The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Spoken Word

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When Emily Oliver transferred to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, she was faced with the problem that all new transfers face: finding friends. "I was doing independent study in audio poetry with Professor Monica Berlin," Oliver remembers. "I had just transferred, and really to make friends, I recorded the Knox College faculty and students." That was in January 2010. Soon she was traveling the Midwest and then the country with fellow students Sam Conrad and Bryce Parsons-Tweston, recording any writer who wished to participate. Some read their own poetry or prose; others read a favorite piece from another author. Since its inception, The Knox Writer's House Recording Project has recorded some 400 writers, forming an audio map of the country's literary landscape.

Though she graduated from Knox in June, Oliver is using a postbaccalaureate fellowship to expand the project, which she continues to run with the help of Professor Berlin. I spoke with the two women---both poets themselves---about the importance of the oral authorial voice, the relationship between region and writing, and the generosity of the writers they've recorded.

NEA: The first poem you recorded was written and read by a fellow student. How did the project grow from there?

EMILY OLIVER: There was a huge interest on campus. That term, we ended up recording maybe 60 or 70 people. The following term, I studied abroad on the Knox College program in Buenos Aires and I ended up recording some fiction writers and poets in that city. That was a really amazing experience. As a foreigner, it was the first time I felt part of a community there. When I came back, we had some grant money and Monica and I thought why don?t we start with the Midwest and record around the Midwest?

NEA: You said that right from the start there was a huge amount of interest. Why do you think authors and poets are compelled to share their work orally?

EMILY OLIVER: First of all, it?s really fun: the one-on-one---the event of recording. And it sort of speaks to the internet age. These works are digitized, and anyone with a computer can hear any of the work we?ve recorded in the voice of the author, or in the voice of someone reading it as a best-loved selection. It?s a way to share with the world.

MONICA BERLIN: I think it?s also a way to be a part of something. So much of the work that writers do is solitary. One of the joys of this project has been a kind of digital collaboration speaking across state lines or county lines. We record a writer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who reads a writer in San Francisco, California. And that writer in San Francisco, unbeknownst to them, happens to read a poem by the person in Kalamazoo. So even if they?ve never known each other, they know each other?s work. There?s also this sort of marvelous way in which the intersection of all of our lives---they become tighter. We are less far apart.

NEA: If we can feel a writer?s voice through writing, why do you think it?s also important to hear, aurally, his or her actual voice?

EMILY OLIVER: One of the ways this project started---the long history of this project---is that I struggled as an elementary school student with reading. Reading was always very, very hard for me. But my mom would read Little House on the Prairie and stuff like that to me. And I loved the stories and I loved the sound of the words. Growing up, it was so much easier for me to comprehend through sound---I?m an auditory learner. So for me, that?s why it?s important.

For people reading their best-loved selections of their favorite writer, you can tell in those recordings the moment the person fell in love with whatever they?re reading. Sometimes you can hear that conviction in people reading their own work as well.

MONICA BERLIN: I don?t think we would make the argument that the oral performance of a poem or story is any more important than the work on the page. I think they function in tandem. What we have, when we open a book, is a particular experience. And the experience of listening to the poem, of listening to the writer perform their poem or read their story, enhances our own experience. It?s not better or worse; it?s just a different way to be with the work.

EMILY OLIVER: We always talk about how [the project] hearkens back to how stories and particularly poetry have a history of oral tradition. The intention and so much of what we can access in a story, for me, is enhanced by the ability to hear someone speak it.

NEA: In your mission statement, you talk about your interest in how place informs someone?s writing. I?m curious to hear what you?ve learned so far in your travels about how place, landscape, location, etc. influence art and writing?

EMILY OLIVER: With every single writer we?ve recorded, we?ve asked them that question. Part of the mission of this project is to look at the idea of place. I?m from the Northeast, and before Knox, I went to school for a year in California. I never considered the Midwest a place to live. It seemed like a barren wasteland to me; it never seemed like a place with any breadth to it. And by a series of accidents, I ended up here and completely fell in love with what was around me. So part of this project was an apology to this place I had written off. I wanted to hear what stories were being written and what literary conversations were happening in this place.

