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Poetry in the Stacks: The Wanderverse Project

🎧 A conversation with the creators of the immersive found poetry adventure at MIT's Hayden Library (~30 minutes with transcript)
Published onJul 28, 2022
Poetry in the Stacks: The Wanderverse Project

The Wanderverse Project is a collaborative poetry project in MIT's Hayden Library. Each co-created poem is called a “Wanderverse.” The purpose of this project is to draw the MIT public in to explore spaces in Hayden Library they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to visit, and to promote stack browsing.

I (sarah) became interested in this project out of the intense feeling of FOMO. Living in central New York, the Hayden Library — and thus the immersive and exploratory experience — is not accessible to me (and most people on the planet) without some amount of planning and traveling. As events wane from being fully remote and back to physical spaces, I needed to learn more about this embodied experience creating poetry, and how this event at the library interfaced the boundaries of IRL and URL experiences in their magical Wanderverse.

The conversation that follows is with MIT Digital Humanities Lab creative technologist and visiting research associate Asya Aizman along with Ece Turnator, and Mark Szarko of the MIT Libraries. We end up discussing what authorship means when a publication is found and curated, what it means to merge digital and analogue content, the constant re-hashing of ideas and art to make something new, and the joy that comes from self-directed exploration.

The authors also thank MIT’s Programs in Digital Humanities for their support of this project.

Below is an augmented transcript of our conversation.


sarah kearns 00:00

One of the first things I did when I got to my graduate school campus was to explore the stacks the library. It was the Midwestern humid that I'd come to get used to. But the time it was stifling, which only added to the adventure, especially since I totally got lost in between the half floors, it's in the same spirit of library exploration comes the Wanderverse, a participatory found poetry project in the MIT's Hayden Library. In this conversation, we chat with Asya Aizman, Ece Turnator, and Mark Szarko, about the project that launch into so much more like what is authorship? And what does it mean to turn a digital thing into print? I hope that this conversation inspires you to find poetry and community in your online and IRL spaces. Enjoy!

Asya Aizman 00:55

So this project started in Library Innovation Lab (LIL) at Harvard, it was collaboration with Clare Stanton and Andy Silva at LIL. We were hoping to do another project in Somerville Public Library (after our first collaboration with them called Alterspace).

And then COVID happened, everything fell apart, especially this since this was supposed to be such a physical project in the physical space. And it just didn't seem appropriate to continue to work on this. Then I left LIL, and I asked for permission from Andy and Claire to bring it over to the Digital Humanities Lab at MIT. With the support of the DH Lab, I got connected with Ece and Mark who were so wonderful and gracious in making space and for this project [in Hayden Library]. Later, we got funding from the Council of the Arts at MIT.

Ece Turnator 03:08

So for MIT Libraries, especially Hayden, in particular, this came in right after Hayden was renovated. So this is in the newly renovated, fresh space.

Inside the Hayden Library renovation

The students often come in from the first floor. There are some travel books, kind of like light-read type books, and a lot of collaborative spaces on the first floor. Most of the books are in the basement [a.k.a. “stacks” in the basement]. We were aware of the fact that a lot of folks were not really getting to the books in the basement. So with this project, we wrote the directions to send people into the basement, like look for the collections that interest them or just follow the directions at random and pick up a book and contribute to a poem. So that was really cool in terms of getting folks to engage with the physical space, but also interact with it online, you have to go online to read the collective poems. So it's that interplay between the analog, the physical world, and the digital side of things together, kind of like the hybrid places where we are in at the moment.

Ready to play?

sarah kearns 04:33

Okay, so there was like a digital component. How did you sort of set that that up? Or how did you have that call to action from introducing people to the physical space? Getting them to go downstairs like, what were the flow of the directions? What was the poem that they ended up contributing to?

Asya Aizman 04:55

So I can answer at least part of this question, which is how the project works. We printed out some QR codes and we had bookmarks that would lead people to the site. The project itself is very simple. It's a website that is designed for the phone. I mean, it works on a larger screen, but it's much nicer on the phone.

