Just in case it could last

Archival poetics at Naropa

Columns of copymaster cassette tapes from the Naropa Archives in a drawer
Copymaster cassette tapes in the Naropa audio archives, photographed by Amanda Rybin Koob.

Recording (Naropa’s archive): Archival Poetics and the War on Memory
Date: June 11, 2012
Featured panelists: Anne Waldman, Stacy Szymaszek, E. Tracy Grinnell, Steve Dickison, Eleni Sikelianos, and Steven Taylor

Amanda Rybin Koob: At the beginning of so many Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program (JKS SWP) recordings, we hear community announcements from the JKS coordinators: reminders about student attendance, invitations to after-parties and gatherings, descriptions of Boulder Bookstore offerings, and often ending with a statement like: “when you ask questions at the microphone, please preface your question by saying your name for the archive.” 

“For the archive” is a JKS and SWP refrain. “Archive” has been inextricably linked to mission, to reason-for-being, and to community. There are a vast number of recordings informally referring to archives and frequent mentions of the importance of archives, both writ large or in specific contexts and cultures. For one example, see Margaret Randall’s 2010 performance of her essay “Pumping Gas” and the subsequent Q&A: 

Margaret Randall: For all of us, whether it’s in the community at Naropa or in the Czech Republic, you know, it’s got to be an effort, a collective effort to really be accountable to our history. And find out first of all what it is, what really did happen, what was said, you know, what wasn’t said, what was hidden …

It would be a worthy metaproject to attempt to trace instances of the concept of archives in the JKS SWP audio and video archive — patterns, evolutions, and contradictions — but here, we look just briefly at one potent recording, the 2012 JKS SWP opening panel “Archival Poetics and the War on Memory” (this panel takes its name from Steven Taylor’s June 2007 essay “Remember the Future: Archival Poetics and the War on Memory” published in Beats at Naropa, Coffee House Press, 2009).

Jaime Groetsema: The call to trace as a collective effort is a compelling one and seems to directly secure the work of archivists and the act of archiving as a necessary part within the formulation of community. Yet, what does it mean to trace from an archivist’s perspective? What is needed to archive? And still: where should archives live? Should communities build repositories? Must archives and archivists always work in accordance with institutions? Can archives exist without resources which the community assumes will be provided by an institution for this indefinite, “collective effort at being accountable to history”?

If the raison d’être of archivists is twofold — to preserve the material objects of culture in the best way possible for as long as is possible and then also to make these materials continually accessible to the community — where does the questions about what to archive and how to archive come into the question of praxis? What are the possibilities of the archive? How can we ensure that we “remember the future”?

And so I trace, too:  

 Circle of red Runic characters, surrounding an inscription by the author and translator: “For the Archive!”

Cover of the artist’s book Brynhildr’s Rune Poem, translated and printed by Swanee Astrid, Courtesy of Naropa University Archives. Photographed by Jaime Groetsema. 

Rybin Koob: The panel begins with Anne Waldman introducing each panelist and describing how crucial archives are for individual writers as well as shared cultures. She describes inspirational archival projects around the world, and implores students to prioritize their own personal archives: 

Anne Waldman: inscription … of your mind, your imagination … in that tradition, this notion of having to create our own cultures and live in the cultures that we really want to and envision …

While also acknowledging the moment and community at hand:

00:19:04: The psychic inscriptions of our time and in particular of this very interesting poetic history and lineage that’s very far-reaching that you’re all a part of by being in this very room … thank you, for the archive.

Here, archive is presented as foundational to the vision of a shared culture we might actually want to inhabit. In the dark theater of the Performing Arts Center at Naropa’s Arapahoe campus, it is what happened, what is, and also what could be. 

Groetsema: What do you need to start an archive of you? What stories do you want to keep or leave behind? What have you made, or written, or been a part of? What are these things made of? How do you preserve a piece of paper, or a digital file, or a song? How do they relate to each other without you? Where do you start? Where do you end?

Rybin Koob: Stacy Szymaszek, the first panelist to present, then-Executive Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church as well as poet and professor, opens with an “Archival Poetics Manifesto.” “I, the poet,” is the refrain: 

00:20:12: Poem as archive, where I claim my experience, where I store my data.

00:21:00: I who cannot be killed in a post-victimless state, I, poetry in the form of a rose. 

00:21:39: Culture produces a surfeit of memory. It is hard to remember most of my life under these conditions. But that we share a timing … I the poet as administrator am responsible for an archive. Just in case it could last, someone who is recording everything. A recording activist, we record everything.

My own tendency in describing this panel is to try and capture it all, and highlight those most salient moments. But right now I’m just the reporter and filter. I’m listening to the recording in the early morning, outside, enjoying a cool summer breeze, watering wilting roses and burgeoning squash plants. Poetry in the form of a rose.

Groetsema: And to add another manifestation of poetry in the form of a rose and to draw ever longer lines of poetic lineage to before and after Gertrude Stein, the cloth cover of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

Hardcover book with silver embossed circle emblem that reads: “Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose.”

