Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Becoming a Poetry Genius

[Presentation from the Penn State Poetry Conference on October 25. An annotated version here.]

By Howard Rambsy II

My presentation today is about the process of becoming a Poetry Genius because that process involves engagements with technology or what some folks refer to as digital humanities. If you haven’t been keeping score lately, allow me to tell you that in terms of the academy, scholars of African American literature have been somewhat excluded from the conversation on DH. For instance, to take one example, over the last four years, the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference has featured approximately 195 sessions on digital humanities with only 4 of those sessions focusing primarily on African American topics, none of which were on black poetry. By the way, in January, there will be 76 DH sessions, with two focusing on African American literature.

Let’s take another example: the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) now spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on DH projects, which are coordinated by scholars from across the country. You’ll have difficulty identifying large-scale DH projects run by scholars of African American literature. And you better believe that those thousands and now millions of dollars also include job creation. In fact, the fastest area of job growth based on job ads at MLA over the last 10 years has been in the realm of technology and digital media. Conversely, the fastest…one of the fastest declining areas in jobs over the same 10-year period has been in African American literature.

But what do these challenges about the lack of DH projects in African American literature have to do with our dataset of 208 volumes of poetry by African American poets published since 2000? And what do these challenges have to do with a site like Poetry Genius and with my process of becoming a Poetry Genius? Good questions. And I’m pleased to have the opportunity to address them.

About 2 years ago, my younger brother Kenton started bugging me to check out the site Rap Genius. He and I were already talking about digital humanities, but we were talking about Rap Genius as something outside of our formal academic interests at first. He was just talking as someone who is hip to pop culture, and he was also helping his older brother remain current. And he was making these points long before Rap Genius received an investment of $15 million dollars.

I had already been blogging about black poetry and coordinating public humanities projects related to poetry, and so I’ve been in a good position to take advantage of the really cutting-edge online annotation features of Poetry Genius, which is linked to Rap Genius. Whereas Rap Genius focuses on rap lyrics, Poetry Genius focuses on poetry annotation. But I’ve been slightly rewiring those possibilities. More than annotating poems, my main project has involved utilizing the site to produce resources on poetry and other rare materials. My main contribution so far has been the production of a timeline on black poetry from 1854 to 2013.

I had previously produced that timeline and several other timelines on my blog. But it was mostly just a list with a few links here and there. Now, on Poetry Genius, my timeline of black poetry includes more 100 data-points and more 150 data-point annotations, online links and images.

Scrolling through this timeline on Poetry Genius will assist my students in understanding more of what I have in mind by the richness of the tradition of black poetry. More importantly, the timeline on poetry on my own site and now on Poetry Genius serves as extensive public digital resources.

The processes of becoming a participant on the site, or to use the current phraseology, the process of becoming a Poetry Genius has allowed me to expand and diversify my identity as a literary scholar and professor. I enjoyed simply being a scholar and professor of black poetry. However, viewing myself as a poetry genius entails producing more public-oriented and accessible work for the masses. My work as a Poetry Genius also requires a higher level of collaboration and immersion in digital technologies than my conventional work as a literary scholar.

Of course, I don’t want to downgrade my own work or even the larger field of black poetry studies and black literary scholarship. Instead, I’m making the case that for younger people in the field especially, we have to present multiple options on how they might expand their identities and really their capabilities so that a wider array of opportunities is available to them. An expansion of capabilities is particularly important when and if you consider the apparent shrinking job options for scholars of African American literature.

The expansions or enhancements of tech-based skills, collaborative experiences, and overall scholarly and creative capabilities are especially important for new folks in the field given all the challenges concerning declines in job opportunities. We have to view technology or tech-related communities and projects as places where we have to devote more serious attention.

Coordinating a blog or digital resource and now becoming a Poetry Genius have been crucial to my ability to move beyond the small audience of my immediate field. Becoming a Poetry Genius has meant drawing on lessons from people twice my age and people half my age. My conversations with Jerry W. Ward and Eugene B. Redmond have been vital to how I understand African American poetry, and my talks with 18-year-olds at my university have been useful to how I understand verbal art and contemporary cultural trends for annotations. More notably, it was my younger brother, a fairly new person in our field, who introduced me to Rap Genius in the first place, and then the Rap Genius circle that I participate in got me actively involved with Poetry Genius.

I’m presenting Poetry Genius as just one possibility. That site might not be your preferred medium. I also present blogging as another medium. There are many other possibilities. We really have to consider one or two or even five options. The benefits of expanding our overall capabilities and engaging with digital humanities and technology to study and share findings concerning black poetry far outweigh our remaining stagnant.

Celebrating African American Literature: U.S. and Afro-Caribbean Poetry Conference at Penn State 

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