English and Drama blog

27 posts categorized "Sound recordings"

06 September 2013

Evelyn Waugh manuscripts at the British Library

Attending a colloquium at Leicester University earlier in the summer in connection with a new AHRC funded research project - to produce a mammoth edition of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh - prompted me to revisit the British Library’s holdings of Waugh manuscripts. The colloquium was the first event of a five-year project, led by Leicester, whose partners include the Waugh Estate, Oxford University Press, the Bodleian Library, and the Universities of Texas, Leeds and Milan as well as the British Library. As well as the main focus – to produce a definitive critical edition of Waugh’s writing, including his travel writing, essays, journalism, criticism and incidental writing, as well as the plethora of well-known novels – the project involves a number of events and initiatives to disseminate the research to a wider audience as well as to contribute to current understanding in the art of textual editing.

University launches Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project

Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940

The British Library holds an extensive Waugh collection, at the heart of which is Waugh’s incoming correspondence. These letters, dating from 1921 to 1966, the year of his death, were acquired from the Waugh family in 1990 and were selected by Waugh himself (showing him taking some steps towards what we might term ‘self-archiving' and shaping posterity’s view of him). Waugh’s correspondents range from family members to society friends, from friends and acquaintances from the literary and arts worlds and the Roman Catholic Church, to occasional communications, many of which relate to publishing and the business side of writing. The letters vary from extended series over several decades – the most substantial being from Nancy Mitford – to single communications, often congratulating him on his most recent publication.

Among the first letters in these files is a series from Harold Acton, a fellow Oxford student who became a lifelong friend. An early letter of Acton’s, reminding us that Waugh initially saw his future in the visual arts rather than as an exponent of the written word, complements Waugh on his ‘Fires of Youth’ wood engraving and emphatically declares: “At last you are the MODERN you were always intended to be.” The majority of letters are occasioned by responses to his reading of Waugh’s works, responses that are deeply felt. He describes his experience of reading Brideshead Revisited as being “swept alternatively by pleasure and pain: pleasure at your ever-increasing virtuosity and mastery of our fast-evaporating language…; pain, at the acrid memories of so many old friends you have conjured”. Another letter by Daphne Acton recounts that everyone in her circle has been bowled over by the brilliance of Brideshead. Adding her own congratulations, she writes, diffidently: “For all that it seems to me like writing to tell Shakespeare that I think well of Macbeth”.

Waugh’s Christian faith and conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 bear crucially on any understanding of his writing. Among the letters at the British Library are a series from Father Philip Caraman, Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic periodical, The Month, and another from John Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet. Caraman’s letters include several references to a 1948 film called The Miracle of Bells, against which Waugh has written a diatribe in one of the newspapers. Endorsing Waugh’s slating of the film’s portrayal of Catholicism, Caraman goes on to suggest that Waugh write a more general essay criticising the Hollywood concept of religion as whole, essentially, as he writes: “its treatment of Catholicism as a box-office stunt”. Other letters suggest an idea for a Jesuit biography, outline his editorial purposes with The Month (a Catholic review of literature and the arts, with an appeal mainly to non-Catholics – “an Horizon, with Catholic thinking instead of the fluff”) and refer to Waugh’s various contributions to the review (one offering remuneration in the form of caviar). Later letters from Edith Sitwell in 1955 discuss her hopes that she will soon be received into the Roman Catholic Church, and refer to her instruction by Fr Caraman.

Some intriguing snippets of information are to be found in the occasional letters. There is an interesting run, for example, from Joan Saunders at Writer’s and Speaker’s Research, a Kensington-based agency which offers a facts and figures answer service. Among these are responses to Waugh’s queries on topics including ‘Tanks for Russia Week’ in 1941, ‘Red Sunday’ (21 June 1942), London air raids and other news items in 1941. (She tells him, for instance, that clothes rationing was introduced in June of that year and that, in December, three miles of Hyde Park railings were removed in connection with the war effort.) Other letters comprise genealogical enquiries. In contrast, the final letter in the run – on a rather more esoteric note – concerns mythological sources for the rejuvenating properties of water and the information that, according to Plutarch, the average life expectancy of a water nymph is 9,620 years. I’m not sure if that detail ever found its way into any of Waugh’s writings, but it was no doubt useful knowledge to have.

