One fine morning, I logged onto twitter and discovered that Elisabeth Sweet, the community manager for theVERSEverse, had sent me a DM asking if I would like to be the curator of the upcoming inaugural issue of their poetry anthology, wherein web3 poems would be elicited from the community at large (not just from poets who were already members of theVERSEverse).
This appealed to me immediately, and I felt greatly honored. I had been keeping up with theVERSEverse for several years, recognizing it as the premier organization which was helping to push poetry forward in the web3 space, which is another way of saying that they were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for convincing ordinary poets – meaning those who had only published in print journals – as well as web2 poets – meaning those who had published their works online – into taking a stab at becoming web3 poets – meaning those who had published their works as NFTs or digital collectibles. This anthology seemed an ideal way of accomplishing this result, as calls to submit to the anthology would be spread far and wide across the realm of poetry publication.
Of course, I accepted immediately. Though I had published many poems both in traditional formats as well as NFTs, I had never curated a collection before, and theVERSEverse was well aware of that fact, but they recognized my repeated interest in their organization over time and I assume that for that reason offered the position to me. This article is an account of how I went about getting the job done. I share it in the hopes that future curators – whether first-timers or not – can get a sense of one man's take on how to go about it.
More info on theVERSEverse : https://theverseverse.com/mission
Once I accepted, Elisabeth and I agreed, after some deliberation, on the following initial steps, geared to a timeline :
- Elisabeth would put out a call for submissions.
- The public would have X days in which to submit an “unpublished” poem regardless of subject matter. By “unpublished” we decided NOT to disallow poems which had been shared on social media; instead the term was restricted to those poems that had not already appeared in other anthologies or magazines (i.e. which had not yet gone through a curatorial process and had not been self-published or minted as NFTs). The reasons for using this definition are adroitly given here : https://litmagnews.substack.com/p/uncurated-the-case-for-a-new-term , though in the end Elisabeth and I agreed to stick with the term “unpublished” in order to reduce confusion.
- Elisabeth would collect all of the submissions during that time.
- Elisabeth would then have Y days in which to anonymize the submissions and put them all into a shared folder.
- I would then have Z days in which to download the contents of the folder, choose only N of those submissions as the ones who made the cut, determine if any of the N had already been published and then 'deal with them', and then let Elisabeth know which of the N I chose.
- Elisabeth would then inform everyone who submitted as to whether they were accepted into the anthology or not, and then handle the process from there.
My involvement was thus limited to step 5. While waiting for step 5 to occur, I did some google searches on how others had gone about curating poetry anthologies, and also spoke informally to Timothy Green (the author of the above litmagnews link), one of the editors of Rattle magazine, who had become a friend of mine after one of my poems was published in that journal. We spoke in general terms on what to look for, particularly since he had noticed that the amount of submissions received by Rattle had roughly quadrupled after ChatGPT4 came out. In the end I didn't recognize any of our submissions as being generated by AI, although even if I had it was not clear to me whether we would accept those or not – we did not specify the inadmissibility of those types of poems in the text of the call for submissions. The stance to take on AI-generated poems is one which future curators will need to determine.
A note on step 2 : Elisabeth had asked me whether I wanted to have the anthology restricted to poems of a certain theme. I decided against this, for two reasons : first, I considered the fact that many poets may have already had poems they were proud of but which had not yet been “published” according to our definition. I felt it would be a shame if that poet were prevented from submitting such a poem merely because it did not fit an arbitrary 'theme' chosen by myself. I wanted poets to feel that they could submit whatever they felt was their best work, so long as it fit the “unpublished” criteria. The second reason was rather self-serving : I personally preferred reading poems from many themes, and often got bored when reading poems in succession which all revolved around a particular idea. I wanted the execution of step 5 to be enjoyable to me, and so I committed the idea of specifying a theme for the anthology to the flames.
