On October 12th, 2012 Jason Camlot and myself had the pleasure of interviewing David McFadden and George Bowering. Their individual interviews shed light upon what poetry meant to their identity and to the evolution of Canadian poetry. An interesting facet to these interviews was their joint interview, because it allowed for a shared experience in which both poets could collaborate on their memories. For a graduate student in History with little to no background in poetry it was a great way to step into their world and see poetry through their eyes.
During David’s individual interview I was taken with his light-hearted manner and modesty. His wife Merlin joined us for his interviews and I believe her presence created a calm space for memories to flow. Merlin was able to jog David’s memory in certain cases and just watching them interact together was enjoyable. One memory I believe was crucial was when David spoke of the first time he heard poetry read out loud. He explained how it occurred in his fifth grade class when his teacher read Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost. After hearing the poem read out loud, David recalled how he thought, “this is it! I want to be a poet”. He did not know why he had this epiphany, as there were about forty other children in the class; yet he was the only one who reacted in this manner. However, when Jason asked him if his teacher had read the poem well David responded, “oh yes, he read it well, really well.” I felt that this statement exemplified the important endeavour the SpokenWeb project is trying to achieve. Although David did not vocalize that it was the spoken form of the poem that caused his deep and lasting reaction, there was something in the aural form of the Frost poem that touched him on a significant level. It was not after reading the poem off the page that he had this revelation per-se, but rather, hearing the poem read out loud. I was also struck but the importance of time in the interview. The 1966-70s readings are especially important because they were performed in a period in which poetry was flourishing and this raises questions as to the change in people’s perception of poetry. Poetry is no longer read as often out loud in elementary or other educational settings and it lead me to wonder whether or not the change can also be attributed to the decline in poetry as a whole. I must admit that I had a deeper appreciation for David and George’s poetry after hearing them reading it out loud. Another significant aspect of time, as Merlin conveyed in the interview, was the importance of having all the right people together at the right time as she said,
So it does seem that in the history of the arts there are times, which are especially propitious for something to happen the people, are there and the era is right and the audience is right and suddenly there is a blossoming. It seems like these guys had a moment like that and that they really are something that isn’t going to be repeated.
These poets were part of an important moment in Canadian poetry and McFadden mentioned how he believed that poetry has become diluted. However, I am optimistic, and at risk of sounding very cliché, history always repeats itself, so I believe there will be another time in which poetry will blossom. The SpokenWeb project is will hopefully aid in this expansion using a digital interface to help the public to easily engage with poetry.
George Bowering’s individual interview was also very engaging. His prolific career makes him an excellent case study to explore his musings on the different aspects of poetry read out-loud. One salient point raised in his interview was when he recalled how The Desert Music by William Carlos Williams really changed his perception of poetry read out loud. He explained,
I found out there was William Carlos Williams tape, or LP so I sent away for it and I got it…but I heard the poem at last right? I had only seen it’s record, it’s shadow, what they had somehow managed to rescue, but they hadn’t really got it. They had got some isotope and stuck it on the page, but then I got to hear the real actual poem and then when I went back and read the poems to myself, that I had been hearing Williams read on the record, I could read them! I could at last hear them…when before I wasn’t sure.
Once again I felt like this reinforced the importance of SpokenWeb as an archive for poetry in its aural form. When a poem is transcribed, one loses the speech patterns, vocal ranges and body gestures, which are essential in all cases for a deeper understanding of its meaning. As a historian who is very interested in oral history I found the parallels very intriguing. Poetry has been linked to oral history on various occasions over a long period of time. For example, Dennis Tedlock, in his article “Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry,” describes how poetic diction plays into oral history because the meaning of spoken narratives are not carried over by “alphabetic writing but by the placement of silence of tones and by whispers and shouts.”(Tedlock, 1975). The written text loses an essence of meaning, which can only be recovered through the spoken version. Similar to oral history it is best to distance oneself from the transcription and use the sound recording or in the best case a video recording to engage with the source on the purest level.
I felt like these interviews really solidified the importance of the SpokenWeb project at safeguarding the thoughts of Canadian poets and their readings. David and George’s responses to hearing themselves reading out loud in the 1960-70s sound clips were fascinating as they were so shocked by their own voices. Once again, this illuminated the impact of poems read out loud even to their own poets. During the interview I noticed how their normal speech patterns seemed to mirror the pace of a poem, perhaps as second nature. As a historian who has not had much experience working with poetry I look forward to expanding my knowledge and meeting more of the wonderful poets for this project.