Recordings of poetry: Technologies, pedagogies, institutional politics
Editorial note: On April 23, 2007, Steve Evans visited the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia and spoke with Al Filreis about the ways in which digital audio recordings of poetry were changing and would change the way poetry is taught and studied. The audio recording of that discussion, aptly, was made available almost immediately — the full discussion and also an edited version as an episode in the PennSound podcast series. As of the publication of this transcript, the discussion is nearly five years old. How many of the questions raised in this conversation have been answered through recent experience? Few, somewhat surprisingly. The transcript has been prepared by Michael Nardone. — Al Filreis
Filreis: What is the category here if we’re talking about the pedagogical implications for the availability of heard poetry, recorded poetry?
Evans: It’s hard. What you know most is what isn’t true. I mean, most of what we’ve done so far because the recording technology has been around in some available form forever, and it might have meant lugging heavier equipment —
Filreis: Right —
Evans: But mainly what I would fault my pedagogy for in the past has been that the sound file is illustrative. It’s not a primary text. It’s treated as a kind of peripheral text that perhaps frequently causes great dejection in the students because they had liked a poem until they heard it read, or, on the other hand, euphoria and that sense of this horrible thing that I sometimes hear students say which is that until they hear the voice, they say, “Oh, well hearing it really humanized the poet for me.” Which worries you because they don’t grant the category of human just out of the gate to the text.
Filreis: So, granted, in this model —
Evans: But you know what I mean …
Filreis: The printed text is a neutral, more grounded, closer to actuality thing that the recording can add to or detract from. There’s a plus and minus effect.
Evans: Right, but always relative to —
Filreis: And isn’t that simply a function of the — technology is too fancy a word, so is commerce — economy of the use of the poem on a single page in an anthology, or which is then mimeographed or photocopied. The single poem that the students have, hold, and mark up.
Evans: How are we going to separate the question of a pedagogy that makes full use of audio from the question of pedagogy more generally? There are terrible ways to isolate a poem and to make it teachable but to sort of drain it of various things. What happens then, you get the poem by itself, and then the sound file as illustrative of that. And that’s kind of a baseline pedagogy that most of us could get by on, I guess. But you couldn’t claim it as an intellectually, very vibrant project. Hit play and hear George Oppen’s inimitable, gorgeous, authoritative, feeble voice.
Evans: It does do something, but are we teaching in to what it does, or it is just okay, now that’s over and we’ll move on to Louis Zukofsky.
Filreis: Okay, that’s a skeptical view. If you could just put on the hat of the optimist-revolutionist, using Oppen as your example, what’s the change in scenario in 2015 or 2020 when, presumably, we’ve gotten past the fetish of “you gotta have Oppen in print first”? Let’s say we don’t have Oppen in print at all. I’m teaching just George reading. What’s the optimist’s view of this?
Evans: I’m just trying to plan a class, the first one in which I don’t treat audio as peripheral. So really going in. Part of what I’m doing right now, and it’s groping — as I imagine what Charles would say, “We’re just groping a little bit along right now” — but one of the interesting things is to work without the printed text, either voluntarily or because you literally just don’t have one. When I was doing a Lipstick of Noise thing on Lin Dinh’s work, I didn’t have the text. There are different hermeneutic questions that arise, but are they significant. I’ll keep being the skeptic even while being the optimist, which is: I am really excited about this. I think that what’s happened is a technology that was mostly creating inert media. That is, the tape recording technology was hard enough to use, hard enough to get at, and more or less archive-bound, that it was inert. So, who really has heard the Blackburn recordings from one end to the other? No one. Who has really thought about what that might be, what that might be as an object of inquiry? No one. People go in, they hear this and that, but is somebody really treating it — from the standpoint of what is poetics — well, what are the possible objects of a poetics? Is the sound file, is the recorded text something all of its own?
What’s now happened is that — largely through Pennsound and other sites like it — this material is no longer inert. So, we can start trying it out, see if there are nontrivial hermeneutic results from working from sound, or from sound with text but not secondary to text. Do we ask any questions differently? Do we make good strides towards literalizing some metaphors, that whipping horse of ours for so long, the workshop poem in which you found your voice? We all thought that that was not such a credible metaphor. But when you’re looking at a wave form of somebody’s voice, you can see some things that are distinct. Then you can see a lot of things are phonemic, in general. But you are seeing something that a printed text will never give you. You’re hearing accents that the printed text can imitate, awkwardly, through dialect, through those kinds of funny approximations. Working on contemporary poetry, there are so many ways to voice English that a text is going to be a poorer medium for then.
