Posted by Katherine McLeod on February 12, 2021
On the night of January 24, 1969, Muriel Rukeyser read from Elegies at a reading that took place in Montreal, Canada. But she didn’t read all of Elegies. She only read “Elegy in Joy” and, before reading it, she commented on the fact that she had never “cut it up” but that she would that night:
Here’s one piece of a long poem, it’s the last of a group called Elegies which one hardly dares name anything anymore. It’s called “Elegy in Joy” and this is just a beginning piece, I wanted to do it tonight this way, I’ve never cut it up. – Muriel Rukeyser
She then proceeds to read “Elegy in Joy,” and she ends the poem after the first section (which explains why, even though she says that it is “the last of a group called Elegies,” it is “just a beginning piece”). As a result of ending the poem where she does – due to having “cut it up” – the audience hears these lines as though they were the end of the poem:
Every elegy is the present: freedom eating our hearts,
death and explosion, and the world unbegun.
We too can hear Rukeyser reading these lines because this reading of Rukeyser’s was recorded, and it has been digitized as part of SpokenWeb. We’ll hear more about SpokenWeb shortly, but let’s start with the sound of Rukeyser reading “Elegy in Joy”:
What was the occasion for Rukeyser’s reading and how was the recording archived? This blog post explains how we came to have this recording of “Elegy in Joy” and, as part of that explanation, I will tell you about the process that led to my “unarchiving” (Camlot and McLeod) of this recording through the making of ShortCuts (released monthly on The SpokenWeb Podcast feed). ShortCuts listens closely and carefully to short clips of audio from SpokenWeb’s audio collections. It launched in January 2020 (first as Audio of the Month) and it is produced by myself, Katherine McLeod, hosted by Hannah McGregor, and mixed and mastered by Stacey Copeland. When devising the concept of ShortCuts, I wanted the series to be informed by the analogue techniques of cutting and splicing tape, but to consider how these ‘cuts’ work in the digital format of the podcast as literary criticism.
When making a ShortCuts minisode in November 2020, I selected a clip from this 1969 Rukeyser reading, not knowing that it would lead to a connection with Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive and not knowing that it contained a rare recording of “Elegy in Joy.” I was not coming to the recording as a Rukeyser scholar, but I was coming to the recording as a scholar writing a book on recordings of Canadian women poets on the radio and having published on poetry and performance – and I was captivated by Rukeyser’s performance during this reading. Rukeyser begins the reading with a long, somewhat improvised, reflection upon what the poetry reading is as an event: a moment in time, with the listener encountering the sound of the poem as the speaker speaks it, and hearing that sound fully and through the body. It was compelling to hear how Rukeyser then enacted this concept of the reading through her poetry, and to consider what this recording could teach us about archival listening. I ended up creating three minisodes devoted to Rukeyser’s 1969 reading, with the third being released during the same week as the symposium Revisiting Rukeyser’s Elegies. My hope is that these ShortCuts minisodes, along with the sharing of the recording itself and the story of how the recording came to be, contribute to your listening to Rukeyser, for this symposium and for the future.
Sir George Williams University, The Poetry Series (1966-1974)
At Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in downtown Montreal, Canada, there was a poetry series held from 1966-1974 for which the recordings have now been digitized and made accessible by SpokenWeb. Here is the description of that series and audio collection:
SGW POETRY READING SERIES
Between 1965 and 1974 members of the Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University) English Department in Montreal hosted a series of poetry readings that was conceived as an ongoing encounter between local poets and the avant-garde poetics of some of the most important writers from the United States and the rest of Canada. Sponsored by “The Poetry Committee” of the Faculty of Arts and the SGWU English Department—and organized primarily by English professors Howard Fink, Stanton Hoffman, Wynn Francis, Irving Layton, Roy Kiyooka, and (from 1967-71) George Bowering—these readings involved more than sixty poets from across North America.
