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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series

PLAYING WITH TIME

Oral History and Literary Studies in the SpokenWeb Project

Ashley Clarkson, Steven High

When you get somebody like Ginsberg, it’s less of a poet that’s come… He’s a folk figure. He is really a cultural figure, and important as that. So whatever he does is going to be important.
-George Bowering

 

Allen Ginsberg came to Montreal as part of the Poetry Series at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in November, 1969. As Ginsberg had enormous counter-cultural appeal, the organizers booked the largest auditorium on campus.1 The cavernous lecture hall was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles. Decades later, event organizers could still vividly remember Ginsberg’s “Arabic cloak,” “strange hat,” and counter-cultural “uniform.” But more than the poetry reading itself, or even his attire, what is remembered most was the spectacle: especially the “Hare Krishna guys.” Smiling at the memory during an oral history interview, George Bowering related how the first hour was taken up almost exclusively by chanting. There had been a “whole bunch of Hare Krishnas” in the front of the hall, and they started to sing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna exactly at eight o’clock, right? Allen with that wonderful voice of his sang ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.’” People in the audience joined in and some danced around “in their white robes with their hair piece likethis, some of it will be on the tapes.” The “tapes” that Bowering is referring to are the reel-to-reel audio recordings made of much of the Poetry Series, eighty-nine recordings and more than one hundred hours in all. These audio recordings sat silently on a shelf in the Department of English until Jason Camlot and the SpokenWeb team digitized them as part of an interdisciplinary research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. As a result, we can now listen to the sonic traces of the Ginsberg event.2 The audio clip from the Ginsberg reading only offers a momentary sense of the occasion, whereas SpokenWeb stores all the recordings from the Series in a digital archive to develop “new forms of critical engagement with literary recordings.” The past decade has seen the proliferation of digital spoken word archives, making a diverse range of historically significant digitized and born-digital recordings widely accessible to listeners and scholars for the first time.3

The SpokenWeb project has placed oral history into sustained conversation with literary studies and the digital humanities. The notion of “oral literary history” that is emerging within the project acknowledges the significance of experiential accounts of these public readings that are historical and cultural events and embodied experiences – for the readers and for the listeners.4 As oral historians, we come to the project with a strong interest in the study of individual and collective remembering. How people understand their lives – and the place of poetry in it – is highly significant. This substance goes far beyond the information conveyed in the interviews, but to the form and structure of the oral narratives recorded – what is remembered, mis-remembered, or forgotten about the Poetry Series can tell us a great deal about the past and present. In turn, one of the main goals of the oral history axis of the project is to invite poets, series organizers and audience members back to Concordia, or via Skype, to conduct interviews based on their experiences. These interviews allow us to catch a glimpse of how people felt about the Series at the time and how their conceptions of these past events have changed over time. How people made sense of the world around them, this embodied knowledge, is of course only partially captured in the audio recordings. These interviews are then stored in the digital archive alongside the readings from the poetry Series.

What is perhaps most original about the Spoken Web project for us, however, is the ways in which it uses these recovered recordings to re-animate the past in the present. This is being done in two principal ways. First, apart from doing individual interviews, the project has invited several of the poets who participated in the original series to participate in poetry events and read alongside their original audio excerpts. Our paper will consider the ways in which the project has used the sound recordings in this way to play with time, creating deeply felt spaces of individual and generational life review and reciprocal sharing. Second, the project aims to create an interactive tool for researchers that will allow for deeper critical engagement with literary recordings, or what we are calling “oral literary history.” According to historian Alistair Thomson, digital applications or environments “enable anyone, anywhere to make extraordinary and unexpected creative connections within and across oral history.”5

