Beats Go On
Poetry Center Races to Preserve
and bushy-bearded, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg is sitting cross-legged
on stage at San Francisco State's McKenna Theatre. The occasion is a May
9, 1974, poetry reading and Ginsberg, then age 48, is loosening up the
audience by singing a mantra that sounds as if he might be making it up
as he goes along.
Begin with appreciation of the place
we're sitting in
Begin with breathing outward, certainly that's no sin
If you're sitting up straight, you might as well loosen your belt
Or your corset, if you're wearing one
Now I'll shut up so we can sing
delightful bit of doggerel could vanish into oblivion were San Francisco
State's Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives not taking steps to
The 3/4-inch reel-to-reel tape on which the poet's lunchtime reading was
recorded has deteriorated badly over the years, as have most of the other
videotapes that make up the bulk of the Poetry Center's collection of
recordings by 20th century poets. Many of the tapes are gummed up by magnetic
particles; others are so brittle that the next playing could be their
With the clock ticking, the Poetry Center has embarked on a massive project
to convert each of the tapes to digital code and preserve them on disc
before it's too late.
"These tapes are very much endangered, but it's one of those things
that we would appreciate only when they're gone and irretrievably lost,"
said Jiri Veskrna, the Poetry Center's part-time archives manager who
is doing the preservation work almost single handedly.
The project -- partly funded by grants from the National Endowment for
the Arts -- is hugely labor-intensive. Veskrna must manually transfer
each analog recording to his computer hard drive in real time. He then
transfers the digital code to DVD.
Old videotapes tend to be temperamental so the project moves along in
fits and starts. The Ginsberg recording froze a few minutes into the reading
as Veskrna sought to save it on a hard drive. "That's OK because
I think we can retrieve it," he said.
The Poetry Center started sponsoring poetry readings in 1954. In 1973,
technicians began bringing cameras and microphones to these popular events
-- some staged at off-campus venues -- so that they could be recorded
The first recorded reading, on Feb. 22, 1973, by the Oakland-born poet
Robert Duncan, was shot in black and white on 1/2-inch reel-to-reel tape.
Later formats included 3/4-inch tape followed by VHS and Hi-8 -- all fragile
media that endure only several decades even under the best of circumstances.
The tapes are housed on
the fifth floor of the Humanities building in a temperature-controlled
vault specially built for the collection. But for many years, the recordings
lived in the basement of the old Humanities building, sandwiched between
a boiler room and the journalism darkroom and subjected to temperature
extremes and fumes from photo-developing chemicals.
None of the 1,056 recordings -- the latter ones made on DVD -- would fetch
much at auction. But they nevertheless constitute a precious documentation
of literary history and culture.
Many recordings capture poets musing aloud or joking with the audience.
Others feature then little-knowns whose names are now household words
-- Alice Walker, for example.
The poets' words may be immortal but no recording media has yet been discovered
that stands the test of time. Veskrna figures that the preservation project
could consume the next couple of years, by which time the DVD may be obsolete.