If you haven’t visited the Knox Writers’ House—a digital archive of poets and writers reading their poems and prose, as well as the writings of others, recording in the towns where they reside—you’re in for quite a few hours of enthralled listening.
Founded in 2010 by a few students (now graduates) from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, and under the direction of their professor, Monica Berlin, Knox Writers’ House has recorded hundreds of writers across the United States. They began their operation in their native Midwest, and slowly spread to parts of the Northeast, the South, and the West. Their mode of operation has been relatively low-fi: showing up at the writer’s door, setting up the microphone, chatting, and recording. The operators of the Knox Writers’ House have spent many low-budget days on the road, couch-surfing or staying with friends, accepting the occasional meal from a writer, but mostly eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.
A few weeks ago, while Ithaca, NY, and doing a couple events for my first book, I had the opportunity to record for Knox Writers’ House, and to chat with one of its primary movers and shakers, Emily Oliver. Now an MFA-in-poetry student at Cornell University, Emily has continued to record and archive writers in her free time. Sitting at the kitchen table in her apartment, and eating the occasional pumpkin chocolate-chip cookie, Emily recorded me reading a number of poems, as well as a favorite poem of mine, Alice Fulton’s “Maidenhead.” Emily asked me some questions about my writing and writing life. I also asked Emily a bunch of questions about the Knox Writers’ House.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: How did the project get started, and who was involved?
Emily Oliver: It started all kinds of ways. I had really hard time reading as a kid, but I always loved to be read to. [In my undergraduate years], the spring I transferred to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, I recorded creative writing student and faculty reading poems and stories there, mostly to make friends. I used this awful handheld digital voice recorder that I borrowed from the library, a device science majors used to help the memorize natural laws. The recordings were all hiss and garble. But from these, I made a podcasting blog.
Then, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I met a poet the first day I got there, and spent a month reading her book with a dictionary. I recorded her, and she connected me with many other poets down there. That is where the interviews came in. What’s is like to be a writer in Buenos Aires? It was a wonderful way to know a city.
When I came back to Illinois, I had a fellowship and I had to write a project proposal. I wanted to understand the contemporary literature of the place where I lived. So, I guess this project really started as an apology to the Midwest for once believing her to be pulseless, backwards or plain. I took an independent study in Writers of the American Midwest with Monica Berlin, my then-professor and continual patron saint and partner in crime.
Eventually, Bryce would do the art for the website, and Sam and I would edit the audio, but it was more than a year before anything went up online. Bryce and Monica figured out how make a website, to keep it up and running. Monica does all the website stuff now, and she learned all the technical side of this from scratch.
There is some democratic appeal about a person recording their voice and putting it out into the world. It is such an inexpensive means of communication. It is open to anyone, but the listener has to seek it out.
ELR: Did you feel a particular need for something like KWH to exist? Why?
EO: For me, the audible recitation of a poem or story is ceremony. I can’t tell you have many times I’ve sat down at someone’s kitchen table to record, and the room becomes a cathedral. For me, these voices call back the Greek songs and Native American origin stories. We are connected to each other and to time through the utterance. But for everyone else, digital archives are important.
A lot of my favorite recordings are of what writers have read as their “best-loved” poem or piece or prose. There are moments where you can hear where she or he actually fell in love. They tell their own origin story. You can hear it in the Twin Cities’ Kristin Naca reading Pablo Neruda’s “Uno,” or when Michael Martone reads “Rebecca” by Donald Barthelme, when Robert Hass reads his translation of a found Frida Kalho poem called “In The Saliva,” or when Jericho Brown recites an untitled poem by Lucille Clifton. The voices paying homage seem especially important to capture.
The interviews we’ve collected are individual records about each place we’ve gone and together they make up a collage telling us what it is like to be a writer, and even a citizen of this country.
ELR: Are their any particularly memorable writers or recording sessions?
EO: God, there are so many stories worth telling. A lot of them involve being late or confused.
The whole experience of recording Carl Phillips might still be my favorite. We were staying at Bryce’s family farm an hour outside St. Louis, and it had taken us a long time to get out the door the morning we were going to record Carl. I love this poet. I used to carry Speak Low around in my purse. And this was early on in the first summer [we were recording writers], so I was already nervous.
On our way, we hit terrible traffic and got lost. When we had set up a time through email, Carl had said we should come by at 10:30, but that he had another appointment at noon. (This was before any of us had smart phones.) I called information so I could call to say we’d be late. He wasn’t listed. Tensions were running high. I spent second half of the drive crying in the back seat (which was actually how a lot of the first summer went) while Sammie weaved dangerously, even miraculously, through traffic and got us there exactly on time.
We sat in the car at 10:29 outside his house, trying to calm down, but Carl was already on his front stoop. The first thing he said to us was that he was happy we were on time, because it’s so rude that poets think they can always be late for everything.
I requested all my favorites from Speak Low and he obliged, and also read new work. We chatted between each poem, which allowed me to escape the panic from the drive. Carl was incredibly generous and kind.
At ten of noon, I mentioned the time. Oh, I don’t really have another appointment at noon, he said. I just wasn’t sure I was going to like you.
It is probably the best backhanded compliment I’ve ever received. I love to listen to his interview, but it kind of embarrasses me now, because in my voice, when I ask a question, I can hear myself climbing out of my youth.
ELR: What are your favorite cities you’ve discovered from doing this project?
EO: The Twin Cities. I’ve only been there in the summer, but it is so vibrant. And New Orleans, too. Both are great towns for writing.
ELR: How do you pay for KWH?
EO: In the beginning, I had a McNair grant. That’s how I got Baby, our microphone and how, that first summer, we had a rental car. Then, there were other smaller grants here and there from Knox while I was an undergraduate. But honestly, our only real expense was gas (or, once and a while, an air plane ticket). We used Bryce’s car in the later trips. We mostly slept on the floor and eat peanut butter sandwiches. We all certainly spent too much eating out. We drank too much, on occasion. But lots of writers fed us, physically as well as spiritually.
ELR: How has the project changed now that you’ve started graduate school at Cornell?
EO: It is a slower pace now. I record a writer here and there. But whenever we travel anywhere, I still record one person almost every day.
It is less of a thrilling hustle than it used to be, the getting from one place to another, always running late, being so naïve and full of awe. But I enjoy recording just as much now. And I miss it terribly when I’m knee-deep in the schoolwork.
This semester, I’m doing some new work here re-purposing poetry recordings I’ve collected into a “bio-cultural sound installation” in the Cornell Plantations’ Mundy Wildflower Garden. I am making audio playlists that pair recordings of read-aloud scientific history of a flower with a corresponding audio poem from the Knox Writers’ House archive. Each week in April, National Poetry Month, Mundy visitors will be able go on a “Poetry Walk” and call the number (or scan their smart phone) on the placard beside each flower in bloom in order to hear about it and the recording of its paired poem.
ELR: Has the project influenced your own writing? How and it what ways?
EO: There is no way for me to track all the sonic influences recording has had my own writing, but I’m very grateful for the experiences. I used to worry about a lot about neglecting my writing because I spent so much time on the road. But whenever I got around to my own poems, I always wrote better because of the listening. I learned so much during each trip.
Now, because I’m in graduate school, I write much more than I record. The poetry I’m currently working on concerns how we understand physical reality through the construction of communities. I think that is a direct result of Knox Writers’ House.
If you’re interested in recording for or supporting the Knox Writers’ House, you can reach Emily Oliver and her project partners at Knoxwritershouse@gmail.com. Look for Emily at AWP in Boston later this week, where she’ll be doing more recordings.