Artful Hacking: Madison Poet Laureate Considers Computation at Humanities Hackathon

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

Wendy Vardaman
Wendy Vardaman

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 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 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.

Humanities Hackathon photo by M. English / WID
At the Humanities Hackathon, scholars in the humanities and computational scientists explored larger questions in literature, music, poetry and art.

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 going on in Wisconsin and the Midwest. But it’s hard for the Midwest 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.

Interview conducted and edited by Sandra Knisely, a Madison-based freelance writer who specializes in science and society.