And it's got two buttons, one to read some verses (READ) one to add to a verse (PLAY). With PLAY, a person gets some programmatically generated instructions for how to get to the book. And they can be somewhat specific, but a lot of them are like, go to this floor, walk to the other end of this room, actually walk back and find the shelf. Look for a book that reminds you of your childhood, like flip to page 12 (For some reason, page 12 is the one instruction that I kept seeing). The person would then be prompted with the last verse of a poem — what we called the Wanderverse — and they would be asked to add to the Wanderverse.

Go to the basement floor of Hayden Library. Pick up a book with a jacket the color of the sky. Go to page twelve.

Sample instructions for the Wanderverse.

There's nothing holding them to it, you know, so when I play I like to continue flipping if I don't find something that works, and, you know, take a few liberties with adding a fragment, not an entire sentence. But we saw things like people would add a whole poem, or somebody added a very long sentence in French. And so that's really it. People are also given the option to use the whatever they added as its own seed, to start a new poem. We had that turned on in the beginning, which meant that we had a lot of very short poems, because the likelihood of you seeing a newly created poem was much greater than finding one that already has been continued.

sarah kearns 07:45

Do you know how many people ended up contributing? Or if you had repeat people playing? Contributing multiple times?

Asya Aizman 07:53

Yeah, I think we had repeat people. I mean, certainly the three of us kept coming back to it. But, we also chose a very inconvenient time to to display this — essentially during finals time. So we had a lot of uptake when a professor would direct students to try it out. Otherwise, there was less uptake organically. And partly because of that, we are going to be running it again for orientation. So if you're around here and want to try it out it will be up again. Although the website is still up so you can actually play it now. Also, we are now hoping to do a printed catalog with some of the verses that we have.

Wait, there’s a basement?

sarah kearns 09:12

Nice. How do you feel like it went? I guess you're happy enough to have a keep going? And to make a book about it?

Mark Szarko 09:24

One of the reasons why I'm excited about doing it again is to really do it at a time when more people might be paying attention or when we can really think about how we want to advertise it and promote it. Because I'm curious if there's a community-building element to it. Particularly during orientation when you have a lot of new people - you're a new person in new place and you're feeling kind of awkward and weird and here's an excuse to do something different. If you're finding someone or connecting with somebody who also likes poetry.

And I'm also kind of intrigued to see about how it's just another way of getting people into the library to make them aware of what's there. Library scavenger hunts are pretty common, and personally, I'm a little ambivalent about them, because it always feels kind of like sending somebody off to go find some random piece of information, to demonstrate that they know how to use whatever. Whereas with this activity, you're actually learning about where things are but you're not even aware that that's happening, because you're playing a game.

And you know, this might be going way too far down the rabbit hole. But it's a snapshot, right? Like, since these are all first year students — the things they are going to be selecting reflect their state of mind at this particular moment in their career.

Asya Aizman 11:33

This is nice to hear, because this project was started because in talking with the librarians in the main branch of Somerville Public Library, their concern was that people didn't even know that there was a second story to the library. And so we thought we need to get people going to the second story, and this is what came out of it.

And it seems like it had the same function in Hayden, because we have heard from people that they didn't even know that there were stacks downstairs. And also, once they knew there were stacks downstairs, they encountered some accessibility issues with, you know, some doors look like they’re alarmed, or some doors a little bit scary to go down.

So it leads people to these discover places they hopefully haven't been before, or see them in new light in this way that is extremely light-touch. This project fails easily if anything feels arduous. We've had Wi-Fi issues downstairs: if you're not connected to the MIT Wi-Fi, then it becomes difficult, because submission doesn't work when you are in the basement. Then it becomes a frustrating experience and instead of presenting you this joyful thing, it's the frustration of like, I'm pushing the button and nothing is working.

sarah kearns 13:31

I mean, what's art without a little struggle anyway.

