The project gained sufficient notoriety to be reviewed by Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone and attracted submissions from prominent writers — probably the most famous being Allen Ginsberg, who was turned down on account of being too conventional. (He recorded himself reading from a published book, instead of the improvised, completely "off the page" work the editors demanded.)
De Stijl Records has reissued the series in digital format, and they also have the few remaining unopened LPs for sale on their website. To give a sense of the roiling, echoic sound, here's the track "Ocean":
I interviewed Klyd Watkins — a Nashvillian for more than 20 years — via email, and he talked about his start in writing, his collaborations with the Harlemans and his influences.
How did the idea for Poetry Out Loud first come about? (I realize this might be too broad a question, but feel free to answer whatever part feels most pertinent to you.)
It was Peter Harleman’s idea. Marshall McLuhan’s ideas were gaining currency, and Pete applied them to poetry. I had spent a lot of time with Charles Olson, including the "Projective Verse" essay, which championed the typewriter as a devise for getting the impassioned speech of poetry recorded. Although Pete and I had swapped letters for a long time, he had never mentioned the idea. But when Linda and I visited Peter and Patricia in St. Louis one weekend in, I think, 1965, he argued, while he and I were walking the city streets, that the tape recorder is the better devise for making poetry. I resisted passionately but he won the argument. It was very exciting.
Did you feel at the time like you were in opposition to the literary establishment? Or just striking out on your own?
We were in opposition to the privacy that enclosed poetry. We continued to read and enjoy our writing contemporaries and the classics and such, but we thought injecting the human voice into poetry could transform it back into a communal art. You can say we failed on the grand scale, but there were living rooms and coffee houses and high schools and colleges and night clubs where we did indeed expand the intimacy of poetry into a group event.
Was there any literary/poetry scene in Nashville that you were involved with in the '60s and '70s?
No. We did know some jazz and bluegrass and folk musicians and they gave us energy. There were a few friends of mine, while I was in school at Peabody, who wrote poems and we’d read each other. Working at Zibart’s Book Store is where I met Pete Harleman. I also met Robert Hayden there and he was something of a mentor to me. Through him my first publication appeared in the Fisk University student literary magazine. It was titled “Two Sentences for Thelonius Monk,” I think. Nashville and even Fisk seems not to remember that this renowned poet was one of us for a long while. I submitted written poems to various magazines. I was published first, regionally, in Red Clay Reader. Poem, out of The University of Alabama at Huntsville, published me a lot. A handful of others.
I was in Nashville when I met Peter Harleman. I was teaching high school English in Indiana when we made that visit to Saint Louis. Then I taught a year at a community college in Alabama, while Linda and I were working with cheap tape recorders, trying to get started. Back in Nashville and back at Peabody in the late '60s, we had gotten good enough finally to put out a record. Linda and I recorded a lot with Ginny and Toby Tate during this time and they appear on Poetry Out Loud No. 1. During the '70s I taught English again at a community college, for a decade this time, in Kentucky. We lived in Dawson Springs and Henderson while records three through 10 were done.
Where are you now?
Nashville is my home. We moved back here at the beginning of the '80s. For a while I became a writing poet again. I have 150 pages or so of Radnor Lake poems, paper poems, some of them have been published in various local and national poetry publications and in chapbooks. I hung out with Curtis McGuirt, Dan Powers and that gang during the '90s and I’m in the Windows on the Cumberland Anthology. In the mid-'90s I slowly began to record again. This time I allowed myself to memorize and even read, which was forbidden during the Poetry Out Loud stand. I have two solo CDs released and a third nearly finished, both with more instrumental music than we used in Poetry Out Loud.
What poets or performers most influenced you?
Among poets, in high school, it was Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Percy Shelly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Shakespeare, many more. When I was 12 years old I had hitchhiked to a drive-in movie theater in Cleveland, Tenn., one night and the preview to Blackboard Jungle with Bill Haley and the Comets doing “Rock Around the Clock” came on. There were wooden lawn chairs on a large patio where pedestrians could sit and watch the films. When I heard “one, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,” I stood up from my chair and when I looked around all the other kids had done the same thing. We knew we were a generation at that moment. My favorites of the '50s rockers were Ray Charles and Carl Perkins but I loved them all. My gang at Peabody Demonstration School listened to WVOL a lot, blues and black gospel. Bo Diddley was a star in Nashville in the late '50s. When Ray Charles released Presents David Newman, I began to listen to jazz. Charles Mingus [is] probably my favorite.
When we began poetry out loud we deliberately looked for models in places like Gregorian chant and especially Native American singers. Predominant for me was Crow Dog, but I had the library at the community college where I worked buy a pretty big stack of traditional singers, and checked them out and listened deeply. Instrumental jazz with its periods of simultaneous improvisation remained of interest. And we had as much interest in the emerging artists of our generation as anyone else did — I mean the obvious: Bob Dylan, the Band, Rolling Stones, The Fugs, The Beatles, Earth Opera and 200 more.
In 1968, while teaching at Stratford High School, I’d listen to John Coltrane and others then quietly improvise in speech on a cheap tape recorder. It was after listening to Alfred Ayler that I recorded “The Needle’s Eye,” the only one of those improvisations to make it onto the records. I have two childhood memories I associate with my approach to Poetry Out Loud. One is from vacation bible school, when I was around, maybe, 6 or 7. Marching in to take our seats we’d recite from a Psalm. “Who is the king of glory?” one group would say together. Another group of us would answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, he is the king of glory.” Another memory is listening to The Lone Ranger on radio and hearing the fake (I suppose it was fake) “Indian” song — “hoi ya, hoi ya,hoi ya, hoi ya.”
Do you think your work was, at times, a cappella music as opposed to poetry, or did it always function as poetry to you?
It always functioned as poetry. I can hear even “Tambourine” or “New York” as poetry. It would take a long while to explain why and would have to do with the different weight repetition has in written work than in oral work. Still, such audience as we have today is in the experimental music crowd and among vinyl collectors. I have a handful or people who read my written work, mostly out west. They don’t know about Poetry Out Loud, for the most part.
Do you still write and perform?
Every few years I’ll work out loud around town. In ’97 Mike Panasuk and I did a couple of shows at Radio Café presenting work off our CD Listen the Night. In 2006 I sat in with Charalambides at Ruby Green gallery. In 2009 I did a short set at The Basement and a week later at Dino’s with MV and EE and with The Cherry Blossoms. The last one, and my favorite, was also at Dino’s later that year. The Cherry Blossoms, again, were on the show, and Jacob and Sus. I put together a remarkable band for that show, which included members of the Cherry Blossoms, of Remy Zero and of The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, which sounds like quite a stretch but it was very natural.
Do you consider performance poetry or "slam poetry" as extensions of what you were doing in the '60s and '70s?
Well, a little. Like us, they aspire to connect energetically with an audience, and they do. But they are almost entirely linear, aren’t they? They don’t base their work on improvisation either, mostly. Stephen Thomas won a lot of slams in Seattle back in the '90s, and he is a wonderful poet. There are many more, no doubt. I feel more kinship with the rappers, tho I realize that hip hop emerged independently of our sort of influence.