The Curation (Step 5)
Once Elisabeth had received all submissions, she put them into a shared folder, shared it with me, and then informed me that the folder was ready. At that point I downloaded all of the entries into a folder on my local drive so that I would not be dependent on connectivity to the internet while curating the works. It turns out that all of the files were named after numbers, i.e. 01.pdf, 02.pdf, etc. A few of the files were in gif format but for the most part they were pdf's.
I then created a new file in my local folder which I called “curation.txt”. This was a simple text file in which I recorded my progress on curation. My plan was to do the following :
- Set a timer in my 'clock' application on my desktop for 50 minutes.
- Create two columns in curation.txt : submit# and rank.
- Start the timer.
- Read 01.pdf, slowly and deliberately. Look up any words if necessary.
- Add “01” under the submit# column, then under the rank column add either “high” or “neutral.” “high” would indicate that I liked the poem enough to want to reread it at a later date, with “neutral” indicating the opposite.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5, except with the next entry in line, i.e. “02.pdf”. Continue until the timer goes off.
- Make a mark in curation.txt indicating the spot at which 50 minutes had passed.
- Step away from the machine, lie down, and let my mind wander for roughly 10 minutes.
- Repeat steps 3 – 8, replacing the submission # accordingly, until I was done with all of the submissions.
The reason that I rested after every 50 minutes was that I was concerned about the possible effect of “mind fatigue,” or what the author Ferris Jabr calls “cerebral congestion.” Anecdotally I knew that when performing any mentally strenuous activity my mind would slowly decrease in agility as time passed; this observation has been supported by data from various studies, which are summarized in this Scientific American article, authored by Jabr : https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/ .
It took me roughly 3.5 hours to go through all of the submissions. I knew of course that my mind had been more alert at the beginning of each hour, and thus that the submission #'s in each section denoted by step 7 (where I marked the spot where the timer went off) had received a decreasing amount of attention when counting downwards within that section.
I also knew that reading a poem the first time would result in a first impression of that poem, but that reading it again after significant time had elapsed could result in a different impression, particularly if the effects of sleep had allowed the mind to consolidate memories and form new connections in between the two readings. See this article for more info on the effects of sleep : https://www.livescience.com/how-sleep-affects-the-brain .
Knowing that I could afford to spend 3.5 hours a day for the next 3 or 4 days working on curation, I decided to further mitigate the problem of cerebral congestion by reversing the order in which I read the submissions on the second day, and I also decided to reread all of the submissions regardless of how I ranked them, on the theory that memory consolidation during sleep would allow me to see connections or patterns in poems which I failed to see on the first reading. In other words, the plan on day 2 looked as follows :
- Create a third column in curation.txt : 2nd pass (backwards).
- Read the last submission in the list slowly and deliberately.
- Under the third column next to the appropriate submission, add either 'high' or 'neutral' using the same criteria as the day before. This is where the effects of memory consolidation can be made manifest.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3, except that the number of the submission should be the previous entry in line, i.e. I am now reading in backwards order through the list. Continue until I reach the 50 minute mark made the day before in the document. This is where the effects of cerebral congestion from the day before can be mitigated within each block separated by 50 minute marks, because now my mind would feel most alert when reading a submission during which, the day before, my mind had felt most fatigued, and vice-versa.
- Step away from the machine, lie down, and let my mind wander for roughly 10 minutes.
- Repeat steps 2 through 5, replacing the submission # accordingly, until I was done with all of the submissions.
Now in my case, the minimum number of submissions I could accept (i.e., N) was set at 10. Noticing that I had more than 10 listed as “high” in the third column, I then on the third day repeated the sequence, except that 1) I reversed the order again, such that I was again going from top to bottom, and 2) I only re-read items which were listed as 'high.' The challenge now was to figure out which of the 'high' values I would decide to weed out in order to reach a total of ten 'high' rankings.