The Spoken Web project comes at a time of transformative change within oral history and literary studies as new digital technologies and techniques allow scholars to revisit old assumptions and practices. Traditionally focused on the transcript, oral history and literature have (re) discovered the aural qualities of the spoken word as well as the embodiment of the storyteller, poetry reader, and listener. Oral Historian Alessandro Portelli, for example, explained how “the transcript turns aural objects into visual ones, which inevitably implies change and interpretation.”6 Oral history and oral poetry share an interest in the aural sense of the spoken word and the remembered event, as “the tone and volume range and the rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing.”7 Oral historians have drawn similar conclusions to some literary scholars with respect to the aural qualities of the spoken word, as recorded in the life history interview. The recorded life story is a window into the subjective experience of the speaker. At its core, oral history is about the search for connection between biography and history; between individual remembered experience and societal events.8 A great deal happens to experience on the way to becoming memory. According to historian Michael Frisch, people “turn history into biographical memory, general into particular. [In an oral history interview] we see how [people try] to retain deeper validation of their life and society, and how they [defer] the deeper cultural judgment” of an earlier time.9 Meaning does not simply “inhere to events”, anthropologist Julie Cruikshank notes, “but involves weaving those events into stories that are meaningful at the time.” Events are, she adds, “always made into a story by suppressing some aspects and highlighting others.”10 Thinking of poetry as spoken word and the poetry reading as an event located in time and space shifts our attention to the body, the voice, the event itself, and to the wider social and political context that framed these other elements. Much can be gleaned from the close listening to the recorded voice of the poet: the rhythm and cadence of the words spoken, the revealed emotion, a feigned accent, or pregnant pause and the accompanying banter with the audience. Likewise much can be learned from listening to audience members as they laugh, cheer, clap, sing, question, or remain stone silent. In the process, orality and aurality becomes a site of interpretation for literary scholars, and for their fellow travellers in oral history and digital or sound studies.11

 

Historical Context

Context is more than extra background information. If the “archival turn” in the humanities and social sciences has taught us anything, it is that archives are not neutral sites of storage and preservation.12 Extractive approaches to data-collection and analysis risk ignoring the ways in which “the archive itself orders the material within its realm, and the possibilities of knowledge production.”13 Its organizers conceived of the Poetry Series, which drew hundreds of students, faculty and others, as an “ongoing encounter” between local poets and their guests.14 Two of the key organizers, George Bowering and Howard Fink, were interviewed for the SpokenWeb project. Bowering, a famous Canadian poet in his own right, came to Sir George Williams University as a writer-in-residence in 1967 and shortly thereafter joined the Poetry Series organizing committee. Bowering taught at SGWU from 1967 to 1971, and in 1972 he was hired at Simon Fraser University. During his years at SGWU, Bowering brought many West Coast poets to Montreal as part of the series.

The wider historical context is also significant here. After all, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of tremendous socio-economic, cultural and political confrontation and change. It is hard to speak of this period without listing off the many social movements that mobilized millions against colonialism (both in the global South and in Quebec), the war in Vietnam, Jim Crow racism, patriarchy, and pollution. These movements were visibly present on the Sir George Williams University campus in downtown Montreal at the time of the Poetry Series. The university had its origins in the Young Men’s Christian Association’s (YMCA) adult education programme, and primarily served the city’s working classes.

As historians David Austin and Sean Mills have noted in their important work on the 1960s and early 1970s, Montreal – and Sir George Williams in particular – was very much at the crossroads for transnational black intellectuals and activists.15 Tensions flared in early 1969, the very year that Ginsberg visited Montreal, when students occupied the university’s computer centre – on the ninth floor of the building where the Poetry Series took place – for two weeks to protest institutional racism. The student occupation ended in violence and chaos when police intervened, and computer cards rained down on the crowds below. Some in the crowd chanted “burn, nigger, burn,” once fire broke out in the computer centre high above.16 In an oral history interview conducted for this project, Stephen Morrissey, a student and aspiring poet at the time, recalled that tensions continued on campus a year after the mass arrests. At one point in the interview, he read a passage from his diary:

February 11th 1970, it was one year ago today that the computers were smashed at Sir George. Today, merely out of curiosity and boredom I went to Solidarity with February 11th meeting in support of the students arrested. The various speakers said their own little pieces, basically all just promoted their own little group for ten minutes, then added on only incidentally that they were in solidarity with the February 11th students that were arrested. They had such names, these groups, as: The Afro Asian Students’ Front Against Yankee Imperialism, you couldn’t make this up! What a joke, the whole motley group were, what an exercise in self-delusion…what phonies. At any rate, the speakers had given their speeches and after about an hour of this all spiced up with words like imperialism, aggression, bourgeoisie, dictatorship of the proletariat and other clichés massive dogmatism. Then a girl inquired why the chairman did not allow the young socialists to speak? The answer was that they were police agents, what a laugh! The audience obviously supported the young socialists, which are Trotskyites. The student movement organized the meeting, a malice front. A student who left the student front pointed out the contradiction that this was supposedly a democratic meeting and as such the young socialist should be allowed to speak. Then suddenly a red faced little girl reminding me of Madame. Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, jumped up and pointing at the questioning student yelled out hysterically “Get him out!” All this malice had been circling him, now they proceeded to punch him in the face and stomach.

