PoemBot now publishing LC students’ poetry

Illustration by Kat Barton

By Madeline Cox

This Month, PoemBot has returned to the Watzek Library. PoemBot prints a poem selected by the library staff for every day of April. The poem is printed on receipt tape, which allows for each visitor to read the poem of the day and keep it as well.

According to Digital Services Coordinator Jeremy McWilliams, PoemBot consists of a Raspberry Pi computer which is connected to a receipt printer and a button. When the button is pushed, it initiates code on the Pi that picks the appropriate poem for the day and sends it through the receipt printer.

The PoemBot project was started by Watzek Digital Initiatives and Sophia Horigan ’16 after Horigan and Lewis & Clark library staff attended the Digital Library Federation Conference in 2016. At the conference, people from around the US presented on technological innovation in libraries.

“Horigan … attended a session put on by University of Idaho that described their creation of PoemBot and how they’ve used it in their library,” McWilliams said.

Horigan was excited about the project and presented the idea to the LC library staff. The library staff decided to try the project, with PoemBot first premiering at Waztek in April 2017. The project was a success.  

“People seemed to be really into (PoemBot),” McWilliams said. “In fact, we had to order more receipt tape because we went through it so quickly.”

The library staff hope that PoemBot brings joy and delight to Watzek’s visitors.

“I think there’s something about the smallness of PoemBot and the joy of pressing the button and having this unexpected, possibly beautiful thing come out,” Visual Resources and Fine Arts Librarian Erica Jensen said. “Last year seeing people standing at PoemBot, pressing the button and waiting and watching with a smile as the poem inched out was really just wonderful for all of (the library staff).”

This year, PoemBot will be printing student poetry alongside public domain poetry for the first time.

“We relied entirely on public domain poetry last year, (which) was selected either by staff or by student staff,” Jensen said. “But this year, when we revisited what we had done last year, we decided it would be worth trying to bring in this additional element (student poetry).”

Students from Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities Mary Szybist’s Advanced Poetry Writing course were invited to submit poems to the project. Eight students submitted poems, which will appear on weekdays from April 16 to 27, according to Jensen.

Kelleen Cummings ’18 and Cade Miller ’18 both submitted poems to PoemBot. The students had fond memories of PoemBot from their experiences with the project last year.

“I followed (PoemBot) pretty regularly last year, I would check it almost every day,” Miller said. “It was a cool experience to get a different free little poem every day. I thought it was a really good idea so I’m glad they’re bringing it back.”

Cummings remembered the unique presentation of poetry that PoemBot offered.

“It’s a really interesting way to transport and bring out poetry,” Cummings said. “The receipts are ephemeral (due to) the heat printing; they can fade away really quickly. It’s also something that you crumble up in your pocket and you don’t realize it’s valuable until you read what’s on it, because no one reads receipts.”

When Szybist presented the opportunity to submit a poem to PoemBot, students were excited by the idea of being involved in the project.

“I was pleasantly surprised that (the library staff) extended the hand to student poets,” Miller said.

The format of printing poems on receipts posed a challenge to the poets, as they faced size constraints.  

“It is a challenge in form, as we are constrained by the number of characters,” Cummings said. “We can only have 32 characters per line, and it can only be 40 lines long, including the spaces between stanzas.”

Despite the challenge, the students were excited to share their work with the LC community, as it presented a new way to share their poetry and a new audience to connect to.

“It was an opportunity to have a very different audience,” Cummings said. “I know so many students are interested in finding it around the library and making sure they go everyday because it’ll change. I took it as a challenge of saying, ‘What is a poem that I think would be of interest to LC students?’”

Miller hoped to support other writers through his involvement with PoemBot.

“I want other people to be encouraged to write more and to read poetry more,” Miller said. “If (people) see that their peer is doing work and has an avenue to take to present that work to the world, I think that can be encouraging.”

Cummings believes there is power in writing poetry.

“I think my favorite quote over the semester from Mary was (that) nobody needs poetry,” Cummings said. “It’s pure pleasure, an excess of pushing the boundaries of language. I think acknowledging that and what you’re doing is almost liberating. If nobody needs this, then I can say or transmit whatever I want, through whatever form that I want, however I need to.”

The library staff are excited about the future of PoemBot.

“It would be cool if it generated a random poem,” Jensen said. “Maybe we’ll try that next year!”

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