I Am in Love with a Database
I am in love with a database. It’s not likely you’ve met it, though you can find it on the internet. I call it kalliope, and it’s my everything. At least if “everything” could be defined as an index of 17,688 poets, 80,180 poems, a list of publishers who have a special focus on or exclusively publish poetry, and a comprehensive list of university creative writing programs. It really is a lot to love. But what does it mean to compile this kind of information about this kind of writing? What's its purpose? I’m happy to explain. But, first, some context:
It’s generally difficult to say something in public about poetry without it sounding awkward or self-serving. Or, maybe it’s not actually awkward, but social media makes any understanding of “public” feel awkward. No one wants to look too eager to be listened to. I’m not sure what that is. In the late nineties, it might have been the sound of no one replying to my emails on the Buffalo Poetics listserv. I can tell you for certain that the listserv was mostly a site of trolling, hounding, flaming, and yelling at the top of our lungs about which poets should matter, why they should matter, and what the true, absolute spirit of a poem should look like if it’s going to matter forever.
I was probably fortunate that no one responded to my missives. I was naïve in the nineties, and so was the internet. That’s what I thought any part of the internet covering poetry should be: naïve, unstructured, democratic. Maybe it was, and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to know when others were making missteps. In reality, most of us were speaking in lowered voices. That was the beginning of the internet, too. We spoke quietly because everyone was overly judgmental, or we didn’t even know how to be judgmental yet.
Now we’re all openly thirsty. It shows in what is said and performed with our internet selves. What’s a database got to do with any of this? In 1998, I started building a database around poetry. It would be about everything regarding poetry, at least this was my optimism—the optimism of a man in his mid-twenties. All the books, and all the magazine publications of all the poets, arranged by me for my own private purposes. I named it kalliope, after the Greek muse of epic poetry and the silly song played on a carousel.
The Buffalo Poetics listserv might have inferred how little I really knew about poetry, but I was learning through accumulation, data entry, and organization. It felt cozy, crowded, and busy. I spent many lonely hours in my apartment typing in information and programming data fields for the best database design. I kept doing it through my MFA, my job at Starbucks, my PhD, my first tenure track job, my marriage, and my daughter’s birth. The first week, when we had to carry Viola all night, I strapped her into a baby Bjorn and thought, “This will be the perfect time to enter data into kalliope.”
It goes on. After my wife goes to sleep, after grading, maybe before grading, when my daughter is napping. I binge on data entry when I go out of town by myself. I might even liken the feeling of manually entering data to time spent in a hotel room. The first moments are filled with so much anticipation, then after a few hours everything feels like garbage. These are the highs and lows of stalking poetry, marveling over obscure details. kalliope serves a public purpose (we'll get into that soon), but I have also designed the database to serve as a chronicle of my life with poetry: which poets I’ve liked, which poets have won prizes, what city they live in. It should be evident by now I am in a deep and committed relationship with a database. My wife has referred to it as my lover.
A little more context:
When I started the database, I had just graduated from University of Missouri-St. Louis. I was working full-time as a data analyst at Ralston Purina. I learned there that data is a form of artful hoarding, which is to say: yes, I love data for its existence as data! Perhaps the Point of Sales database I was training people on at Ralston Purina contained just numbers and locations, but I found the whole data enterprise intriguing, surprising, and soothing. Who could imagine comparing pet food sales at one store in suburban St. Louis with another in the suburbs of Atlanta? What does money look like when it’s staged as an aggregate or a mean? What are the average per store sales in Tennessee versus Kentucky?
My job required me to consult frequently with Database Administrators about best practices for writing queries against this gigantic relational database. I learned when a string of joins would return inaccurate data, I discovered the value of attribute tables versus data tables. It was an imperfect education on the principles of database architecture, and it was just enough to persuade me a database is magical—a multifaceted jewel capable of being viewed from many different angles, all yielding as many unusual, semi-related, semi-independent pieces of information. I started my poetry database eager for the data that was out there. I craved this data for where I could fit it into my growing database structure. I found new types of data, new literary journals, new awards, and I threw in everything. Even now, I know of at least two different dimensions I would like to add to the design.
But twenty years has taught me the impossibility of the word all. I’m not even sure there is an all in poetry. kalliope currently contains information on thousands of poets. It has indexed thousands of poems by those poets. I could say this amounts to all the poetry that has mattered to me in the last twenty years, but not even that’s true. I haven’t read all of the poems because this database isn’t entirely about my own readings. It's about information, and the value of collecting information—or context. There is also an underlying ethos to this project. Namely, I am always in search of a new poem that will surprise me with what a poem can do, a new poet I am not familiar with yet. kalliope is big, blobby, not fully formed or matured, constantly reaching past its data self to discover another, and another, and another reason to love poetry again, even more—hyperbolically, forever and ever—Amen.
It’s also a part of my tenure file. In the last few years, I’ve decided I would like kalliope to have a more public life. I developed my tastes in poetry by following the lines of poetry I enjoyed. I would read poems in, say, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and of those, I would find poems I really liked. For each of those poets, I would look at their bio notes to see where else they had been published. It would lead me to established journals like Colorado Review or Denver Quarterly. It also led me to early issues of jubilat, and a small journal out of Seattle called Fine Madness. It felt like I was creating a poetry life for myself based on treasures, and I have this hope that a public version of kalliope would give me a chance to share this treasure with others. At the very least, it's easy to trace the publications of many poets, and then to follow those publications to other poets they have published. (Sidebar: you should try it!)
I have now given a couple of presentations based on this method of reading, mainly as an alternative to the social media poetry chase. Poetry Twitter can be fascinating; it can also be exhausting. Find the sources you trust, I tell people. Whether that’s a literary journal, a literary prize, or a book publisher, there are gatekeepers somewhere whose tastes you value. You know this, because many of the poets they usher into the public eye speak to you. Very often, these gatekeepers—the poetry editors at every journal and publisher that ever existed, the readers at literary contests—are doing thankless jobs for the simple fact that they love poetry. Capitalize on that love. I’m not sure if capitalize is the right word. I just feel that my poetry life has truly profited from the hard work done in those reading rooms, those conversations around what to publish and what not to publish. Their best efforts have continuously informed the rich and varied poetry life I have, and I share. kalliope is not perfect, nor complete. It is, however, mindful, ambitious, and conscious of so many voices in contemporary poetry of 2019.
Is this what it means when poetry is represented in the Age of Big Data? I hope so.