August 11, 2022

Poetry and the New Meaning of Curation

As Web3 increasingly embraces poetry as an art form, Ana Maria Caballero proposes curation as disruption
Credit: theVERSEverse, Poem = Work of Art, 2022. Courtesy theVERSEverse
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Poetry and the New Meaning of Curation

Verse is revered, but it isn’t transacted in a way that reflects its contribution to culture. Books containing dozens of meticulously sculpted poems sell for $14.99, if at all. For better or worse, society establishes the commercial valuation of its objects through their exchange. Indeed, the US tax code treats cryptocurrencies as property, triggering a tax when coins are bought and sold. No taxable event occurs while holding — trade pronounces value. 

Western systems of valuation are inadequate, but if you zoom out far enough they gain some logic. Van Gogh died a pauper, but, today, his works are invaluable. Of course, not everything of value is important, but the more esteemed cultural outputs tend to price up. This hasn’t happened for poetry, which is also rarely exhibited as art. 

Ana Maria Caballero and Joëlle Snaith, The Public, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

Here’s how a poem usually gets published: A poet pays editors at a journal to read their work, waits several months (even years) to receive a rejection. In the rare event that an editor accepts a poem, it’s unclear who, in the end, will read and enjoy its tender craft. Typically, the only currency exchanged is the fee paid by the writer to have their work considered.  

In Web3, a poet simply selects a platform and mints their poem. Selling or transacting that poem depends on the ability of the poet to connect with interested audiences. 

No editor is involved, though some platforms do screen applications. Apart from copyright and offensive-content concerns, there’s no panel weighing a work’s quality before you mint. This is particularly true of platforms on the Tezos blockchain, where there are no applications at all and the absence of expensive gas fees democratizes the minting process further.

Of course, the Web3 model of publication raises the question of quality control. To curate or not to curate is an abiding dilemma for the cryptoverse, one that strikes at its core ethos of decentralization and inclusivity. What makes a blockchain poem “good”? Who gets to decide? Does a wholesale lack of curation diminish NFT literary culture? While such questions have been posed of crypto art, they are yet to be addressed when it comes to poetry. To get there, I’ll take the scenic route.

Ana Maria Caballero, Newly Abridged Happiness Manual, Vol. I, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

I was once enrolled in a course on the subject of French rebel author Colette taught by Alice Jardine, Simone de Beauvoir’s protégée. Having determined to tackle the question of transgressive motherhood in my final paper, my professor asked who my sources were. Though I’d read the column of literary criticism assigned for the course, I was hopeful that the flag of rebellion might wave beyond the page and replied: “Colette and me.” She said I needed to cite at least ten sources to be credible: “It’s the nature of the beast.” 

As the only student on my academic track, I hung out a lot with my professors. Forgive the indiscretion — they seemed miserable. With one hand, they complained about every aspect of their tenured lives and, with the other, bid me to join them. I promptly took a job in communications. Meanwhile, my college roommate, an art history major, worked for an up-and-coming gallery. The candied yet ultra-competitive environment drove her mad, and 24 months later, she entered law school. 

Like the art world — not to mention academia — traditional publishing is a hyper-curated realm ripe for disruption. A lesser-known realm presently being disrupted is the classic car market, with which a friend of mine is fully engaged. “In the past,” he tells me, “someone with a classic car was forced to prostrate themself at an auction house doorstep and beg for an appointment. Not anymore. New online platforms allow classic car owners to sell directly to consumers.” 

“What about curation?” I ask. “These online platforms are policing themselves, and the vigilant, vibrant communities that are emerging are quick to call out bad actors, and bad vehicles. It’s almost like the community became the curator. Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “prestigious auction houses are still very important. But they’re no longer the only way.”

Ana Maria Caballero, Ivona Tau, and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 2: City Life 2, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

That highly respected curators from around the world are discussing curation — or lack thereof — in artworks transacted as non-fungible tokens is a sure sign that curation is well underway. This is a good thing because curation, like a good secondary source, brings credibility. On the other hand, the fact that there’s a vast new market to curate owes much to crypto art’s open horizon.

theVERSEverse, the digital poetry gallery I co-founded with Kalen Iwamoto and Sasha Stiles, is highly curated. The purpose of this curation is to recognize poets who have been at their craft for a long time. But theVERSEverse gallery also wouldn’t exist without the crypto art community — a space where plural forms of poetic expression abound, and where both the curated and uncurated coexist within “an inescapable network of mutuality.”¹ Web3 also reminds us that the curated and uncurated need each other. Where the former enfolds art within a two-ply cloak of history and context, the latter brings immediacy and innovation.  

The support of key curators in the NFT space has been crucial in spreading theVERSEverse’s message that poetry should be exhibited and valued as art. At the same time, without the gallery’s focus on poets with rigorous practices, it might not inspire such patronage.

It is a paradox of Web3 that to disrupt the way in which poetry is valued, and to carve its own niche in the art world, poetry requires curation. Why? Because curation legitimizes disruption. 

Ana Maria Caballero, Newly Abridged Happiness Manual, Vol. I, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

At the same time, the poets of Web3 must assert their own value, independent of any external endorsements, by putting themselves resolutely out into the NFT ecosystem. In one breath, I say: Poetry needs curation. In the next: It does not. Such statements need not generate anxiety or fear that they reveal some ominous, self-effacing contradiction. As Simone Weil writes: “Contradiction is the test of necessity.”² Sometimes the only way to have it is both ways. 