I’ll give you an example. Working on a Sawako Nakayasu poem for Lipstick of Noise, not having a text in front of me, noticing that this person with an impeccable English accent, because she grew up in America, was putting on the accent in Japanese that her parents have. She voiced the poem in the accentual patterns of her parents as a kind of put-on. If somebody just hits that file cold, they have no way to get through the layers. Now is this interesting? It’s interesting to me.
Filreis: No more interesting, perhaps, than the one poem, some dramatic monologue or some voice put-on, that you find if you know the collected poems, you have the one dramatic monologue that is really the voice of the poet. So, no more or less than that if you simply happen upon that?
Let me ask, the last thing that you said created six or seven questions in my mind.
Evans: Go ahead.
Filreis: Here’s one. If we were to map the way to the classroom, there are at least two routes there. One is the direct route, which is that these materials that I bring into class, that I make available to the class change, and so, delta, effect. We now work with sound files. We didn’t before, and we’re going right into the classroom with the material. When someone asks me to speak about or write about this, that’s what I think of. But what about the indirect route, which is something that a number of people have been talking about, you among them: this is going to change the way we, the people who set up the pedagogical, canonical must-do, must-read, must-hear list, it’s going to change, or, to be slightly more precise about the way choosing poems and poets we teach in anthology or survey courses: you only have so many weeks in a semester, Oppen was never really on my syllabus for English 88 except incidentally because I could never figure out in a day how to do Oppen. So, Oppen never appeared. Now that the students have available to them Oppen, it’s pretty clear to me I’m going to start teaching Oppen in a way that I hadn’t. I love Oppen. So, what’s changing is the path to the classroom starts with the change in the way we as teachers and critics think about the work. There’s no way to predict that, but insofar as you can predict that path, what are some — and I don’t mean to ask canonical changes, although I am interested in that, not just canonical changes — what are some of the things that are going to happen to us that will change what we bring into the classroom?
Evans: That question is going to get more and more interesting to answer because there’s a way in which the canon is inscribed in who is viewed as worth recording when recording was a scarce resource. And so there is a way in which it wasn’t until you were somewhat reknowned that someone would bother to put the mic in front of you and let you go off. I’m thinking of the troves of Pound we have. There is a way in which canon formation dictated who got recorded, but that bet is off now.
I think that we are, and hope we stay, in this interesting phase for a long time, which is I think the analogy might be to field recordings of folk music. Right now [there is] ubiquitous documentation of poetry and not that much self-consciousness about it. People aren’t necessarily playing only into the knowledge that they’re going to be engineered, that the sound file is their looked-for result. There are some things that are bad about that. The unselfconsciousness of it is something I really value right now. Everything is recorded and nobody’s caring that much about it. We haven’t had the Brian Eno moment where everything is going to go in the studio and become hyper-[engineered?]. That will be great too, but I like this moment right now where everyone’s getting recorded. The value judgments are not prematurely coming in. I’d imagine you guys are ubiquitous in your documentation here. We try to be at Maine. More and more, people do that and as the technology becomes easier to just stick a digital recorder there, it’s going to be everywhere. So then the canon won’t have determined our audio archive. Now we’re going to be able to say what’s interesting as audio? What questions does that raise independent of what is text-based. So, the print will cease to be prior, at least some of the time. As much as we want to, as much as we can squeeze it into syllabi.
Filreis: Is it possible that if those of us who are teaching the moment after ubiquity, so if someone teaches a course in contemporary American poetry and poetics, and they are essentially doing a literary history of a period for which we have everything, let’s just say.
Evans: You still have the filter problem.
Filreis: I’m assuming that you agree with me that theoretically that’s a terrific situation.
Filreis: Practically speaking, until we truly explode or shuck off the semester fetish or the hour-and-twenty-minute class fetish, whatever it is that constrains us — which I do think is a fetish — once we get rid of that we have this ubiquity and virtually unlimited storage. If you count anyone. Maine will run out of storage but there are other boxes you can put into elsewhere.
Filreis: Assuming unlimited storage, unlimited material, you’ve got this hole that you have to jam into a structure that hasn’t changed historically, of course in the semester. The institutions are not going to change that, because we all need our summers off and we all need a certain break from the students who will suck the life out of us because they want just to be with us all the time. Okay. So, you still have this selection thing. Would it be okay with you personally if we didn’t select, if we took random pieces of the ubiquity, like almost random comets shooting in from the cloud that we can then see, how does what the students get of contemporary poetics change?
