After reading for about eleven minutes, Earle Birney pauses to ask if there is any water to drink. There is a glass and a pitcher (audibly present) but nearly empty, and thus the evening’s host George Bowering heads out into the hallway to find Birney a cold beverage. This interlude of extra-poetic speech reveals that, despite it being mid-February, the room temperature feels more like summer and, more importantly, the humourous nature of the extra-poetic speech attunes the listener to the sociality as well as to the poetry.
Dorothy Livesay’s poem “The Unquiet Bed” has appeared on the pages of many Canadian poetry anthologies, but what cannot be heard fully on the page is the sound of this poem as a ballad. It is an “unquiet” poem. The refrain – “The woman I am / is not what you see” – suggests that both the speaker and the poem are not what you see, though perhaps they are what you hear.
During her introductory remarks (featured in last week’s Audio of the Week), poet Muriel Rukeyser asks the audience not only to raise their hands if they’ve ever written a poem but also to reflect upon what drives people to attend poetry readings in the first place. She speculates that people come and listen to poems because of embodied elements – the breathing, the heartbeat, the rhythms – and because of something else that is created while sharing a poem together. In her reading, there are poems in which one is acutely aware of being together, listening, even while listening to the recording. This poem is one of them: “Anemone” (The Speed of Darkness, 1968) – a poem that enacts Rukeyser’s opening remarks by making the room at once oceanic and intimate, and by saying to the listener: “You are here.”
In her opening remarks, poet Muriel Rukeyser asks her audience to raise their hands if they have ever written a poem. We hear a murmur and bits of laughter and, presumably, hands are raised. She thanks them, explaining that she has begun asking every audience this question and that “there’s always the moment of silence, and looking around first, and generally, quite slowly, almost all the hands go up.” Before reading a single poem, she manages to create a community of listeners and of poets. As Jane Malcolm has argued, if Rukeyser’s goal is “to occupy the room with poetry,” then, even without knowing how many raised their hands, “we are now listening to a collective, to one mere poet in a room of poets.” We start to hear the room as collectively invested in the questions of what a poetry reading is and why poetry readings as live events are worth seeking out – questions that we may also ask ourselves while seeking out and listening to these recordings today.
After reading for about 45 minutes, BC poet Maxine Gadd invites host Richard Sommer to improvise on her flute to the poem “Shore Animals.” Starting with the negotiation between Gadd and Sommer about what to read and how to perform together, a process that constitutes its own audible improvisation, this clip includes the first two minutes of a six-minute improvisation, which ends with a crescendo into a raucous shout. Their improvisation is a singular moment when an audience member formally performs in the SGW Poetry Series. Though, at the same time, this recording reminds listeners that the audience is always present – ready to improvise, interject, and even interrupt – and that the audience is also what we are listening to as archival listeners.
The last Audio of the Week featured Roy Kiyooka introducing Phyllis Webb and explaining what the SGW (Sir George Williams) Poetry Series attempted to achieve through its programming of Canadian and American poets from 1966-1974. In this week’s audio clip, Atwood first explains the illness haunting her voice and then starts her reading with the ghostly poem, “This is a Photograph of Me,” also the first poem in The Circle Game (1966). Despite its matter-of-fact title, this poem presents not a clear picture but rather a blurred trace of a haunted voice: “The photograph was taken / the day after I drowned.” Before her rise to celebrity (evident when Atwood reads again at SWGU in 1974), here is Atwood in 1967, at the start of her career, telling the reader and listener that this photograph-as-poem is a representation of me. But who is speaking? Listen closely, and “eventually / you will be able to see me.”
Between 1966 and 1974, faculty members of Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University) in Montreal hosted a series of poetry readings that was conceived as an ongoing encounter between local poets and a diverse range of writers from across the United States and Canada. In one of the first recorded readings in this series (a reading featuring Canadian poets Phyllis Webb and Gwendolyn MacEwen held in November 1966), organizing committee member Roy Kiyooka explained the initial rationale of the series program. In this audio clip, Kiyooka explains the reading series as an attempt to sound the diversity of North American poetry in the mid 1960s.