The Poetry Series seems to have been far removed from this political turmoil.

The Series and Ginsberg’s visit also occurred at a time of intense Quebec and Canadian nationalism, and the confrontation between the two. Generally, Quebec nationalists viewed their struggle for independence as anti-colonial. In his book White Niggers of America (1969), Pierre Vallières argues that French-Canadians were engaged in a freedom struggle not unlike the one underway in the United States. At the time, French-speakers in Quebec represented eighty percent of the population but only twenty-five percent of the wealth. To be French-speaking at that time was to be economically marginalized. Michèle Lalonde composed the poem “Speak White” in 1968, a phrase said to once be in use by intolerant English-speakers who did not want to hear French in public. The tension over language was a concern to visiting poets like Allen Ginsberg. In another one of his diary entries Morrissey recorded his conversation with Ginsberg on linguistic tensions in Quebec during his visit. Ginsberg is quoted as saying that “it is such a threatening thing today, I only wish I knew what to do about it and put everybody at ease.”17 In October 1970, the War Measures Act was declared after terrorist bombings and the kidnapping and murder of public officials. Canadian soldiers occupied the streets of Montreal and helicopters patrolled the skies. Hundreds were jailed without trial.

It was also a period of heightened Canadian nationalism and surging public interest in Canadian novelists and poets. In 1972, Margaret Atwood – one of the poets featured in the Poetry Series – wrote Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a collection of literary essays that served as a clarion call for a Canadian national literature.18 Nationalist sentiments of the time are also found in works of popular fiction. At the outset of his best-selling 1973 novel, Ultimatum: Oil or War?, for example, Richard Rohmer imagines a high-stakes telephone conversation between the Prime Minister of Canada and the U.S. President.19 Facing an energy crisis, and wanting to gain control of Canada’s oil and natural gas, the President gives Canada one day to agree to a series of demands. If Canada fails to agree, the President will use his country’s economic and military “muscle” to meet its energy needs. That Rohmer’s paranoid fantasies were wildly popular in Canada provides further evidence that Canadian nationalist sentiment ran deep.

Despite the presence of a significant number of US poets who read as part of the Poetry Series, the series was very much tied to a Canadian national imaginary. A who’s who of English-Canadian poetry such as Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, and many poets from British Columbia, participated in the Series. Having listened to more than two dozen of the recorded poetry readings, focusing our attention on the period between 1968 and 1972, we were struck by the insularity of English-Canadian poetry. For example, during Bowering’s 1969 introduction of Eli Mandel and D.G. Jones (one a“Western Jewish” poet and the other an “Ontario Wasp” poet) he notes that: “Canadian poetry being the way it is, they already know each other.”20 Hardly anyone commented during their public reading on the politics of the time or otherwise engaged with the place they were visiting.21 These conversations no doubt occurred in the informal atmosphere of the dinner beforehand or at the house party that often followed. Still, it is surprising that almost none of visiting poets shared their political views or commented on contemporary events in the city during the formal reading itself. Those who did comment did so almost hesitantly, as though this was not appropriate to the occasion. Irving Layton, for example, opened his 1967 reading with his poem “There are No Signs.” He then provides an explanation of the poem’s significance:

Because if any one poem expresses what I try to say, and all the poems and stories that I have written, is that modern man, pretty well, has to find out where he is going, by just going. Now the old sign posts are down, and that he must make his sign posts as he goes along.22

For many of the poets, political positions were embedded in the poetry itself. Many of the American poets who read as part of the Series were thus engaged politically through their poetic practice, be it Gary Snyder’s eco-love poetry, Charles Reznikoff’s poems about the Holocaust, or Ginsberg’s counter-cultural chanting. Remarkably, however, no French-speaking poets from Quebec were invited to read in the series.

