12 July 2018

The best form of time travel: Writers on Recordings

Posted by Bernard Schwartz

In partnership with New York’s legendary 92nd Street Y, the ‘Writers on Recordings’ event series returns in 2018, featuring A.L. Kennedy on a selection of her favourites, Nicola Barker on T.S. Eliot and Mark Ford on John Ashbery. Below, Poetry Center director Bernard Schwartz explains a little more about the series and this year’s events.

New York’s 92nd Street Y has been a home to the voices of literature for 80 years, hosting in the Reading Series of its famed Poetry Center the greatest literary artists of the 20th century, and recording for posterity their appearances as part of its vast audio archive. The ‘Writers on Recordings’ event series invites contemporary authors to discuss the legendary voices that have meant the most to them.

Last year’s series featured Alice Oswald on Ted Hughes, Hisham Matar on Jorge Luis Borges and Tessa Hadley on Eudora Welty. This year, we’ll hear from Nicola Barker on T. S. Eliot, Mark Ford on John Ashbery and A. L. Kennedy on a mixtape of personal influences (E. E. Cummings, Harold Pinter, Anthony Burgess and Jules Feiffer).

In anticipation of A. L. Kennedy’s event, here she is reflecting on hearing E. E. Cummings’s voice for the first time, after a lifetime of reading him.

So, finally, I get to hear him, Kennedy writes. Though 92Y’s Poetry Center was founded in 1939, it was not until 1949, and this reading by Cummings, that they began recording author appearances, initiating an archive that has now captured and preserved for posterity the live performances of just about every major poet, novelist, playwright, philosopher, journalist and critic to grace its stage in the second half of the 20th century (and the first two decades of the 21st).

T. S. Eliot first read at 92Y in 1950. Though he returned numerous times – see the ticket stub from a later appearance – the 1950 reading is the only one that was recorded. What was the effect on contemporary audiences? Here’s the reaction of famed New Yorker editor and memoirist William Maxwell:

After it was over, as we were leaving the building, I was aware of a kind of physical lightness that I remember feeling only once before, after sitting for some time, along about twilight, in the nave of Chartres.

John Ashbery first graced the 92Y stage on 3 April 1952, the 24-year-old winner of the Poetry Center’s Introductions prize. He last appeared on 3 April 2014, with his friend Mark Ford. Thinking back on Ashbery’s sixty-two years of friendship with the Poetry Center, of James’s idea of the visitable past and the common expanse, here’s Ashbery from across his 92Y appearances, a 1970 tribute to Frank O’Hara and the 2014 reading with Ford. Note the table...

‘Writers on Recordings’, an extension of 92Y’s Writers on Recordings anthology, is inspired by the idea that writers are readers first, last and always. Since 1939, the 92Y stage has been the place where writers and readers – authors and audiences – meet as indispensable colleagues. Thanks to 92Y’s archive, contemporary audiences can connect, through the voices of literature, to what playwright Tony Kushner has called ‘the clamorous, contentious, vital present moment’.

Is there a better form of time travel?