Evans: I’d love to teach a course like you’re describing. I really would.
Filreis: What would be good about it?
Evans: Right now those boxes are the thing that’s holding us back. I noticed that somebody was teaching some Lipstick of Noise files in a class, and one can look at one’s statistics page. Everybody, all the students checked the night before the class met or that day. They didn’t give it a lot of their consciousness. This is what happens usually. They’re sort of directing their energy toward that hour and twenty minutes, and somewhere about twenty-four hours before that happens, it interests them enough, it falls right with their schedule to get their work done. What you would hope was that if you set your students an archive like Ubu or Pennsound — it’s hard to recommend some of the others because they set up fee obstacles and things like that — but give them one of these great archives and enticed them to take on an exploratory role, which would mean checking in with that archive frequently enough that you started to know how to navigate it, you started to be able to describe that process to fellow students so that maybe group time is maybe more coming back and comparing field notes from this kind exploratory work you’ve done with audio.
Now, what are you listening for there? I don’t know. Are you listening to, oh, this person has a voice I could listen to for hours, some of our more melifluous poets? They win just on voice points at a certain point. But is that interesting?
Filreis: Is it?
Evans: Well, yeah, because you can get into what’s being communicated. I do think there is more semiotic information in the voice that the mind processes very well, but that we don’t have a great interpretive vocabulary for. I think the jury is out on cognitive poetics, whether that’s going to give us something like that vocabulary. I’m thinking of Reuven Stur’s work. It’s promising. It’s clear that just as the eye is an immediate semiotic conduit, the ear has this really rich discernment to it. You’re getting class information, you’re situation people’s social [___], you’re hearing globality in an immediate way.
Filreis: What about tone?
Evans: And what do we mean by tone?
Filreis: When I asked about that it was because you were on a roll and I thought let’s add tone. I mean tone as defined as the irony meter, running from totally unironic to completely unmeant with all the ranges. So, I meant tone in the traditional prose-poetry sense. It’s the hardest thing to teach, I think.
Evans: And print is so tone neutral.
Filreis: It is mostly tone neutral.
Filreis: If I had to do blunt metaphors, I’d say print is feeling cool and gray, and audio is feeling sort of bright and with a wide spectrum of stuff.
Filreis: Does poetry inherently side with one of those two extremes?
Evans: People say that but I think we’re in a good position to argue against it, because some people say orally delivered, aurally received poetry tends to be simpler than printed poetry. There are all these distinctions made, but that just drives me crazy. A complicated poetry can be gotten by ear. I guess what we say is that it’s not gotten once and for all by the ear. So, what would withstand hitting repeat on your iPod might be a new test for hermeneutics.
Filreis: It’s interesting. This is very interesting. You have referred to hits the night before and day of, which what was behind your comment is that it’s interesting to see what the students go for. We could — because we have sophisticated ways of measuring downloads and hits on webpages even when they don’t download the thing you can see that they’ve visited — we can look at numbers, quantities. So, it’s possible that, and I’m going to mix the metaphor, it’s possible that students and other listeners, new listeners of poetry, will vote with their feet.
Evans: And that will be real information. It will be helpful.
Filreis: That will be real information except that it might be information about melifluousness. It might be information about the ease of tone. We don’t know what it’s information about.
Evans: My students are drawn to incantatory repetition. You could put almost any content in that and there’s a certain way in which that delivers something sonically that is so moving.
Filreis: So, incantation. What else are they attracted to? Easy, easy to hear, easy on the ears?
Evans: Yeah, although you usually have the contrarian who says that’s too pretty. That’s why I’m saying that I like this unselfconsciousness thing. Some poets have spent a lot of time thinking about the performed event and they have come up with a voice, and anybody who does it regularly has got to, just as survival. But that voice is always a compromise between the voice they would use with a beloved and whatever they expect their public to be. So, that’s another hermeneutic object.
Evans: This issue of tone that you mention I want to come back to because one thing that I am fascinated by is room tone. So, you have tone of voice of the poet. But you can hear irony at the Bowery Poetry Club. You can hear when somebody’s laying down some irony, and the highly sophisticated, overly hip crowd at the BPC is getting it and they are audibly responding. They’re purring, through laughter, giving it back. It’s almost obscene to me. It’s too much consensus sometimes. You can hear it. You can hear here is the person sending out this signal, the flat denotative message is saying one thing. The irony is being tonally inflected by the speaker. The room is going: We get it, we get it.
