Poetry archives on the road to going digital
March 25, 2008 -- An ambitious project is underway at SF State's Poetry Center to preserve fragile poetry recordings from the last half century and make them available through a new online digital archive.
"We needed to go digital in order to preserve our oldest material which dates back to the Poetry Center's founding in 1954," said Poetry Center Director Steve Dickison. "Our poetry readings from the 1950s through 1972 were recorded on reel-to-reel audio tapes, which had to be played -- risking damage -- every time someone requested a copy."
The Poetry Center's American Poetry Archives is one of the most extensive literary collections in the U.S., home to approximately 3,000 original recordings captured at the Poetry Center's live poetry reading series.
The digital archive project began in the year 2002. Over the last year, the archiving effort has been boosted by the addition of the Poetry Center's first Visiting Poetry Scholar, Sara Wingate Gray.
Wingate Gray, a British writer, artist and scholar joined the team to learn from the Poetry Center's archiving process. It's been a two-way learning exchange, with Wingate Gray playing a key role in helping to steer the digital archive project.
"We are working with DIVA, the University's Digital Information Virtual Archive team, to design the web-based resource that will allow users to search the material in a meaningful way through key words, topical themes, and the titles and first lines of poems," said Wingate Gray. She joined the Poetry Center team in February 2007, working alongside Associate Director Elise Ficarra, Archives Manager Jiri Veskrna, and student interns.
"Dealing with the fragility of such early formats and such a vast amount of material is a huge logistical task," said Wingate Gray. "But it's preserving our cultural heritage and I feel privileged to be building something that will outlast my own lifetime."
Her passion for making poetry accessible to people is what brought Wingate Gray to the Poetry Center. It's also the driving force behind her own poetry initiative, "The Poetry Cubicle," which she founded in the United Kingdom in 2002. "The Poetry Center's model will directly inform my own work with The Poetry Cubicle, which includes a physical poetry library and the beginnings of a digital archive," she said.
Since 2006, Wingate Gray's Poetry Cubicle has taken the form of an experimental live arts project: a worldwide traveling poetry library embodied in Wingate Gray and her suitcase collections of lost and forgotten poetry. She has installed her traveling poetry library in 11 countries so far, sharing her collections of books and poems with members of the public in coffee shops, theaters, galleries and seniors' homes. At SF State, Wingate Gray has installed her poetry library on campus and given a public lecture at the Poetry Center about her traveling library. "What this means is that I am now in the archive, too," she said.
"Every one of our current poetry readings is being digitally recorded and will be available for listeners 50 years from now," said Dickison. He hopes the online resource will be launched in 2009, initially serving the communities of the 23 CSU campuses, before being made available to the public.
In the meantime, audio and video recordings from the archive will be showcased at the Poetry Center's "Salute to George Oppen," to mark National Poetry Month in April. Find out more at the Poetry Center Web Site .
-- Elaine Bible
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