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Author Archives: Parker M.

On my final project, “Reading John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath

For my final project I will propose to mine John Ashbery’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library to produce an online companion and bibliography to Ashbery’s second published collection, The Tennis Court Oath. I’m particularly interested in The Tennis Court Oath because it is, by my reading, one of Ashbery’s most hermetically-sealed books, which resists bibliographical or biographical reading. There is relatively little scholarship dedicated to the book, although it was enormously important to a group of New York School and Language poets whose work is the subject of much study; Bill Berkson said, in a Jacket interview “The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets.”

My project will attempt to answer the following questions, to whatever degree is possible: what material did Ashbery consult when he composed The Tennis Court Oath? What processes did he apply in its composition? Ashbery composed the book while studying the works of Raymond Roussel in Paris—did Roussel’s work make an impact? How? Beyond these questions, what I really hope to examine with this project is: what are the limitations of bibliographical or biographical readings of poetry? What are the affective differences between close and bibliographical readings, and why do those differences matter in the context of poetry?

In addition to the online companion, I will propose to produce a lyric essay that details my experiences and inevitable disappointments in the archives, and my struggles with the above questions. In this class we have discussed “disappointment” as an affective mode of engaging with archival material. I believe that John Ashbery’s archive might be a productive place to investigate archival disappointment, not only in a sense of what is not available in the archive, but also in a sense of what extant archival material cannot say about Ashbery’s work.

Ashbery’s copyright is strictly managed, and I imagine it will be difficult or impossible to publicly reproduce digitized annotations, letters, notes, and manuscript papers pertinent to The Tennis Court Oath. For this reason, my project will follow in the footsteps of Jeff Twitchell-Waas’s Z-Site (“A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky”) in that it will not be a repository, but rather a scaffolding of named resources around The Tennis Court Oath to further inquiry or scholarship.

Digitization and Racialized Expropriation

In his American Periodicals article “Chronicling White America,” Benjamin Fagan discusses the cottage industry that has sprung up around the for-profit management of nineteenth century Black periodicals archives. He writes, “Those interested in researching, teaching, or simply reading black newspapers must climb paywalls of databases controlled by for-profit corporations.” Fagan identifies two basic problems that this for-profit siloing poses. For one, he attests, it limits possibilities for individual work on American Black periodicals: “My experience working at two flagship public institutions has shown that even relatively well-funded public university libraries will subscribe to one, and very rarely, two such databases.” Fagan implies that limitations around access disincentive individual scholars to analyze Black newspapers, a fact that presumably ripples into the available scholarship in the field. At least as importantly in Fagan’s analysis, uneven access to historic Black periodicals can program racial bias into large-scale digital projects, by skewing racial representation in the datasets they rely on. For an example, Fagan considers the Viral Texts project housed at Northeastern University, which studies ‘virality’ of nineteenth century news stories. Viral Texts uses datasets largely culled from freely accessible databases of periodicals; because, as Fagan identifies, most databases of Black periodicals are set up behind paywalls, the news stories contained therein are not represented. Thus, the Viral Texts project can be said to have whiteness programmed in. Or, to decenter whiteness in that formulation, the Viral Texts project unintentionally reifies the “erasure of black voices” from scholarship in American print history.

Fagan posits this as a technical impediment to digital work, and his article is largely a technical analysis. He does, however, lean on metaphor in his conclusion, writing “There is something particularly disturbing about the modern-day ‘capturing,’ buying, and selling of newspapers produced by and for black men and women who lived in a white supremacist country that equated blackness with chattel.” This important insight offers an invitation to think not only how the imposed limits act as an impediment to racial equity, but also how it came to be that archives of nineteenth century white periodicals are freely available, while nineteenth century Black periodicals are locked behind extortionate paywalls.

Black studies scholar Jackie Wang’s post-Marxist analysis of racial capitalism might be a useful to consider in this context. In Carceral Capitalism, Wang writes, “Rather than casting slavery and Native genocide as temporally circumscribed events that inaugurated the birth of capitalism in the New World (“primitive accumulation”), [scholars and activists have shown] how the racial logics produced by these processes persist to this day” (Wang, 115). Wang’s analysis of racial capitalism focuses partly on “racialized expropriation,” the process by which Blackness becomes a site for looting by the hegemonic capitalist state. To illustrate this idea, Wang provides, among other examples, an analysis of extractive policing in Ferguson, MO, prior to the unmotivated police murder of Michael Brown. Wang shows how police actively shored up the city’s austerity budget by extracting as much money as possible, in the form of fines, from Black citizens during forced police encounters. This sequence of events, from extractive policing to murder, shows, Wang writes, how under racial capitalism “Black racialization. . .is the mark that renders subjects suitable for—on the one hand—hyperexploitation and appropriation, and, on the other hand, annihilation” (Wang, 122).