Filreis: It can deepen the tone because the reader will realize however unintended that is I’m going to go with it because this is the audience that’s in front of me.
Evans: You can then sit back so far. I think of a really good poet like Rod Smith, he can be so understated because his audience is going to supply so much frame for him. I say this in admiration. It could sound like he’s not doing his work on the poem. That’s not what I mean. It’s that the poem is so familiar with one instance of its reception, that he can just really draw back and say that one thing and everybody dies laughing.
Filreis: He’s hilarious. Rod Smith, he’s like Andy Kaufmann in a certain persona. Is it possible if Rod Smith goes to some out of the way place where they don’t know the Rod Smith room, that he will have to work a little bit harder to come warmer toward us?
Evans: I’ve seen it.
Filreis: You’ve seen it happen, okay.
Evans: Well, I’ve seen people whose set and whose poetics is fabricated in one circumstance. Say, it’s the Bay Area. It’s a wonderful, vibrant poetry scene at any given time. And you work up your poetics in company with those people with a certain set of expectations and you come east with it, and the room is unimpressed. [Laughs.] I could have said the example in the other way. I’m a Californian at heart. But sometimes the poetics can get complacent because they know the context of the reception so well. That’s why we’ve got these well-moneyed people telling all the poets to be accessible. Well, a lot of poets are accessible to at least one audience. But then how well does it travel?
That’s another good thing about this ubiquity. If somebody is coming to read at the Kelly Writers House, at this point you’re probably going to be able to hear a reading they gave somewhere else. So that in terms of getting a good pedagogical effect from live events, which is hard to do, so much goes wrong there, I think that the audiofile stuff really helps. I mean if Jackson Mac Low was coming up to Maine, because he had read at a couple different places, I could give my students a background for that. Now, how much are they going to take advantage of it, it depends. There are some variables there.
Filreis: So, we’ve been talking about the room for Rod Smith, if the room is the classroom, the class, the audience is not the San Francisco audience as opposed to the Orono audience, but it’s a room full of students and we don’t have the poets with us. We have the recording of the poet and us. Is there an analogy? Can we get back to our topic having gone there and said smart things about poetry audiences, now we have our students who are not really a poetry audience?
Evans: They are. They’re one of them. I’ve noticed that sometimes we can devote a whole class to our writing series and that becomes a syllabus and I can really teach into that environment. And that’s where I got so interested in using video clips and sound clips. The crucial thing there was you can do a little groundwork in advance of a visit, but the most important thing is to play back that live reading. You’re getting subjective reports from your students of just how different that temporal and meaning event is. There is so much about the live event that is existential. You are concerned about the other people in the room, your own comfort. You’re in a body. You’re in the condition to listen exactly at the time the event is set up for or you’re not. But you were there. Your consciousness took in some part of it. And then to go back after a few days or a week and hear that same reading or some parts of it, and constitute that as an object of inquiry. What did you think when you heard it? What do you think now? What happens when we can graphically reproduce that experience? Because it does gives us some distance. I’m not trained enough to really be able to read spectrographs like a linguist could or know exactly what I’m seeing with waveforms but it does objectify the voice for you in a way that you say, “what am I hearing here?” What am I looking for? That’s one thing that I think is unequivocal, that ability to take a real-time event that your student has been at, maybe suffered through or maybe really enjoyed and then compare that experience to the mediated one that we have a lot more control over and that we can get some distance on. Then the classroom time is over and you post it to the class website. If they are interested, they can stay with it and I guess as we build our archives better and better, it will be easy to say, you liked that? It’s how the music industry is: if you like this, you’re going to like these nine other things. At some level I hope it’s not a crass implementation of a commercial strategy. But, if you like Anne Waldman, then here are these four other poets that maybe do something similar, but that might also point you into a different direction.
Filreis: What about the narrative of the live event? If we use recordings of Ginsberg’s “America” — there are several good ones; I can think of two that are perfect. One is a studio recording which is very somber and beautiful and haunting, and I always thought that was the one. And then, I’m not sure where we got it and I’m not sure it’s even legal to be using, but I’ve heard it. I guess Factory School had it. It’s live. If he’s not drunk, well, everybody in the room is.
Evans: I’ve actually heard one and there was so much back and forth between people.
Filreis: You can hear Kerouac in the first row. (Now how do I know that Kerouac is in the front row? Somebody told me.)