Known simply as “The Poetry Series”, audio recordings of these readings were made on Mylar 1 mil. tape using mobile reel-to-reel tape machines. The Concordia University Archives received a grant in 2007 that has allowed all 65 reels of tape (more than 100 hours of audio) to be digitized. So, this sound from an interesting period of transformation in Canadian poetics, and of self-scrutiny for Montreal poetry, represents a rich and useable archive for scholarly research. (“SGW Poetry Series”)
Over 60 poets read in the SGW Poetry Series, with a mix of American and Canadian poets: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Ted Berrigan, Earle Birney, bpNichol, Robin Blaser, bill bissett, George Bowering, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Maxine Gadd, Allen Ginsberg, Maria Gladys Hindmarch, Daryl Hine, Barbara Howes, Kenneth Koch, Roy Kiyooka, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daphne Marlatt, Jackson Mac Low, Al Purdy, Joe Rosenblatt, F.R. Scott, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, Diane Wakoski, Phyllis Webb, James Wright, among many others, and – most pertinent to this blog post and as one of the 10 women to read in the series – Muriel Rukeyser.
Rukeyser read at the SGW Poetry Series in downtown Montreal on January 24, 1969. That reading was recorded. The recording sat with all of the other recordings of the series until they were deposited into the university archives in the early 2000s and then were digitized and made accessible through SpokenWeb as literary audio recordings.
The story of how these specific recordings came to be part of SpokenWeb and how they informed the valuing and conceptualizing of literary audio is best told by Jason Camlot, primary investigator of SpokenWeb as a SSHRC-funded partnership grant. You can read the story, as told by Camlot, in a transcribed conversation with Al Filreis and Steve Evans in “Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century” a piece that appears in an entire issue of Amodern devoted to the SGW Poetry Reading Series (Amodern 4, 2015). Or, you can listen to Camlot tell a similar version of this story to producers Cheryl Gladu and Katherine McLeod in the first episode of The SpokenWeb Podcast:
The story of finding the tapes of the SGW Poetry Series is part of the story of how the Rukeyser recording came to be here today. At the top of this blog post, you will see a photograph of the tape from 1969 that was digitized and made accessible in its entirety here, with comments between poems carefully transcribed by student research assistants. Making the tape accessible is one part of the story, and then listening to it is another. As a critical listening, Rukeyser’s reading in the SGW Poetry Series is examined at length in an attentive close-listening-as-article written by Jane Malcolm (and published in that previously mentioned issue of Amodern). I had not read Malcolm’s article when I first listened to the Rukeyser recording, but, having read it now, I agree with her that, on that January night, the reading provided a space for the poem to become a meeting place: “[T]he SGWU reading series presented Rukeyser with the ideal forum to create the ‘poetry of meeting-places’ she argued for in The Life of Poetry. From the moment Rukeyser asks the audience members (and recording auditors) to summon what we might call their inner poets, she works to destroy the illusion of hierarchy poetry readings tend to reinforce” (Malcolm). That dismantling of expectation is exactly what Rukeyser does at the start of this reading when she speaks at length about why we go to poetry readings – what are we going to listen to – and establishes a sense of shared community through the reading.
The way that Rukeyser began her 1969 reading in Montreal was what caught my attention while selecting an archival audio clip for ShortCuts, and I had to listen to this poet’s voice. Who was this voice? What was this voice? And how was this poet, Rukeyser, not only asking us to consider what a poetry reading can do but also how is she showing us what a recording of a poetry reading can do – then and now? These are the questions that I explore in three ShortCuts minisodes based on this recording.
What follows are transcribed excerpts from ShortCuts that aim to demonstrate how the minisodes have evolved through acts of listening to Rukeyser’s voice, and how connections through this listening have led to “Elegy in Joy.”
