project I have initiated to develop an open index of sound recordings related to Canadian poets and poetry. The function of the site is simple: to locate sound recordings related to Canadian poetry and poetics; to compile and organize all relevant bibliographic information for each recording; to list where analog recordings are physically located and can be accessed; and to provide links to digital recordings available on the Web.

The primary aim of the project is to assist interested listeners so they may access recorded materials, while at the same time creating a document that details the breadth of phonopoetic practice in Canadian poetry. The index will also serve as a tool to assist archivists and librarians in locating and preserving materials always under threat of being lost or discarded.

In addition to the index, the site will host a digital library of critical texts and phonotexts that explore the intersections of the sound arts, performance, and poetics that, together with the index, will provide a valuable resource for researchers and students interested in the sonic, embodied, and medial aspects of poetic practice.

Users will be able to access the index’s entries through one or a combination of several bibliographic fields: Author Name; Name of Work; Format of Recording; Site of Initial Recording; Reading Series; Date of Initial Recording. This means that the index is searchable by these fields, and that one can view pages articulated through their parameters. For instance:

One can view the entire audiography of, for instance, M. NourbeSe Philip by just typing her name into the Author search. A listing of around 28 readings, talks, and dialogues from the early 1990s to the present will come up. The readings are compiled from several sources: from NourbeSe’s own personal recording collection; from published tape cassettes and compact discs she made; from institutional collections like at SUNY-Buffalo, the Toronto New School of Writing, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center; from PennSound; and a few other individual recordings located through mega-databases such as WorldCat.

Along with that search, on another page, perhaps, so as to think about the particular milieus in which NourbeSe was reading and performing her works, a user can focus in on a specific location, let’s say Toronto (where a majority of her earliest readings are located), at a specific time, between 1985 and 1995 (beginning a few years before her initial recordings in the index and including the few years after those initial recordings), and one will be able to bring up an entire history of readings, performances, and recordings from the Toronto dub poetry scene to Dionne Brand’s earliest readings and discussions of No Language is Neutral, from the expansive collection of Four Horsemen recordings to the incredible Underwhich Editions cassettes.

There are of course many more recordings that would be included here, but these specific recordings, in my mind, give a strong sense of the sonic and performative milieu in which one might situate NourbeSe’s works She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks and Discourse on the Logic of Language (both 1989) to have some kind of relation.

A user, then, could simply drop the “Toronto” from the Location search field in order to open up the Location parameter to the entire index, and then focus on the two years in which NourbeSe read the most from these two specific works – 1989 and 1990 – in order to get a sense of greater contexts of these readings, for example: what poets were reading in the reading series and locations where she read these works, what poets were circulating during the same time and where, et cetera.

In keeping the Date of Initial Recording parameter the same – 1989 and 1990 – a user might want to look into the specific media being used at that time, and type “Tape Cassette” into the Format of Recording field in order to have a view into the remarkable array of tape cassette recorded poetry that was produced and circulated at this time (which I think is a crucial and understudied aspect of contemporary poetry practice); or type in “Compact Disc” to look into the very first digital recordings of poetry produced at a moment when the format was relatively new (the first major pop CD recordings released in 1985 [David Bowie’s 15-disc audiography]; CD-ROMS (read-only discs) also introduced in 1985, CD-Recordable introduced in 1990; yet the tape cassette was by and large the dominant sound recording format and would remain so through the 1990s).

These are just a few possibilities of how to use the index, ones that mainly focus on using it in order to study the contexts of phonopoetic production – which is chiefly my own personal pursuit at the moment. But I see three other important uses at this point.

The first has to do with the collection and preservation of already existing materials. I believe the index will be of great use to librarians and archivists in order to see their own collections in a greater context. For instance, they might use it and find out how rare a particular recording they have on reel-to-reel or LP is, or use it in order to track down recordings that might be missing from their own collection of a particular poet or reading series. To this extent, I hope the index will (1) provide a means to bridge institutional and personal collections; (2) that it will be a useful tool for locating important digitization projects; and (3) that it will be used to document the provenance of poetry recordings, which is a crucial component of media historical analysis and of studying the contexts of poetic production.

