Community Sharing, Community Listening: From Stranger Stories to the AMP Lab and the SpokenWeb Podcast
I still remember that one evening, sitting around the folding table in sweet Ada Books in Providence, Rhode Island, elbows nearly brushing the people next to me, everyone’s breath mingling atop all the papers and notebooks on the table, where Victor was teaching a Frequency Writers class called The Essay as Form. We were taking turns reading our work aloud, and my ears perked up when one woman started reading about her Italian family. As with most of Fallon’s writing as I have come to know it, it was a story that – even in the space of a page – made my heart pang and my shoulders shake with laughter. “I need to email Fallon,” I told myself silently. “We should be friends.”
A year or so later, Fallon and I were decidedly friends and plotting to collaborate on a new community project. With some funding encouragement from the RI State Council on the Arts, Fallon and I started the “live lit” reading series Stranger Stories, a bi-monthly platform for personal essayists and creative nonfiction writers to read their work to public audiences in Rhode Island. We hosted this series for two years, featuring dozens of local writers. Some were experienced writers, and some had never read their work in public before. For our part, Fallon and I were nervous before every single event, especially if we were reading our own work in addition to hosting. Would people come? Would people enjoy the readings? Would the writers feel comfortable with their place in the line-up? We worried. We worried because we cared. And with enough networks of care – supplied by us, and each featured reader, and each featured reader’s own proud friends and families, and all the other Providence-area literary scene surveyors looking for a thrill – these gatherings became magic spaces. Every one of these events was an argument for the power of public readings and a revelation in the power of collective listening. Even though we were working outside of academic space, I see Stranger Stories as a creative practice aligned with the mission of the public humanities, and one of my beginnings in this practice.
My New AMP Lab Work
I hosted my final Stranger Stories event with Fallon in May 2020 (our first online show), and, in September 2020, I became a new graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Digital Arts & Humanities program at UBC-Okanagan and a research assistant (RA) with the SpokenWeb Project in the AMP Lab. The SpokenWeb Project – as many readers of this blog are well aware – is a network of institutions and archives across Canada with the shared mission of bringing sonic literary history out of the archives and back into public spaces. At the AMP Lab and within the greater SpokenWeb network, we talk a lot about listening. What do we hear in these histories? How does care for stories involve learning to care for rolls of tape, onto which the voices of writers and poets are silently inscribed until someone can find and play the tapes again? In wonderful alignment with my interests in audio storytelling and public scholarship, I am working as an Assistant Producer and Outreach Manager on the SpokenWeb Podcast, a platform for affiliated researchers across Canada to create engaging and accessible podcast representations of their research into the literary sound archives and sonic art.
For those with internet and computer access, communal gatherings are still possible in this pandemic time of physical distancing. But they look and feel very different than those small essay-writing classes around a single table or the tightly packed rooms of warm bodies smiling eagerly towards readers at the microphone. It is so good to be here in graduate school – although “here” for me has been the strange new space of pixelated colleagues and email conversations that many of us are getting used to in this distancing phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have remained a virtual student so far during the program, even as my mind has filled up with new ideas from online classes, meetings, professors, and peers.
One of the gifts of this experience has been the throughline between my Stranger Stories experience in public reading and listening to my current RA work with the SpokenWeb Podcast.
The SpokenWeb Podcast, Listening Parties, and the Digital Public Humanities
The year 2020 has been full of new experiments in collective listening, and the SpokenWeb Podcast leadership team has been innovating. Led by supervising producer Stacey Copeland, we have hosted a series of “Listening Parties” for each of our newly released podcast episodes. These Listening Parties have been that extra step in podcast production and promotion that takes each episode from the usually-individual space of a podcast feed and into the communal space of intentional conversation.
The first episode that I had the chance to help edit and publicize was poet and SpokenWeb researcher Klara Du Plessis’s episode “Deep Curation: Experimenting with the Poetry Reading as Practice”. This episode is named after the term Klara coined in the course of her research and poetic curatorial practice of organizing poetry readings at Résonance Café in Montreal. She captures the evolution of this “deep curation” work in her podcasted retelling – the collaboration with poets she booked for each event, her care and commitment as host and curator, and her scholarly theorizing about the tensions and implications of juxtaposing and fusing poetic works at poetry reading events. It is a brilliant episode – go listen to it. I thought a lot about Stranger Stories as I listened.
[A screen capture of the SpokenWeb Podcast Zoom Salon Q&A with “Deep Curation” episode producer Klara Du Plessis, October 5, 2020]
On the day of the episode release, we held a Listening Party on Twitter and a Zoom Salon Q&A session afterwards with Klara. We are not together in person, but there is still warmth in these online gatherings. Twitter listeners, including many members of the SpokenWeb network, shared the ideas and emotions this episode evoked in them. Our supervising producer Stacey Copeland has written about the “affect” – the emotionally evocative nature of podcasting – using the case study of what happens to be one of my favorite podcasts, The Heart, as a prime example of affect and intimacy in sonic action. I saw that connectivity at work in our Listening Party Twitter conversation.
In a 2019 Rhetoric and Communication Studies article called “The Digital Public Humanities: Giving New Arguments and New Ways to Argue”, Jordana Cox and Lauren Tilton define “the digital public humanities” as “those practices that facilitate reflection and collaboration with participants outside of the academy through digital theories and technologies.” Our host of the SpokenWeb Podcast, Hannah McGregor, has been a leader in theorizing and practicing podcasting as public scholarship and feminist method. At the SpokenWeb Podcast, student producers work hard to make the details of their research into stories that can engage wide audiences. Among the other affordances of sound, creating and sharing these podcast episodes has been an exercise in information distillation and clear explanation aimed at the unknown others who might tune in to listen.
In podcast form, academic research is made audible. It becomes listenable. These things are literally true, and might also be concepts to think with in metaphor. How can sound – the sound of creative work made audible, the sound of a podcast, the sound of a conversation – facilitate widening webs of community? How can reading aloud create a broader public? Sounded, storied work has an ability to reach out. At Stranger Stories and at the SpokenWeb Podcast, we are reaching.
[Judee and Fallon hosting Stranger Stories, theme “Dinnertime,” at Artists Exchange in Cranston, Rhode Island, USA.]