Like literary nomads, three Knox students travelled across the country while sleeping on floors, using kitchens as recording spaces and interviewing writers to create an extensive audio archive.
Post-baccalaureate Emily Oliver said the idea of the Knox Writers’ House (knoxwritershouse.com) — which was featured on the Poetry Foundation’s blog — stemmed from wanting to understand the identity of the Midwest as part of her independent study, where she contacted writers from the Midwest and recorded them.
As to why she gravitated toward audio recordings, Oliver said she had trouble reading as a kid and described herself as “a complete auditory learner.”
“I had a lot of problems in school as a young student. I also have terrible vision, like awful vision so my eyes get very exhausted, so I always have found that I learn a lot easier and have a lot less anxiety hearing,” Oliver said.
When describing the difference between reading writing as opposed to simply seeing it, Oliver said, “The reading of a poem or a story is a ceremony … it becomes a religious act for me.”
Travelling with Oliver was Bryce Parsons-Twesten ’10 and Sam Conrad ’11, who she describes as equal partners in the recordings, and “Baby,” the name of their microphone. Supported by several writing grants, they began recording authors in the summer of 2010.
Planning a journey
When mapping out their schedule of recordings, Oliver said they emailed people in different cities and received suggestions for authors to record.
“Some of them are published, famous writers and some of them are backwoods geniuses who just aren’t interested that much in publishing and are still really awesome,” Oliver said.
Oliver described the process of travelling across the country and recording as “really hard.”
“We recorded all day, we slept on the floor. But because we were such good friends and we had this community between the three of us, one of us got tired and the other one bolstered ‘em up,” Oliver said.
While travelling, Oliver describes how she experienced the generosity of strangers as inspiring and had a “momentary flash of how people make their lives.”
“People had no idea who we were, we had no famous people to tell them that we were legitimate, we were just three college kids, so people have been incredibly trusting and generous,” Oliver said.
Recording “best loves”
For the recordings, which were mostly done at writers’ kitchen tables, the group of three asked writers to read a selection of their writing, a best-loved piece and interviewed people about place.
This combination of requests garnered surprising results. After they asked Lon Otto, a flash fiction writer in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, to read a best-loved piece, he came down with “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner and read the entire chapter about Addie Bundren.
“(Otto) didn’t even cough once. The only thing I edited out of that recording is the three of us sighing at the end because it was a beautiful, amazing thing,” Oliver said.
“When people read their best loves, you can hear the way that poem has marked them.”
Recording authors offered a new way of interacting with them and thinking about art. Also located in the Twin Cities, Paula Cisewski was another recorded writer and they all had “instant conversation chemistry.” Cisewski invited her friends to come over: writers John Coleburn and Sarah Fox, whose birthday was that night.
“So they were dressed up to go out and drink and party and dance and we all ended up staying for four, five hours at her kitchen table. We recorded all of them and talked about life,” Oliver said.
After the recording, Oliver, Parsons-Twesten and Conrad got into their rental car and read John Coleburn’s poem, “First Impressions,” about being young for 20 minutes and after driving back, they talked “furiously about what art can do.”
“That’s like every city, there’s a night like that,” said Oliver.
Writing about place
As the last part of their visits, Oliver recorded writers saying who they were and where they were from, which impacted Oliver more than she anticipated.
“Every single person from talking about where they wrote and where they lived, they talked about why they wrote. It was such an easy way in to people’s philosophies and life choices and moral and ethical frameworks. So the interviews turned out to be, personally, one of my favorite parts of the whole thing,” Oliver said.
Oliver described the beautiful thing about the Knox Writers’ House as the kinship: geographic and literary.
“It’s about geographic kinship, different writing styles that maybe predominate in different regions of the country … But it’s also about kinship, literary kinship between other people recommended and the people other people read as their best loves,” Oliver said.
After previous versions of knoxwritershouse.com, the current website was designed by Professor Monica Berlin and Parsons-Twesten, with art created by Parsons-Tweston and Conrad and Oliver editing the audio files.
The publicity for the Knox Writers’ House was, perhaps appropriately, spread entirely by word of mouth. They emailed people they recorded and besides being featured on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Knox Writers’ House has also been seen on the literary blog HTMLGiant, personal blogs and Facebook pages.
When asked how the project has affected her personally, Oliver said it was “an amazing education.”
“Sometimes I worry that I neglected my own writing because I’m so busy with my project but every time I go back to write, I feel like my writing is better from having listened and from all the listening I do all the time,” Oliver said.
For future plans for the Knox Writers’ House, Oliver said they plan on doing a podcast and a blog for contributors to respond to pieces on the site.
“It’s my hope to keep recording. It’s my favorite thing to do in the world,” Oliver said.