Saturday, December 01, 2007

With a single bound Jack was free ...

New Zealand Poets Read Their Work (1974). [Image: Pat Hanly]

You all know the story. The hack who usually wrote each instalment of the weekly magazine's adventure serial was off on holiday, but at the end of the previous episode he'd provided a true cliffhanger: his hero was bound to the stake, surrounded by hostile tribesmen, with a fire being kindled under his feet, dozens of rifles trained on him, and an erupting volcano in the background.

Nobody in the office could think of any conceivable way of getting him out of this tight fix, so they had to summon the writer back from his vacation with the lure of extra cash in order to extricate them from this embarrassment.

He walked in, sat down at the desk, took a look at the last page he'd written - and then scrawled: "With a single bound Jack was free."

You may have noticed I haven't been doing a whole lot of blogging on this site lately. It's not been through idleness, I assure you - nosiree. "With a single bound Jack was free." Or at any rate that was the plan.

Jan Kemp & Jack Ross (2004)

The thing I was trying to get shot of was the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive. For those of you who don't know, this is a collection of recordings of 171 New Zealand poets, on 40 audio CDs (with two CDs of texts and bio/bibliographical information) which was compiled between 2002 and 2004.

As you can imagine, there's a certain amount of staff work involved in setting up recordings in the four major centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), and then at least as much again in tidying up all the tapes, and texts, and photos and other impedimenta.

Jan Kemp & Alan Smythe (1974)

It started off as the brainchild of Jan Kemp and Alan Smythe, who'd collaborated on a similar venture in 1974 (resulting in a set of 3 LP records: New Zealand Poets Read Their Work). Smythe was then (2002) the head of SCAPA, the Performing Arts centre at the University of Auckland, so he seemed well-placed to facilitate the collection of materials. When he left that position in 2003, the archive shifted to Special Collections in the University Library, with the help of funds from Creative New Zealand and from the University of Auckland English Department (then headed by Ken Larsen).

Jan Kemp & Alan Smythe (2004)

There were many, many other people involved, though, and I was one of them. My particular responsibility was getting all the texts in order. When I say that this involved sorting out more than 2,000 tracks on over 3,000 pages of A4, I think you may get some idea of the scope of the project.

For various copyright reasons, the eventual electronic archive can - at present - only be accessed in two places: University of Auckland's Special Collections (which also has all the raw data from which the 42 Cds were distilled); and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

So what's actually in the archive? Well, a list of the 171 poets, together with sample tracks from 12 of them, has been available as a feature at the nzepc since 2004. But up until now it wasn't actually possible to know which tracks had actually been recorded by each one of them unless you visited one of the two institutions mentioned above, and sat down in front of a monitor with the CDs.

I thought that was a shame. It seems foolish to go to all that trouble, and then end up with an artefact no-one can really use. And some of the poets involved let me know as much in no uncertain terms.

(And while we're on the subject, d'you feel like modifying your tone a bit when you send me emails out of the blue, guys? I mean, I don't actually spend my life plotting ways to derail your literary career ... There is in fact a certain amount of idealism involved in putting together these huge compilations - and that applies not just to me and Jan (and Mark King, who made order out of the chaos of all the different recordings), but also to the people who organised the recordings in the four centres. Elizabeth Alley in Wellington, David Howard & Morrin Rout in Christchurch, and Nick Ascroft & Richard Reeve in Dunedin did a great deal of work for a not conspicuous amount of reward).

So what I've been doing over the past month is compiling an index to the whole kit and kaboodle. It takes the form of an immense interconnected and hyperlinked blog, because that was the only way I could think of to do it which didn't involve further requests for funding from the various agencies who've already sunk so much into this project. You'll find a link to it at the side of this page.

It includes:

* an alphabetical index of all 171 poets included in the 2002-2004 AoNZPSA (Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive), with a list of the poems they recorded, a picture (where one was avaialble), biographical and bibliographical information.

* an alphabetical index of all 52 poets included in the Waiata Archive of recordings compiled for the 3 1974 LPs. I've included photos and bio / bibliographical information with these where it was readily available, but should note that collecting such details was not part of the original brief 30 years ago. I don't even have dates of birth for some of the poets included.

* Contents lists for all four publications which have come from these two archives: the 3-LP set New Zealand Poets Read Their Work and New Zealand Poets Read Their Work for Children (Waiata Records, 1974); and the set of three chronological audio / text anthologies Classic, Contemporary and New New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland University Press, 2006-8) edited by myself and Jan.

Useful? I certainly hope so. I should note that it contains no actual copyright materials: no recordings, and no texts of poems. Those are all reserved for the archive itself. I have, however, tried to link to homepages or websites which do include such features.

The selection of poems was, in each case, the poet's responsibility. So, generally, was the format of their bio / bibliography (in the few cases where this was missing, these were compiled by me or by Edmund King). I'm perfectly happy to update them, but to start with I've just posted what we collected in 2002-2004. I'd also like to receive more pictures (jpegs under 50 kb in size are ideal) for those 73 (of 196) poets we don't have photographs of.

To my mind, this puts at least a provisional full stop to the whole project. To my involvement with it, at any rate. If you're interested in a particular poet or poets, you can now easily see which poems of theirs are included in the archive, and then go and listen to them either in Wellington or Auckland (and, yes, I wish the materials were available elsewhere - all I can say is that we tried very hard to arrange it, and will continue to do so).

Beyond that, I can only refer you to the three chronological volumes of recordings (one of which, New NZ Poets in Performance is still in production at present: due out on Poetry Day next year) now available through AUP. I'd rather, myself, that the whole collection could be up on the internet, but that's a project far beyond my resources and technological expertise.

This could be seen as the beginning of such an online digital archive, perhaps, but we aren't quite there yet. Certainly, in the future, the internet will be the place for such extensive collections.

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