On day four I repeated the previous exercise, which means that I was going from bottom to top, except that I re-read all items which were listed as 'high' in the third column, regardless of whether they had been weeded out on the second day. I verified that I still felt the same poems would be weeded out, at which point I decided that those were the submissions that I would run with. I may have spent more days curating if the submissions that were weeded out kept flipping among each other; in this case I would have had to decide how many days to continue this pattern until making a final decision.
It was now time for me to test each of the 10 submissions to attempt to determine if they had already been 'published' according to our definition. To do this I performed the following :
- Look at the first submission I was willing to accept.
- Identify a sequence of four or five words within the submission which seemed to me to be the most unlikely to be repeated within other documents. So for example, I would pick something like “the language of migratory birds” and NOT something like “under the weight.”
- Do a google search on that phrase. There will be X matches – go through a subset of them and verify that, if the poem is found, it only appears in social media posts. However, if the poem is found within a social media post, make a note of the identity of who claimed to have written the poem – and if, on the contrary, the poem is found in a place which meets our criteria for being “published,” then mark that entry in curation.txt with a warning sign of some sort.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 a certain number of times. In my case I limited it to 2 or 3 times, depending on the length of the submission.
- Repeat these steps for every submission I was willing to accept.
Now in my case I didn't find any submissions which had already been 'published', and so I never added any warning indications to curation.txt as described in step 3 – which means that I never had to find any replacements for those submissions. If I HAD needed to replace some, my plan was to look back at curation.txt and choose one of the submissions which had been weeded out during the last step, and then repeat the previous process of verifying that IT had not been published. I would have had to come up with a sequence of steps in which to most 'fairly' or 'optimally' select which of the weeded out poems would be chosen to be the replacement, but since the confluence of events never occurred which would have required this, it was never done. This sequence would be another part of curation which a future curator will want to consider and formulate.
At this point there was one corner case which I needed to take care of – that in which someone may have seen a poem posted in a social media post written by someone else, and then have appropriated the poem as their own work for submission. If I had not noted the identity of who claimed to have written the poem in the social media post in step 3, then I would not be able to prevent this corner case from occurring. But since I had the identity of the poster of the social media post, I could then use the identity of person making the submission and compare the two – which means that now was the time for me to retrieve from Elisabeth the identity of the submitter of that poem (remember that she had anonymized all the entries beforehand to help prevent me from inadvertently forming a bias in favor of particular submissions if I knew the submitters were friends of mine). As it turned out, I did not find any of the 10 submissions that I chose posted in social media posts, and so this step was also avoided. If I HAD found such a submission, I would have followed the same steps as would have been taken if the submission had been 'published' according to our definition, although in addition I would also want to take an additional step of informing the actual author of the poem (presumably the one who posted the social media post) that someone else had attempted to claim credit for their poem, thus allowing the original author to take additional steps if they wanted to do so.
This last consideration marked the end of the curation process, and so I informed Elisabeth of my final choices.
The Question of Language
One question which arose during the planning of this endeavor was what to do about submissions which were written either partially or wholly in a language other than my native language, which happened to be English. I felt that it would be unfair to the submitter for me to assign a value to such a submission because the very content of these submissions (poetry) was highly dependent on a proper understanding of the language, of idioms which might be used or implied, of the double meanings of particular words or phrases when used in particular contexts, and of cultural connections alluded to in the culture reflected by that language, of which I would likely be unfamiliar, especially when compared to the capabilities likely to be exhibited by a native speaker of the language. Elisabeth and I discussed this, and we concluded that it would be best to specify in the call for submissions that only English entries would be considered, and that entries written in other languages would be considered in future anthologies, i.e. anthologies which would be curated by people whose native language matched that of the submission. Thus, there could be a future anthology restricted to submissions written in Italian, or one restricted to Spanish submissions, and so on.
Another way of resolving the issue of competent interpretations of poems in different languages would have been to have had more than one curator working on the same anthology – each curator would be assigned the poems which matched his or her native tongue. Future curators could consider this strategy as an option.
