Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Interview with Poetry Genius Editor, Austin Allen

Austin Allen is a poet, essayist, and editor. He earned his MFA at Johns Hopkins University. He now lives in New York City. By day (and often well into the night), Allen is editor of Poetry Genius—a sister site of the annotation site Rap Genius. To assist with my “Becoming a Rap Genius” course, Allen agreed to answer a few questions associated with his work at Poetry Genius.

1. What were you doing in your pre-RG days that in retrospect likely greatly prepared you for what you're doing with Poetry Genius today?
Allen: Before Poetry Genius I was working as an adjunct lecturer in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where I had graduated with my MFA in poetry in 2012. Prior to my MFA I had worked as an editor for another Web startup, Big Think, whose mission also involved both education and entertainment (interviews with leading thinkers and artists). So when I learned that Rap Genius was starting a poetry project, I saw it as a great way to combine my existing job skills and interests.
2. I'm thinking that relatively few people with MFA degrees end up in web startups; or at least, the curriculum for MFA programs typically do not concentrate on web-based projects. So what was the experience like moving from a literary world to a tech environment like Poetry Genius?
Allen: It has been a big adjustment, although aided by my previous experience with the faster pace of startup culture, and by the fact that my work is still largely editorial and educational. This job has posed some challenging editorial questions that overlap with technical ones. How to build out a giant literary library from a platform originally designed for song lyrics? How to optimize "crowd" annotation of literature in terms of both participation and results? How to make the platform both easy and worthwhile for authors to use? What about educators and students, whose needs are very different? Tackling these questions has meant keeping my English-major skills sharp while upping my game as a Web editor.
3. On college campuses, there's varying degrees of "group work" assigned. From what I can tell, students do not always fine that approach appealing. But it's my sense that on Poetry Genius and perhaps at the Rap Genius company itself, you're constantly collaborating with people—basically doing a kind of group work. What's most exciting *and* challenging about your Poetry Genius collaborations/group work?
Allen:  Most challenging has been collaborating with our tech team to find creative solutions to the "growing pains" problems described above. This is a slow, long-term, back-and-forth process, but one that has rewarding breakthrough moments as well. Most exciting has been collaborating with readers and writers from all over the world to annotate favorite works. There's a kind of magic to seeing an "obscure" text like The Waste Land accumulate a whole body of shared knowledge over time.
4. Generally speaking, what are a few common qualities that contributors you admire on Poetry Genius possess or demonstrate? What in short do they seem to do that you find impressive or valuable? Why?
Allen: I admire contributors who bring a passion for reading combined with real intellectual curiosity--a willingness to dig deeper into both the subjects they know and the subjects they don't. A sense of humor doesn't hurt in annotations, either!
5. What are a couple of trends in terms of audience viewership (i.e. “hits”) on Poetry Genius that have surprised or intrigued you?

Allen: I've been intrigued by our audience's love of contemporary spoken word poetry--thanks to YouTube, many examples of this art form are now going viral--as well as by their fascination with some of the most famously difficult texts in English poetry. The Waste Land and Hamlet, for example, are consistently popular. People seem to enjoy coming together to track down the references and tackle the enigmas.
6. What is one way you now view or read poetry that would have been unlikely if you were not working with Poetry Genius?
Allen: I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad, but I now tend to read poems with a closer eye toward their likely appeal to a broad audience. Popularity isn't the final judgement of a poem's merits, and some of the poems I love would be of limited interest to those not deeply interested in the art form. But popularity isn't something to resist or disparage, either. Just as there are rap songs that are mostly in dialogue with other rap songs, rather than with the world outside rap fandom, many "literary" poems are insularly engaged with other poems--probably more so than they realize. I find myself thinking about this more and more, and about the related question of why some highly allusive, difficult poems, such as The Waste Land, nevertheless manage to become very popular. I have some theories, but maybe they'll have to wait for another question!
7. What’s your sense about the differences between the people who populate both sites—Poetry Genius and Rap Genius? Or better yet, how might you generally differentiate between the typical poetry genius and rap genius participants?
Allen: My sense is that the majority of people active on Poetry Genius right now originally discovered it through Rap Genius, rather than independently, so it's hard to separate the groups. Usually the fans active on PG have a preexisting interest in books and written poetry, as you'd expect. But I've been happy to see, too, that PG has helped many fans discover classic texts they hadn't come across before--our Forum threads have been a testament to this.
8. What’s one or two things you like to see happen on Poetry Genius that you haven’t see or haven’t seen enough of just yet?
Allen: I would love to see more original blog posts and essays on the site. This is a wonderful forum in which to share book recommendations, criticism aimed at a popular audience, etc. We're going to be spotlighting more of this in the coming months!
Becoming a Rap Genius: Resources

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