English-Canadian and French-Québécois poets were, like other cultural producers, speaking themselves into existence during these years.23 Efforts to bridge the divide, such as by a bilingual poetry conference organized in 1963, proved to be politically untenable in a Quebec where French-speaking poets occupied a central place within the sovereigntist movement.24 As poet D.G. Jones noted in 1974, the poetry of Quebec and the poetry of Canada “have developed independent of each other and almost wholly oblivious to each other.”25 This separation is certainly apparent in the line-up of readers in the Series, which was firmly tied to the Canadian nation and not the Quebec one. When Daphne Marlatt, who read in the Series in 1970, was asked about the Francophone poetry scene,  she correctly acknowledged the fact that there were no French poets in the Series, adding: “we went to a reading, a Francophone poetry reading, and there was also a very strong feeling of enthusiasm in the room and I felt, as an Anglophone, distinctly uncomfortable there.”26 The Spoken Web project thus reveals the degree to which the Anglo-Quebec poetry scene was disconnected from Québécois nationalism and the writings of racialized minorities. Their voices cannot be heard in the archived sound recordings, as they were not invited to speak.

 

Performing the SpokenWeb Archive

If history is “linear and progressive,” wrote historian Raphael Samuel, memory is “time-warped.”27 There was nothing linear however about the first “Performing the SpokenWeb Archive” event that was organized in October 2012, as part of a new series of public readings from poets who had participated in the original Sir George Williams Poetry Series. George Bowering and David McFadden gamely read alongside their past selves during the public event which juxtaposed live readings with extracts from the digital archive. Audience members were also invited to share their memories of the earlier Poetry Series, as well as share their thoughts on the public reading of poetry more generally. What did they remember about the first time they ever heard poetry publicly read? What was it like to read their own poetry in public for the first time?Bowering and McFadden also agreed to be interviewed about their lives as Canadian poets.

The weaving of the audio extracts of the initial Series into the public event created a sense of temporal flux in the room, as the two older men read alongside their younger selves. The resulting dialogue across time generated a strong sense of individual and generational life review in the room. Time itself became audible to us. Earlier life history interviews with Bowering and McFadden likely contributed to this heightened feeling. Bowering and McFadden tended to shake their head in disbelief and commented on the “strangeness” of hearing their younger selves. In these moments, they too had become spectators. McFadden in particular commented on how the experience of reading and hearing his poetry was akin to having an out-of-body experience. As he explained it to us, “I just write a poem and the next thing I know it is floating around. I just don’t know. I can’t say what it is.”28

Notably, the October 2012 Performance of the SpokenWeb archive took place in the auditorium occupied by Ginsberg so many years earlier. The in-situ feeling of the location lent an air of authenticity to the 2012 performance, further contributing to the sense of play. Strictly speaking, it was not a historical reenactment as the poets and many audience members were decades older. In fact, there were relatively few people in the audience under 30 years of age. Perhaps, then, it is more useful to think of it as a “performative reenactment,” or a commemoration.29 To help transport the audience back in time, the event began with a short excerpt from the audio archive, setting the stage for Bowering and McFadden to ‘perform’ alongside their younger selves. In person, George Bowering read a series of poems including “Suzy,” and “David McFadden,” while excerpts from his 1971 reading were played back through the auditorium speakers. For his part, McFadden read a number of poems, including “The Death of Greg Curnoe,” first published in his 1995 collection There’ll Be Another.  As with Bowering, excerpts from McFadden’s 1971 reading, drawn almost entirely from The Great Canadian Sonnet (1970), were sampled throughout the live reading.

This auditory experience was met with smiles and muffled laughter. Naturally, the organizers and the poets themselves, both during the interview and in the public performance, spoke of the 1960s and 1970s as the golden age of Canadian poetry. In an oral history interview, Merlin Homer, a well-known Canadian artist and the partner of David McFadden noted that:

In the history of the arts there are times which are especially propitious for something to happen that the people are there and the era is right and the audience is right and suddenly there is a blossoming and it seems like these guys had a moment like that and that they really are something that isn’t going to be repeated.30

In his interview, McFadden was asked what it was like to hear his former self. To this he replied: “I just couldn’t believe it. It was just so amazing. I had lost all my memories of that particular series of readings; I didn’t even know that those existed, so it was so strange to hear it coming out. I knew it was me, but where did it come from? It was very strange!”31

