Above: “Midnight Confession”
By Mika Bar On Nesher
As the Industrial Revolution transformed the landscape of small towns into cities, the Romantic poets used words to engineer visual experiences to celebrate sublime nature and creativity. The Beat poets rode cross-country, nomadic and drug-fueled, writing down their lived experiences as an act of disruption to the conservative ‘50s society; their rejection for convention set an intellectual revolution in motion that echoed well into the ‘60s and ‘70s. Fast forward to 2018: “The Atlantic” published an article titled “How Instagram Saved Poetry” showcasing how the new class of Insta-poets, unlike previous poets in history, are actually making money off their poems. A lot of money. Sold out world tours, major fashion collaborations, millions of copies sold.
These poets are operating like brands, an extension of web2’s powerful yet limited creator economy structure. Rupi Kaur, Cleo Wade, and the likes are not making money directly off their poems online, but through book sales catapulted by their massive Instagram followings. The power is placed in the marketing sector as opposed to direct monetization of the art itself. Then last November, mysteriously wealthy and glamorous poet Arch Hades dropped a collaborative NFT poem with visual artist Andrés Reisinger and composer RAC that sold for over half a million dollars at Christie’s auction house in NYC. A single poem just got very expensive without a publishing house in sight. But what does this mean? Poetry and the blockchain may have more in common than meets the eye.
Sensational sales headlines don’t emerge out of thin air; crypto writers have been around for some time paving the way for a new poetic movement that reflects back the present and future of this digital age. On a snowy morning in Brooklyn I had the pleasure of meeting with three prominent figures in the crypto writing field, the founders of theVERSEverse, a literary NFT gallery where poems are exhibited as works of art. Ana Maria Callabero, Sasha Stiles, and Kalen Iwamoto are carving out space for poetry in the metaverse as they challenge stereotypes of the financial value of poetry. Poetry was never considered a profitable profession. Some of the world’s most acclaimed poets held unpoetic day jobs: Robert Burns was a tax collector, T.S Eliot a banker, Wallace Steven an insurance lawyer–you get the picture. theVERSEverse is changing the narrative of what poetry can be and how it’s consumed. By creating a curated space for NFT poems, the founders are reprogramming the value of poetry and cutting out the publishing gatekeepers.
“Our gallery not only brings more poetry to the blockchain, it also explores the ways in which this technology can alter our understanding and experience of poetry. New technologies present exciting opportunities to delve into what poetry could be, the unique and innovative forms it could take in this fecund landscape. As a literary NFT gallery, we also want to provide a platform for playful, experimental, intersectional works that exploit the potential of the technology and medium, and in doing so, help expand and enrich our definition of poetry. In the experimental and conceptual arm of the gallery, poet-artists create and play at the edges of poetry: The inaugural collection included Sarah Ridgley’s asemic poems written with code; Christian Bök’s extraordinary conceptual poetry of constrained writing and visual translations; Merchant Coppola’s visual poems and typographical experimentations; Pierre Gervois’ subtle and unsettling text-based art.”Kalen Iwamoto
The founders of the gallery each bring a unique perspective to the space. Caballero is an established lifelong writer and poet as well as a recipient of the Beverly Prize. Stiles is an acclaimed poet, writer, and AI researcher who has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net for her works exploring the intersection between text and technology. Using generative texts, AI, and machine code, her unique body of work explores “what it means to be human in a nearly post-human era.” The third founder is Iwamoto, a boundary-pushing conceptual artist and writer who has encouraged and guided new writers to release their poems on the blockchain. She’s the creator of the Crypto Writers Discord, and co-producer of the Crypto Writers Podcast where members of the community hold international readings, share works, and talk shop. You can find her cryptoliteature exhibition, “Twelve” which features up-and-coming crypto writers on view in Decentraland.
Like many NFT projects, theVERSEverse has grown out of a nurturing community with a shared love of poetry and craft. The gallery creates a space where poems can be exhibited while actively challenging and expanding the medium in a digital context. While poetry has been seen as solitary art, shared through readings, the gallery encourages collaboration between visual artists, videographers, poets, and AI. There is an emphasis on play and experimentation that allots writers freedom to grow and expand beyond the boundaries of the market.
“The gallery’s GenText series is an experiment in introducing writers to the possibilities of AI language. This initiative pairs a poet and an artist with advanced generative text writing tools via our tech partner Sudowrite, and invites them to create limited editions that integrate AI poetry and visuals. Our hope is that the first three issues – Sasha Stiles’ collab with photographer Gisel Florez; my poem with Ivona Tau; and a forthcoming edition by Kalen Iwamoto and Rose Jackson – hint at the range of what’s possible.”Ana Maria Caballero
The gallery’s structure is unique and full of intention. It is divided into three parts. The first is dedicated to curating 1/1 pieces; collaborations between acclaimed poets and crypto natives. The second wing of the gallery focuses on elevating text-based artists that are already active in the NFT space. Finally, the third section is the GenText series, limited edition text blocks that pair an artist, a poet and Sudwrite, an AI-powered writing tool. The VERSEverse site offers visitors an opportunity to experiment writing with AI; the results are wild. Sasha Stiles’ much anticipated debut book titled Technelegy will be released in the US this coming April. The book is titled after the author’s alter ego, an AI poet powered by deep learning language models. Technology makes appearances throughout the prose, capturing the delicate dance between humans and machines.
“In order for poetry to have an impact, we need to encounter it where we live, work and play–which isn’t usually in the pages of prestigious lit magazines or even in bookstores. Can high-quality poems be moving images, AR filters, video games, tradable cards, gifts with purchase, immersive installations, screensavers? If so, how do we create, curate and distribute them? It’s an exciting time for writers, editors, publishers, creative technologists and others to merge a love of words with new approaches in order to evolve the experience of discovering, understanding and treasuring poems.”Sasha Stiles
Poetry functions like a mirror reflecting back the state of society. Its forms and subjects change to reveal universal processes that often get trapped outside the realm of language. Major changes don’t happen overnight–life moves at a fast pace and we humans are highly adaptable. We didn’t sign off our personal data in a single day, for example. It was a gradual, often unspoken process that got lost in the monotony of everyday life. By crafting images out of language to name those nameless modern sensations, poems have the power to disrupt the autopilot haze of daily existence. Our digital identities have altered drastically since the emergence of social media, and it seems we are embarking on a new chapter for poetry that’s giving voice to our ongoing relationships with technology.
The VERSEverse is a haven within the metaverse, a place of stillness where you can slow down from the fast-paced digital cycle to dive into the world of crypto poets as they reflect back to us our unspoken digital past while paving the way for a collaborative future. Crypto poets are setting the terms for the value of their work without waiting for permission to publish, sell, or exhibit. The blockchain is not only empowering poets, it’s carving out space for an entire movement to experiment, grow, and establish financial control over their craft.