“It has you look at your artefacts as if from a spaceship”: Getting into the Archive

Category: Residency
Written by: Sophie Mayer on June 10, 2013

That was the key advice I took from Jason Camlot‘s graduate workshop on 30th May at Queen Mary. Camlot was talking about the amazing SpokenWeb archive he co-created at Concordia University, digitising, uploading and time-stamping magnetic tape recordings of a reading series that ran at the university from 1966-74 – a fantastic comparison, model and inspiration for the Archive of the Now, and my engagement with it over the next 12 months as the first Poet-in-Residence. Following Camlot’s suggestion, I’ll be spending the year wondering what we might hear if we were to treat the Archive of the Now as a version of Nasa’s Golden Record, an image and sound recording sent into space with Voyager, and ourselves as the extraterrestrials listening to it.

That residence will be – like the Archive itself – a mix of virtual and actual: a series of interventions into the Archive as it exists here online, and four workshops for school students that will take place on the Queen Mary campus (more on those soon). That duality repeats – and, hopefully, will help me to interpret – a transitional point in technologies of reading, writing, listening to, performing, archiving, and researching poetry. As Camlot pointed out, we don’t yet have a language in poetics or literary theory for discussing the sounds of spoken poetry, live or recorded, and this seems like an excellent place to generate one – discursively. I look forward to comments and discussions developing with each post here to build more bridges between the actual and virtual, the audio and textual, the critical and conversational.

After all, we have a century of recordings – of which, more below – to talk about, including recent scholarly online poetry archives such as (most famously) PennSound, which Camlot discussed in relation to its manifesto for digital sound poetry archives. “Making Audio Visible” by Charles Bernstein was published in Textual Practice 23.6 (2009), and remains a key article not so much for its claims about the nature of recorded poetry, but for its demands for the future.

In imagining the future of the Archive of the Now (a temporal paradox), I’ll be thinking about the Arc and the Hive as two aspects of the archive: that it constitutes an arc, a grouping marked by parameters (a set) for analysis, both internal (what does the set tell us about its parameters?) and comparative with other sets, such as PennSound; and that it constitutes a hive, a generative open field. Andrea Brady points out that, in the Renaissance, the bee was an image used of the ideal reader, collecting ‘pollen’ as they read and transforming it to spiritual honey through commonplace books. G.W. Pigman, the scholar who identifies the apiary model of reading, points out that “Bees illustrate not only transformative imitation, but non-transformative following, gathering, or borrowing.”

That seems appropriate to the Archive as an anthology or florilegium (both anthos and flora mean flower), a form of publishing described by Maria Popova of BrainPickings as “one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture — a Medieval textual Tumblr,” and as a metaphor for networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity. As an inheritor of the florilegium that’s actualising that metaphor, the Archive offers rich research pickings through which – as an ideal reader – I hope to float like a bee.

Rather than bringing a particular angle or methodology, I want to see what the Archive has to say for and about itself. Is it “a market for riots online” (Redell Olsen)? How might its Britishness relate to Jeff Hilson‘s disquisition on the impossibilities of Britishness at the start of his bird bird readings? What can and does poetry do – in relation to aesthetics, language, technology, and social relations — when “liam fox/cuts/fox/defence/defence/armed forces/liam fox/cuts/cuts/cuts/aircraft carriers/strike fleet/jets/cuts/trident” (Holly Pester)? Olsen, Hilson and Pester are part of this summer’s major Archive of the Now project: Dr. Katy Price‘s Phono-poetry experiment for the Modernist Studies Association conference, recording their work on wax cylinders to play on an Edison phonograph. Price, a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature in the Department of English at Queen Mary, kindly answered a few questions about the origin and intentions of the Phono-poetry project, which is combining Edison’s nineteenth-century technology with digital media, including a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo that gives you the opportunity to get your own wax cylinder.

