The following is a guest post by Catalina Gómez, reference librarian in the Library’s Hispanic Division.
Earlier this year, the Library of Congress launched the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (ARPL), an online feature that contains highlights from a collection of close to 2,000 recordings. For the first time, the Library could offer these rare recordings of poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Robert Frost, and Czeslaw Milosz to anyone around the globe with an Internet connection. This project paved the way for other such archives to be uploaded to the Library’s website, and to expand the reach of the great array of literary voices captured by the Library since the 1940s.
As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which spans from September 15th to October 15th, the Library of Congress launched the online Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape (AHLOT)—another extensive literary audio archive, curated by the Hispanic Division since 1943. The project went live the day after the month-long celebration began with the (oh, so magical) reading by the nation’s new Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. During the reading he actually played an excerpt of Pablo Neruda’s recording from this archive!
As a starting point, the AHLOT website includes 50 of the archive’s 700 recordings—material will be added on a monthly basis—with poets and prose writers from the Iberian Peninsula, Latin America, the Caribbean, and from the U.S. Latino community. It includes Nobel Laureates Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Octavio Paz, as well as prominent writers such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges and Jorge Amado. For lovers of Luso-Hispanic literature around the world, this is perhaps as good as it can get: you can click a button, close your eyes, and listen to these literary giants—most of whom are no longer with us—read from some of their most influential works. 32 countries are represented in the archive, which includes readings in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Catalan, Basque, French, Dutch, English, Creole, as well as in pre-Columbian languages such as Nahuatl, Zapotec, Aymara, and Quechua.
In 1943, when Archibald MacLeish (a poet himself) was the Librarian of Congress, these outstanding archives began to emerge. Just as the reading sessions for the ARPL began to be captured in magnetic tape, then-Assistant Director of the Hispanic Division Francisco Aguilera—a Chilean who specialized in Hispanic culture and literature—began the AHLOT. The AHLOT sessions were mostly conducted in the Library of Congress recording laboratory, and are private, intimate readings that in some cases feature accompanying interviews. Early recordings included Chilean poets Pablo de Rokha and Gabriela Mistral, and Spanish poets Pedro Salinas and Juan Ramón Jiménez. When Mistral recorded at the Library she said the following:
This effort to liberate poetry from the limitations of the printed word must be comprehensively undertaken. Let us bear in mind that not all of us have this opportunity to pass through Washington. The best of our poets do not leave their Latin American homes.
After listening to the archive I completely relate to Mistral’s sentiment. There is a whole other dimension added to poetry and prose when read aloud, especially by its creator. For me, the AHLOT recordings of Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda offer great examples of this. Paz’s pauses make clear silence is as important as enunciation to him. Paz starts many of his poems over, and you can tell that he gets frustrated, demanding perfection of himself. By contrast, listening to Neruda you will understand that his poems are meant to sound like the waves of the sea.
Thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, Pancho Aguilera began traveling to Central and South America in the ’50s and ’60s, and recorded those writers who could not “pass through Washington.” In the ’70s many of the writers of the Latin American “Boom” such as García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa contributed to the collection, and in the ’80s and ’90s it added the voices of prominent U.S. Latino poets and prose writers such as Juan Bruce Novoa and Francisco Jiménez. Georgette Dorn, who became chief of the Hispanic Division in the ’80s, has continued Aguilera’s great work to the present. Just last week, our new Poet Laureate—first Hispanic poet to hold this position—recorded with Dorn in the studio. He read his recently published poem “Ayotzinapa,” which pays tribute to the forty-three students who were kidnapped and “disappeared” in the state of Iguala, Mexico last year.
I began working for the Hispanic Division almost six years ago, and I can remember how awed I was to discover this treasure. It was truly magical to immerse myself in the collection’s readings and voices, and I feel thankful to be part of the team making them available online. The project has given me the chance to work with amazing people here in the Library of Congress, and this collection has a deep and special meaning to me—I grew up in Colombia. I hope that teachers, students, and literary lovers all over the world take advantage of this wonderful resource and help the Library spread the word!