Kari Merkl, interior design faculty, exhibits two pieces from her Merkled furniture collection at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through January 2015.
This past spring, four students and two faculty members worked collaboratively to create a social media campaign to promote the inaugural E-literature Showcase at the Library of Congress April 3-5. The team consisted of Carrie Padian, Ken Schultz, Jessica Zisa (all English students), Lans Nelson (English Literature & New Media student), Dr. Jesse Stommel, and Dr. Kathi Berens.
Their efforts resulted in a spine poetry project. They developed a website and campaign launch. They shared spine poetry with local schools and libraries, and they created a video that was screened at the Library of Congress showcase.
After the showcase ended, we sat down with the group to hear, from their perspectives, what this project meant to them and what they learned from it.
What attracted you to this project?
KEN: I was attracted to this project having had no prior knowledge of e-lit or digital humanities in the academic context. I had taken a class with Jesse before, and I had really enjoyed it. This was an opportunity to work with him and explore some of this new frontier.
JESSE: At the start, I immediately thought, "Who is going to be the outlier?" Who is going to be the person to push us in ways that we didn't expect, and Ken was the best outlier I knew. The other folks I invited to join had all been in my electronic literature class, so Ken was the one who was going to bring the outside perspective.
LANS: I'm going to go off on a tangent. My daughter went to Montessori school, which had a mixed-age environment. Each class is made with a mentorship of older children and younger children, and the synergy between them is kind of like an internship. I'd say the synergy is what attracted me to this project. I like what you said about having somebody from outside that helps push and shape things in ways that are unexpected. That's my way of motivating myself to explore new possibilities in what I can do. I tend to not really go there without a little bit of a push, and Jesse is really good at that.
I was also excited that I knew it was Library of Congress. There's a lot of lit-bling attached to that. I wanted to get that on my lapel.
JESSICA: For me it was the prospect of working on a project in relation to the Library of Congress. Because I'm a public relations minor, this project was a nice way for me to gain some of those skills in communication, social media and project management. I already knew Jesse so I knew it was going to be a co-learning project rather than a "these are your tasks and you need to complete them by this deadline" situation. It was a neat project because it was just so raw and flexible.
JESSE: One of the things I loved about working with these folks is that there was a little bit of trepidation at the beginning about the disorganized quality of what we were doing. We didn't know where it was going, and you never know what's going to happen with those kinds of collaborations. But what happened is that each of us did things at the exact moment that we needed to. People filled in gaps. Nobody called someone else and asked, "Are you going to be tweeting today?" Instead, each person recognized there was a gap and decided to fill it.
KATHI: There was some interesting professional development in the project, and this part was led by Jesse. He created a Twitter schedule. He knows how to do a campaign launch. He brought that expertise to bear, and it trained all of us. And it was a huge launch. I think we had 1,700 hits [at spinepoetry.com] in the first day.
You've used a lot of words to describe this process: raw, flexible, disorganized, natural. You came to a decision about spine poetry. I'm wondering how you came to that decision? What did that decision-making process look like? Why spine poetry?
KEN: It felt like a pan-digital, academic Ouija board. It was organizing itself through the collusion of us working together.
KATHI: We wanted books because of the connection to the Library of Congress. So we thought, What could possibly make a connection between the artifact of the book and what electronic literature does? There was a moment when Carrie was filming and captured a shot of Ken, where Ken is holding a stack of books in the traditional way that you look at them. He turned them horizontally, and that act of defamiliarizing it and saying, "Did you know that you can actually make poems out of these," was the e-lit moment. You start to read the container. The container itself tells a story, and that's foundational to e-lit. And this was from the guy who was brand new to e-lit!
JESSE: Lans had this idea at the beginning: How are we going to organize whatever it is that we create? We didn't even know what we would build. She had this idea of organizing it around the Dewey decimal system. We didn't end up using that, but her idea ended up fueling this sense of "How can we take something chaotic and organize it?"
CARRIE: The first thing we did was brainstorm. And brainstorm. And brainstorm. And talk about what is cool in the digital? What is happening in literature right now? What interests us? That's where we started. It all just happened to converge in the spine poetry direction.
LANS: It was really spontaneous, natural and magnetic. Even my daughter, who was in the library at the time we were discussing this, was drawn into our conversation from another table and took it upon herself—at fourteen—to make her own spine poems. That sealed it for me. It was very accessible, which is what electronic literature does for regularly inaccessible lit. It opens it up.
That's a perfect segue. You've been talking about e-lit, and it was the e-lit showcase at the Library of Congress this past April. What does e-lit mean for this group? How would you describe it?
JESSICA: That was part of the problem we were up against as a group. We were working, the whole time, to define e-literature.
CARRIE: It's as slippery of an idea as "What is literature?" because there are so many things that are electronic literature.
KEN: You start to accrete characteristics more than hard definitions.
Can you name some?
KEN: The one that immediately comes to mind is digital storytelling.
JESSE: I think it was Kathi who said this in our video: E-lit is literature that comes alive when you touch it. It comes alive when you manipulate it, play with it. It's interactive. It isn't itself until it has a user.
So it's not Google Books.
KATHI: Exactly. If you can print it out, it's not e-lit. If you can print it out and get the same thing you'd get from reading it on a tablet or phone, it's not e-lit.