Filreis: But I believe it because I’m hearing his voice, and I know Jack’s voice well enough. There’s a lot of back and forth, and so Ginsberg went with an antic, drunken — he may not have been drunk — hilarious, pathetic “America.” I, I am, I am America. Play that for the students, you need the narrative of the event. That may simply be metadata. It may simply be information. This was a studio recording made for this or that. You know, and he was much more famous at this point, and they went back and they asked him to be original and sincere. This was a more or less contemporaneous event near the advent of the poem. He’s clearly interacting.
Now, forget about Ginsberg. The reading that occurs on your campus which you can record, if the students were all there you don’t need a narrative of the event. But a year after or every year you’re still using it, you do need the narrative of the event, that is to say: He was feeling very ill that day. Or, we had just had an argument in the car ride from the airport. These are important things, which will change the tone of a reading, which will then get hardened into interpretive fact. If the answer to my question is yes, then how the heck are we going to provide that information, and how important is it for us to create a narrative, a recorded or documented context for these events, because they are events?
Evans: Yeah. The desire for a thick historical count of poetry is going to be our threshold really, because —
Filreis: Desire on the part of who?
Evans: We as teachers and then our students, because really so much of what you’ve just described is real information and again, one could get it from a description in a biography of the event, maybe we’ll go back and forth, a parallax from a sound recording to this. I think of all the voices — I’ve written about this anecdote — but I know that once someone was using Duncan in a class, illustratively but effectively, and Bob Creeley was in the room and he could hear right away that the tape had not been trued. It was a reel to reel tape, an original, and the technology was basically raising Robert Duncan’s voice a noticeable amount for a person who knew his voice as a baseline, who had a feeling for it, and not noticeable to the rest of us. With a person in the room to true it, you had a historical dimension that you didn’t have. Now, again, is it nontrivial? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting, and I wish that all of these sound files could be annotated like crazy by those of us who know. I could recongnize Bill Luoma’s laugh at 3000 miles. I know if he’s the one getting a joke by Jackson Mac Low in 1987, but I don’t how many other people will know that. And does it matter? With our desire for a thick historical account, if we extend it to the sound file, then there’s going to be this huge text apparatus around it. It’s not either-or any way that I can think about it.
Filreis: I’m really interested in this. Let’s use the language of UNIX as a metaphor. For the humanists, especially, we saw UNIX not simply as a programming tool, but as a way of setting permission so that people on the same server could literally share documents. I mean truly share. So we used UNIX for that. Imagine that the community of people who would know Bill’s voice from 3000 miles away were the UNIX users. Essentially, using metadata, it is always changeable. It is changeable at the local instance of the file. It is not changeable at the root, back on the server. That’s a technologically not impossible scenario to imagine my info, metadata, changing in a kind of wikipedia version of the metadata of our recordings so that collectively it’s not much different from the group photo of the sailors on a particular ship in 1944 in the Pacific and I only remember two of those guys, but if I can get this photo around, eventually I’m going to get everybody’s name. That’s not art, or maybe it is art for some military historian, but for us the best critical work done to the art would be to fill in the audience which of course is shaping the reading and shaping the meaning. So I simply want to ratify that. Now, is it important enough to implement if — strictly speaking from the point of view of teaching well opposed to teaching inaccurately or sloppily or illustratively — is it important enough to add that material —
Evans: At the cost of things that are going to fall out because you’re doing them?
Filreis: Sure. I mean, that’s almost a rhetorical question because I know that you would agree that we should put as much as we can into it.
Evans: I agree enough in that I will put my money where my mouth is: I’ll put in for courses like this for a while to see what can be done, and maybe even block out some things I would prefer or that are in my repetoire now. But I don’t know what we’re going to do with this. I’m skeptical. The null hypothesis is that this is not meaningful. It’s just a sound file. Who cares? It’s not relative to everything we need to do in the brief period of time we have to help these students cultivate their consciousness. I got to say that maybe none of this is going to work, but I’m willing to put some other courses on hold and just say what we’re going to do is the sonic life of poetry, the sonic archive, and the technological environment that is making it available to us. There have been previous states. We should inform ourselves about that. But what you’re describing in terms of creating a thick, socially generated account of the act of listening to a poem or the act of documenting the event that this poem was committed to in some form of media. Maybe our students are going to be the people who actually lead us on this. My colleagues in new media always have such a rosier life than we in English do that I sometimes have a hard time learning all I should from them. But one thing I’ve learned from them is that their students teach them as much. They just give up pedagogical authority and the Lacanian subject presumed to know. They just set it aside. Their students know the software better than they do often. They spend many more hours doing just the one thing. So their job is to just get something out of the pool of knowledge that was worth doing. It’s not their job to be expert in everything.
