A Conversation with Jason Camlot
Author of CANLIT ACROSS MEDIA: UNARCHIVING THE LITERARY EVENT
Interview by Rosie Long Decter
Jason Camlot is a Montreal-based poet and an English professor at Concordia University. Over the course of his formidable career, he’s published four poetry collections and several academic texts. Camlot’s scholarly research ranges from Victorian literary style to contemporary sound poetry. He runs SpokenWeb, a collaborative research project interrogating literary practices from an interdisciplinary perspective, and has recently published two new books, Phonopoetics: The Making of Early Literary Recordings, and CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event. We spoke with Camlot about the intersection of research and creation, the meaning of the archive, and his many ongoing projects.
Rosie Long Decter (RLD): Let’s start by talking about your newest book, CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving The Literary Event, edited by you and Katherine McLeod. Can you tell me a bit about how that collection came together?
Jason Camlot (JC): It started as a conference idea. I hired Katherine as a post-doctoral fellow and together we conceived of a conference called CanLit Across Media. We had a bunch of scholars come to Concordia and we had some performances too. We hosted what we called a recording party, which was a poetry reading where there were about thirty poets who read for about three minutes each, and we recording them reading as one single poem performance. Following the conference we invited scholars who contributed to it to prepare slightly longer versions of their papers and had a book project from there. It took several years, but in the end we came up with a really interesting collection that makes a case for the importance of thinking about literary history through sound.
RLD: I want to ask about the concept of unarchiving—where did that choice of word come from and how do you think it frames the collection?
JC: We talked a lot about whether we wanted to stick with that word. The downside is that it suggests a binary, but we tried to define it in the book in a way that opens it up to being more than just the opposite of archiving. Unarchiving doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything to an archive physically or digitally—it [can be] a critical act of reflecting upon archival structures and how they’re informing and shaping the kinds of histories that we can actually tell. That’s what it means in the most conceptual way.
But unarchiving also [means] trying to activate materials from archives in the present, in the form of new events. So, for example, there’s a series that I started ten years ago called Performing the Archive, where we would basically host readings of people who had read in reading series here back in the ‘60s. We’d bring those individuals back and have them read live alongside their archival selves, so the event would be a mix of readings that had happened fifty years earlier and are happening now in the present. We found it was pretty compelling, in part because half of the reading event was a performance of listening—you’d have this person on stage listening to themselves reading in the past and you’d hear the venue, the sociality of that past historical event bumping up against the present room and the present group of people gathered to listen.
RLD: We’re in a moment where there’s a lot of criticism of CanLit in relation to colonialism and racism and sexual violence. Was that something that you were hoping the book would grapple with?
JC: I think that was one of the main purposes of the book—to think about the forces by which this concept of CanLit has been produced again and again over time. We make an argument early on that CanLit doesn’t exist implicitly in any formal arrangement of a literary work, really it’s a set of historical conditions. [CanLit] gets produced not only through acts of literary production but also through all the infrastructures.
It allows us to talk about a whole spectrum of debate about what CanLit is, from Nick Mount’s recent book where he seems to be presenting a more historically canonical version of CanLit as residing within particular great authors or literary titans, to a whole bunch of really interesting works that are resisting the concepts in CanLit and really challenging that particular canon that got associated with CanLit through the ‘50s.
RLD: So taking the approach of looking at the literary event, as opposed to just printed texts, affords you the ability to explore the way CanLit is produced through different media and not just one great work.
JC: Exactly. And what we’re finding as we discover more of these kinds of archives, especially around sound archives, is a lot of them are hidden. Audio media is harder to work with and to critically analyze, in part because it’s not static. There’s huge numbers of collections in this country that document events and scenes of literary activity that are really not accounted for in the print record, and so in these different archives of sound and video, you hear voices that maybe didn’t make it in any sort of recognizable way in the larger print record that established certain canons of literature in Canada. We think that in discovering and preserving and making accessible more and more of these kinds of sound recordings of literary events that happened across the country, we’re going to be also bringing out—sounding out—all kinds of voices that haven’t been heard before.
RLD: I’m curious on a more personal level where your interest in sound and its relation to literature comes from. Is that more of a recent direction for your research? Has that always been there for you?
JC: I’ve always been interested in sound mostly through music and songs and songwriting. I was in undergrad when I first heard the sound recording of Alfred Tennyson reading his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and it kind of fascinated me in part because it was inaudible—it had been recorded on a brown wax cylinder in 1890 and hadn’t been preserved very well so it was mostly noise. But I was just fascinated that we were studying this “great” Victorian poet, reading him through something like the Norton Anthology, and then all of the sudden we heard him and it made him very physically present in my mind. The vibrations that emanated from his voice were somehow coming through a boom box now, after the cylinder had been converted to a flat disc record that had then been recorded on to a cassette tape, and then the professor played it in my class. I felt like a time portal had been opened, and through that one encounter I became really interested in thinking about the significance of these early recordings. Then when I was in grad school that became my second research project.
