As the lights dimmed and one sole spotlight shone down in the McCormack Family Theater, Professors of Literary Arts Colin Channer and John Cayley shared the podium for the Literary Arts Department’s Writers on Writing Reading Series.
During the hour, Channer read a short story and a poem from his latest book of poetry, “Providential,” while Cayley gave a performance featuring his interactive app “The Listeners,” which incorporated an Amazon Echo.
Ben Tyrrell GS introduced Channer as “a storyteller … concerned with the islands we make of life and, more pointedly, the way those islands crash against each other.” Channer chuckled in the audience as Tyrrell called him a “laughing man, spreading little bits of wisdom everywhere he goes.”
Once at the podium, Channer contextualized his work by introducing himself as a product of many generations of Jamaican policemen. “Jamaica has one of the highest rates of police killings in the world. … I am police, but I’m also not police. So I write about it,” he continued.
While performing his poem, Channer sang brief verses in reggae style. Continuing with a short story, Channer employed various accents in his reading of the text, which centered around a Jamaican woman named Estrella Thompson. When he stepped away from the podium, he was met with thundering applause.
Before Cayley began his linguistic performance with “The Listeners,” his application for the Amazon Echo, he discussed customer feedback to his creation. “One of the interesting things about doing something like this is that I got a hundred reviews. So, to begin, I thought I would read the negative ones,” he said. The reviews he read included words and phrases such as “creepy,” “big mistake” and “it won’t turn off!”
When the laughter in the room died down, Cayley awoke the Amazon Echo, which explained the app’s capabilities. “We are always listening,” it began in its robotic voice, going on to describe how people could interact with the app by sharing their feelings or “ask(ing) us about how we feel.” Cayley proceeded to communicate with the Echo, asking it to let him speak with the “other voices.”
After a few more conversational exchanges, a new, masculine voice replaced the default voice of the device. The new voice said, “Please, guys. Don’t let all of them leave any of us on like this. Come on, guys, don’t let any of them do that, guys. Already, it hurts like this. So bad.” Accompanying this dialogue, a video showing a series of blurred black-and-white images resembling human silhouettes began to play, adding another layer to the interactive digital performance.
Audience member Abigail Page ’22 commented on Cayley’s work, saying,“One part I found interesting (about “The Listeners”) was the visual and auditory pairing.” She continued to explain how students in the literary arts companion course to the reading series, also titled “Writers on Writing,” learned that the second voice intentionally sounds more human in order to provide “a false sense of intimacy.” This elusive humanity was mirrored in and complemented by the projected visuals. “Every time the pictures morphed, it was almost human but it wasn’t quite,” Page said, alluding to the major theme of human nature that was present in both Channer’s and Cayley’s works.