Although McFadden did not specifically remember the substance of the reading he participated in at SGWU on January 15, 1971, he remembered anecdotes or amusing experiences from the Series that he believed were important. This is interesting because memories “serve to sustain a positive identity, and in old age memories are especially important for sustaining a positive sense of self.”32 McFadden seemed unsettled when he listened to the voice recordings of himself reading poetry because those memories had been entirely lost in the intervening decades. Thus, McFadden’s encounter with his younger self made visible the limitations of memory. Although it is unsettling to be confronted by a past you no longer recall, these audio recordings, like a photograph, represent a way to safeguard memories against time. McFadden’s experience with the recordings provoked a natural and insuppressible flow of remembering, illustrating how personal memories “are complex constructions in which present experience melds with images [or sounds] that are associated with past experience.”33

Memory serves a dominant function in oral history, as the life story “expresses our sense of self: who we are and how we got that way.”34 For her part, Mary Jo Mayes emphasizes the “storied quality” of personal narratives.35 We use narratives to describe and make sense of our everyday lives because “narrative is one of the ways by which people make sense of experience and communicate it to others.”36 Therefore, there is a deep narrative connection between literary studies and oral history, especially in regards to poetry, which often emerges as a narrated life experience. Narrative in oral history, like poetry, is not just the content of the story, although important, but how it is told. In this regard Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt explains that

A great poetry reading for me is one that not only interests me intellectually, but moves me. There is something intangible in that being moved, it is not simply emotional although one experiences it as an emotion, it has something to do with how the work addresses you in a very personal place. It is probably a complex of the emotional, the experiential, on an intellectual level, like what seems in some ways familiar yet also a stretch beyond the familiar way of thinking and also probably in some ways spiritual to use that word in a larger sense of where we are situation or how we are living in this life.

Marlatt explores the importance of reading a poem aloud in order to bridge the gap between reader and audience, a gap that is of great interest to the SpokenWeb project. Thus, in addition to interviewing poets who reading the Series, the SpokenWeb team also conducted interviews with individuals who attended the Bowering and McFadden “Performing the Archive” event, asking them to share their thoughts on the reading they had just experienced.

Inspired by the community memory clinics organized by the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, SpokenWeb designed a “memory booth” and set it up at the back of the project’s public events to record the thoughts, stories and remembered experiences of audience members.37 Unlike life history interviews, which often last hours, and unfold in people’s homes or an interview studio, the memory clinic idea is designed to latch onto a public event, or occur in a place where people gather. These in-situ interview recordings therefore tend to be shorter than 10 minutes. A large number of “interviews” can therefore be conducted in a short period of time. For theCentre d’histoire de Montréal, the memory clinic has helped to reveal a “hidden history of the buildings and streets, the places that constitute our common heritage, rendering it more accessible and evocative for the majority of citizens.”38 A wide variety of memory workshops have been developed in a growing number of research projects. In those cases where participants are engaged in sustained conversation, these workshops have been shown to facilitate community reconstruction and social regeneration in the aftermath of mass violence. At its best, it represents a “collective act of historical production.”39

Our own SpokenWeb memory booth was a much more modest undertaking, as we sought to hear from and interact with audience members. What did they find significant in the poetry re-reading? How did they distinguish between reading poetry and listening to it read in public? The responses that we collected were varied and often quite descriptive. For example, audience member Sabine Bergler told the videocamera:

I have just attended a poetry reading, it is not something I do or regularly indulge in, after a very lousy day, and I was struck by the fact of how informal many of the readers were and how many of the readings seemed to be engaging with the audience. How that seemed to be more important than the text itself…was the poets performance interaction with the audience. I have to think about the difference between the poet and the stand up comedian and possibly a performance artist.

Dr. Judith Herz, Booth Reflection, October 12th, 2013.

Image 1: Dr. Judith Herz, Booth Reflection, October 12th, 2013.