“marks which, whispering Bill,” says Hilson, suggesting a relation between printed “marks” and vocal “whispering” — a relation that has been long debated. The phonograph (re)translates sound into graphic marks as it makes the groove in the wax cylinder, but there is no visible digital equivalent of the relation between marks and whispers (although graphic visualisers often try to give a sense there is). Yet at the same time, the digital is entirely graphic — whether the 0/1s of encoding, or the textual nature of programming — but invisibly. In the seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway comments that, “The silicon chip is a surface for writing; it is etched in molecular scales disturbed only by atomic noise, the ultimate interference for nuclear scores.”

What kind of interference might the Archive of the Now, as a collection of poetic texts, throw up as it connects the old(est?) technology of spoken language, which extended the reach of human communication in space and time, and new technologies of micro-writing, encoding verbal data via the inscription/encryption tools that extend from Edison’s wax cylinders to MP3s? Bridging the digital and the cylindrical with Phono-poetry seems like a good place to start…

Sophie Mayer: Can you tell us about your research concerning the relationship between modernist poetry and technology?

Katy Price: So far I have mainly been looking at astronomy love poems, by the not-exactly-modernist William Empson. He devoured a lot of popular science, and wrote metaphysical poetry inspired by John Donne but with twentieth-century cosmology. Although the poems are formally very tight, they have any amount of doubt, despair and experimental affect running through them to rival the most dystopian modernist.

How did you get involved in Archive of the Now? How did you formulate the magical idea of Phono-poetry? How are you making it happen?

I’ve long been an admirer and user of the Archive in teaching contemporary poetry. I’ve also previously worked with Aleksander Kolkowski, a phonograph musician and composer who has recorded and performed with several vocal artists as well as electronic musicians. I thought it would be great to bring these two kinds of sound archiving technology together. I’m hoping the poets will enjoy their experience of being immortalised on cylinder, playing with their existing work and perhaps even being inspired to write something specially for the phonograph.

What projects might you be interested to see AoN users panning or undertaking with the material that’s available in the archive (given that not every listener has access to an Edison phonograph)?

Once when I was preparing a lecture using the Archive my iTunes accidentally started up in the background. It shoved some Sigur Ros alongside Jeremy Prynne reading John Weiners’ Cocaine. It was beautiful. I’d love to see an AoN mixing app where people could share their blends.

Which poets were historically recorded on an Edison phonograph? Where can people access those recordings, if any?




In her poem “S.C.R.U.F.F.,” Holly Pester — one of the three Phono-poets — says “scruff is part scratch part fluff.” That sounds like a good description of the phonographic process, which produces a groove (scratch) in which the information is encoded, but also the waste wax (fluff)! Could we say that poetry — particularly experimental poetry — is scruff, taking place across and between the signal and the noise, between the information and the excess? Or at least has a strong interest in fluff — errors, found materials, excess, repetition, etc.?

Fluff yes – the material that is scratched off a cylinder in the recording process is called ‘swarf’ (see image below). I love the idea that weird, difficult text art could have a kind of material life like sweepings or lint in relation to smooth and shiny official or acceptable language. But there is lots of swarf, fluff, lint language, isn’t there? Animal sounds, baby sounds, babble on the bus, people who communicate vocally but not verbally. These can often be the main form of communication, not just offcuts. There are sometimes brilliant moments with experimental text art that makes gold from swarf. I think this can depend on how the audience get engaged.

Pester is particularly engaged with radio: in Scruff she mentions Orson Welles (instigator of the infamous radio hoax with his production of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds), and her serial poem “News Piece” — of which 16-19/10/2010 is included on the Archive — samples Radio 4’s Today Programme. How important is radio as an intermediate sound technology between the phonograph and digital for music and poetry?

I think radio invented our heads for us, or a large part of them. It has shaped how we experience sound, distance and information more than we can fully recognise. Radio has also been a very nationally shaped and shaping medium. And that is there in the back of our minds even as we use the internet and apparently more global communication technologies. An idea I find perpetually useful on technology and text is from Lori Emerson who says that we do the same old things with new media – so we read in ways that we learned with books, even on the internet. Familiar approach in a new context. Things don’t change as much as we might fancy they do. One thing that art can do with technology is tickle the part of us that recognises this blend of the familiar and the new, and draw us into playing with it. I think that a lot of the Archive poets are doing this kind of thing with their uses of sound and recording in the texture of their writing.