Keeping House: Digitizing A Poet’s Life and Work
John Ashbery is arguably America’s greatest and most influential living poet. During his 65-year career, Ashbery has received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and produced a body of work that includes 26 books of poetry, translations of work by Martory and Rimbaud, collections of prose and criticism, reams of speeches, hours of lectures and panel discussions—and a house.
That last work, a Victorian house in Hudson, New York, is the subject of an ongoing New School project that has spanned disciplines, semesters, and media. Entitled Ashlab, the project involves the creation of an interactive digital record of the home Ashbery and his partner, David Kermani, have been carefully restoring and furnishing since the 1970s. When completed, Ashlab will enable users to take a 360-degree online tour of the house. Mousing over the images of hundreds of paintings, books, rugs, and objets d’art reveals facts that explain the significance of the objects in Ashbery’s life and work.
“A house can be an artwork. A house can be something that one builds over time, a piece of one’s life, perspective, and work,” said Adam Fitzgerald, a poetry instructor at The New School and one of four faculty collaborators on Ashlab. “In John’s poetry, images shift in shape over time, line by line. The movement is reflected and recorded in the way he has assembled his home.”
Ashlab, which was launched in spring 2012, brings together students and faculty from divisions across the university. Along with Fitzgerald, the leaders of the project include Robert Polito, director of The New School’s Creative Writing program; Tom Healy, a poetry instructor at The New School; and Irwin Chen, a faculty member at Parsons’ School of Art, Media, and Technology. Students in the annual fall semester course start with a close reading of Ashbery’s verse. They are then dispatched to the house in Hudson, where each student selects five items in the poet’s home to research. During this period of fieldwork, Ashbery is often available to answer students’ questions about the contents of his house.
“The fact that we can go to the house, research the objects, and actually talk to John about them means that we can get first-hand documentation that won’t be available 20 years from now,” says Healy.
The project draws on a number of disparate disciplines. Officially Ashlab is a literature course, but it incorporates digital design, creative writing, and historical research. “We talk so much about digital humanities, and this project demonstrates the real promise of that idea,” said Brooke Ellsworth, an MFA poetry student and Ashlab teaching assistant who has worked on the project since it began. “Ashlab utilizes technology to serve and enliven an art form that is often perceived of as marginalized by digital communications.”
Irwin Chen, who leads the digital design portion of the project, also sees technology as a bridge to understanding the literature. “Ultimately, this project offers an entry point into Ashbery’s work,” he said. “He can be dense and intimidating. But once you start digging around the site, looking at the things that give his work meaning, it becomes more accessible.”
“Since I conceptualized Ashlab in the fall of 2011, after conversations with David Kermani, the project has exceeded even the highest expectations I had for it, both in the sense of bringing together students and faculty across The New School and as a model project in the emerging field of digital humanities,” said Robert Polito. “I’ve learned so much from the students and my teaching colleagues—and of course John himself, who is one of the great wonders of our time.”
Stay tuned—Ashlab is expected to go live in fall 2013.