As well as within other manuscripts collections at the British Library (including the archive of Edward Sackville-West, papers relating to Christopher Sykes’s 1975 biography and the Society of Authors’ Archive), important Waugh resources can be found within the Library’s collections of printed material and drama and literature recordings. The opportunity to listen to readings of works in an author’s own voice and to hear little-known broadcasts of talks, interviews and events offers an illuminating perspective on the man and the work. The Library’s Waugh recordings span a period of 25 years, from the earliest preserved recordings of his voice in 1938 to a speech given at the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, just three years before his death. Some of them were published on CD as part of the Library's Spoken Word series a few years ago.

I’m looking forward to being involved with the project as it progresses. It marks a defining moment in Waugh studies and may well prove to be the largest ever scholarly edition of a British author. More Waugh-related blog posts may be on their way between now and 2018!

23 August 2013

The first audiobook

A guest post by Matt Rubery, Edison Fellow at the British Library

What was the first audiobook? This is a question I’ve been asked a lot while researching the history of audiobooks as an Edison Fellow at the British Library.

It’s a difficult one to answer since a lot depends on what counts as an audiobook in the first place.

People have been recording literature since the phonograph’s invention in 1877. Shortly after its debut, Thomas Edison proposed using it to record Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. This would have been the first audiobook if it had ever been recorded. Recording an entire novel on wax cylinders was all but impossible however, since each one played for only a few minutes at a time. Listening to poetry was far more practical. Here’s a sketch from 1895 of a woman listening to a book read aloud in her Paris apartment:

Image 1
From Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, Contes pour les bibliophiles (Paris: Ancienne Maison Quantin, 1895).

Full-length novels were not recorded until the 1930s. That’s when talking books—that is, books recorded on a set of gramophone records—were made for people with visual disabilities in America and Britain. This group included war-blinded soldiers returning from the First World War and blind civilians who couldn’t read braille. The American Foundation for the Blind and the Royal National Institute of Blind People managed to capture up to 25 minutes of speech using long-playing (LP) records that rotated at far slower speeds than the traditional 78 rpm record. The average novel could fit on 10 records.

The first talking books went out by post to readers in America in October 1934. They included The Bible, patriotic documents like the Declaration of Independence, and, of course, Shakespeare. There was fiction, too, including Rudyard Kipling’s 'The Brushwood Boy', E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and P. G. Wodehouse’s Very Good, Jeeves. Britain’s talking books went out a year later, beginning with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. These are fascinating choices since Christie’s mystery uses a phonograph recording as a plot device and Conrad’s storytellers, like Marlow, are not exactly easy to follow out loud.

Image 2
Woman listening to a talking book circa 1939.

The American Foundation for the Blind and Royal National Institute of Blind People continue to record talking books to this very day. Yet talking books differ from audiobooks in one key respect: they have never been sold to the public. Talking books have long been restricted to people with impaired vision in order to secure copyright exemptions from publishers.

Record companies began making spoken word recordings of literature for the public in the 1950s. Caedmon Records is one of the best known labels since it recorded many of the twentieth century’s biggest names including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty. (For more on Caedmon please read my interview with Barbara Holdridge, co-founder of the label.) But other labels issued spoken word recordings of literature too. Argo, Folkways, and Spoken Arts are among the best known. One was even called The Audio Book Company! Reading through their catalogues made me realize just how much literature was recorded before anyone had ever heard of cassette tapes. 

Image 3
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway (Caedmon TC1105, 1958)

Image 4Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (Audio Books, 1958)

Which brings me to books on tape. Most people associate audiobooks with the use of cassette tapes in the 1970s. That’s when mail-order vendors began selling or renting titles to the growing number of commuters who listened to them while driving. Duval Hecht decided to start Books on Tape Inc. while commuting to Los Angeles in 1973. His first recorded book was George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. I’m still trying to locate a copy since libraries haven’t preserved audiobooks to the same extent as other books. Companies such as Books on Tape Inc., Books in Motion, and Recorded Books laid the groundwork for today’s audiobook industry.  