Cover of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Harcourt, Brace and Company. October 1934, 3rd printing. Courtesy of Rowland Saifi. Photographed by Jaime Groetsema. Hardcover book with silver embossed circle emblem that reads: “Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose.” 


Rybin Koob: Stacy Szymaszek continues:

00:22:58: Thousands of hours of audio, of poets’ voices, each a specter, a haunted archive, where the underrepresented withstand the onslaught of history … where I the poet-administrator talk about it as history … am implicated in what and whose knowledge and power, whose daily-ness is left out.

Will I choose the most important moments to illustrate archival poetics? Here, it’s the idea of being accountable not only to history, but also to the future. It’s working alone towards something greater than the self and, at the same time, it is critical. Who is included in the archive and who is left out? The type of archive Szymaszek manages is one that embraces marginalized voices, one that would not exist without multiple histories. Still, most archives have a troubling relationship with power.

Szymaszek concludes her presentation with a short essay called “What We’ve Got Here is Failure to Communicate: The Place of the Poet in Society.” 

00:25: There are of course many, many ways of being a poet in the world. Some poets think that there’s no particular role or function for the poet … probably none of those people are here. [Laughs.] Others see themselves as activists in life under capitalism’s amnesiac powers, and this is in fact the way that I understand my own work.

Groetsema: And here, adding another line to Szymaszek’s own work, living in the archive and photographed there. I think to myself: all we can do is make our work. 

From Hyperglossia by Stacy Szymaszek in situ at the Naropa University Archives. Courtesy of Naropa University Archives. Photographed by Jaime Groetsema.


Rybin Koob: Though Szymaszek doesn’t equivocate poets with archivists in this piece, coming at the tail end of the poet-administrator manifesto, it seems clear that there’s a throughline:

00:29:11: When we save our correspondences and ephemera … when we take photographs of people, our people, our readings, our scenes, when we record them … When we take these actions, we create an archive of literal documents as well as feelings and affects. We become what we can and must become, our own agents in making our lives socially meaningful. And in doing so, we accept our power, we understand the threat we pose, the implications of our actions are rhizomatic with no beginning and no end.

Recording pleasure and pain.


E. Tracy Grinnell, professor and poet, is the second to speak. She presents “The Charge of the Interstitial, Fugue Logic, and Forming Silence.”

00:33:36: Every inclusion masks an exclusion … It is easy, perhaps a matter of course, to think of an archive, any archive, as the source, where one begins. But in significant ways its limits mark the limits of what it is possible to know, and how we can know it. And any one person’s position in knowing, in looking, is itself historical.

00:34:56: An archive implies inside and outside, what is included versus what is excluded. The very construct of an archive maintains injustices inherent in its inception. Derrida writes: But where does the outside commence? This question is the question of the archive. 

I remember a presentation at the Spring 2019 Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists conference by archivists Kalyani Fernando and Megan Friedel from the University of Colorado Boulder on Teaching Archival Silences. They usefully ask: “How do we teach what we don’t have in the archives?” This is an important question to archival theory and “archival silences” is an important concept. The way it manifests in any specific archive depends on many factors, both broad and specific: from where the institution is situated in histories of colonialism and oppression to how it funds and supports its archives staff.

This is true for all archives in both big and very small ways. I recall my frustrations when audio recordings were mislabeled or missing. The accession stickers on the cassette tapes lose their adhesive and flutter to the ground. Sometimes silences are intentional byproducts of the society in which the archive lives, and other times, they’re basic, mundane mistakes and material limitations.

00:37:23: Further I think it is too simple to say there is no inside and no outside. As blurred as those lines are, there are massive, grave, and dangerous omissions. But an archival poetics to my mind accounts for this, is drawn to these omissions. An archival poetics to me means a poetic and an ethic that moves towards the invisible, inaudible, illegible, even unintelligible, to make something of it. To explore, question, create, to reckon with the real …

Groetsema: One way a silence can be perpetuated is through the creation of material backlogs. As archival material is collected over time, it is often the case that archives do not have enough funding or staffing to rehouse, process, preserve, and make accessible the materials it owns, so a backlog of material waiting to be added to the archive is left waiting. This keeps the archive and archivists at loggerheads with its/their own professional concerns of preservation, accessibility, and filling in archival silences. Beyond that it leaves us asking questions like: How do you ethically prioritize the processing of one collection over another? Who makes the decisions about what is a priority? What communal need is being fulfilled by processing backlogs and what is not being fulfilled when limited resources do not provide the support needed to process the material in a timely manner or at all?

Rybin Koob: Grinnell discusses her own work on Helen of Troy as a subject whose voice has not been included in the archive, who is both present and invisible. She discusses the necessity of experimentation in language and form, to explore inhabiting “impossible subject positions.” This exploration of archival poetics embraces silence and omission, further complicating ideas of how poets might critically engage archives.

00:43:52: To consider the silences, the gaps, the charge of the interstitial in history, narrative, and experience.