A Love Poem for the Archive: The “Grand Seduction”, the Aura, and the Potential for Creative Play Elevated by Digitization


I wrote this piece unaware that a month later I would begin working full-time in the University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections.

Fumbling Towards Narrative: A Brief Intimacy with the Archive

“The archive is an invitation to enchantment, to the play of ecstasy and pain, as we exercise that immemorial passion for the impossible.” (Harris 69)

How can we write about the archive when we have not been able to fully grasp our influence in it, or, more importantly, the archive’s influence on us? As students fumbling around in the archive, we are much like the archivists, struggling to assemble a narrative, or some linear notion of a record from fragments; we are assembling an exoskeleton of experience, collaging a narrative of our experience in the archive with bits of naiveté, misunderstanding, and deeply affected curiosity. Kathy E Ferguson states, “The general archive is complex, dense, multiple, energetic, and impossible to summarize;”

To paraphrase Verne Harris, “It is impossible to say what [the archive] is. [It is] what [it is] becoming. [It is] open for the future. We can, at best, mark their movements and engage their energies […] in taking aim I strive to be as open as possible.” (Harris 61) Thus, though I lack experience and feel as though I have not made an impact in the archive beyond the scope of Omeka, I feel confident in presenting this argument: entering the archive as an inexperienced student is like having a love affair; there are many ups and downs and much to be learned, but what I learned most is how imperative digitization is to modern poetry.

A necessary part of becoming invested in the archive is being in constant acknowledgement of our shortcomings and maintaining a sense of wonder and experimentation. The purpose of this paper is to look at the archive as a brief and sordid love affair; at once cripplingly self-aware and intensely uncertain. This paper will examine the seduction of the archive, the loss of the archive, and the reconciliation of the archive. Following the trajectory of a relationship in this paper will allow me to examine the archive using theoretical material, but without those materials leaving footprints all over my experience in and fascination with the archive. The pedagogy which formed the basis for this essay is one of application, thus I will respond with a creative case-study of my experience and my vision for the future of archiving.

While the physical archive, with its sense of adventure and seduction, may leave us feeling hopeless and like a vandal, the digital archive, I feel, is essential to modern poetry practice, wherein recontextualizing and reconceptualizing is essential to the practice. I hope that in the following pages, I have adequately recontextualized this assignment.

In the Place of Dreams and Doom: The Archive as Seductress

“Do we possess the archive or does it possess us?” (Taylor 246)

In my exploration of the archive, the word that immediately comes to mind is “seduction.” Far from Derridian “fever,” fumbling around in the archive as an undergraduate student is closer to the “fever” Peggy Lee sings about. My first assignment was to investigate the poetic works of Earle Birney, and in doing so I found the same thrill I had at 12 years old watching Nicholas Cage’s National Treasure for the first time. I was doing something fun, exciting, interesting, and, of course incredibly important. I had the aura of the archive on our hands, I was touching paper that the authors and editors touched, and in a particular moment of relief and finality, perhaps even touched to their cheeks. I had POWER! However, after reading buckets of archive theory, hitting dead ends, and being berated by librarians for mixing up papers, that sense of power quickly dissolved. Then, I was left with a hopeless sense of seduction, knowing full-well that the archive is a living, breathing being that encompasses the past, present, and future. Like being jilted by a more experienced lover, I was jilted by the archive. Fully seduced and left empty. Naively, I believed that with my research, my papers, and my special permission to utilize the archives, that I was possessing them, when all along they possessed me.

In researching Earle Birney’s concrete poem, “Buildings,” I realized just how subjective the archive is. The archivist (or amateur undergraduate in my case) makes decisions, most of which brought about wholly by speculation. I found myself being pushed away by the archive and stitching holes together to create some sense of a narrative. The archive was hiding something; in fact, I’m sure it always is, and in my case the archive was hiding 5 tiny poems inside of a house made of words. Much like the intricacies of Birney’s poem, and the hidden poems within his concrete poem, the archive is like Mary Poppins’ bag; you never quite know what to expect when you reach into it. There were many epiphanic moments in this research, but in assembling a final paper for the project, I found myself deeply unsettled. Who was I to allow myself to speculate about two fragments of paper? Who was I to the archive but a student running around in the dark? The archive left me that day, disillusioned and in search of the aura which sat on the tips of my fingers.

