This is the first in a series of posts about contemporary African poetry and where to find it. The series borrows its title from an album by the great South African pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim). First released in 1974, the album seems a perfect mirror of what’s most exciting about the writing and publishing coming out of Africa (and its recent diasporas) these days. The album opens with Ntsikana’s Bell, a song attributed to a Xhosa figure influential in Africanizing Christianity in the seventeenth century, and the other tracks draw on Swazi and Muslim influences. The album’s hopeful declaration of a present anchored in indigenous histories and honoring diversity resounds through the communities of writers and readers increasingly accessible through internet publishing, new presses, and a variety of audio formats. For lovers of poetry, there is good news from Africa.
Jalada is a “pan-African writers collective” based in Nairobi that has been publishing anthologies of new writing on-line since early 2014. They publish poetry alongside fiction, photographs, essays and reviews, as well as occasional interviews – or Jalada Conversations. Their most recent (and largest) anthology just came out this week, and it looks like a game-changer. Each issue is assembled around a theme and this quarter’s, The Language Issue, brings one of the most long-running debates in African writing – what binds such a vast diversity of locations and cultures together, and how do we reconcile the imperative to enrich local vernaculars with literature and the access that a lingua franca like English, Arabic or Kiswahili enables.
Does that poet speak any English? — The answer, with Omar Pérez, is yes. Quite a bit. In fact he has translated numerous writers from the English into Spanish (selections by Shakespeare, Komunyakaa and many more), as well as bringing some non-literary material into English from the Spanish for publication in Cuba. Well why doesn't he just translate his own poems?1
It may seem odd that this commentary takes its name from a type of audio distortion, anathema to recording engineers who seek to capture crystalline representations of the human speaking voice. But just as all clear audio recordings must begin by having their levels set, so too must cutting-edge, experimental scholarship, which is what Clipping aims to present: inchoate working ideas on digital analyses of poetry audio. Rather than working to create a polished product off the record, as it were, we aim to publish brief working essays that the community can see and help to refine. As such, we hope to serve as a public platform and an incubator for experimental digital analyses of poetry.
In the coming months we will present a series of exciting posts by scholars working in the field of poetry audio. Ken Sherwood will explore visualizing poetry with special reference to audio versioning.
Working with our PennSound audio files, Jhave Johnston has created a prototype mashup machine that enables on overlay of poets’ sounds, with an option to turn on WEAVE, which senses silence (e.g. between lines or stanzas in a performance) and automatically intercuts from one short file segment to another, creating a flow of shifting voices. “I always figured,” says Charles Bernstein, my co-director at PennSound, “that once we had a substantial archive of sound files, the next phase would be for people to use them in novel ways.” “Reminds me,” says Michael S. Hennessey, PennSound’s editor, “of one of my favorite things to do with the site before we switched to the current streaming codec, which doesn't allow for simultaneous play: pull up a few author pages — best of all Christian Bök — and start layering tracks over his cyborg opera beatboxing.” Jhave adds: “My motivation for building it is similar to Michael's: a joy in listening to things overlap.”
After months--several years--of digitizing, consulting, traveling, etc., we at PennSound are now ready to make available the recordings of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry. We begin our new Stevens author page with two readings he gave at Harvard near the end of his life. Our friends at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library (though organizationally Woodberry now is part of the Houghton Library system) have shared these with us. Peter Hanchak--only child of Holly Stevens who was the only child of Wallace and Elsie Stevens--has given us at PennSound permission to make available whatever Stevens recordings we can find. I'm personally very grateful to Peter, who clearly understands that PennSound is all about noncommercial, educational use. Thanks to Joan Richardson and John Serio who helped me work with Peter on this; and thanks to Christina Davis, new director at the Woodberry, and Don Share, former director there, for their help and advice as we've moved forward. It's our hope, of course, that the way Stevens is taught will at least somewhat change now that his own way of reading the poems is widely and freely available. Long live open access!