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6/13/2017 Artful Hacking: Madison Poet Laureate Considers Computation at Humanities Hackathon | Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

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Artful Hacking: Madison Poet Laureate Considers
Computation at Humanities Hackathon

Wendy Vardaman, Madison poet laureate, gleans insights from WID's Humanities
Hackathon and examines what it would mean to fuse poetry and computation.
Read our Q&A with her.

August 30, 2013

Science has long fascinated Madison poet laureate Wendy Vardaman, but the former engineering student hasn’t always
found a place for these interests in her creative work — unless you count the time she cut up an old soil science
textbook to produce visual poetry.

This changed after WID and the UW Center for the Humanities‘ Humanities Hackathon short course, an annual gathering
where social scientists, humanities scholars and artists explore the possibilities of data-driven computational work.
During the weeklong event, Vardaman gained an understanding of the potential of blending computational
methodologies with humanist questions to create art that can bring communities together.

Vardaman is an editor at Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press, and she currently shares the title of Madison poet
laureate with co-editor Sarah Busse. Along with spearheading several citywide poetry events, the pair is also editing

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Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, a collection of poems about Madison by more than 100 poets scheduled for release
from Cowfeather Press this November.

Vardaman sat down with us to talk about her experiences at the Hackathon, touching on the
opportunities and challenges she sees in the emerging field of digital humanities.

You’re a very interdisciplinary individual yourself. You have a Ph.D. in English from the
University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cornell. How
has your background helped you become the writer and editor you are now?

I like to learn about new things. I like hearing what other people have to say and exploring
questions and then figuring out how things come together. Maybe all creative people do
that. But it took me a long while to figure out that while I was studying science, what I was
really interested in were the metaphors and approaches rather than the actual practice of
being a scientist or engineer.

As a poetry editor, I love seeing people coming from diverse background with different Wendy Vardaman
discursive material, different knowledge and different resources they can bring to bear in
their poetry.

In addition to the map supplement for Echolocations, has the Hackathon inspired any other ideas for using digital
tools to promote social justice-oriented arts?

We’re working with Madison Metro on a poetry project called Bus Lines. It’s a great project, where poems by high school
students are displayed on buses, but they want to shake it up, and we’re excited to do that. We’ll have poems from
young people and adults and especially from people who are riding the buses. We hope to have the poems not just on
the bus [placards] but delivered in other ways, like on ride guides or tickets or on the website. Wouldn’t it be great to
have some sort of metro app that displays a poem about a place near the bus stop you’re at? That was another thought I
had coming out of the Hackathon.

We’re also interested in the possibility of gaming. We spent a day at the Games+Learning+Society, and I loved some of
the ideas of the games there. When we went over to the GLS, [project assistant] Dennis Paiz-Ramirez was working on
Fair Play [a game where players help an African American scholar navigate academia]. That was really exciting to see
because they are taking knowledge from the social sciences and humanities and putting it out there in a very new way
and doing something that has this really important social justice aspect to it. That was definitely a place where I really
saw the possibilities of computational humanities coming together with humanist questions.

It’s a possibility that we could do—if not a game, then a digital walking tour. That could be an interesting thing to come
out of our Madison poetry project, but we’d need to partner with someone for that.

What would be really interesting to me would be to see all of these techniques used
together to solve real problems and empower people to live better, more meaningful lives.
That’s what interests me as a public poet.
— Wendy Vardaman
What drew you to the Hackathon? How is hacking similar to the creative process?

I think creating opportunities and events that bring all kinds of people together, people who don’t necessarily run into
each other in daily life, is really important. One of the reasons I went to the Hackathon was to figure out digital extensions
for the [Echolocations] project. We’re now going to make a map using tools I didn’t know about before the Hackathon.
This was one of the great things about the Hackathon, just people commenting and sharing their knowledge — I got a lot
of great ideas from different people.

I heard some interesting shared values coming from [hacker culture] and humanists and artists oriented toward social
justice and activism. On the computational side, you hear a lot about open access, collaboration, teamwork and the
obliteration of the individual in a way. On the other side, with social justice driven arts and humanities, you hear some of
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the same thinking about collaborating and working on creating art that is the product of a lot of different people and
making it accessible to everyone.

Along with your work as a poet, editor and publisher, you are also an occasional scholar. Do you see a role for
computational methods in humanities research?

I certainly learned more in terms of what quantifiable objects might look like. I came in with clear ideas about texts and
about how you might approach words, but I hadn’t thought about audio files or images, which we collect at Verse
Wisconsin, as being objects you could study.

There are lots of questions you could ask about locationally-specific poetry. We’ve been really interested in the question
of what locationally-rich poetry means and how it’s different from other kinds of poetry. People are always asking: What
is Wisconsin poetry or Midwestern poetry? Computational techniques could give some interesting perspectives on that. I
could imagine taking texts and trying to determine what we would think of as locationally-rich words and looking for
those kinds of words within Echolocations, but also on our website and other poetry websites. This won’t replace close
reading [a common literary analysis technique that involves careful reading in order to interpret a text], but I don’t think
anyone’s arguing for that. At the Hackathon, there was a lot of nice discussion about how computation could augment
what you’re already doing.

So, what is Wisconsin poetry?

[Laughs.] The more work we do, the more we question whether that is
a useful term at all. I would be interested in seeing some data on that!
We went to a conference in the spring, and we were surprised at how
much the humanities scholars there were still focused on these older,
nostalgic paradigms of the pastoral, the rural, the barn, the bird—that
sort of thing. But that’s not at all what we see or what we’re about at
Verse Wisconsin. When you’re in touch with the poetry people are
writing right now, as opposed to looking at the past, what you see is
some really incredibly vibrant, very urban, lively work coming form a
whole range of different people.

I think a lot of people would say there has been a poetry renaissance At the Humanities Hackathon, scholars in the
humanities and computational scientists explored
going on in Wisconsin and the Midwest. But it’s hard for the Midwest larger questions in literature, music, poetry and art.
to get attention on the coasts. They have their own things happening,
and they don’t spend any time here. Chicago is certainly making itself visible, but there’s an understanding that the
Chicago work is part of a wider, dynamic “culture shed.”

Something that fascinates me is the question of how creativity works. Can you foster creativity? Can you create a literary
renaissance? These are questions that possibly computational techniques could address. One [method] that would be
interesting to think about is network analysis.

Do you think network analyses of poetry movements could bring more attention to Midwestern work?

Potentially, in terms of at least recognizing what’s going on here. That’s a really interesting thought.

What are some of the challenges you see in applying computational techniques to the arts and humanities?

I think that what humanists and artists do is pretty resistant to number, to quantity. That doesn’t mean I dismiss numbers
and the quantifiable, not at all. The idea of distant data, the kind you see in sciences and some fields of social sciences,
is that you need to see the forest instead of the trees.

But for poets, trees are huge! We focus on the minutiae of the underside of the leaves, or even on one vein of a leaf. And
what fascinates me about poetry is that you can just keep going in that very minute, fractal-like and detail-oriented way,
rather than pulling back to look at the larger picture—which of course is what scientists and social scientists often want
to do. As a poet, if I think about the “larger picture” it might mean something like: “What makes life meaningful?”

There’s a place for distant reading and computation work in the humanities, but I don’t think it will replace traditional
humanities. What would be really interesting to me would be to see all of these techniques used together to solve real
problems and empower people to live better, more meaningful lives. That’s what interests me as a public poet.
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Interview conducted and edited by Sandra Knisely, a Madison-based freelance writer who specializes in science and
society.

 

 

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