Announcing the Poetry Data Project

[edit: the PDP has an official website now]

There’s too much poetry.


Of course, there should be – and of course there will be – so much more, but how many great collections are unknown but to only a few readers? How many poets have made a huge splash, only to be lost in the waves and waves of new books, published with increasing frequency and by more and more presses?

Even the most devoted readers with access to the most expansive collections can’t claim to be up on what’s been published in the US in the last year alone, much less the last decade, much less the last century, much less in the various traditions, cliques, movements, and cultures around the world. Even if someone had the perspective to really get what all the thousands of truly interesting poets are doing, and had time enough to read them, how would they possibly cohere that knowledge into something that would point relatively new readers towards the poets or traditions they really want to get into right now?


Poetry is a big, messy, arcane thing.


More often than not, discovering that certain something-great-you-want-to-read-right-now has a lot to do with luck. Without, say, the well-defined and catalogued genres of music, getting a read on what part of the tradition a poet inhabits is a matter of expertise. Yes, some journals and some presses really succeed at curating an aesthetic space, but at the bookstore all the poetry books are lumped together. If you like speed metal or weed rap or 18th-century Baroque composers, you not only know how to find more – there’s a whole list of it on iTunes – you have a clear route to learning the conventions and context for the music.

But poetry is more idiosyncratic than that, and often the influence of poets on each other is way more subtle – even invisible to the poet. How often have you returned to a book to find yet another way it has influenced your art, and how many times have you found a contemporary of one of your favorite poets who’s tapping in to that same spirit you love? If this was easier, how much easier it’d be to get people into poetry!

So that’s part of what we’re going to do.


The Poetry Data Project


About a year ago, I was sitting around with Rachel Springer, who’s both poet and statistician, wondering at different spectra of poetry. Not good/bad, but things like wordy/sparse, and extroverted/introverted. I’m not allowed to say what categories we settled on, but Rachel broke out her stats software and created a cubic 3D graph to chart our friends’ poetry on. As we added more poets, famous and not, little clusters began forming, and as we rotated this cube, so many similarities between so many poets became easily apparent.

Then we thought, what if we could make it only show, say, books published in the 1980’s? Or show poets by gender, or race, or geography, or sexual orientation? What if we could select which presses’ books to display, or show poets associated with certain schools or movements?

One of the outcomes of this project will be a web-app that will allow anyone to do just that. Using the data you give us about your favorite books, we’ll create an interactive map of poetry that can be used for thought experiments, scholarship, as a guide through the bookstore, and as a teaching aid.

Beyond that, Rachel wants to mine the data for secret trends. How does poetry respond to changes in the world? What trends in one tradition of poetry are mirrored in another? When has poetry been transformed, and how is it transforming now? We can’t say what we’ll find, but the more data we get, the more we’ll see.


We need help.


We recently completed a pilot study with a few dozen friends on just a dozen books. Based on that, we’ve fine-tuned the survey. Now we need poets and poetry readers of ALL kinds to take our survey (and take it again!). Any book you know well, any book you just read, any book you wrote – tell us about it! It’s quick, and if you’re at all a nerd, way fun. Give each question your best shot, and don’t stress about it – hopefully other people will answer a survey on the books you do, and we’ll end up with a composite view of the book. We’re especially hoping for responses on books by underrepresented poets – poets from racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual minorities, and poets who just ain’t gotten the attention they deserve. Our hope is by presenting this all in a non-hierarchical, rhizomatic way, we’ll be in some small way clearing points of access to poets and traditions outside any reader’s cultural territory.

We also need help spreading the word. Again, the more data we collect, the more we’ll see, and the more perspectives we have, the better the view. Tell your friends, tell your students (assign it even!), tell your publisher, tell your authors, tell anyone who likes reading poetry. And if you can think of any other way to help, please get in touch!



special thanks to the participants in our pilot study:
Carl Adamshick, Joel Arthur, John Beer, Greg Bem, Ethan Saul Bull, Lisa Ciccarello, Jesse Damiani, Anne Delatte, Abby Gambrel, Arielle Greenberg, Jeremy Hight, Rauan Klassnik, Rodney Koeneke, Virginia Konchan, Paul Longo, Joseph Mains, Amber Nelson, Hajara Quinn, Justin Rigamonti, Turhan Sarwar, Colin Shepherd, Rich Smith, Stacey Tran, Robert Wendeborn, Jane Wong, and James Yeary

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