I should note that some of the submissions involved the use of multiple languages within the same poem. Other than employing one curator who is truly fluent in all of the languages used in that submission (regardless of how many curators are employed per anthology), it is hard for me to see how to handle this case in a fair manner. I assume here that having one curator interpret a “part” of a poem and a different curator interpreting a different “part” of the poem – assigning parts to each according to his or her native tongue – would be inadvisable, as each curator's interpretation of the parts of the poem which they had not themselves interpreted would be dependent on the ability of the other curators to communicate their feelings or sense of worth involving their own interpretations of their sections; and there is no guarantee that such communication would be possible, particularly in cases where the poem “feels right” to a curator without that curator being able to explain even to themselves the reasoning behind the sense of worth. In addition, a poem is more than a sum of its parts : each part of a poem depends in some way on all other parts of the poem, and they all need to be interpreted in relation to one another and in relation to the whole for the resulting interpretation to be most worthwhile, at least in my opinion. In our case, Elisabeth agreed to either ask submitters of such poems to resubmit a version of their work which relied only upon the English language, or if this were not possible or we did not receive a result in time (i.e. during the Y days that Elisabeth had to anonymize all of the poems as described above in step 4 under the heading “The Preparation”) we then removed the submission from consideration.
These issues concerning competent interpretation of a foreign language text are shared by those who attempt to translate a poem from one language into another. For more on these issues, see https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/issues-translating-poems/.
The Curator's Statement
One other task which I had agreed to complete, after the curation, was to submit a “Curator's Statement.” This concept was new to me, and so I did a google search on the phrase to determine what the expected content of a typical curator's statement was. In addition, my curator's statement was specified to be in the form of an NFT. These facts, together with the knowledge that the anthology which I was curating was the inaugural issue belonging to theVERSEverse, led me to three conclusions concerning how I wanted to create the statement, in order to accomplish three goals concerning the statement. The goals were as follows:
- Make the statement “fit” the overall goal of theVERSEverse.
- Make the statement “stand out” among other curatorial statements from other anthologies.
- Make the statement “fit” its expected form, in this case the form of an NFT.
I felt that the reasoning behind goal 1 made intrinsic sense – if I wrote a statement that did not in some way reflect what theVERSEverse stood for, then it would be more likely to feel “out of place” with the rest of the anthology, or “out of place” within the canon of work that had been put out by theVERSEverse up to that point in time. The mantra of theVERSEverse was that “poetry is art” - i.e., that poems should be treated in a similar way to how other art is treated. As such, the text of the poem should stimulate the reader's mind to engage in an inner dialog with the text – to figure out what it might “mean” to that particular reader at that particular time, but in a flexible way such that the meaning interpreted could change over time, given additional experience or knowledge or insight gained by the reader during that time period. This trait, to me, was the core to what being artistic meant. Some sort of aesthetic trait should also be present – in the case of text, that trait could be represented by the very sounds of the words when spoken – mellifluous sounds in the case of smoothness or beauty, jagged or rough sounds in the case of shock or repulsion, and/or either in order to mimic the content of the text itself (for example, imagine describing a ship traveling through choppy waters by using short, choppy, repetitive words in the description). These considerations led me to conclude that the best way to achieve the goal of making the statement “fit” the overall goal of theVERSEverse was to make the curator's statement itself as much like a poem as possible, without attempting to compete with the actual poems which were submitted to the anthology.
The second goal – that of making the statement “stand out” among other statements – then became easy to achieve once I had looked up the elements of what typical curatorial statements were like – which (to me, anyways) seemed quite bland and boring. They boiled down to communicating in a clear way to a public audience – that is, an audience which has not been self-selected to know particular jargon used by artists – an overview of what the exhibition or anthology was “about,” and an overview of what the curator intended to convey by choosing the particular artworks; a discussion of how the included works form a coherent unit; the “meaning” of the artworks, etc. By writing a statement which resembled a poem, I could automatically be breaking these guidelines, depending on how I worded the text, and thus would clearly cause the statement to stand out as being different. But why did I want to achieve this goal? The reason was one of the implications of the target of the curator's statement being an inaugural issue.
