Penn online poetry project rooted in culture of accessibility

The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 4, 2007

This morning, in my kitchen, Richard Hell was talking about the world. He said:

"Humans are a small part.

But a speaking one!"

I was listening to the punk legend's "Winter Poem," which I downloaded from the online poetry project PENNsound, at .

And - since I never have actually seen the text of his poem, only heard it online - I don't know how he'd feel about my putting that exclamation point there, but that's what it sounded like to me.

Home to more than 7,000 audio files of poets reading their work, PENNsound has had nearly 11 million visitors since its launch in January 2005. It's the brainchild of the poet Charles Bernstein, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Al Filreis, Kelly Professor of English and director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW), where the archive is housed.

Their goal is simple, but lofty: to make as many of these one-poem audio files available to as many people as possible, for free.

Their belief in a culture of accessibility has a tradition not just online (i.e., in zine culture) but also in print, Bernstein said. He pointed to the rich pamphlet and broadside culture in early American publishing as an example.

"But within a local American culture, the real flourishing of small-press magazines was poetry stuff," he adds. "And poetry remains significant on the Internet. It's a tiny form within all the entertainment there, but still it's important because it has the potential to offer more stuff with fewer hooks. It's one of the largest providers of noncommercial content on the Web."

A poetry reading traditionally consists of several poems, but Bernstein and Filreis think that to be useful, PENNsound must comprise mainly individual poems, or "singles." (The reference to pop songs is intentional.)

"When the project was first started, we envisioned poetry being brought to people's iPods the same way music was," said Chris Mustazza, the IT and multimedia manager for the CPCW and manager of PENNsound.

Mustazza runs the project from a two-terabyte media server shared by various departments in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences. PENNsound features historical recordings from library archives and personal collections as well as contemporary ones, in part from Bernstein's radio show Close Listening and recordings made at Penn's Kelly Writers House. PENNsound uses only MP3 files that are not owned by anyone - a fact that finds Mustazza echoing Bernstein's and Filreis' for-the-people sentiment from a tech standpoint.

"MP3 is developed forward by uncompensated people who love the subject matter. The people who made it didn't profit from it; they just thought it would benefit the community as a whole," he said.

Of course, listening to poems is different from reading them. Jena Osman's small voice belies the destruction in her poem "Twister." In a 2001 recording of then-65-year-old C.K. Williams, you can hear the weathered humor in his voice.

"It's a different and very intimate connection," Bernstein said. "It's a good way to attune yourself to reading poetry in print form. Rather than saying that the recording is a supplement, it could be other way around. You could get something out of a printed poem that you wouldn't have been able to as easily by yourself."

PENNsound's next big undertaking is to sync its contents with Penn's library catalog, so that the audio files would be included in search results for each poet. The poems will remain available to anyone who wants to listen.

"The material may or may not be 'accessible' - poetry can be difficult," Bernstein said. "But finding it shouldn't be."