Image 5

All this is to say that there’s no short answer to the question: what was the first audiobook? My search continues.

Matthew Rubery is the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011). He is currently finishing a manuscript titled 'The Untold Story of the Talking Book'. You can read his interview with Toni Morrison about audiobooks on his Audiobook History web site.

04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  


As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt) 

23 April 2013

James Joyce on record


Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses (extract)

In March this year the British Library issued the latest in its series of archival spoken word releases: a 3-CD set titled 'Irish Poets and Writers'. The release attracted a modest amount of favourable publicity, including a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement of 13 April in which Anthony Carroll, of Taylor's Hill, Galway, drew attention to the James Joyce recordings included in the set. Mr Carroll identified Joyce's accent not, as one might reasonably have supposed, as a Dublin one, but as North-East Cork, attributing this to the influence of Joyce's father, who grew up in the town of Fermoy.

There are two Joyce recordings on the Library's CD-set - which together compose the only recordings of his voice that are known to exist. The earlier of the two, in which Joyce reads from Ulysses, dates from 1924 and is a new digital transfer of one of the rarest discs in the Library's collection, which was issued in an edition of only 30 copies, most of which were given away to Joyce's friends. Joyce has signed and dated the label (see picture above).

The Library's new anthology also includes a previously unpublished talk given by Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company English-language bookshop in Paris, recorded in London in 1960 at the British Institute of Recorded Sound, the forerunner of today's British Library sound archive. Beach explains how she persuaded Joyce to make the record and how she came to organize the recording session.

Beach also discusses the making of the second Joyce recording, an extract from Finnegans Wake recorded for the Orthological Institute, Cambridge, in 1929. Not so rare as the earlier disc, the Library holds four copies of this one, which delivers a recording superior to the earlier in respect of sound quality and, arguably, the author's performance.

'Irish Poets and Writers' is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. Further details here

12 April 2013

Royal Court Theatre recordings at the British Library

Over the past year there have been a number of press articles about the Royal Court Theatre’s preparation for a change of artistic director. Dominic Cooke’s succession is going to be effective at the end of this month. Vicky Featherstone will be taking over, making her director number thirteen since George Devine, and the first woman to occupy the post.

To mark this new chapter in the Royal Court’s history this blog concerns the British Library audio recordings made at the Theatre over the past 40 years.  Of course, if you have your list of missed productions ready you may want to jump straight into the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue and plan your visit to the Library’s Reading Rooms.

The Royal Court is known as a writers’ theatre. The venue has hosted a long-running young writers’ programme, which has included national and international writers alluring audiences with all sorts of challenging subjects. For example listen to Hanif Kureishi and Karim Alrawi interviewed in 1986 discussing British Asian theatre. Kureishi was the Theatre’s writer-in-residence in 1982 and ran the writing side of the young writers’ workshops for a number of years. See BL reference C311/1.


The British Library made its first audio recording of a Royal Court production on 30 October 1970. The play was Home by David Storey, directed by Lindsay Anderson, starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne and Warren Clarke. It premiered 17 June 1970 and transferred to the Apollo on 29 July.

Since then, for all the subsequent recordings, the Library has kept a permanent set of microphones hanging from the lights grid of both the upstairs and downstairs performance spaces at the Court. The recordings are part of the Library’s ongoing programme of audio and digital video documentation of performing arts and spoken word, which began in 1963.

The Royal Court recordings collection include plays, pre- and post-show talks and rehearsed readings; forums on European writing, black writing, gay writers and female playwrights; and talks about production, design and acting; occasional gala events and more. All the recordings are listed on the Library’s catalogue. See BL references C1208, C1209 and C311. For material recorded prior to 2006, you will usually need to make an appointment with the Listening and Viewing Service 

In 2006, for the Theatre’s 50th anniversary, the Royal Court programmed over 50 rehearsed readings under the title Look back: 50 readings, 50 writers, 50 years. The programme consisted of a selection of 50 plays produced at the theatre from 1956 till 2006, most of which were recorded.