When one performs an action as the first in a series involving others performing the same action, one sets a precedent. This precedent could be either followed by succeeding performers, or broken by them, according to the effect desired. In either case, doing such will initiate interest in the project because the actions will grab the attention of the public if the public is made aware of them. Think of Andrew Jackson breaking tradition by inviting the public into the white house upon his inauguration. In this case the result was scandal, but a message was thereby clearly stated : the president was planning to do things differently, and he wanted people to know that. I believe that theVERSEverse distinguishes itself from other poetic organizations partly by the differences they represent – they delve into the web3 world and celebrate poems as specific works of art, worthy of being included in traditional artistic galleries throughout the world, not simply in literary journals or books – by doing so, they expand the definition of what a poem can “be.” I felt, therefore, that breaking tradition by writing the curators statement in an original way was an appropriate action to take for the first anthology in a series representing such an organization.
Of course, there was some danger inherent in this approach – after all, there were reasons why traditions and conventions exist. As such I was possibly overstepping my bounds, crossing my expected behavior from the point of view of theVERSEverse themselves. So I ran my curator's statement by Elisabeth before minting it, to ensure that it would be well received. Luckily for me, it was – our thinking seemed to be aligned on this issue. Future curators will also want to verify the appropriateness of their statements before committing them to an unalterable state (such as by minting them to a blockchain).
As for the third goal, to make the statement “fit” the form of an NFT, I relied on my personal beliefs regarding what I felt were practices which negated the accessibility of the NFT to the public and concentrated on avoiding those. The principal one of these involved how text-based NFTs were displayed in digital galleries. If the NFT contains nothing but text, then there is a limit as to how much text can be displayed in one panel or framework before that text becomes illegible from a comfortable distance – the viewer is forced to step right up to the work, sometimes just a few virtual inches away from it, in order to read the text – and unless the viewer can 'float' in the virtual space, reading an artwork displayed high on a virtual wall becomes impossible without the ability to zoom in from a distance and then scroll laboriously back and forth, sometimes from an odd angle, and then the letters can look jagged. I have often experimented with determining the optimal amount of text given a particular font size that can be placed in such an NFT, in my own work, to have it feel comfortably readable while strolling down the middle of a virtual aisle, or at least strolling close enough to the virtual wall that I do not feel that I am virtually straining my virtual neck in taking in the contents. I found that around 200 words written in a Times New Roman font size of roughly 24 points, when saved from a word processor as a PDF file, followed by opening the file in a PDF reader, taking a screenshot of the page by itself (cropping out the rest of the screen) as a JPEG, and then modifying the JPEG with a graphics editor so that it gets converted to an image with a horizontal and vertical DPI (dots per inch) of 300, results in an acceptable and readable image. And in a lucky turn of events, it turned out that the one standard shared by typical curatorial statements which I wanted to follow – i.e. from my investigation as to how to implement goal # 2 – was having the length of the statement not be overly long. The standard followed by most statements was to limit it to somewhere between 200 and 400 words, which fit just right with my own finding that 200 words at a largish font size was ideal for fitting within a typical virtual gallery frame while remaining accessible to a roaming virtual public.
For more information pertaining to the guidelines recommended by various authors to follow when writing a curator's statement, I am hesitant to point to any particular author as a reference, as that would single them out as representing content which I mostly disagreed with, which would be unfair since most all authors I discovered which covered the same topic also exhibited recommendations that I found boring. To get around this, I created a chat with ChatGPT which would summarize those ideas, which can be found here : https://poe.com/s/7CettuItXHVcdZaZ76GZ.