I just finished a book project that took me literally a decade to write on this topic of what do the earliest recordings of spoken word performance teach us about what literature meant in the 19th and early 20th century, what literary performance was and how people read.
RLD: Is that the book that came out last year—Phonopoetics?
JC: Yeah it’s called Phonopoetics: The Making of Early Literary Recordings.
RLD: I know there’s been a recent turn towards seeing oral traditions and oral art as more legitimate forms—do you see your research as part of that push for the legitimacy of the oral object?
JC: Definitely my work is part of that. I see a lot of my work as trying to bridge the literary side with sound [studies].
RLD: Is SpokenWeb part of that?
JC: For me one of the mandates of the SpokenWeb project is to bridge literary studies with sound studies, and in a way to develop something that would become identifiable as a form of literary sound studies—something that is expanding the methodologies we use in literary studies. To that end we’re holding a big conference in July, from the 16th to the 21st, called Literary Sound Studies in Theory and Practice. And the “In Theory and Practice” point is that we want to have practitioners and artists involved along with the theorists of these areas. On the 16th we’re going to have a half-day workshop on deep listening. And then we’ll have another half day of workshops on actually producing spoken word and music performances, that local spoken word artist Ian Ferrier is going to help run. And then we’re going have a two day international conference where we’ll have scholars coming from all over North America and Europe.
RLD: That sounds really cool.
JC: Yeah we’re excited about it! Every year we hold some kind of conference.
RLD: Speaking of the relationship between theory and practice—how has all the research that you’ve been doing into literary sound studies affected your own creative writing practice?
JC: I’ve been working on and have done a few pieces that are purely sound pieces. I’ve been collaborating with Katherine on doing scores for dance—we did a couple of performances, one at Casa del Popolo as part of the Words and Music series about a year ago, and one at Blue Metropolis [International Literary Festival] as well. Essentially I’ve been experimenting with stuff partly that I’ve been hearing in the archives and partly that the archives have inspired me to think of doing. One thing I’ve been doing is extracting different kinds of sounds that are not semantically intelligible—small clips from different readings—and then producing new scores out of those sounds. I don’t even associate that with my poetic practice in the traditional sense but it’s been an extension of a kind of artistic practice that’s using archival materials for the production of new kinds of pieces.
Another answer is that I’ve been doing these strange kinds of narrative poems that are strongly influenced by this poet named David Antin. He passed away recently, but he was an avant-garde poet who called himself a talk poet and what he would do is go to a venue, without any prepared text to read, and he would just talk for an hour. It would be kind of like a live witnessing of a thought process that he was oralizing before an audience. Then he would record those events and transcribe them and shape them into actual published talk poems that he would publish in books. I’m not engaged in a project that’s specifically aiming to do that but what I’ve been doing is writing these kinds of long narrative pieces, but only to individual recipients. I usually choose a book that is the constraint, so the poem will only be as long as the book will afford space to write, and I’ll write these narrative poems that are very much about occasions, things that happened between me and one other person, and I’ll write this poem and I’ll send it to them and that’ll be it. I’m not planning on doing anything with them.
RLD: Part of what I really liked in your last poetry collection, What the World Said, is that some of the poems do have this conversational tone and are telling the story of a specific incident—especially the last poem in the book, about Betty Goodwin. I’m always so impressed when poems are able to track a full narrative.
JC: Actually, the poem that you’re referring to—“Lines Crossed Out”—is where these personal occasional poems picked up from. They’re a lot like that poem but more directed at one person.
RLD: Are there any sound poets who you are particularly fascinated by at the moment?
JC: Oana Avasilichioaei, she’s a Montreal poet. I’ve found that a lot of her performance work and her latest book, Eight Track, is really exciting and interesting—a lot of the poems I think are well understood as scores for the performances that she’s exploring, she’s very interested in creating sound textures to accompany the words and the scenarios of those words.
Jordan Abel, too, is trying to find sonic equivalents to the erasure poems and other techniques that he uses in his print works. He uses Ableton and time stretching a lot to really great effect, as well as integrating archival audio into some of his performances.
Those are just a couple of examples of interesting contemporary poets—there’s so many more that I could talk about, and really through the Words and Music series we have the good fortune to be able to encounter all kinds of poets who are using their voices and exploring what we can do with our mouths, as far as poetry goes.
Rosie Long Decter is a writer and musician based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, Briarpatch, Montréal Writes, and elsewhere. She is a 2017 recipient of the Lionel Shapiro Award for Creative Writing. In 2019, her band Bodywash released their debut LP, Comforter.
Jason Camlot is the author of four collections of poetry: The Animal Library, Attention All Typewriters, The Debaucher, and most recently, What The World Said. Camlot is poetry editor of the Punchy Writers Series (DC Books), and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Concordia University.