In the same year, Harriet Devine, George Devine’s daughter, published Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006. The book was based on a series of recorded interviews that she had made with playwrights whose work had been produced at the Royal Court. The original recorded interviews are now archived at the British Library and include writers such as John Arden, Simon Farquhar, Sebastian Barry, Richard Bean, Martin Crimp, Anne Jellicoe, Terry Johnson, Hanif Kureishi, Conor McPherson, David Storey, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker and Snoo Wilson.

Researchers may also be interested in the collection ‘The Legacy of the English Stage Company’, which comprises a series of life-story interviews covering the careers of theatre directors associated at some point with the Royal Court. See BL reference C1316. This collection has been sponsored by John Hodgson Theatre Research Trust and is an ongoing project curated by the Library’s Oral History section.

Some highlights of the Royal Court recordings include Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Jim Cartwright's Road, Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.


Over the past four years I have had the pleasure of making many recordings for this collection. I would like to emphasise the value to researchers of the post-show talks. They are usually attended by members of the cast, the director and often the playwright, and they provide a valuable insight into the creative process. Along with the recordings the Library also collects a programme or published text for each production.

The Royal Court has an active international programme which showcases the work of young playwrights from around the world, with a focus on contemporary issues. The programme, which is run by Elyse Dodgson, has included readings in translation and discussions of plays with playwrights from Nigeria, Syria, Chile, Romania, India, Georgia and Ukraine, to mention just a few. In August 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, I recorded ‘After the Spring: New Short Plays from the Arab World’, which presented work from Tunisia, Egypt and Syria followed by a post-readings talk, with the playwrights reporting on the protest movements and what was going on in the streets at the time. See BL ref. C1209/136 and 137.

I have also recorded many of the ‘Rough Cuts’ series of work-in-progress, experimental pieces, readings and shorts, which takes place twice a year, after a gestation period at the Theatre’s Studio. The most recent season ‘Bytes’ was shown in January. Playwrights Alia Bano, DC Moore, Nick Payne and Penelope Skinner presented work examining and exploring our relationship to the internet, and E.V. Crowe a rehearsed excerpt of her new play Searched.

We hope this whets your appetite for the collection. We are always interested in hearing from you and if you have any suggestions please feel free to comment.

Eva del Rey
Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings 

11 February 2013

'Murder in the Library': the soundtrack

Murder in the Library: An A to Z of Crime Fiction is the British Library’s current free exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery in the Entrance Hall. It has been curated by Kathryn Johnson and is wrapped in a vivid design inspired by the illustrations, graphics, fonts and colours of the original printed sources on show.


Alongside books and ephemera, previously described by my colleague Tanya Kirk in her 21 January post, we have put together a modest compilation of twenty recordings from the British Library Sound and Moving Image Collection.

The recordings can be accessed via a sound point located just behind the big cut-out Z on the right hand side of the exhibition space. The selection features extracts of interviews with crime writers discussing different aspects of the art of crime fiction, including how they came to be interested in the genre, their working methods, and the qualities a crime novel should or shouldn’t have.


Highlights include Edgar Wallace reading his short story ‘The Man in the Ditch’, from a 1928 commercial disc; Arthur Conan Doyle speaking in 1930 about his most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes; Agatha Christie in 1955 explaining how she began her career; and Raymond Chandler in conversation with Ian Fleming in 1958.

English authors are represented by PD James, Ruth Rendell and Frances Fyfield, among others; Scottish writers by Val McDermid and Ian Rankin; and the US by Patricia Highsmith and Ed McBain, alongside an extract from a radio version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, as heard on the CBS network, 20 September 1943.

Non-Anglophone writers include Belgian Georges Simenon, creator of the ‘Inspector Maigret' series, and the Swede Henning Mankel, author of the ‘Kurt Wallander’ novels. Both are interviewed in English.


Visitors can also listen to a 1993 BBC interview with Julian Symons, author of the classic history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, talking about Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and why English women turned to crime.