JESSE: The reason spine poems are e-lit is not the artifact of the spine poem itself, but it's the way it calls you to action to make your own.
KATHI: And then the spreadability. This is the other piece, too. What makes a spreadable bit of content? It has to be small. Even the videos of people reading their spine poems are no more than ten seconds long. So those are easy to share. You can make your own without expertise. A problem with a lot of e-lit—if you call it a problem—is that it can really require some expertise to read. It can be off-putting because you have to have be willing to click around a bunch and see what happens. If you're a person who's afraid it may break if you touch it, you are not really going to read e-lit.
How do you inculcate the sense that play can actually mean failure? For many of us, play means "Yay, score! You get a reward" as opposed to "Well, I tried that and that didn't work. Why would the author want me to do this?"
LANS: It's also so new and wild of an animal that we're just discovering what potential it has. We're in the moment where we have to corral it. The kill-or-be-killed moment. Is everything going to go digital? Are we going to reel it in? How is that going to happen? What can e-lit do? Where does it go when copyright or websites disappear?
Going back to what you were saying about play, I remember during one of our first meetings, we asked each other, "What was your first experience with e-lit?" And for me, it was The Oregon Trail game. Or there was another Apple game in which I died because I got caught in a vacuum and couldn't figure out how to get out in two words or less. It was play.
This has already been discussed in this conversation, but why is e-literature—and this Library of Congress project—important?
JESSICA: This process, for me, was really important because there is a lot of fear in going digital and the future of physical books. I am one of those people. It is a scary thing. How do we move forward into the digital world but also keep the physical book?
What became really important in this project was to show that digital literature is not a threat. Whenever it's talked about, it's described as a replacement of "normal" literature. But really it's more of an enhancement of literature rather than a supplement.
CARRIE: If we're talking about academia, lately everything is so serious. There is not enough play and experimentation. Having a project where you invite people to touch something and figure it out and fail and try again was really important to the academic landscape.
This project was a course, correct?
LANS: Another reason why I was drawn to be a part of this was because I could think of no better, more fun way to earn credits. It was the kind of real experience that you get working on a real project you'd do after graduation. That's not something you typically get in a classroom unless you're learning a skill.
CARRIE: We weren't just learning a skill. We were learning how to figure out what skills we needed for the project. There's a lot of critical thinking in that.
JESSICA: We learned so much from the launch experience. It was a way of putting everything we had done into action. We were reaching out to new communities and some of our own personal and professional circles. We were able to learn by bringing people in and sharing our project with others.
JESSE: We talked about this at one point. We even put it on our homepage: we were going to promote your work. That is such an important part of digital culture for me. The generosity. This is a culture of generosity. That is the work that we need to be doing, which is boosting each other. The reason we do it is because it's part of the spreadability. It's almost like crowdsurfing. You have to keep it moving. Otherwise the person falls. So when something is moving towards you [in the digital space], you have to boost it. You have to share it.
JESSICA: It was great to see people tweeting their stuff. Even after the Library of Congress showcase was over, we're still getting stuff in. It's great.
LANS: We're talking about what makes e-lit important, and I think it's also important because it gives you good feelings when you're behind the computer. It's something that makes you feel positive. It's so easy to be negative, so easy to share about hate crimes and war. It's sometimes hard to remember to be creative. As easy as the digital makes it for us to multi-task, it does take our time away from being able to play, to have good feelings, to produce artwork. E-lit gives you that moment. It gives you a micro-break.
What was the biggest surprise for each of you during this project?
CARRIE: I think the biggest surprise for me was just how open-ended it was. How much freedom we really had to determine what we were going to do. I had fully expected to come in on the first day and have Kathi tell us what was happening. That didn't happen. We talked around what we wanted to do, and there was some real fear and insecurity in that. We didn't know who was driving this crazy bus. But it led to this beautiful, open, collaborative experience that you couldn't have had any other way.
LANS: It was surprising for me that while the project was pretty intense with quick deadlines, there was also a feeling of joy. You don't usually feel like "Whoo, I get to go to class today!" To be able to look at my kid and say, "I get to go to class today," and her knowing I'm going to go and have a great time, come back—fully energized—and produce things...that was not anything I had expected.
JESSE: Something that did not surprise me at all was that I learned way more from these folks than I could have ever imagined teaching them.
At the end of this project, what gave you all the greatest sense of satisfaction or achievement?
JESSICA: The initial launch was in itself a great achievement. I felt a sense of achievement by seeing the project take off on its own.
JESSE: When the students don't need me anymore, that's the payoff. Same with this project. We gave birth to the project, and it ran itself. It became its own thing that we couldn't control because we didn't know what people were going to create.
LANS: I've made connections on Twitter that I can't even comprehend. When I investigate them, I find that they are very respected in the field, and they know who I am. We're also affecting other local schools. We reached out to high schools, and they're having their classes do spine poetry.
KEN: I loved how it enhanced my existing relationships with non-tech people. I had all my coworkers and friends involved. I still have people coming up to me saying, "I love this spine poetry thing. I'm going to do some this weekend."
KATHI: That is so cool.
JESSICA: My boyfriend just went to Wisconsin for his sister's birthday. They stopped by her university's library, and he was showing them how to do it.
KATHI: You can't stop.
JESSE: It's addicting.