UPenn ‘Writers House’ building recording studio for treasure trove of spoken poetry

May 19, 2014

This week, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania will begin construction of a new recording studio.

The building on Locust Walk is aggressively embracing technology, breaking ground on a two-story expansion to house its brand-new digital studio.

In addition to regular readings by authors, Kelly Writers House produces podcasts, audio interviews, an online literary magazine, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for about 40,000 people worldwide and an online radio station featuring selections from an archive of tens of thousands of sound recordings.

Because even poets know: sound matters.

"It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read," said the Irish poet William Butler Yeats on scratchy recording from 1937. "That's why I will not read them as if they were prose."

Kelly Writers House, born in 1995, did not itself record Yeats, who died in 1939, but his voice is among the hundreds of writers in the PennSound archive (available online for free) including William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka and Philadelphia's current poet laureate, Frank Sherlock, recorded earlier this year.

Whomever the next William Butler Yeats will be for the 21st century, the Kelly Writers House wants to record his or her voice, in the best possible fidelty.

"Audio distraction — it's surprising how much of a difference in the listening experience there is," said professor Albert Filreis, founder and faculty director of Kelly Writers House, "when you've got audio where it's only the voices speaking, only the interviewees you can hear, as opposed to helicopters and the trucks backing up with their beeps and the shouting from the fraternity next door. We're pretty excited about this and we have put a lot of effort into this."

The new studio, to be called Wexler Studio, is expected to open early 2015 at a cost of about $1 million after construction and equipment. It will be able to host small indoor audiences and be wired to feed larger, outdoor audiences.