Wax Poetic: How Fonograf Editions Is Bringing Poetry Back to Vinyl

Album cover of Eileen Myles' ALOHA/IRISH TREES
Photo credit: Fonograf Records
by Carson Vaughn | The Paris Review Wed, 05/17/2017 - 09:13

Carson Vaughn, an alumnus of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, covers the work of Creative Writing alumni Jeff Alessandrelli and Zachary Schomburg in this recent article for Paris Review.

From the article:

[Fonograf Editions] was founded by the poet Jeff Alessandrelli, who, having graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with his Ph.D. in 2013, planned to move back to Portland, where he'd completed his M.A. years before. He began the laborious task of packing up the hundreds of vinyl records he'd accrued since he first began collecting as a sophomore in high school. His library included a raft of albums from Caedmon Records, the first label to publish spoken word with an album by T. S. Eliot in 1952. Today, Caedmon is considered the seed of the audiobook industry. Alessandrelli's collection included recordings by Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Robert Frost, among others. Caedmon continues to publish spoken word as an audio imprint of HarperCollins, but its vinyl days are long gone. Which meant that Alessandrelli, who freely admits fetishizing the physical object—"it's not really the sound as much as the sensation of putting it on"—saw an opening.

As he drove to Portland, he couldn't ditch the idea. When he'd settled in, he bounced the idea off his friends, among them the poet Zachary Schomburg, a fellow Nebraska alumnus now running Octopus Books, a small Portland-based poetry press. They'd all had similar ideas in the past, they told him, but never the time, and certainly not the cash. Alessandrelli didn't have the cash, either—until his grandmother passed away, leaving him a nest egg just plush enough to kick-start Fonograf Editions and pick up where Caedmon left off. Weary to embark on the venture alone—though it has since become effectively a solo project—he launched the press in 2015 as a tentacle of Octopus Books.

"It's not a moneymaker, no," he told me of Fonograf. "It's a niche product for what's already a niche art form: poetry." Alessandrelli regards the label as "an act of community." He and his friends sat around the Cardinal Club and other bars, brainstorming how it all might work, scratching out a list of poets they'd love to record: Dorothea Lasky, Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery ... and Myles, whom Alessandrelli admired so much he'd previously published a poem titled "Understanding Eileen Myles," stood at the very top of the list. In March 2015, he got in touch with Myles, who, despite having never considered recording an album, signed on immediately. How would they avoid propagating the tremulous tones of the poetry caste? By not changing a thing.

Read the full article and listen to poetry excerpts online >>