(photos courtesy of Kelly Writers House. View more photos here)
If you've ever gone to a Kelly Writers House poetry event, you might not have noticed the staff member on the left of the Arts Café recording the entire experience with a camera and a microphone. Yet, in the contemporary world of poetry, it might be one of the most profound and innovative things that is happening. Right here on campus, nuzzled between windy Locust Bridge and the industrial high–rises, a poetry revolution is on its way. The KWH community's fantastic programming is known for having offerings beyond the old–fashioned ways of your high school English teacher who made you read Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalist troupe from a dusty paperback book. One of these projects is PennSound, sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.
Two English faculty members have ensured the preservation and distribution of the words of the poets who come to read at the Writers House. In collaboration with the CPCW, Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein created PennSound in 2005—an online archive that digitizes a diverse collection of voices and ideas to make poetry accessible to not only Penn students, but also the general public. It has gained Penn and the Kelly Writers House international recognition for celebrating a diverse array of poets and for bringing poetry into the digital age.
PennSound is the largest collection of poetry sound files on the Internet. As of 2016, the website offers more than 60,000 full length and single–poem recordings. Every library catalogue entry (i.e. recording) is made into an mp3 file, available for public download. Embedded metadata includes bibliographic information and key facts about the recording, such as the author, title, place and date of the recording, along with a copyright. PennSound attracts an estimated 15 million downloads a month, and it has become a tool which many poets preserve their work.
Last Thursday evening, Street witnessed a performance by the two most recent artists to have their work recorded to PennSound. With two laptops and a projector screen, musician Andrew Whiteman and filmmaker Adrienne Amato gave audiences a glimpse into Sonic Poetry—a poetic style that uses a mash–up of voice recordings, music beats and video to create a multi–sensory experience. Whiteman, originally a bass guitar player, realized that with today’s technology, “music starts to come out of your laptop.”
He and Amato began to work together in basements, and said that after 20 years, “it was about time we started a band.” Amato attributed their ease of working together and their harmony to this longtime friendship and collaboration. She explained that this really helped when they are in the process of selecting video and audio for their mashups. Amato first compiles imagery and videos using a computer program called Module 8, which she then sends to Whiteman. Whiteman then creates a series of beats to play along during the performance. The rest is decided during the performance itself: the music composition is improvised, as is the organization of the images that complement the audio. The final product includes source poems from poets such as Lorenzo Thomas and Anne Waldman—poets who would ordinarily never be read in the same book or class. This result in a social and political commentary through "investigative poetry.”
Whiteman and Amato’s work speaks to the very mission of PennSound: to utilize technology to change the way that poetry is both created and distributed. For example, an image of a train on the projector screen appears in a kaleidoscope effect. Amato says this is because she wants the audience to experience different ways of perceiving a familiar image, and not take for granted its different angles and possibilities. In the same way, PennSound presents a different way to experience art. It is a place of "convergence for the reader–listener and the poetic tradition," explains Filreis in a 2006 PennSound podcast.
PennSound also helps poets work on their craft. Filreis states in the same podcast that it "must also be observed that the new availability of recordings... can remind poets of their influences." He cites as an example of how, upon hearing recordings of the modernist Ezra Pound, a Penn alumnus, helped a contemporary poet observe new tendencies in Pound's poetry as well as his own. Additionally, PennSound has great pedagogical value: Professors and teachers all over the world are given the materials to engage in the classroom.
Poetry is often meant to be heard, yet spoken words are lost forever as soon as they are said. PennSound makes sure that this isn't the case. Whether you are a lover of poetry or not, this project deserves your attention. It's like Poetry Spotify— except instead of ads, you get literary criticism from some of the brightest literary minds of the 20th and 21st centuries.