Asya Aizman 13:33

On the back end, when you actually see the submissions, you see somebody trying really hard to submit, and it's like 20 of the same submission. It's like, there's so much struggle.

Who wrote this thing, anyway?

We don't publicize the submissions right away. We have two checks. One of them is programmatic, it’s just a script that checks for words and simple replacements of letters with numbers. And then another check — reading people's submissions and verifying them. Our very first submission was something that was not great, but was (technically) correct. It came from the library, but it was unpleasant in a way where that didn't serve this project. And so we decided to remove it. There's like the heavy lifting aspect of moderation that hopefully is kind of obscured from the public, but needs to be there.

sarah kearns 15:22

I feel like there's an interesting conversation stem here about like, who an author is, what an author is, and then just like, editorial slash curation, and like how that's a part of the art process, or how best part of authorship even and intentionality, I mean, like, because you guys made and constructed one diverse and are the moderators, curators, in a sense, but also the people participating and then like, literally every, like found a piece of of text.

Asya Aizman 15:56

One thing to say is where exquisite corpse can come from. It's Dada-esque.

Poster celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Dada movement. Source.

The original version of an exquisite portrait, where you're drawing things and then you're kind of co-creating something that that each of you created, but it doesn't have a life of its own until it's finished. That's what we borrowed from and are continuing from and then we're adding the extra layer of: those are not your words that you're cutting. You're putting up somebody else's words entirely.

Mark Szarko 16:53

I was just gonna say it's as an observation, it's kind of fun to read them. Sometimes you read it, and that feels like those are just two lines. But sometimes it's really amazing. And you're like, wow, how did those two things end up together? The odds of those two things coming together are really to create meaning, because it's really astonishing, sometimes.

Asya Aizman 17:25

We have a two sentence pairing here, if I can find it. So this this one is, as far as the odds of things coming together, this one is my favorite:

But the balloons saw the danger, it flew to Pascal at once.

And this is from The Red Balloon, which is in children's literature. Next sentences is:

But nothing definite seems to be known.

And this comes from the The Metal-Rich Universe, a book on astrophysics. I for one, am wondering about the balloon and the fact that it's in such a precarious situation and in an unknowable universe. And I'm really looking forward to the continuation of all of these poems.

Mark’s favorite poem:

It was windy every day. 

The snake emerges from calligraphic form 

The women nod and tell her to go, go. 

Ece’s favorite line:

I’m now afraid that it might be very difficult for me to reach an understanding with you.

Chewing gum into art into data into joy

Asya Aizman

In the end, there were verses that I definitely was getting attached to. And I think we might make some some editorial decisions about what we include (in the book) and what parts we include. Because ideally these become very, very long poems and we won't be able to print them all anyway. But you know, maybe there are some some parts in them that we want to display.

I keep thinking that we're kind of like, re-chewing this gum, because somebody wrote this and intended it in a certain way. And then we're just like, ripping it up into little pieces. We're trying it again, in different contexts. How many times can you can something be refashioned and reconsidered? Is there a limit to that?

I think probably the answer is no. In art class, when you're drawing the same still life… how many times can you consider the apples sitting on a table? If we shift the light a little bit that apple looks entirely different! We move the apple and put it next to a pear, then it's a different apple! It all becomes a little bit strange in that way.

We have data, but it's not anything that we can use programmatically at this point. In the beginning, we were talking about: wouldn't it be neat to have some kind of data visualization of all the different genres that came into play in a poem? You can sort of start to imagine visualization, where everything's like little nodes, and here's a little standalone Wanderverse, and you can see how many different genres came together to create it. That could be something that's interesting, also as a way to show the resources of the library without walking around very much.

Ece Turnator 21:47

If you go to the Wanderverse website, the Read section, that Asya was referring to, on the right hand side that you can renew it. And on the left hand side, if you click on those bars it will return the source and the author and page number as well. So you'll see what they're coming from. So there's information that's delivered at first, and there's layers and layers.