For those interested in forensic science we have included an extract from an interview with Dr William M Bass, US forensic anthropologist, mystery writer and founder of ‘The Body Farm’- the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s 1994 book of that title -. Bass describes the real-life ‘farm’, where bodies are left to decompose in a variety of conditions.

Details of the complete recordings can be found in the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue and they are available to listen to by appointment at the Library. The exhibition is on until 12 May 2013 and if you are planning to visit on 8 March you may want to consider finishing your day with the last of the series of public events accompanying the exhibition: ‘The Female Detective’ (18.30 in the Conference Centre). See here for more details.

Listen to Conan Doyle speaking about Sherlock Holmes in 1930

Eva del Rey
Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings

03 January 2013

'Putting a bomb under Scottish literature'


Somewhat overshadowed by the more spectacular cultural events of this past Olympic year, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Edinburgh International Writers' Conference, considered the world's first literature festival, passed with a relatively modest share of media attention.

The introduction of a literary element to the Edinburgh Festival was the idea of Jim Haynes, an American transplanted to Edinburgh who opened Britain's first paperback bookshop and founded the Traverse Theatre, and John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett and others. After successfully pitching the idea to Festival Director Lord Harewood, they persuaded Sonia Orwell to join them in planning the Conference.

As Jim Haynes put it in his 1984 memoir Thanks for Coming!:

             I took care of the Edinburgh end of it, of accommodation for people, arranging parties and arranging for the building and all that. John dealt mainly with Lord Harewood and keeping the Festival happy, and with certain writers. Sonia got all her pals to come up, including people like Mary McCarthy and Nicolo Tucci, whom I fell in love with, and we have remained friends ever since.

The conference drew an unprecedented line-up of Scottish and international writers to Edinburgh University's 2300-seater McEwan Hall. Among the 60 or so writers speaking over the five days of talks and discussion were Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Alexander Trocchi, Muriel Spark, Khushwant Singh, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Angus Wilson, Rebecca West, L.P. Hartley, Colin MacInnes and Simon Raven. In his 2001 memoir Pursuit John Calder noted that only a handful of the biggest names were subsidised by the conference budget (which had to be covered by ticket sales), with the costs of bringing in most of the writers absorbed by the British Council, foreign embassies or individual publishers.

Each day was devoted to a particular theme. Day two was concerned with 'Scottish Writing Today', and featured a lively spat between the anarchist bohemian Alexander Trocchi ('I am only interested in lesbianism and sodomy') and Scotland's best-known living poet (an 'old fossil', in Trocchi's opinion) Hugh MacDiarmid ('I resent the preponderance of paper and ink that is wasted on issues that seem to me peripheral and undesirable').

Going somewhat against the political grain of day three's addresses on the theme 'Commitment', English novelist Simon Raven was mainly concerned with making a living:

    I find from my notes that during the whole course of the afternoon everyone has been too polite to mention one subject and that is money. To listen to the talented ladies and gentlemen who have spoken, one would have thought that they never had, any of them, squirmed with delight at the prospect of a £5 note, that they had never seen money at all.

    Now, I wish to be quite honest about this. I count myself in a very minor way, as an old-fashioned professional novelist who writes to make a livelihood and pay for his expensive tastes.

Day four, on 'Censorship' featured a coolly logical address by the then little-known American William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch was still two years away from its British publication by John Calder). 'What would happen if all censorship were removed', mused Burroughs, 'I think not very much'. 

The Conference made the front pages of the Scottish newspapers ('Writers' Conference Goes into Orbit' was a headline in The Scotsman) and in many ways served as an early indicator of the cultural revolution that would erupt fully into the public consciousness just a few years later.

Jim Haynes had no doubts as to the event's success:

            It was wonderful - lots of people, lots of parties, lots of gossip. We had delightful, buzzing parties virtually every night. The alcohol flowed and everyone had a good time. I know I did. Altogether it was a great five days. The McEwan Hall, at Edinburgh University, a great barrel of a building, was filled every day with people, which made it exciting, and people came for lots of different reasons. I think we were well satisfied. The public enjoyed it, the writers enjoyed it and enjoyed meeting each other.

