The Poetry Center‘s video archive, based at San Francisco State University, began its active life in 1973 when then-Director Kathleen Fraser began to formalize Center’s archival recordings — audiotapes had been made of nearly all original readings since 1954. Among many poets, the collection includes original audio recordings of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore, alongside the best collection in the U.S. of recordings documenting the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. Fraser as director, with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, dubbed the collection The American Poetry Archives and committed to making video recordings of all new readings.

Our earliest videos, starting in February, 1973 with George Oppen and Robert Duncan reading at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMoMA), were made to ½” open-reel videotape, with a barely portable unit called the Sony PortaPak, using open-reel tapes akin to reel-to-reel audio recorder/players. For several years, this was the standard, until a shift was made to ¾” U-Matic videocassettes. The clock is ticking on these vintage formats, and it becomes difficult, when not impossible, to retrieve the data from some of these forty year old magnetic tapes. They need baking, then scraping, to remove corrosive buildup, and secure the best video signal for playback and reproduction.

BAVC Media had come through for us in the past. We had been able to rescue all of The Poetry Center’s ½” videotapes from threatening oblivion. Before the digital era, magnetic-tape transfers were made, by BAVC Media, from the vulnerable ½” open reels to ¾” cassettes. Once the digital standard was established, using the services of BAVC Media’s Preservation Department, we were able to go back to our original ½” master-tapes, whenever possible, and strike clean digital transfers from the master. When that proved impossible, we could fall back on the ¾” submasters that BAVC Media had earlier struck for us. Within the past two years, via the very welcome resources of BAVC Media’s Preservation Access Program, we’ve managed to convert nearly 100 of our most at-risk early videos to digital archival and access files.

The uncompressed archival files go into long-term secured storage for future re-use; the access files are being prepared for online distribution at The Poetry Center’s dedicated platform Poetry Center Digital Archive. More of these recordings will become available online within the year. For now, a prototype selection, focused on 34 years of recordings with celebrated poet Alice Notley went online last October to coincide with the local “Alette in Oakland” symposium and celebration of Notley and her work.

Selected projects

Still from May 3, 1984 Poetry Center original 3/4″ magnetic tape digitally transferred by BAVC Media, depicting Alice Notley reading.