ShortCuts 2.2 The Poem Among Us
Welcome to ShortCuts – short stories about how literature sounds. Our ‘short cut’ this month is an archival recording that manages to transport us into the feeling of being at a live poetry reading. […] Poet Muriel Rukeyser puts it beautifully and inquisitively when she says that we go to poetry readings […] to experience something created in that space and and that time that we all share together: “something is what we call shared, something is arrived at – there.” […] Rukeyser’s opening statement [to her reading in 1969 in Montreal] helps us to understand what we are listening to when listening to an archival recording, one that is far removed from the event itself. Following Rukeyser’s line of thought, in archival listening, we listen to a recording of relationality unfolding, creating space for the poem to be among us, between us, there.
Listen to the full audio of this ShortCuts minisode here.
ShortCuts 2.4 You Are Here
In [Rukeyser’s 1969] reading, there are poems in which one is acutely aware of being together, listening, even while listening to the recording apart. So how did her reading create that effect? Let’s listen to one more short cut from that same reading – a poem called “Anemone.” It’s one that not only exemplifies the creation of connection between the poet and audience but it’s also one that expresses the ecological attention of her story: the ways in which we are bound to each other through the earth and, in this case, through the ocean. […] Listen to how she creates a relationality through this poem. Listen to the breath that the poem creates. Listen with your body as the poem breathes in and out. It is breathing. Hear it forge a connection with the audience, and ask yourself what it would feel like to hear it in 1969, and what it feels like to hear it now […] “Anemone” [is] a poem that creates a space of listening that is, at once, oceanic and intimate, and a poem that says to the listener: “You are here.”
Listen to the full audio of this ShortCuts minisode here.
ShortCuts 2.5 Connections
In this season of ShortCuts we’ve spent some time in a 1969 recording of poet Muriel Rukeyser, and we’re going to stay in that recording for this minisode, partly due to the depth of material within this single recording and partly as an opportunity to reflect upon what a minisode can do – through archival listening – to make connections. Rukeyser once said that poetry is “a meeting place” and this minisode suggests that, like poetry, a podcast is a meeting place. Listen to find out how we arrive at this meeting place through a recording of “Elegy in Joy” and listen again, now, to the words: “Every elegy is the present.”
Find this ShortCuts minisode here after its release on Feb 15, 2021.
Camlot, Jason. “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966-74.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 46 no. 3, 2012, p. 28-59.
Camlot, Jason and Katherine McLeod. “Introduction: Unarchiving the Literary Event.” CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2019.
Camlot, Jason, Al Filreis, and Steve Evans. “Literary Archives in the 21st Century.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), https://amodern.net/article/beyond-text/.
Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Gladu, Cheryl and Katherine McLeod, producers. “Stories of SpokenWeb.” The SpokenWeb Podcast, https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/stories-of-spokenweb/.
Malcolm, Jane. “The Poem Among Us, Between Us, There: Muriel Rukeyser’s Meta-Poetics and the Communal Soundscape.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), http://amodern.net/article/poem-among-us/.
McLeod, Katherine. “Connections.” ShortCuts 2.5 (Feburary 2021), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/shortcuts/.
—. “The Poem Among Us.” ShortCuts 2.2 (November 2020), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/the-poem-among-us/.
—. “You Are Here.” ShortCuts 2.4 (January 2021), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/you-are-here/.
Mitchell, Christine. “Again the Air Conditioners: Finding Poetry in the Institutional Archive.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), https://amodern.net/article/again-air-conditioners/.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Muriel Rukeyser at SGWU, 1969.” SpokenWeb, 24 January 1969, https://montreal.spokenweb.ca/sgw-poetry-readings/muriel-rukeyser-at-sgwu-1969/.
“SGW Poetry Series” SpokenWeb Montreal, https://montreal.spokenweb.ca/sgw-poetry-readings/.
Dr. Katherine McLeod (@kathmcleod) researches archives, performance, and poetry. She has co-edited the collection CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event (with Jason Camlot, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). She is writing a monograph (under contract with Wilfrid Laurier University Press) that is a feminist listening to recordings of women poets reading on CBC Radio. She produces monthly audio content for SpokenWeb’s ShortCuts as part of The SpokenWeb Podcast feed. She is the 2020-2021 Researcher-in-Residence at the Concordia University Library. http://katherinemcleod.ca/