In another response Dr. Judith Herz, an English professor at Concordia University, reported:

I have been reading poetry silently and out loud to myself, to my children and to my classes, I teach here at Concordia. I had to as an undergraduate memorize quite a bit of poetry and my mother was able to remember well into her nineties all the poetry she used to read to me. I also teach a lot of poetry. So poetry is just a part of the metabolism of my day and I like to hear poets read their poetry. They don’t always read it as well as people who just read out loud, but they often have a presence in the line, a person, a face, a voice a measure in their speech that makes one, the listener, hear it in a slightly different way and sometimes in an amazingly different way from reading it on the page. So…poetry readings have always been part of what I do, where I go and what I am interested in.40

The use of the digital recordings in the public (re)reading generated a thoughtful and intimate atmosphere. With the sense of time having passed, a feeling of generational melancholy or nostalgia seemed to prevail in the room. As Marjorie Perloff has suggested, “the ability to move from one medium to another and back again allows the poet to experiment with temporal an spatial frames.”41 The project thus used the digital recordings as a catalyst for in-situ remembering which was then added to the online sound archive under development. In addition to the now digitized sound recordings of the original Poetry Series, the project has added audio and video recordings with participating poets, Series organizers and audience members, then and now. This represents a unique archive for literary researchers interested in oral literary history.

The audience at the Performing the Archive event acknowledged their fortuity and the manner in which they were participating and learning simultaneously. Those who were interviewed reflected on the effect produced by the spoken poem and how this informs how they understand the words themselves. Audience member Stuart Ross notes how:

It can make an incredible difference to hear the voice. Unfortunately, I have heard the voice of e. e. cummings on tape and that destroyed his poetry for me. But on a night like tonight, hearing the voicing of David McFadden and George Bowering, although I have heard them so many times before, it can only continue to enrich my readings of their work.42

Similarly, Wanda O’Connor explained: “It is the voice of the poet, through the voice of the poet that you come to understand the poem and the poet’s work. This is what George Bowering was saying tonight and I completely agree.”

The importance of poetry as spoken word was clearly evident when Bowering and McFadden were interviewed together. Bowering, as one of the organizers of the series, understood the Poetry Series as an essential part of his role as a university teacher and mentor: “this was central, not peripheral, this was the central act of teaching, to bring this world of poetry that I had lived in, I thought so other people could peep into it and listening into it and see what was there.” Howard Fink, another one of the organizers, similarly emphasized the social context of the Poetry Series:

I thought it has a really important social function. In fact, something happens when a poet confronts a group of sympathetic people which cannot happen on a page and what you’re getting is the text the subtexts and all the implications; the emotional and rational implications, the speed, the hesitations and the pauses. Whatever is happening he is communicating it directly and it is not something that you can get off a page.43

To demonstrate this point, Bowering relates a story of how he had set out to read “all the American poetry” in the library, working his way through the alphabet. It therefore took some time for him to reach William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music, and it fell out of my hands as if it was hot onto the concrete with a hell of a noise . . . It is called “The Desert Music” because it takes place in old El Paso and the bridge to what is now the most murderess city in the world and they hear the music that is being played in the cantina while they’re watching a stripper on the Mexican side of the city and so forth. He . . . Williams gets on the page, every single moment, every neuron that is being activated by what he was thinking and I hadn’t seen that before.” Later, Bowering got his hands on a William Carlos Williams tape or LP – and had an epiphany:

I heard the poem at last right. I had only seen its record, it’s shadow, what they had somehow managed to rescue, but they hadn’t really got it.  They had got some isotope and stuck it on the page, but then I got to hear the real actual poem. Then when I went back and read the poems to myself, that I had been hearing Williams read on the record, I could read them! I could at last hear them…when before I wasn’t so sure.44

Far from being an effort to revive the authorial intention of the poet, oral literary history allows for a shifting perspective that uncovers multiple subjectivities including that of the individual listener.

 

Conclusion

The diffusion of the portable audiocassette recorder in the 1950s revolutionized the parallel worlds of oral poetry and oral history. Stephen Morrissey, then a student who attended the Series regularly, was captivated by recording devices: “I had seen Scotty Gardner with these cassette recorders and he’d play things during group meetings and I knew I had to get one of those!” and Morrissey recorded every public reading that he attended thereafter.45 The newness of the technology no doubt contributed to the decision to record the Poetry Series. One also suspects that the organizers also sensed the importance of the historical moment, coming as it did during momentous times and at a key transitional moment in Canadian poetry. But like the hundreds of thousands of analogue oral history interview recordings that sit un-listened to in public archives, these recordings lay dormant until they were reactivated as part of the SpokenWeb digital spoken word archival project.46