Filreis: Would it be good for us if that begins happening to us?
Evans: I would love it if a student came in and knew more about Robert Duncan than me! But yes, partly we are piggy-backing on the ubiquity of —
Filreis: Sorry, sorry. You just cheated there. [Laughs.]
Evans: I did.
Filreis: You said a student who knew more about Robert Duncan. I’m never going to assume that one of the students knew more, but the decentering of authority in a classroom devoted to poetry and poetics can’t limit itself to knowledge — you know, give me a Duncan poem, I can tell you what book it’s from, biographical information and so forth. It can be a veracious and reliable ability to hear or read a poem and be able to go on in a sophisticated way that adds to the discourse about Duncan. Really reliably. If we get to that point then we can stop lecturing.
Filreis: Let’s face it: we’re blathering, because we’re talking about this beloved community —
Evans: But now they can record it on their MP3 player and listen to you at home blathering away.
Filreis: Okay, that’s good and that’s cool. We can take the lecture and get it out of the classroom, and so can they. But the effect is, I think we’re fooling ourselves. I think that if we do take this conversation we are having and make it into a podcast and anyone listens to it, I hope people will strike back at us. Or at least me. You haven’t affirmed this yet. But most people, 80 to 85 percent of the people who are teaching this contemporary material, even with the sound stuff, are still lecturing. They’re still talking eighty percent of the time. So everything we’re talking about, the revolution we’re talking about is useless if we’re still delivering [lectures]. It’s still 1952 and I’m teaching a Brooks-Penn-Warren anthology. It’s just an anthology of audio stuff with slightly more groovy technology. Those two things are going to prevent us from stepping forward. There’s a third one that I do want to talk about. One is the fetish of the classroom, of the course over the semester which puts limits on it and allows us to crave December 11th when we can get the heck out of there, or May 15th, whatever it is. And second, the ease of the lecture, which prevents any of this thing that’s happening in media studies to happen. It would be crazy for a media studies professor to walk in the room to talk about the latest innovations in video editing to a room full of kids who live and breath video editing and not stop talking. It would be crazy. I want us to stop talking when we enter the room where the students have not the base knowledge or objective grounded knowledge of Duncan, but something to say back to us about what they’ve heard.
Evans: I don’t want to cut off your third point, but I want to say —
Filreis: Well, the third point is tenure. So, we’ll get to it.
Evans: Listen, again, practical: how are we actually going to do it? I’ll need a different room and the first time I’m teaching this course, it’s going to be on a very intensive three-week schedule where we are five hours a day together, listening to stuff and trying to come up with a working vocabulary that I hope I’ve been at it for longer, that’s the only claim to authority I have. I’m hoping that some people will have competencies that they will bring in. And I’m utopian as a teacher inasmuch I always presume — I’ve often had evidence to the contrary — but I always presume that what the student knows in this instance, what someone knows about listening, they know already. They are so sophisticated. They can hear a tonal shift in their lover’s voice that means it’s going to be a long night. They are Prousts. They are the most sophisticated semioticians in the world, but we have a hard time enlisting their competence into the objects we value. And so then it really does become: how do we enlist? [Line of conversation abandoned.] To a person who is used to hearing, who has been brought up in any imaginable culture, they are going to hear something in a poetry sound file that most of that content is nonspecific. It’s a human voice that they are expert at reading. Then there is this added dimension that this voice is in this historical frame, in this performative context, and then things get going like that. I’ve never worked with anyone who didn’t know the moment I walked in how to read exactly the kind of clothes I was wearing, assign me to a certain kind of person, you know, semiotically get rid of me. [Laughs.] Master me, or whatever.
Filreis: Your two examples were hearing the sound of a lover’s voice and reading your clothing. What about reading the text on the page?
Evans: I have found that that is still a foreign environment for our students and I feel that as someone who does think that modernist complexity was a life-transforming event for me and I think somebody should undergo the pleasures and alienations of reading Ulysses or Remembrances of Things Past, and be transformed by that use of the technology, the print technology.
Filreis: How do they get there?