The Cycling of Curators, and Rejection Notices
I would also like to touch briefly on one aspect of theVERSEverse's Community Anthologies : the plan, at the time of writing, is to have a different curator for each issue. I think that this is a wise idea, as it ensures that any biases of my own which may have slipped past all of my attempts to suppress them will be avoided in succeeding issues – to be replaced by the biases of those curators which are sure to slip through. In reality of course we all have our biases, so SOME will slip through, but perhaps by relating the steps we each took to mitigate those biases we can learn from previous efforts at achieving the closest approximation we can to objectivity; hence, I took it upon myself to write this article. I hope that future curators come to the same conclusion, think of how they can improve the process which I have used, and then publish those improvements for others to consider.
The other point I would like to briefly touch on is the topic of rejections. Most of the curators I have met are also editors who have to deal with writing both acceptance and rejection notices after making their final choices – but I did not have to do this. As specified above under “The Preparation,” Elisabeth took it upon herself to do this part (step 6). There were some benefits to separating this activity from that expected from the curator, as she mentions in episode 28 of “The Poetry Space_ with Katie and Tim” podcast.
You can listen to the podcast here :
Google : https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9hbmNob3IuZm0vcy9kYmU2NWU5OC9wb2RjYXN0L3Jzcw/episode/ZjkzMTE2NTgtMWNkMy00ZDg5LWJiYzgtMmU5MDA4MjA3ZWNi?sa=X&ved=0CAUQkfYCahcKEwiwkLuoke6AAxUAAAAAHQAAAAAQAQ
A summary of the podcast is as follows:
1:40 – opening poem by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, “Op-ed for the Sad Sack Review, Regarding News of Another Rash of Writer Suicides”
4:00 – how many rejection letters Timothy Green (editor at Rattle) sends out yearly
5:00 – how editors feel and strategies they use when sending rejection letters
13:50 – how submitters can handle receiving rejection letters
18:30 – I speak about my thoughts on rejections
20:00 – Elisabeth Sweet talks about sending rejection notices
22:20 – Katie and Tim share thoughts on replying to rejection notices and receiving those replies
25:20 – Mark Fitzpatrick airs thoughts on impersonal rejection letters
28:00 – Elisabeth talks about the division between the curator and the editor
29:55 – Mark Danowsky (editor at One Art) shares thoughts on rejections
36:00 – more on how submitters can handle receiving rejection letters
40:35 – Dick Westheimer shares thoughts on rejections
45:35 – problems with strategies for submissions for particular prizes or magazines
48:50 – thoughts on rejection notices which suggest improvements
52:30 – Mark Fitzpatrick shares thoughts on the intention behind submissions
57:45 – Elisabeth Sweet shares the impact on the blockchain on submissions in general
59:45 – hilarious closing poem by Francesca Bell (with introduction), “I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor's Penis in My Hand”
The Anthology and Release Party!
The anthology itself can be found at https://objkt.com/collection/KT1Hrdaxku1SrGV2yhmLzYiHh5iLYh1T5nVz.
Some of the poems may still be up for grabs, so give the link a visit and help support the poets!
The twitter space release party, in which various of the poets discuss the anthology on the day it was released, could originally be found at https://twitter.com/theverseverse/status/1686383186056769536. It is no longer available on Twitter, but theVERSEverse recorded it and is planning to enable others to listen to the replay at a later time on their site.
A summary of the twitter space is as follows:
8:50 – context within web3
10:20 – overview of my curatorial process
16:15 – I read my curator's statement
19:10 – @lorepunkdoteth reads “We will be Trees”
22:45 – @ERESpoet reads “Kayros”
27:10 - @edgepoetry_nft reads “Baldwin Biographica”
33:35 - @CelinaEnLaSelva reads “Let the Golden Record Go”
44:00 - @olivertwisty gets introduced (he mentions @RiversHaveWings as a particular influence)
45:20 – question to all poets : “how do you come up with visuals?”
50:05 - @olivertwisty reads “Infant Dawn”
This article cited other articles or websites which were written by the following people or entities :
This article appears in the September issue of Vagobond Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 7, with different images showcasing works from the anthology, as well as minor edits.
This article is also collectable on Paragraph.