As oral historians, we have sought to contextualize these archival sound documents with extended life story interviews with Poetry Series organizers, participants, and audience members. It is important to situate the Series, if we are to appreciate whose voices we are, and are not, hearing in the audio recordings. The Poetry Series ran from 1966 to 1974, yet not a single French-language poet was invited to read. Nor were there racialized minorities or aboriginal peoples on the program. As a result, as far as we know, every poet who read in the Series was English-speaking and white. That said, many of the poets were performing their national or regional identities as Canadians or as a new generation coming of age in the 1960s or early 1970s. By listening to their former selves in the audio recordings, McFadden and Bowering are challenging the limitations of time, essentially meeting their younger selves. The way in which they collaborate with themselves is “not simply a nostalgic return, but rather a presencing that uncovers lost possibilities a going back to go forward.”47 The poets are “playing with time.” In doing, so the temporality of the moment became transparent.


  1. It was located on the ground floor of the Hall Building, the same massive modernist building that would make headlines three months later for the Sir George Williams Affair, or “computer riot.” Students occupied the university’s computer centre for two weeks to protest institutional racism. The occupation ended in violence, a fire broke out and computer cards were thrown from the ninth floor windows. 

  2. Annie Murray and Jared Wiercinski, “A Design Methodology for Web-based Sound Archives,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8 (2014). 

  3. Steven High, Jessica Mills, and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Telling Our Stories/Animating Our Past: A Status Report on Oral History and New Media,” Canadian Journal of Communications 37, 3 (September 2012), 1–22; Steven High, Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014), especially chapter 6. 

  4. Jason Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966–74,” Journal of Canadian Studies 46, 3 (Fall 2012), 28–59. As scholar Alain Renoir noted, “we are ready to inquire how oral and oral-derived literature generate meaning on their own terms, and in the process discover layers and even worlds of meaning.” John Miles Foley, “Oral-Formulaic Rhetoric and the Interpretation of Written Texts,” in John Miles Foley’s Oral Tradition in Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), 76. 

  5. Alistair Thompson, “Four paradigm revolutions in oral history”, Oral History Review 34, 1, 2007, 50. 

  6. Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories (Albany: State University of New York Press,1991), 47. 

  7. Portelli, The Death of Luigi, 47. 

  8. Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulla: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1997), 5.  

  9. Michael Frisch, “Oral History and Hard Times,” in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds. The Oral History Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 33–35. 

  10. Julie Cruikshank, The Social Life of Stories: Narratives of Knowing (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 2, 4. 

  11. Michael Frisch, “Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method.” In Handbook of Emergent Methods, ed. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, 221–38. Guildford Press, 2008; and, Steven High, “Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media.” Oral History 38, 1 (2010): 101–12. 

  12. Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 

  13. Till Geiger, Niamh Moore, and Mike Savage, The Archive in Question, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods Review Paper (NCRM/016). March 2010. 

  14. Jason Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966–1974,” Journal of Canadian Studies 46, 3 (Fall 2012), 28. 

  15. Sean Mills, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010); David Austin, Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties (Montreal. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013). 

  16. Sean Mills, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 95–106. 

  17. Stephen Morrissey, interview conducted by Jason Camlot and Ashley Clarkson. SpokenWeb, Montreal, Quebec, June 12, 2013. 

  18. Margaret Atwood. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972). 

  19. Richard Rohmer. Ultimatum: Oil or War? (Toronto: Simon & Shuster, 1973). 

  20. George Bowering’s introduction of Eli Mandel and D.G. Jones. The Poetry Series Audio Recording. 1969. www.spokenweb.concordia.ca . 

  21. We listened to, or read the transcriptions for, the following poetry readings. 1967: Irving Layton; 1968: bp nichol; 1969: D. G. Jones, Eli Mandel, Robert Duncan, Muriel Rukeyser, bill bissett, Allen Ginsberg, FR Scott, Robert Duncan, Jerome Rothenberg, Milton Kessler, Stan Persky , and Gladys Hindmarch; 1970: Robert Creeley, Al Purdy, Diane Wakoski, Frank Davey, Robert Hogg, Ron Loewinsohn, Joel Oppenheimer, Daphne Marlatt, David Bromige, and Ted Berrigan; 1971: David McFadden, and Dorothea Livesay. 

  22. Irving Layton. The Poetry Series Audio Recording. 1967. SpokenWeb Digital Audio Archives. www.spokenweb.concordia.ca. 