This leads to the second use of the index I foresee, which has to do with the production of new materials. In assembling this document of phonopoetic activity, I hope it might further impress upon those who use it the centrality of performance and the phonotext in poetic practice. I realise I am preaching to the choir in the context of this symposium, but it’s important to remember the degree to which the textual-graphemic elements of poetic practice are taught and framed as if they are solely what poetry is and can be.

If I’ve come to understand one thing quite clearly through my dissertation research, it’s that these multi-faceted, multi-component repositorial infrastructures can have a profound effect on how poetry is read, written, circulated, and engaged. Such infrastructures impact the production of poetry itself, and they also impact the critical possibilities for engaging poetic works. (I can say that PennSound – as I complete my media historical analysis of the repository – has significantly altered the status of the performance and the phonotext in poetic practice and scholarship. [Discuss how.]) It’s my hope that will function as a similar catalyst and even become a platform on which poets will want to have their work published.

And this leads to my final foreseeable use for the index, which is that I see it as a foundational iteration for creating a general repository of digital audio related to poetry and poetics in Canada. As I mentioned earlier, the primary uses of the index will be to locate recordings, provide their relevant bibliographical information, state where analog recordings are housed, and provide links to digital recordings on the Web. To this degree, the index functions as a central node that connects disparate collections and a range of audio formats. The index – while being of great use in and of itself – fulfills all of the necessary components for the creation of a digital repository of sound recordings, except for the fact that it does not host the recordings it indexes.

In linking to digital recordings on the Web, the index will always direct users to the primary site that hosts the recordings. Where it’s possible, though, I’ve begun to make an MP3 back-up of all the digital files so that in future iterations of the index, where it’s possible, I’ll be able to host all the files on a single server.

This is of course dependent on working extensively with the poets who produced the initial recordings, and the archivists who collected them with regard to permissions. It is also dependent upon getting a substantial amount of server space, but after a few conversations I’ve had with supporters of the project, that should be easily realizable.

So, as people use the index to locate possible digitization projects, it’s my hope that that those projects, when completed, will be incorporated in the index-repository. It’s my hope that as users are perhaps inspired by the range of phonopoetic activity that the index documents, that they will make phonotexts that will be hosted on the index-repository.

At this point, I thought I’d give a brief overview of the technical-organizational components of the site.

The index will be located at – where, at the moment, I have a simple statement about the project. The entries for the index are compiled in two ways: some are automated through databases like WorldCat, and others are handwritten. Max Stein and I have set up a system on Zotero – the free and open-source reference management software – where we compile all of the entries. editors can log into our Zotero account. After that, they can either go through WorldCat or other similar databases in order to seek out specific resources, and then download the bibliographic information straight from the database into the Zotero account. Or, if they are working with specific collections, they can handwrite the entries directly into the specific fields we’ve set up on Zotero. This is, of course, a more time-consuming process, but overall it’s rather easy and quick – I’ve handwritten up to 100 or so entries in a day. From Zotero, it’s then possible to upload all of the bibliographic information directly onto the back-end of the site, which is a WordPress CMS. Last autumn, Max and I completed the back-end organization of the materials for the site. We have at the moment about 2000 bibliographic entries at the moment. The next steps will be to finalize the front-end of the site and to begin working with the editorial board to compile more entries.

Currently, the editorial board is comprised of Deanna Fong, Lee Hannigan, Katherine McLeod, Shannon Maguire, myself, and Eric Schmaltz. Once we get going as an editorial network, it’s my hope that we’ll each identify our own interests in particular writers, eras, reading series, or regions we’d like to work on in terms of compiling entries. Through this dialogue and because we’ll all have access to the same Zotero account, it will be easy to avoid duplicate entries. From there, it would be great to have around 6000 entries by the time we launch the site. By that point, I imagine we’ll have a distinct and useful object with which members of the editorial board can approach individuals, institutions, and collections in order to find out what else is out there and can be included on the site.

Once the site is up and running, it’s also my hope that we’ll all be able to work with the advisory board for the project – Lillian Allen, Jason Camlot, Tanya Clement, Dean Irvine, Chris Mustazza, and Karis Shearer [& Sina Queyras ?] – to integrate into as many contexts and publics as possible.

That is, for the most part, an overview of the project. I have a lot to say about particular details and the various models or influences I’ve considered in conceiving the index – I can respond to any of those points in discussion. I welcome your input on the particularities of the what I’ve introduced here.