“Well, there was a tape”: Private and Communal Listening

by Karis Shearer (AMP Lab director)

In the SpokenWeb research network, we do a lot of listening: close listening, machine-aided close listening, “distant’ listening, and critic-led virtual listening practice. As I listen my way through the recordings in the SoundBox Collection and related texts, I’ve become increasingly interested in how listening itself figures in the tapes, both as labour we hear performed but also as an activity that figures in the discussions.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s copies of tape-recorded poetry readings were circulating within the west coast poetry communities; these tapes offered a way for literary community members to listen to poetry events after the fact. But how did poets and critics listen to these recordings? As Frank Davey has noted, listening to copies of tapes was probably primarily an individual, private activity: “In my experience … the public reading was a social occasion; listening to a tape-recorded reading tended to be private, like reading a book. I don’t recall seeing people clustered around a tape recorder to hear the latest Olson or Bowering reading” (“Tape Recorded Poetry“). Warren Tallman’s listening to the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference recordings, for example, as he recounts it in a letter to Robert Creeley, is implicitly a private practice: 

“The summer [event] was entirely too successful, i.e. created amongst the many drones around here the firm if covert conviction that they mustn’t let that happen again. So Vancouver as new frontier has closed up shop … I stay home and listen to tapes; for which, praise be” (7 December 1963 letter to Robert Creeley; my bold).

In the 1960s there are several, perhaps obvious, conditions required for listening privately: you needed to have your own playback machine (in this case, Tallman had his own Wollensak), and you need to have a copy of a tape someone was willing to share with you (as Fred Wah did for Tallman). Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s, as portable reel-to-reel recorders became more ubiquitous and affordable, and the recording of poetry events more frequent, the conditions for private listening were set.

But this wasn’t always the case. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, portable reel-to-reel decks were still expensive: Davey notes that “the stereo Norelco (marketed in Canada as a Philips) sold in the US for $279.00 which was close to the average monthly wage in 1959 of $350” (“Tape Recorded Poetry”). The prohibitive cost and difficulty sourcing tapes of recent readings (since amateur recording had not yet taken off in earnest) meant, I think, that communal listening was more common in the late 50s and early 60s. While copying, sharing, and the affordability of playback machines might eventually make private listening the norm, social gatherings offered writers a chance to listen to and discuss difficult-to-source recordings together.

We find examples of listening that was more communal in the following oral history conversation:

Warren Tallman: Of course, I can remember so many times people coming to the house, where it was Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti whom they came to hear via Allen [Ginsberg]’s record or a tape of Allen. Did we have a tape or did we just have a record at that time?

Gladys Hindmarch: I don’t remember a tape of Allen.

WT: Well, there was a tape. Bob Patchell at CBC went down to San Francisco very early, about ’56, and did a tape of all those people reading. He had Spicer, he had Ginsberg, I think he had Duncan.

GH: I don’t remember listening to this.

WT: No, it wasn’t available. [UBC English professor] Mo Steinberg had an evening at his house where Patchell brought that tape over. That was the first time I heard Ginsberg read “Howl.” That was on that tape. That was very early. Patchell just did it on his own, kind of, and evidently played it. I assume it was played over CBC. (“West Coast with Gladys,” Wanting Everything 289)

As I continue to do more “listening for listening” in the audio archive to better understand this turn between early literary recordings (see Jason Camlot’s Phonopoetics: The Making of Early Literary Recordings) and the advent of analogue tape recordings, I’m interested in what the tapes themselves, in conjunction with correspondence and contemporary oral histories, might tell us about how people were listening in the 1960s Vancouver poetry scenes and how those practices might be culturally, historically, and geographically specific.

Today SpokenWeb has revived the practice of communal listening to literary audio through the online “Listening Practice” sessions or our local UBCO “Curated Close Listening” sessions, and through SpokenWeb podcast online listening parties (see Judith Burr’s post on community listening here). In a future post I want to think about how this contemporary communal listening both extends but is different from the social gatherings of the late 1950s and early 60s, as well as how our expectations for listening to literary audio have changed over time.