There's even more that could be done if we had topic analyses and text analyses and metadata analyses of the submissions. And so there are more layers to it that could be dug up. It's this kind thing that you can kind of put in and it spits out something else. And you can pull it in all kinds of directions. And endless formats. That's the beauty of it, you can put it in a different context, it still works, there are very few things that actually work like this.

sarah kearns 22:56

I almost feel like that kind of goes back to what Mark was saying earlier about a student coming in, and participating in this once and having that be captured, and then how that evolves over time. Or the student can even come back and redo it, and they would definitely find a different book and a different passage. I feel like we can chew this gum for a while.

Ece Turnator 23:21

It says a lot about knowledge creation. I mean, this is a simulation of how that works. We never rest on completely new ideas, it's always kind of something old that we get to use in different ways.

sarah kearns 23:44

That's why I'm fascinated that you want to capture the thing in time and make a book because there's that interplay of having a book that is a thing that’s considered a done entity (even if you have subsequent volumes that change or add stuff to it, you know, it's a book. And it's concrete, and there's a feeling that it's unalterable) with this process that’s inherently not. It's constantly evolving.

Asya Aizman 24:23

Maybe the ideal version of this book (because we haven't actually started talking about how we would want it to look like) is just a little three ring binder with with each verse ordered but not permanently ordered, so that somebody could could take one out and put it somewhere else, move them around. The thing that we don't want to hint at is this permanence or doneness. Maybe we need to talk about form vs. function a little bit when it comes to it.

Ece Turnator 25:13

Yeah, this kind of fluidity could be seen as like anathema in certain quarters, right?

sarah kearns 25:47

Yeah, I like that idea of having like a binder, I feel like that sort of taps back into the collage Dada-esque thing that you mentioned before.

Asya Aizman 26:00

Yeah, it's really easy to continue to play with the same idea, right? We spent some time talking about how we would want to present the poems as they’re being added and published. And so we ended up using one of the monitor displays in the library. What if there was some kind of like continuously working little printer printing the new versus, that you can then cut up and then just have this constant persistent forever game, and the doors are locked. And, and that's it. All you get to do is play in the Wanderverse.

Illustration from The Nursery "Alice", containing twenty coloured enlargements from Tenniel's illustrations to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," with text adapted to nursery readers by Lewis Carroll. (London: Macmillan and Co. 1890). Source.

Ece Turnator 27:12

What you just said reminded me that the way we think is so much dominated by the idea of the book, the permanency that it represents. And we're kind of in that transitional phase now, whatever you want to call it, that we're kind of generating something else, clearly based on our pre conception of the book, but it's going to be something different, we don't quite know what it is going to be like, we're excited about it. We are also afraid of what it could be. So Wanderverse kind of reflects that transition, going back and forth playing with the old and the new, and what's coming, the unknown. All of that together.

Asya Aizman 27:54

One of the main ideas behind it was this sort of challenge: bringing back some of the serendipity that we have lost. People don't really know the term “stack,” from what I gather, outside of a library, as Mark pointed out. But “browsing stacks” is not something that people do anymore. It tends to be that people use the library through the website, the library's website, and they have some kind of an idea of what they want. There's not really a random kind of happenstance, like, oh, this book was right next to this other book, or I walked down to this genre, this section of books, and then I found something that looked cool because of its cover or something like that. But instead, The Wanderverse Project is just like go somewhere, don't worry about not knowing where you are, find something that speaks to you.

Mark Szarko 29:13

It's a different way of serendipity. Like just sort of presenting that or having students experience that in a way that's not algorithm driven. It's not Instagram showing you content. That's serendipity, too, but it’s generated by an AI and an entity that's trying to get your eyeballs to look at something as opposed to something that is self-directed. Nobody knows how many books you picked up before you entered your verse into the Wanderverse, or even which lines you rejected in that book, and your name isn’t even included in the submission. You are the only one that knows.

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