Evans: I can’t imagine any other way to get there than their own desire, which is primary. We can’t make that up. We can’t always change it. So, I think pedagogy is a lot about desire, and I think that’s complicated. If you don’t have a desire to know, if you can’t cultivate that desire, then much of what we do is for naught. With a little bit of desire and with some guidance — I feel like I just become a sentimental humanist or something — but you need guidance.
Filreis: You think we should hold hands and sing Kumbaya?
Evans: It’s never happened, but in the summer. … Well, it is Maine.
Filreis: Our detractors will accuse of, may accuse us of running, temporarily at least, away from the literary text to the sound file, to the recording because that’s where our students are, that’s where their — you didn’t say innate — but almost innate —
Evans: Deeply encultured —
Filreis: Where their ready-to-go skills are. So, we’re working in an area that we just know from reading the contemporary culture. They’re there. I can imagine a rejoinder to that detractor, but that still makes, what I’m about to say will still make the printed text primary and the recording ancillary, which is to say I can respond to that detractor by bespeaking the virtues of teaching the students that they really do have it with the ability to understand the recorded voice with the same nuance that they understand when they hear a tone from their lover, they’re going to be in for a long night. They can translate that to working with this recording of a poem, then gain confidence that with a little more help from us who are from another epoch where we learned the pleasures and displeasures of Ulysses back to the thing that they want.
Evans: That’s where I’m going. I say what teacher can afford to give up the competence that’s in the room? I’ve never understood that colleague. How are you going to get where you want to go?
Filreis: This is liberal left.
Evans: My position?
Filreis: Yes. What you’re saying is —
Evans: Well, I grew up with that pedagogy. My generation was subjected to a lot of liberal left pedagogy, and there I saw sometimes a default of the bit of authority that previous knowledge grants you, and a certain turning things over to a low denominator in the class, which is if you’re trying to teach — I’m not even saying that it’s a difficult thing, just say it’s an unfamiliar thing — then students need to move from the competence you spot them at at the outset. They need to move towards something. Otherwise, how do you take the money from the credit hours? I don’t understand that. If you just leave a vacuum in the space where the teacher used to be, but don’t fundamentally transform the other things that you are talking about, then really what you’ve got is no knowledge being transferred at all. So I saw a lot of lazy teaching in the left liberal pedagogy. And god bless them. That was the dominant way to do things then. It was the smart way to do it. It was the way that looked like it would lead [to somewhere]. It transmitted a number of values like fundamental respect for your students, which hadn’t always been taken for granted. So, I value that. But I still think that to the sense that we’re an active center in that room, maybe I’m too hung up on Cunningham’s move into choreography where the idea was it’s not that there was no center, but everywhere is center. You’ve got a lot of centers and you’re trying to just get some energetic transfer of knowledge going through this.
Filreis: So, there’s a possible contradiction in the two vocabularies.
Evans: Yeah, there is.
Filreis: This transfer of knowledge —
Evans: Is a container method.
Filreis: Yeah, it’s anathema to the liberal-left pedagogy. It’s perfectly fine for you to mix and match. I mean anybody can do that, and we all do. There are two things we don’t have at the moment. We don’t have the critical vocabulary. We don’t know what to say about these beyond the most basic things, like “He sounds elated.”
Evans: And this is where the people who are against the sound file warranting attention, I think, have a little bit of ground, which is you find yourself reverting to a kind of belle-lettristic —
Filreis: Or impressionistic —
Evans: Very impressionistic. And I do that all the time on Lipstick of Noise. I don’t know how else to communicate what I’m hearing.
Filreis: But it is beautifully written. Maybe for the moment — we’ll get a critical vocabulary and all use it and know what we are talking about, there will become a standard — but for the moment, Lipstick of Noise becomes ones of those places where for me it’s like reading a New York Times film review. If you read a certain reviewer, you know that he or she has got a certain mode and certain figurations used to describe certain kinds of films, and we go on and on. I get a feel. I think Lipstick of Noise is like a really well written New York Times review of a film, that is to say that you’re trying to figure out what to say that will convey what you want to say.
Evans: I try to stay there in that kind of critical journalism.
Filreis: It is belle-lettristic. Belle is good.
Evans: I like it, but I do think there is this pull. I really feel like that’s writing a kind of cultural journalism, and I feel that when I go into some of the stuff that interests me more, I start to bore the audience that Lipstick of Noise might have built up over a time. Whereas, I’m not necessarily privileging what we’ll know when I put on a more, you know, scientist’s cap in homage to Jakobson and really sit down and do that work, which is going to not be as appealing to read.
