- Robert Creeley in Transition 1967/1970:Changing Formats for the Public Poetry Reading
How is a poet, stepping up to the podium, affected by the "format of the poetry reading" as a generic event built upon presuppositions of performance? Alternatively, how might a poet affect, resist, or even transform the format of the poetry reading by challenging such presuppositions? The present essay will pursue answers to these questions by focusing on some of the more common features of the poetry reading as it existed in the late 1960s—what I have just called the format of the poetry reading—and the poet Robert Creeley's reflective, artistic relationship to that historically specific format at a key transitional moment in his approach both to writing and performance. Working with the contents of an archive of audio materials that partially documents the Sir George Williams Poetry Series—a sequence of poetry readings that ran in Montreal from 1966 to 1974 and featured over sixty poets from across North America—my essay will listen closely to two recorded readings of Creeley, in particular, for answers, to show how these reading events worked to stage and model the format of the 1960s poetry reading and to present an account of Creeley's resistance to the "standardized and university-accredited poetry reading" at this transitional moment in his career (Lazer 119). [End Page 215]
A project that aims to analyze the poetry reading event as a formal literary entity, even the modest, focused version of such a project that this essay represents, would not have been possible twenty years ago in the manner that it is today. We work at a moment of significant transition in literary studies, a moment when core ideas about what comprises the literary archive and the "the literary" itself are in a state of productive expansion and flux. The conception of the archive has broadened beyond traditional models of authorial structure and provenance to be rediscovered as a wide range of actions and entities: as a repertoire of gestures that hold "traumatic flashbacks,… hallucinations" and other "ephemeral and invalid forms of knowledge and evidence" (Taylor 193), as "new genres of expression" in which difficult "feelings are deposited" despite the record's inherent ephemerality (Cvetkovich 1, 7) as conceptual instantiations of "an entire spectrum of broadly conceived collections" (Eichorn 18). Feminist scholars have played a particularly important role in this recalibration of our understanding of the discernibility of accumulations of artifacts and actions in archival terms. Ephemeral traces of artistic and political collective actions and events have accrued new discernibility and meaning as a result of recently developed models of interpretation and theorization and because of a massive migration of materials into digital environments.
The literary reading series has become increasingly discernible to us as a potential object of study due to the rise of networked digital media and the associated development of online repositories of literary recordings transferred from an array of analogue sources (Camlot and Wershler). Collections of sound recordings previously held as relatively inaccessible analogue media artifacts within institutional special collections, or just as often in shoeboxes in the basements of community organizations and individuals, are appearing as audible digital artifacts through a variety of interfaces. The readings of Robert Creeley I will discuss are one case in point.1 Their initial instantiation on tape transformed an ephemeral event into a temporal media artifact. The eventual digitization and online presentation of those analogue artifacts has allowed me to consider these events in terms of their temporal scope and detail, thus discerning their larger shape as discrete and related events, and to identify moments as critically significant with time stamps in reference to the digitized media artifact. The media formats, past and present, of the recorded events have afforded new possibilities for providing a critical account of the poetry [End Page 216] reading as it concerned a particular writer during a particular historical period.
In telling a story about Creeley and poetry readings, I will be honing in on a specific case study that will serve to illustrate wider possibilities for a critical approach to the poetry reading event as a field of interpretation. Much...