“There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered…”

(Charles Simic, ”In the Library” Lines 1-6)

How we are Haunted: The Aura, Loss, and Heartbreak of the Archive

“The Letter is a Part of the body which I detachable, torn from the very depths of the subject.”(Steedman 74)

It is often said that it is impossible for humans to erase their fascination with love and heartbreak from the arts. Songs, books, poems, visual art, etc. inherently hold love stories; when someone is in love or loses a love, they carry the aura of that relationship with them. When we detach ourselves from the archive, there is still an immaterial line that connects us to that archive, to the papers we have touched, and, more importantly, that have touched us. Those that has been seduced by the archive, they carry the archive with them.

In digitizing the work of Guy Vanderhaeghe, questions encountered previously were increased tenfold. Not only were we (my team) investigating works and making decisions about presentation, we were making decisions concerning what should or should not be preserved indefinitely. These decisions carried with them an immense amount of weight, regardless of the permanence of our digitized collection. We played the part of archivist, and that role comes with many challenges and much responsibility. Carolyn Steedman discusses the letter as being an extension of the body in her essay “The Space of Memory: In an Archive.” (74) Working in the Vanderhaeghe fonds felt very much like working with paper that acted as an extension of the writer’s body. The aura; that extension of the self, remains. When digitizing, the most difficult aspect thereof is the preservation of the aura. When the images were uploaded to Omeka, there was no question about the absence of the archival aura. There is no way to digitally preserve the aura in the way we approached the archive. This led me to the conclusion that no matter how advanced our technology, we must always preserve the physical archive to guard that human experience. Similarly, when one loses a lover, they must not lose those experiences, they must use them to shape the future and guard them like an aura. In the next paragraph I will discuss an archive that I believe preserves an aura.

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

(Charles Simic,”In the Library” Lines 7-12)

Wielding the Bloodaxe: Reconciling the Archive’s Ambiguity through Creativity and Digitization

“Humanity is its own creation.”(Steedman 70)

The online archive, “Bloodaxe” out of Newcastle University explores the small presses archives from the last 50 years. The digital archive not only holds manuscripts and correspondence (as well as other archival materials seen at the University of Calgary archives), but presents them in unique ways. The image at the beginning of this paper is text superimposed over a portion of a graph from the site. The graph in question is part of the “Data” page of the site, and is an intricate exploration of Bloodaxe authors’ ability to produce texts. The graph essentially measures their productivity within and outside of the press and archive. In addition to this function and the function to browse the archives as you would the Rosetti or a similar archive. Bloodaxe provides unique search tools that foster creativity in incredible ways. In figure 1, you can see the word-mapping function of the site. Bloodaxe provides a menu of themes to select, and the most common words associated and found within the archive appear. When clicked on, each word displays a constellation of interconnectedness to the other words. Another important function of this site is the “shapes” search tool. With this tool, seen in figure 2, you are able to draw the outline of a poem, and it will match you to poems whose forms mimic that of your drawing. The Bloodaxe archive also has functions to search audio and visual components, along with coinciding research and corresponding work from present-day writers and scholars.

The reason I am dedicating a portion of this paper to the Bloodaxe archive is because throughout this project, that which has stuck with me the most aside from the seduction of the archive is the potential for the conception of experimental poetry using digital archives. The digital archive allows a space for students and poets to create using references and materials they may not otherwise have access to. The Bloodaxe archive is an exemplary expression of this poetic potential. There is almost a reinstatement of the aura, by using a poetry archive to create poetry and play. For example, figues 3 and 4 consist of Visual poems created with archival materials from Bloodaxe. This potential for creation is where the value of the digital archive lies, and where we may be able to recreate some kind of archival “aura.” Kathy E Ferguson states, in her paper “Theorizing Shiny Things,” that “The excess of the archive invites and enables creativity.” She goes on to paraphrase Sarah Natal, stating, “archives ‘are open to the order of the imagination. They turn us towards life. Imagination can keep excising the archive, replenishing it with things that were not there at the beginning.’” Like the reconciliation with a lover, or the discovery of a new lover, the digital archive presented in the manner opens up to an entirely new world of possibility.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds

                        (Charles Simic,”In the Library” Lines 13-20)

 The Dimorphic Archive: A New Poetics

There are two sides to the archive that I have found in my research; the physical archive that seduces and makes you feel like a jilted lover, and the archive that provides for and sustains research, and most notably, provides resources for conceptual and Oulipian poetry that without the digitized archive may not be possible. This is the calm after the storm; after the breakup with the archive, after it has failed you, you are able to once again find necessity within it.