  23. For more on the difficulty of finding one’s own words, see Dennis Lee, “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space,” Boundary 2 3, 1 (Autumn 1974), 151–168. 

  24. See for example Jason Camlot, “The Foster Poetry Conference (1963)”, article in manuscript, forthcoming in French translation as “Le Foster Poetry Conference (1963)” in Voix et Images. 

  25. D.G. Jones, “In Search of America,” Boundary 2 3, 1 (Autumn 1974), 227. 

  26. Daphne Marlatt, interview with Ashley Clarkson, via Skype, September 12, 2014. 

  27. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1994), ix. 

  28. David McFadden, “Conference Question and Answer Period”, SpokenWeb, Montreal, QC, October 12th, 2012. 

  29. We get this idea from Brian Conway, “Moving through Time and Space: Performing Bodies in Derry, Northern Ireland,” Journal of Historical Sociology 20, 1–2 (2007), 102–3. See also Della Pollock, Remembering: Oral History Performance (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2005), introduction. For more on oral history performance and embodied remembering see, Steven High, Edward Little and Thi Ry Duong, eds. Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media and Performance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013). 

  30. David McFadden interview with Jason Camlot and Ashley Clarkson, SpokenWeb, Montreal, Quebec, October 12th October, 2012. http://spokenweb.concordia.ca/oral-literary-history/david-mcfadden-oct-12-2012/

  31. David McFadden, SpokenWeb. http://spokenweb.concordia.ca/oral-literary-history/david-mcfadden-oct-12-2012/

  32. Alistair Thompson, “Four paradigm revolutions in oral history”, Oral History Review 34, 1 (2007), 56. 

  33. Suzannah Radstone, “Reconceiving Binaries: the Limits of Memory,” History Workshop Journal 75, 1 (Spring 2013) 135. 

  34. Charlotte Linde, Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 3. 

  35. Mary Jo Maynes, et al. Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 4. 

  36. Maynes, Telling Stories, 106. 

  37. Jean-Francois Leclerc, “Comment être un muse de ville au service des citoyens? Un parcours et quelques pistes d’action,” in Inaki Arrieta Urtizberea, ed. Museos Y Parques Natureles (Universidad del Pais Vasco, 2010), 21. See also: Jean-Francois Leclerc and J. Pires, « La mémoire et l’identité de Montréal; des repères territoriaux pour une mémoire sans frontières », Montréal Cultures, Cultures et quartiers, 3 (2003), http://www.culturemontreal.ca/mtl_cultures/030612mc_index.htm 

  38. Jean-Francois, Leclerc. “A closer look at those who work with memories: a word from the director,” Centre D’Histoire de Montreal. http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/portal/page?pageid=9077,102011715&dad=portal&schema=PORTAL (accessed, August, 2013). 

  39. Pilar Riano-Alcala, “Seeing the Past, Visions of the Future: Memory Workshops with Internally Displaced Persons in Columbia,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, eds. Oral History and Public Memories (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2008), 286. 

  40. Judith Herz, “SpokenWeb Reflection,” SpokenWeb memory clinic, Montreal, Quebec, October 12th, 2013. 

  41. Marjorie Perloff, “Seeing the Page/Paging the Screen” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, Adalaide Morris, Thomas Swiss, eds. (Boston: MIT Press, 2006), 146. 

  42. Stuart Ross, “SpokenWeb Reflection,” SpokenWeb memory clinic, Montreal, Quebec, October 12th, 2013. 

  43. Howard Fink, interview with Jason Camlot and Steven High, SpokenWeb, Montreal, Quebec, October 12th, 2012. 

  44. George Bowering, “SpokenWeb Conference: Question and Answer Session,” Spokenweb, Montreal, Quebec, October 12th, 2012. 

  45. Stephen Morrissey, interview with Jason Camlot and Ashley Clarkson, SpokenWeb, Montreal, Quebec, April 22, 2013. 

  46. Michael Frisch, “Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method, “ in Sharlene Nagy, Hesse-Biber, and Patricia Leavy, eds. Handbook of Emergent Methods (Guilford Press, 2008), 223. 

  47. Richard Jackson, “The Generous Time,” Boundary 2, 9, 2 (Winter, 1981), 4. 


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