By JUDY WEST
Photo credit: Mark Stehle
Poets, says Al Filreis, are a technologically savvy bunch. Thats one reason the Penn English professor is so optimistic about PennSound, the web-based sound archive hes created with fellow English professor Charles Bernstein that makes MP3 files of poetry readings available to anyone who cares to download them.
Launched on Jan. 1, PennSound (www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound) features readings from Kelly Writers House, SUNY Buffalo (where Bernstein taught before he came to Penn) and other venues from Vancouver to Brooklyn. The archive also includes rare recordings never before available, many of them collected and recorded over the years by Bernstein himself.
PennSound works very much like a music-downloading site. Because the poetry readings are broken up into single poems, which range from about three to seven minutesthe same length as a typical songtheyre easily downloadable to MP3 players, iPods or a computer desktop. The difference is the PennSound downloads are free. Were setting ourselves up as an alternative to the music industrys proprietary, greedy approach,says Filreis.
Filreis sees the site as an outreach tool, too. He hopes to capture the interest of some of the vast population of people who are starting to enjoy music this way, controlling their own sound, choosing their own menu of songs. Some of that population, hes certain, could become interested in poetry too, if they were awakened to the sound of the poets voice outside of the classroom. Bernstein sees the performance and printing of a poem as complementary. Each has a different potential, as well as limitations. Listening is a crucial component of our understanding of what the work is.
Filreis says his own experience using PennSound has been surprising. The other night, he says, I made a nice dinner for my kids and it was clearly going to take a while to wash the dishes. Instead of listening to NPR I listened to Ted Barrigan reading his sonnets from 1981. I had read them but never heard them. I dont think Id really appreciated them before, and Im a teacher of contemporary poetry. By the time I was done, I was looking around for more dishes to wash because I had just spent 45 minutes being really, really stirred and moved. Among Bernsteins favorite recordings is the late Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid reading from his epic poem series, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. Here, he says, the audio component is vital. Its in a Scots dialect, explains Bernstein. If you try to read it, its in unfamiliar looking English and you wouldnt have any idea how it sounds.
Michael Ryan, director of Penn Librarys Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, has been working with the English professors to create an advanced cataloguing tool for PennSound. Thats still a work in progress, but when its up and running, says Bernstein, users will be able to search for any term that interests them, including, for example, poetry readings in San Francisco in 1962.
Theres so much more to come, this is just the tip of the iceberg, says Filreis, who acknowledges that much of what is currently on the site is there because the files were in their possession and permission had already been secured. But were curating this, and what were looking for is stuff that will charm people and strike them as unique.And, presumably, make poetry lovers of us all.
Originally published on January 27, 2005