Overlapping Realities: On Making Poems from Personal Libraries


Matt Trease is a digital artist and poet currently living in Seattle, WA. His poetry has appeared in a handful of publications like Small Po[r]tions, Burdock, Requited, and Cordite Poetry Review and forthcoming in Filling Station, Small Po(r)tions, and various other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Later Heaven: Production Cycles (Busylittle1way Designs, 2013).

Part I: Hiring workers for poetic production

In the winter of 2010-2011, I began looking for ways to engage everyday people in constructing found poems using their personal home libraries. In order to engage a wide sample of participants, I ran my experiments on Amazon.com’s micro-tech workplace, Mechanical Turk. I liked the idea of taking parlor games and poetry into the workplace as a small-scale interruption. Plus it opened up the possibility of exploring the fraught intersection of “collaboration” and intellectual property at work in our late capitalist economy. We often don’t think about writing as having an economic mode of production, and I thought these poems might complicate that notion of “creativity” by explicitly throwing wages, labor, and delegation into the mix.

As for the actual “job” I was posting on Mechanical Turk, I wanted the task to be simple and perfunctory so that any self-described “not creative” person could feel free to try it. However, I didn’t want to the workers to be just cogs in an assembly line. I wanted the poems to be generated by them, not by Google. Influenced by performance artists and poets like Jackson MacLow and Miranda July, I decided that the poetic choices within each poem would be tied to the person’s tastes in reading and by arrangement (i.e. what books they keep and how they arrange the books in their home).

Part II: Developing a system for gathering words

Given that I had no clue how big or small the workers’ libraries would be, I needed a line-finding system that could accommodate some pretty small book collections. I turned to the Lo Shu Square, one type of a Chinese magic square. A Lo Shu square looks a lot like a Sudoku puzzle, except that in a Lo Shu square, as in all magic squares, each string of numbers add up to the same number—15—which I liked for its near-sonnet length. I then composed a quick survey in which the numbers in each line corresponded to an element in a person’s library (e.g. “book 4, page 9, line 2”) which was similar to a few Facebook memes proliferating at the time. For each entry in the survey, I asked them to start at the beginning of the line of text and jot down 9 consecutive words (not counting articles a, an, the), which lent a baseline rhythm (with variations) to each poem. I offered to pay a rate that was about 3x that of nearly any other job I saw on the Mechanical Turk website. By morning I had 16 responses.

Part III: Creating the “bailiwick” and “predilection” sequences

I then went about weaving these responses together into a sequence of poems. I performed Google Books searches for each line, ascertained the books that were sampled, and made editorial corrections. Then I remixed the material in two ways:

First, I took each worker’s corrected sample and used a productive Feng shui flow of the trigrams (order that creates good qui or chi) to reorder the lines from those on the surveys. It was interesting to see how the sources—which ranged from college textbooks to religious texts to children’s books, celebrity gossip, and dime genre novels— created these little fragmented vignettes pulled together by generic pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions, with the ruptured syntax creating subconscious disruptions not unlike how we process narrative while reading. The poem below (an earlier draft originally appeared in Requited, No. 10) is an example:

[Library of worker A3ICTZEPK4YUG]

I don’t know what her angel looked like
Cubism is not easy to describe in words thus
it hasn’t rained for three months the trees are prospecting
he would not hurt me as those thoughts came
for an instant we children would consider what an angel might
a set of formal white concrete stairs descend to
your parents respect even their prejudices gently point
don’t move we can’t move caught like lobster in
Cubism which was formulated in the first decade of
sometimes they came inside when it rained against the door
in the following elementary treatise for the use of public schools
I remember the back garden with banana trees in the side
there are two distinct colours in ferrets one is
why is the measure of love loss? It hasn’t rained in
this novel she found the spot where the great
once there he decided to study painting.

I collected these poems as sequence under the title, “bailiwick,” which refers to the expertise of these workers as evidenced by their libraries.

Second, I plugged the material provided into a spreadsheet and created a sequence in which I collaged a poem for each trigram, or the exact same spot in each worker’s library. I titled these poems “predilection,” in reference to the choices of arrangement that each worker manifests in their library. The result is something a little more syntactically disjointed, but with leaps that suggest narrative, like a connective point among overlapping realities. Both sequences, taken together, trace something like the unseen threads that connect our individual psyches in a collective network of thought and influence.

[book 3, page 5, sentence 7]

Quietly, he covered up the mine, retraced his footsteps
after walking fifty yards in New York or San Francisco
he used the following outline to organize his search
she reached down to keep him close to her
so they all went away from the little log house
I remember the back garden with banana trees in the side but
the principal way in which god’s goodness is
what she thought about those people, about herself, about life
himself he thought she died as she lived
the rest were on foot; they had been on the move
he looked down he did not see her
by the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence
they have been able to spin that power up to
the radiator in history with those two
it was unlikely the victim had the time to comprehend


  • March 10, 2015

    Mark F. Herron

    This is interesting. I like it!

    In the first one, I like the way the lines typically aren’t sentence units, you know? But they present themselves like the language poets’ (Silliman, et al). Perhaps that’s a way in which the language poets aren’t so random (they usually finish their new sentence thoughts). And the Feng shui flow and such is an interesting way. I love the Amazon – yes!

    Many good and interesting statements, some of which line up delightfully (plus sonnety-length! I agree. It’s just a good size to work in and with (enough but not too much)) or else take their own directions. Many of them did, but this seemed a really nice line, for instance, to start another poem or obviously, a novel:
    (In) this novel she found the spot where the great

    These also don’t rely on an off-screen beginning or finish (the undefined antecedent, that assumed presence, the uncanny), so they’re lacking context other than their method, which I find very interesting. Their collage becomes apparent.

    The off-screen context is somehow important though (a leading preposition does that, for instance (see line above with (In) added to it)). Maybe that’s the thing about such parataxis, it doesn’t allow for narrative since there are no dependencies, subordination. But metaphor and simile do allow one to relate (even when the metaphor is really out there or jarring). So there’s something going on there too.

    That second poem is indeed more sensible, narrative, in connecting and having whole sentence units, if not actual sentences. I got some of that disjointing effect too in doing mirror poems (write a poem, then add the same poem above it on the page, as if reflected in a mirror if you put a horizontal line between them, but reverse the lines first to last) – the cause and effect, context gets all out of whack and the narrative unwinds yet the poem is still held together (having the proper direction poem come second helps put our heads back together while pointing out the meta, fact of the medium too). One could reverse these poems and I don’t think it would make much difference, except in their order of reading. They don’t seem to rely upon or create much time.

    I have found repetition has some place in poetry though too (and is frowned upon in prose, so it’s more an aspect of the poetic medium) but here, there isn’t any (except accidentally, or in the effect of the lines, method, like waves, running up against our reading). But unlike waves, repetition (lyric), is usually sensible or resonant, not just a shaken effect.

    Great idea – really has me thinking about poetry and keeps catching at the edges of my thought. Thanks! Nicely done. -Mark

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