Vinyl LPs of poetry readings usually get chucked into the bins at thrift shops or the free boxes at record stores. Fonograf Editions wants the world to reconsider that impulse.
Since 2016, the Portland label has released a series of beautifully designed albums featuring recordings of poets reading their work, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout and Black dancer and writer Harmony Holiday. Co-founder and editor Jeff Alessandrelli says Fonograf was inspired by those same records from the ’50s and ’60s now treated like relics of the cultural past.
“It was really cool putting on a record and hearing Gertrude Stein, this seemingly distant modernist figure, coming out of my speakers,” Alessandrelli says. “It captured this set moment.”
Much of Fonograf’s output has that same quality. On the label’s debut LP, Aloha/irish trees, poet Eileen Myles is heard stumbling over her words. “Fuck, this is so hard,” she mutters at one point. And Fodder, Fonograf’s most recent release, is a gloriously messy live recording of poet Douglas Kearney reading from a cycle of poems inspired by the ongoing civil rights protests around the country, while musician Val Jeanty provides a backdrop of electronic noise and fractured rhythm.
fodder also introduced Fonograf to an international audience, as it received a full-page review in British music mag The Wire, which praised it as “a bold fusion of word and sound.”
As Fonograf has grown, the scope of its work has gotten wider, too. The imprint has recently released a pair of print editions, including the debut collection of Philippines-born poet Charles Valle, and will soon be dipping into the past with an archival recording of the late John Ashbery.
“We’re trying to intermix things,” says Alessandrelli, “while not losing our minds.”