EDMONTON — Jason Camlot was chatting with his new boss in the English department of Montreal's Concordia University in 1999 when he spotted a dusty cardboard box of 80 reel-to-reel tapes in a corner of the department head's office.
He asked about it. Oh, he was told, it's just a bunch of old poetry readings from the '60s and '70s that nobody's ever heard.
He never forgot that dusty box. About seven years ago, he tracked it down, found an old reel-to-reel machine, and started to listen.
"It was this incredible reading series," said Camlot. "All the biggest names in North American poetry were there, all recorded in beautiful sound."
As it turned out, a lot of other universities had similar dusty boxes. And now, Camlot's discovery has grown into SpokenWeb, a digitized bonanza of thousands of hours of readings and off-the-cuff remarks from Canada's greatest writers during the time when the nation's literature was being invented.
They're all there: Margaret Atwood, W.O. Mitchell, Mavis Gallant, Rudy Wiebe, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, Irving Layton — a national pride of literary lions, roaring once again.
The boxes from Concordia University feature 60 different poets, including international luminaries Alan Ginsberg and Jose Luis Borges.
"It's an incredible privilege to be the custodians of this vast trove of literary culture," said Michael O'Driscoll, an English and film studies professor at the University of Alberta, who's also working with SpokenWeb.
The project has grown to include 14 collections, 13 institutions, seven partner institutions, five community partners and more than 50 researchers. It has logged about 7,000 hours of performance.
"Every collection has its own story," said O'Driscoll.
One organizer of a Montreal poetry series had a box of old Mini Discs sitting next to his microwave. A professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan got boxes of recordings from a local poet who showed up with them in the trunk of her car. The media library at the University of Alberta turned out to have 3,000 recordings in boxes that had never even been opened.
Each recording has been meticulously annotated by the name of the writer, location, date and works read. The remarks are transcribed. It takes about three hours to log one hour of tape.
The recordings offer much more than readings. The writers introduce their works, answer questions, talk about themselves and muse about what it is they're trying to achieve.
"They're extremely interesting and informative about, not just the poems, but about what they imagined it meant to be a poet in the world," said Camlot. "They are performing that role."
Many of the readings buzz with energy.
"I'm very glad to see so large a turnout this evening," Irving Layton tells an audience in 1967. "I am very heartened by it, very moved."
Margaret Atwood invites people in a standing-room-only crowd from 1974 to come to the front and sit on the floor, then cuts her reading short because the hall is so full it gets unbearably hot.
"How are you doing?" she asks her listeners. "Is it hot and steamy? Has anybody died yet?"
"We're at a peak moment in public poetry culture," said O'Driscoll. "The rooms are clearly packed."
After six years of work, SpokenWeb is in its final year. When it's done in early 2024, students can study writers' remarks, scholars can track changes in the performance of a particular piece and literature lovers can savour their favourite works in the voices of those who penned them — all from a single, searchable online portal.
Something happens when a poem moves from eye to ear, said Camlot.
"A lot of what we're hearing is a poet doing their best to communicate some of their intentions — but discovering some surprises, even to themselves, from the words they've put on the page," he said.
"Every time we listen to these, we're learning new things. It's almost too early to assess their value."
SpokenWeb is not only a literary resource but an invaluable repository of cultural history. Most of the writers it documents were in the first generation of Canadian writers to achieve any kind of a national and international audience.
SpokenWeb is the sound of CanLit being born.
"We're in the early days of showing the vast potential of these things for the way we understand ourselves, our understanding of how Canada was wanting to imagine its best self," Camlot said.
"What we're hearing in the poets are attempts to articulate what Canada may be. That's something we still should be thinking about very deeply."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2023.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated George Williams University still existed in 1999. In fact, it merged with another institution to form Concordia University in 1974.