Since its incorporation in 1970, The Watershed Foundation has been developing a poetry medium for the age of the Walkman. And now the verses of Maxine Kumin and Carolyn Kizer are as replayable as the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
"Poetry is fundamentally oral -- even when it is trapped in print," says Alan Austin, Watershed founder and executive director. "I want people to learn to use their ears, and not to depend on the text as a crutch . . . When I go to poetry readings and see people sitting with books, while the poet is up there performing . . . It makes me furious. I want to shake them and take their books away."
In 15 years Watershed has produced 134 spoken-word tapes -- poets reading their poems. Austin and his colleagues gather poetry wherever they can: They record live poetry readings, such as those at the Folger Shakespeare Library; they record poets in the Victorian parlor of supporter Marchant Wentworth; they work from tapes found at the Library of Congress, university archives and private sources.
"We did Louise Bogan last year," says Austin, "and finding a really good tape of Bogan took going through a considerable amount of tape from four different archives to get the best that we could find."
The core staff of Watershed -- Austin, Anne Becker and Katherin Mattern -- are poets. But although their pursuits are literary, their domain has none of the bookish aura of the poet's garret. Watershed is quartered in a windowless, tape-filled room on the sixth floor of the Lansburgh Cultural Center downtown on Seventh Street. The walls are lined not with books, but with boxes, stacks and clusters of cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, old files and packaging materials.
Like some of the tapes it produces, Watershed is a virtual anthology -- a conglomerate of poetry projects that range from the North American Poetry Network (which produces programs for public radio) to the Poets' Audio Center. The foundation's financial sustenance, the Poets' Audio Center is a national mail-order clearinghouse that carries more than 700 titles of recorded poetry from 49 producers. As a chart on the wall indicates, business is booming. A purple "sales" line shoots up toward the ceiling, and will soon jump even higher -- Watershed recently received its largest single order ever, a $1,800 order from a university library in Spain.
"And they had an old catalogue," says Austin. "We have 100 more titles they don't even know about!"
Their most popular recordings are those by Carolyn Forche', H.D. and May Sarton. Tapes of Judy Grahn, Louis Simpson, W.D. Snodgrass and others are in the works. Although it isn't a rule, Austin says "basically we do somebody once . . . There are lots and lots and lots of good poets. We have limited resources to make recordings, and as long are there are major poets unrecorded, we can't see recording poets a second time."
The Poets' Audio Center turns out to be a desk, which houses the staff's only working typewriter. "So we take turns using the typewriter," says Austin. "That folding table over there, which isn't supposed to be there, is mail that I haven't had time to deal with in the last month, because we have sold so many tapes." Pointing to another desk, Austin identifies the "fund-raising department, which is backed up because I don't have any time to do any fund raising." Mattern, Watershed's production manager, says that "Alan [Austin] finds the money . . . He drums up tens of thousands of dollars and also sticks labels" on tape cassettes.
Poetry should be recorded by the poet who wrote it, according to Austin. "Those of us who have been at it a long time have come to feel that there is a real relationship between what we call the voice of the poem and the [poet's] natural voice -- even if it is an unattractive voice."
Of her own writing, Becker says, "I don't feel that I have finished until I've had a chance to read the poems out loud to an audience . . . I think I approach it backwards. Most people want to read [a poem on] paper. Hearing it, then, is an adjunct, an afterward. For me, the words on the page are a reminder of what I have heard."
What about actors? "Actors generally make mincemeat of poetry when they are performing, because they are trying to do something entirely different with language: They are trying to create characters, to project, to involve an audience. Poets do know how to perform their works . . . There are some poets who think of themselves primarily as performers -- poets who work, frequently, in collaboration with musicians. This could not possibly be published in a book, it needs to be recorded."
Watershed's most recent recording, produced by Becker, is a two-cassette anthology, "Natives, Tourists and Other Mysteries: Emerging Washington Poets," so far available only at Watershed.
Next year, the staff plans to start a series that will detour from the typical format: recordings of the works of major Anglo-American poets as read by "important, living American poets." Galway Kinnell, for example, will read Walt Whitman's poetry. Firmly committed to the "poet-as-performer" rule, Austin confesses that it violates his principles to do it, but "there were no tape recorders to catch Keats and Shakespeare."