It is strange to be an American watching America from afar right now. I live in England, near the village of St. Albans, which has been continuously inhabited since Roman times. I often wonder what it must have been like to be a Roman living in Britain around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. News would arrive over weeks and months that illiterate Vandals had again plundered Rome, and burned its great libraries to the ground. Books, after all, were useless to them as compared with weapons and gold.
News that the current US administration plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its sister organisations arrived in my social media feed at the speed of light, and hit me straight in the gut.
Then one day in the shower, I had the idea that if I could instead “pool” the recommendations of real people about which poets (rather than poems) are similar to each other, I might be able to fulfil that same intent — to help people find their next favourite poet using technology — in a completely different way.
So, I put up a simple website and, one month and 20,000 lines of code later, the idea attracted nearly 100 beta testers to a private “rough draft” of the site. Their input has been critical to shaping the interface of the site, as well as clarifying the essential message.
Today, I am pleased to announce that the public beta — that is, an improved version of the site, but still very much a work in progress — is available for anyone to peruse.
Encouragingly, between the beta testers, and a few curious individuals who learned about it from the @poet_tips Twitter account and my Facebook feed, the site has grown in the past month by nearly two thousand recommendations or “tips”.
That said, we still have a long way to go. This site will only be as useful as the tips and recommendations people are willing to contribute to it. So, if you are at all curious, please do visit and bookmark the site, and come back to both find new poets and to contribute your suggestions as often as you like. Like Wikipedia, this site will always be a work in progress, and the more we build it, tip by tip, the better it will get.
This kind of thing is obviously also a bit of a social experiment. There have already been some interesting moments.
For example, someone already figured out how to use the simple recommendation formula (“If you like ___, you might like ___”) for snark. A poet known for showmanship and media antics recently got the tip that if you like them, “you might also like PT Barnum”.
Clearly, the site will need some moderation and upkeep. Hopefully, enough people will contribute useful tips to drown out the inevitable bit of silliness and “noise”.
In response to the Tweets, two people also tried to report a “bug” with the site not recommending enough women. The site was “seeded” with canonical poets from history, which is male-skewed, but has long since outgrown that initial seed base with real tips contributed by real people.
So, at this point, if there is a “bug” in this crowd-sourced data set, it reflects a very real “bug” in our society. I’d like to think Poet Tips, presenting the opportunity for anyone to respond by contributing and voting on tips, could actually become a “bug fix” for inequality and underrepresentation in the poetry world.
With all of this, time will tell.
So far, I have already made some new discoveries, thanks to the influx of recommendations that have included poets I hadn’t heard of before (but should have), as well as votes on various associations that hadn’t occurred to me (but now make sense). In short, it’s starting to work. And all of us, click by click, can help to make it work better.
I leave you with a short screencast outlining the practicalities of using the site. If you have any thoughts, questions, or feedback — or if this has inspired you to want to help out with the building and maintaining of the site and its growing data set — please do get in touch.
To my knowledge, the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist has never included someone in Eliot’s own circumstances — that is, an American-born poet living in the UK. Yet there are many of us out here, and many worth knowing more about.
Valerie Morton, author of two full-length collections of poetry, had this to say about our time together:
Having never done a ‘poetry surgery’ before I was a little apprehensive, but Robert Peake immediately put me at ease. He had done a lot of work on the poems I had sent in advance and helped me to look at them with new eyes. His thoughts and ideas helped me free up my language and inspired me to be braver with the material I had. I felt I was getting into a bit of a rut with my writing but I left this surgery feeling uplifted and encouraged to be unafraid to experiment more. It was one of the best value hours I have spent with a poet who I trust and whose own work I admire. It certainly helps lift a writer’s block.
These one-hour sessions take place in a central location in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, near to parking, train, and bus links. Last time, all sessions sold out, and this time there are fewer sessions available. So, if you or someone you know in Southeast England might be interested, please do have a look at The Poetry Society website to book your place.