MONICA BERLIN: No matter where you are, it?s a place. You can choose to ignore it, you can choose to write in reaction to it, or you can choose to explore it in your work. I think when we?re talking about place, we?re also talking about community. That?s a question we often ask writers coming off the question about place: What?s the relationship between the community of writers where you live and work, and the place where you live and work? Are they the same? How does one speak to the other and how does one enhance the other?

EMILY OLIVER: The first summer we did the recording trip, it was only in the Midwest. One of the dominating questions that we asked in the interview section was, ?Do you think there?s a contemporary Midwestern voice or aesthetic?? We got two schools of answers. Some people said, ?Yes, absolutely. I?m from this place, I?m of this place, I wake up here. This is who I am.? And a lot of people said, ?No, we have the internet. It doesn?t matter where you live. You can learn about any place, any culture from your MacBook.? The project sort of shifted. Region is still something that we?re absolutely interested in, [but] I think community, and kinship---among generations of writers, among physical communities of writers, and among virtual communities of writers---became another interest. Obviously your physical landscape, your physical reality, matters. But the conversations you have, who you?re talking to, also matter.

NEA: Are there any places in particular that you have found to be more closely tied to the art created there?

EMILY OLIVER: Every single writer we recorded in New Orleans talked about Katrina. We recorded 25 writers, and some of them had moved there since Katrina. It was just such a current part of the culture and part of the experience and part of the art. And in sort of in a positive way, people would say, ?There are so many new things happening now. Out of the devastation there?s so much art being made. People are moving down with energy and ideas and making interesting things.?

NEA: What?s been the most surprising experience throughout this project?

MONICA BERLIN: For me, what has been most surprising has been the support and surprise and awe that we?ve confronted. Everybody is so happy to participate, everybody is stunned by the quality of the work, the range of the work, and how much there is, and by this incredible resource that we?ve built and will continue to build that has no other purpose than to give back to future writers and current writers this world that everybody has given to us. So that?s been really incredible, to be a part of that.

EMILY OLIVER: The generosity of writers. The website only went live in January; almost every writer on the website was recorded before they could see what they were getting into. So totally blindly, people would say, ?Yeah sure! Come over!? I?d say more than 80 percent of these recordings were done at somebody?s kitchen table. Writers invited us into their homes. We were three college kids, and we were always hungry, and they almost always fed us and gave us coffee. And the conversation and their time---the generosity has been amazing. And like Monica was saying, the gratefulness of writers. No one is doing this kind of mass archival work right now, so people are grateful that it?s happening and that we?re asking these questions.

MONICA BERLIN: Another surprising thing is that you can see in the interviews, and the best-loved selections, the source of these writers? literary aspirations. We see the thing that made them first want to come to the page and stay there. This also goes back to the question of why it?s important to hear the voice, because you hear that sort of hopefulness and wishfulness and the younger writer, or the more mature writer reaching back to their younger self and remembering that first moment of recognition.

NEA: How do you think this project has influenced your own writing?

EMILY OLIVER: I wrote a chapbook of poems with introductions of every city we recorded in. That?s a direct way the work has influenced my writing. But I think more than that, I used to worry: I spent so much time working on this project, and so many man-hours, and it was so exhausting. I thought maybe I should be spending this time writing, maybe I?m neglecting my own work. But I feel like every time I came back to my work after recording, it was so changed from all the listening. I feel like I?ve gotten a lot of perspective and understanding of how words work.

MONICA BERLIN: I completely agree with Emily, especially when it comes to teaching us all how to listen better---not only to each other but to the world around us; not only to other writers, but to the sounds of our lives. So there?s a way in which that changes every line that I write, and also the work that I do in the classroom. More and more I walk into the classroom and I hit play on the computer so students can hear this work in a different way than they heard it when they were in their room reading it off the page. The other thing is I?m not really somebody who really considered the place where I lived in my work. And Emily came to me and had these questions about what it meant to live in the Midwest--- I?d never lived anywhere else! So while she and Bryce and Sam were driving across the country, and I was here doing the paperwork for the project, it occurred to me to ask questions of the Midwest in my poems and in my essays in a way I never had before. And I?ve kept asking them; I can?t stop asking them.


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