            For me the most important part of the Festival, with the Writers' Conference and, later, the Drama Conference, was just bringing people together. That has been one theme in everything I have done in my life: I think people should be brought together and that we have to create environments and situations to bring people together.

Haynes and John Calder were invited back to Edinburgh last August, to formally open the 2012 World Writer's Conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a look back at the events of 1962 in a public discussion titled 'The Edinburgh Writers’ Conference 1962: The Legacy: Putting a Bomb Under Scottish Literature'. The organizers of this discussion, Dr Eleanor Bell and Dr Angela Bartie (both are academics from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow), have produced a book to commemorate the original event: International Writers' Conference Revisited: Edinburgh 1962 (Cargo Publishing, 2012) featuring transcripts, new interviews and previously unpublished archive photographs.

For researchers wishing to dig even deeper, the British Library holds a copy of the original programme (front cover shown above, BL ref. Cup.21.ee.41.), a complete transcript (11881.g.1.), and the complete BBC audio recordings of the proceedings (NP550-NP561).

08 October 2012

The Power of Caribbean Poetry – Word and Sound

On 20-22 of September the British Library recorded The Power of Caribbean Poetry – Word and Sound at Homerton College, Cambridge. This was a conference on contemporary Caribbean Poetry from English-speaking territories linked to the Caribbean Poetry Project 2010-2012, which is a collaboration between the Centre for Commonwealth Education (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge), the University of the West Indies at Mona (Jamaica), St Augustine (Trinidad) and at Cave Hill (Barbados), conceived to promote and disseminate the teaching, understanding, and appreciation of Caribbean poetry in the Caribbean and the UK. See here for further details.

Grace Nichols1Grace Nichols

The conference was structured around a generous programme with participants and experts from both hemispheres. Its three days elapsed among scholarly papers, panel discussions, seminars, poetry readings and late-night sessions of poetry entertainment. The papers revealed many of the multiple subjects of Caribbean poetry, crossing over several disciplines: from literature to history, anthropology, sociology and ethnomusicology, and included environmental approaches, postcolonial views, perspectives on cultural identity, polyphonic interpretations and analysis of ethics of representation, just to mention some of the topics. The seminars addressed aspects of teaching and learning Caribbean poetry, providing creative methodologies for both teachers and students. In conjunction with this polymath learning there was an exquisite cast of poets who read and performed each evening till late, treating the delegates to an unforgettable experience.

In her opening speech Professor Morag Styles, Project Director, stated that this was the biggest line-up of Caribbean poets ever to appear in Cambridge. Here is the list for your consideration: John Agard, Christian Campbell, Kei Miller, Mark McWatt, Mervyn Morris, Philip Nanton, Grace Nichols, Velma Pollard, Olive Senior, Dorothea Smartt and special guest Linton Kwesi Johnson, who gave a lecture on Jamaican poet Michael Smith. In addition to the poetry Morris, Senior and Campbell gave keynote lectures: Morris focused on poetry and language showing examples of Creole and Caribbean English; Senior on poetry and play; and Campbell on a book he is writing on Caribbean poetry.

Linton Kwesi Johnson1Linton Kwesi Johnson

The Caribbean Poetry Project has also collaborated with the online Poetry Archive set up by Andrew Motion (see here for more), leading to new recordings of several Caribbean poets. Besides Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and James Berry the list currently includes Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mervyn Morris and Olive Senior, while Christian Campbell, Anthony Joseph and Velma Pollard are soon to be added.

The landscape of Caribbean poetry is transnational and full of features. In brief we could say it is critical at heart, often political and social, frequently jocose and closely entwined with the rhythms of reggae, dub and calypso.

Kei Miller1Kei Miller

The recordings of this conference will be accessible online at the British Library Sounds page once they have been processed. Look out for them and tell us what you think. Until then here is a sample of Kei Miller reading his poem 'Speaking in Tongues'.

Listen to Kei Miller reading in Cambridge

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