In 2015, we have access to resources such as the Rosetti Archive, but also resources such as the Bloodaxe archive. We have very academic archives, private archives, creative archives, and public archives. We also have open source resources such as Wikipedia. What does this mean for the future of the archive? I would like to see these different archives take form together to create versatile and complete archives. The beauty of the digital archive is the opportunity for poetic and creative expression, whereas the beauty of the physical archive is the presence of the aura and the seduction of the archive. Both archives are necessary to the future of archiving, academics, and creativity. All archives present unique controversies and problems, particularly the postcolonial archive, as mentioned by Ferguson and many other scholars. Perhaps the most important aspect of this proposed model of the archive is that which Derrida addresses. As Verne Harris says, “I have read far more writings about Derrida than by him,” (61) so I will quote Carolyn Steedman, from her paper, “Something she Called a fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust.” Derrida broods on revisionist histories that have been written out of these archives of evil (a shadow of a suggestion here, then, that it is not archives he has in his sights so much as what gets written out of the archives […] he broods as well on never giving up hope of getting proof of the past, even though documentary evidence may be locked away and suppressed. (Steedman 1162)

What Steedman and Derrida propose is that yes, there are glaring problems with the archive and how we approach it, but, more importantly, there is hope for the future of archiving. Ferguson states, “Stress on archives as dangerous can itself be dangerous, in the sense that it crowds out more affirmative possibilities. Archives are unsurpassed intellectual playgrounds; they have a center […] but no solid peripheries, no single ordering principle, and myriad opportunities for making meaning. An archive is a scholarly miracle – the fortunate researcher walks into a space in which everything is relevant to her topic. Every item beckons. While excess can provoke anxiety, it can also nurture enchantment, gratitude, imagination, and curiosity.” I believe that Bloodaxe is a beginning model for an archive of the future, and that classes where hands-on archive studying is introduced at the undergraduate level are what will make an inclusive, complete, and playful archive for the future.

“She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.”

                        (Charles Simic,”In the Library” Lines 21-24)

Concluding thoughts

With this paper I have attempted to translate my fixation and relationship with the archive as an undergraduate student. Working with the archive was at times frightening and intimidating, but more than anything, it was fun. I think it is important to be humble in the archival space, and I do not claim to understand the archive to the depths of an archivist or even my peers. I do, however insist on the importance of personal reflection on these experiences. Regardless of my influence in the archive or ability to influence a future archive, I am truly enamored with it and have embarked on a lifelong love affair, combining my love of poetic play and historical respite.


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Works Cited

Birney, Earle. Draft of Poem, “Buildings”. Unknown Date. Box 3, Folder 7. MsC 1 Earle Birney Fonds. Canadian Literary and Art Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. 21 Jan 2015.

Birney, Earle. Draft of Poem, “Buildings”. Unknown Date. Box 3, Folder 7. MsC 2 Earle Birney Fonds. Canadian Literary and Art Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. 21 Jan 2015.

Ferguson, Kathy E. “Theorizing Shiny Things: Archival Labors.” Theory And Event 11.4 (2008): n. pag. Project MUSE. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Ferrer, D. “Hypertextual Representation of Literary Working Papers.” Literary and Linguistic
10.2 (1995): 143-45. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Harris, Verne S. “A Shaft of Darkness: Derrida in the Archive.” Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007. 61-69. Print.

“The Poetics of the Archive.” The Poetics of the Archive. Newcastle University, 2013. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Simic, Charles. “In the Library: For Octavia.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Steedman, Carolyn. “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust.” The American Historical Review 106.4 (2001): 1159-180. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Steedman, Carolyn. “The Space of Memory: In An Archive.” Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002. 66-89. Print.

Vanderhaeghe, Guy, 1951- , “Going to Russia [holograph fragments],” University of Calgary Digital Collections, accessed April 10, 2015, http://omeka.ucalgary.ca/document/29.

D’aguiar, Fred “British Subjects” BXB/1/1/DAG/1/3. 1993. Bloodaxe Digital Archive.

Porteous, Katrina: The Lost Music. BXB/1/1/POR/1/1. 1996. Bloodaxe Digital Archive

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