Not only can the curated and the uncurated coexist, they can thrive together. If poetry is curated, exhibited, and collected as the culturally valuable artwork it is, then this will motivate more poets to mint their verses as NFTs. It will also spur those already active in Web3 to keep minting, helping to cement poetry as an avant-garde art form at the edge of the human

While selling crypto poems is by no means easy, it is now possible. This presents exciting opportunities just as it does for music. What’s more, the ability to collect poetry in a way that adequately reflects its value — perhaps for the first time in history — reasserts poetry’s cultural agency. Let’s ask the hard questions, shall we? Why are there no e.e cummings or William Carlos Williams poems in MoMA? Why can’t poets make a living from their craft? One of my mentors, the celebrated poet Denise Duhamel, tells me: “We were taught to think of the poem as the reward. So, we all looked for jobs to support our writing habit.”³ 

Ana Maria Caballero, Ivona Tau, and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 2: City Life 8, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

The first thing I do when I sit down to write is open the thesaurus. Synonyms for “curator” include: “administrator,” “conservator,” “custodian,” “keeper,” and my favorite cousins: “steward,” and “guardian.” These words are all different, but they are yoked together in a symbiosis of signification — what Wittgenstein termed, Familienähnlichkeit (“family resemblance”).⁴ You will note the absence of the word “gatekeeper,” whose synonyms are functional in nature: “monitor,” “lookout,” “sentinel,” “protector.”

A few years ago, I tried finding an agent to help me publish a creative nonfiction manuscript. The application process required that I fill in several online forms, the vast majority of which had a bright, white box where I was requested to include my number of followers. Is this the behavior of a steward or a sentinel? I would argue neither. It’s the behavior of a broker, whose synonyms are “merchant,” “negotiator,” “dealer,” and “intermediary.” In traditional, agented publishing, a book is considered “good” if it is commercially viable. The one agent who called me back told me, with some paraphrasing: 

At any given moment, there are a vast number of poetry and creative nonfiction manuscripts that deserve to be out in the world, but there just isn’t enough of a market for all of them. So, editors are on the lookout for writers who can offer publishing houses something extra, something more. 

Something like guaranteed sales. In my first year in Web3, no curator has ever asked me how many followers I have or if my poems sell, before including my work in an exhibition.

Ana Maria Caballero, Newly Abridged Happiness Manual, Vol. I, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

I now dream of marrying my recently finished poetry manuscript to a traditional publishing house in order to put forth an interactive, immersive, virtual version of it, along with a physical book — O, beloved object. While I’m practical enough to know this won’t happen, I’m also hopeful enough to believe that the creative and collaborative potential of Web3 will steer me toward my vision. What if the world of legacy publishing offered this possibility?

An essayist friend, Sophie Strand, told me recently: “Ana, I created a market for my work. No one would publish me at first. Now, publishers approach me.”⁵ Strand built the market for her eco/embodied long-form writing via social media. She decided she was good and put her work fearlessly out into the world. The world agreed with her. Now, publishers agree with the world, and it’s to her benefit that they do. Web2 made it possible for writers like Strand to forge a commercially viable, self-sustaining career with the eventual help of publishers. She jumped from content to contract, and it’s been a fruitful leap. 

Ana Maria Caballero, Ivona Tau, and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 2: City Life 12, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

In Web3, a new path that does not rely solely on book sales is emerging, one in which writers can build a market for their works — yes, to generate the attention of publishers, but also to transact directly with their audience via certifiable blockchain provenance. This ownership economy represents a powerful evolution of the digital condition, whose various components — referentiality, communality, and algorithmicity — allow for the purposely contradictory line of thinking braided into the fibers of this essay.⁶ Digitally native writers are happy to be networked; we are a community in perpetual contact, perpetual exchange. But we also wish to possess our own individual writings. To have and to hold, so we may offer.

We, the networked writers, wish to own our texts in order to offer them in a way that transcends the web of free, constant, communal content creation. Here, read us. And, if you can, collect our words as art. 

I think that poems, both in books and on the Internet, deserve all the love in the world. I also picture poetry as a flourishing art form to be exhibited and transacted. I believe this will happen both via disruption and via curation. Sometimes, the only way to have it is both ways. 

🎴🎴🎴

Ana Maria Caballero is a first-generation Colombian-American poet and artist. Her work explores how biology delimits societal and cultural rites, ripping the veil off romanticized motherhood and questioning notions that package female sacrifice as a virtue. She is the recipient of the Beverly International Prize, Colombia’s José Manuel Arango National Poetry Prize, and a Sevens Foundation Grant. Her work has been exhibited internationally and will be featured by GAZELL.iO, where she’ll complete an artist residency in Fall 2022. She has two books forthcoming in 2023, both written in the hours before the world wakes up. Much of what she writes in the dark can be read at anamariacaballero.com.  

theVERSEverse will launch its inaugural SuperRare Spaces collection on August 16, 2022, featuring poems by Christian Bök, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Denise Duhamel, Campbell McGrath, and Julie Marie Wade, paired with artworks by artists including Eleni Is Bored Again, Rose Jackson, Marlon Portales, ROBNESS, and Joëlle Snaith.

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¹ ML King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.

² S Weil, “Contradiction” in S Weil, Gravity and Grace, E Crawford and M von der Ruhr (trans.), London: Routledge Classics, 2002, 98.

³ D Duhamel, Interviewed by the author on 25 July, 2022.

⁴ L Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, GEM Anscombe, PMS Hacker, and J Schulte (trans.), Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009.

⁵ S Strand, Interviewed by the author on 27 July, 2022.

⁶ F Stalder, The Digital Condition, VA Pakis (trans.), Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018, 5.