Wang’s theory of Blackness as a site of hyperexploitation in a post-slavery, racial-capitalist United States might offer some insight into how and why records of Black history have come under private ownership and exploitative management, limiting liberatory possibilities in scholarship, while white history, at least in the form of nineteenth century periodicals, moves freely in publicly available digital archives.

John Ashbery’s Nest

Overview

John Ashbery’s Nest is a virtual reality tour of the late poet’s private home in Hudson, New York. Its purpose is to give visitors the opportunity to explore “the spaces and collections that inspired [Ashbery’s] life and work.” The project illuminates connections between Ashbery’s home and writings; what is implied is that Ashbery’s “nest” was a space of intellectual inquiry and discovery that fed the poet’s body of work. As the Flow Chart Foundation, which works closely with the estate of John Ashbery, puts it on their website: “Purposefully constructed spaces that housed Ashbery’s domestic archive both reflect and are reflected in his writing, which itself is heavily involved with other literature, music, the visual and decorative arts, architecture, theater, and film.” So this “domestic archive” complements but does not house or manage Ashbery’s literary works.

The project was lead by Karin Roffman, senior lecturer in the Humanities, English, and American Studies at Yale. Roffman, an Ashbery scholar, is author of the Ashbery biography The Songs We Know Best. Nest is presented by the Digital Humanities Lab at Yale University, and the team responsible for the project included a Yale MFA candidate and several university IT specialists. Notably, the private firm VRH solutions (“a team of photographers, designers and developers providing full service solutions for 360 photo and video experiences”) is also credited. As I explored the project, I wondered about the institutional and financial arrangement that brought this partnership about.

According to the Nest website, Ashbery moved to Hudson, New York “at the age of fifty-one in 1978.” He purchased a 19th century home adjacent to the Columbia County seat and courthouse, and undertook a meticulous restoration over the course of fifteen years. Ashbery’s ornate, four thousand square foot house became a repository and exhibition space for his “hundreds” of collections of antique furnishings and decorative objects, many of which are cataloged in exquisite detail by the Nest team.

From the perspective of the present, Hudson seems a uniquely suitable location for Ashbery’s home archive. The miniature, Hudson River–adjacent city is well-known for its antiques scene, and experienced several waves of gentrification in the late 20th and early 21st centuries implicated with an influx of antique shops and warehouses. (By 2001, according to the New York Times, Hudson had “some of the best antiques shopping in the Northeast.”)

The Technology

The Nest website is not built on a backend like Omeka or LibGuides. Instead, it presents the “domestic archive” as an interactive, 3D virtual tour, navigable by mouse (or by gesture on a mobile device). Anyone familiar with Google Street View or with the classic PC game Myst will be familiar with the controls. Interactive objects in the virtual environment are tagged with 2D map pins, and clicking these produces a popup with some of the following: a 3D view of the object (or additional photography), scholarship, voiceover (sometimes Ashbery’s), additional readings, and links. Accessibility features are notably absent. The bespoke interface, while slick, does not give the impression of being either the most intuitive or most inclusive format.

There is an alternate method for exploring the nest. A more traditional hyperlink-based format (accessible from the VR tour menu) allows you to browse the “Collections by room,” and breaks the website’s contents down into headings: Hudson House (“History,” “Architectural Documents,” “Room by Room,” “Bibliography,”) The Poet (“John Ashbery,” “House Essays,” “House Interviews,”) and Collections. Though browsing the website this way is an intuitive and pleasant experience, a lack of robust metadata and search tools make the project, as a whole, seem more suited for unguided perusal than concerted study.

Audience

Partly for this reason the project seems designed mainly with casual users and Ashbery readers in mind. Like other literary “historic home” projects, John Ashbery’s Nest serves more as an outlet for roving curiosity than rigorous study. With a mix of voiceovers from the poet, snippets of his poems and essays, and informative antiques scholarship, the project seem designed to delight and divert Ashbery’s fans and decorative arts enthusiasts (I personally enjoyed poking around very much). That said, a scholar wishing to make original discoveries around Ashbery’s legacy will want to go directly to the poet’s estate.

The information is presented with verve; it is designed to engage an already-curious audience, and encourages unguided exploration by offering a non-linear, sensory approach to a fascinating collection of digital materials. Exploring the nest is more like visiting a museum than it is like browsing a traditional library’s digitized catalog. A visit supplies a new perspective on the poet’s aesthetic sensibilities. His furnishings, like his poems, are eclectic and baroque, and betray an affinity for a broad array of American vernacular styles.