Filreis: But you said “science.” So, I think there are two things we don’t know and it incapicitates us. One is we don’t have the critical vocabulary yet. The second is we don’t have a pedagogy. We don’t even know what our current pedagogy is, let alone the one we’re going to. We devote so little time to talking about it. We say the word “pedagogy” all the time, but we actually don’t have any way of talking about pedagogy.
Evans: You have convinced me in this conversation that the institutional framework. … I mean that helps me think about what I’m trying to do. I need a new room for this class. I can’t do it in the room I’m used to doing it in.
Filreis: You mean physically?
Evans: Yeah, it’s just a totally practical problem for me. If I want to have a reading series, I have to scour my entire campus for one good room to listen in. I got to find that. Now to teach this class, I’ve got to find a room where upwards of ten people can comfortably and intensely listen and record their impressions while listening and communicate them to other people. If there is not going to be a guy at the podium, I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet. And I usually, when I get a course assignment, okay, here I am doing my course on Hegel and I’m going to be the guy sort of at the front, the less ignorant of the twelve. This is not going to be the case. We’re going to be —
Filreis: What are some words to describe the role that you will play?
Evans: In this new context?
Filreis: Yes. Imagine, in the best case scenario, what’s the word?
Evans: I think translator.
Evans: Convenor. Provoker. So, I don’t want people to settle —
Evans: Always, host. Always host. I mean, with your students what else can you be? And that’s what I love when you have a class devoted to a reading series, because then they can host the poets, and that teaches them something very profound, I think.
Filreis: It is important.
Evans: Yeah, it allows them to practice generosity, even when they are not feeling comfortable with whatever eminence or whatever junior person — how could that person possibly be a poet? — they get to practice this very basic human trait. But to be a good host, to be a provocateur when needed, to know some more about technology than I have to for my other classes or to say that the technology I need for this class hasn’t all become transparent for me. I still have to work at it. There is some linguistic software, PRAT it’s called, that really helps you annotate a sound file better than Audacity, fine-grained. Our linguistic colleagues know how to do it and they put it to some extremely boring uses I can say, but we can use this in this class in a way that might be really interesting. It might be generative of the kind of essayistic explorations that I like to encourage in a humanities classroom.
Filreis: Well, I wanted to get to the third pathway to the classroom, and that is the pathway that can be blocked by the denial of tenure. So, higher education institutions have all kinds of ways of answering the ultimate question that we keep asking: does this have value? Will it be seen as having value? Does this count as the real work we’re supposed to be doing?
Evans: Boy, and it gets settled in a very brutal way!
Filreis: The binarism is very interesting because nowhere else can you write a book and get one good review in the right place by the right person of fifteen bad reviews, and reasonable people can argue that you’re the best thing that’s come along in this new generation of critics. But, at tenure time, you either stay or you don’t stay. Someone has to make a decision as to whether this new stuff counts. And I’m really curious to know. I’m not saying that you can answer the question —
Evans: I have some thoughts on it.
Filreis: I want to hear your thoughts on it.
Evans: This is something I do, again to envy those mystical colleagues over in new media programs or departments any university might be thinking to have right now, because there are no tenure criteria written yet. And yet, deans and provosts seem to be willing to extend to them the most fundamental things: lines, positions, buildings, and very large budgets. So their productive mode of not knowing what they’re up to is being very well rewarded. And the institution is working hard to find a way to keep these people, some of whom could make better money outside of academia. Now, you take that same scenario and put it in an English department where everybody thinks they know what’s what, and the same work, the same degree of inventiveness, innovative pedagogy, putting one’s own mind on the line to get some new knowledge, and get totally punished because everything has been settled. So just as the technology that I need to teach this course in the summer, it’s not transparent to me, so over in new media, the institutional criteria for what counts as valued is not settled yet. It’s not transparent. Everybody has to have the argument. Unfortunately, at some point, we lost the ability not to win the argument, but to even have the argument about what innovative work in English would be. I could easily imagine, thank goodness, on the other side of that question of getting tenure or not, supporting a junior colleague who did this kind of work. But I have faces in my mind of the people who will not listen to me when that comes up. So, I think that is a choke point. Happily, not all the work we’re talking about, though the pedagogical frame you’re interested in right now hones us back into institutional space, the other thing these online archives do is just really broaden the intellectual input so that it’s not just institutional intellectuals who have access to this material, who can say smart things about it, who can build up a kind of baseline knowledge in it that then maybe someone will be able to get tenurable knowledge out of.