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The Online Museum Poet: A Job Description

The new Studio+ format is both intense and intensely wonderful: a Zoom sandwich, if you will. Or where Zoom is the bread, and Campus is the jam. It was lovely to virtually ‘meet’ the course members, before we set them tasks on our Campus group, and certainly added to the group’s dynamic.

In response to our sudden move online, David and I proposed this course to explore the ways we can still write about museum objects – even when we can’t get to museums, or actually be in the presence of objects…

Through the sessions, we (carefully, with gloves on – mostly) unpacked the relationships between poetry and museums, investigating the challenges and potential of digital museums poetry. In our ‘imaginary museums’, we asked the group to curate (yes, overused – but apt in this context) a range of objects or artworks, on a theme of their choosing, drawing them together through a poem. I’m always interested in how we find connection with individual objects, too, and that poetry can uncover surprising aspects of both object and writer in that process.

I was struck again by the potential of ‘impossible museums’ in the following week – where we looked at David’s ‘Museum of Lies’ and Suzannah Evans’ ‘Dark Museum’. There were museums of smiles, curves, ‘drugstore detritus’ – and those exploring facets of mental health and intangible personal experience. This is an area I find particularly fascinating: the ways that the idea of the museum, in organising, cataloguing, and ‘making into a space’, can concretise psychological and emotional states, or abstract ideas. There’s a lot more exploring to do here!

Inspired by some sections of Daljit Nagra’s ‘British Museum’, we asked the group to ‘put objects in the dock’ and attempt post- and de-colonial poems – with interesting, challenging results. Is it possible to write in a decolonial way, including or especially as a white western poet, without colonising histories represented in museum objects (being mindful of appropriation, often all too literal in museum collections) yet again? This is ongoing, complex work that all poets working with digital or brick and mortar museums must engage with.

In the final Zoom session and assignment, we asked the group to bring together their writing and ideas, creating personal manifestos, How To poems. We created a job description for the Online Museum Poet, based on U. A. Fanthorpe’s job description for a poet. This was written using the chat function on Zoom with some prompts – and I’ve tidied it up below, to share with the world. We hope you enjoy it.

It’s been a rich process, full of discovery – with a huge number of unexpected poems created. I’m looking forward to writing about on-screen and real-life objects in future. We’ll certainly need both – for a while, at least.


The Online Museum Poet: A Job Description

after U. A. Fanthorpe

Unlike a real museum, your view
isn’t interrupted. Google search bar
costs less than an air fare. Most museums
are now overseen by those two eyes
in the Os of Google. You search,
find objects in museums all over the world,
but you can’t touch or smell them.
You need a computer, keyboard and brain;
you might need a camera. You can do it
anywhere there is an internet connection –
your life blood – home, train, work, café.

It’s all imagined, nothing real. Pen, paper,
Word document, a vivid imagination.
You need time, common sense, observation
skills and patience. Quick reactions to what
you see and hear. Add music and birdsong.
Despite high-res images, the internet
still isn’t Smell-o-vision. You can
do it anywhere. You need a space
in your head the shape of an egg amulet.
Know that no one will come:
no-one will restring the beads;
no-one will polish the antler tine.
Time to soak everything in, write, revise.
How will you distinguish
your space from cyberspace?

Locate the ‘Internet’, wherever that is.
You must be comfortable in an airless
space amidst a simulacra; spread yourself
across the globe. It is best if you possess
a flexible imagination – one that’s unafraid
of squeezing into dark spaces. A sort of personal
warmth that can reach through the screen.
U. A. Fanthorpe says you don’t need freedom,
but what about all the poems
that haven’t been written?

Subject matter – look around you!
Take ideas from everywhere.
Beware of hackers. Nerves that won’t fray
despite the ebbs and flows of WiFi.

An object or art piece that makes
you stop and have another look.
Amidst the internet’s multiplicities,
your curation is the sole net
that holds this collection together.
You must understand it, come to love it.
Be prepared to end your search for
words and declare your poem finished.
Why not make friends with metadata?

A very solitary experience.
Resilience, to cope with the loneliness.
You’d need not to get baffled
by the hugeness of the task. Beware
of overloading the brain / screen.
No café in an online museum, no edges
or walls. It doesn’t begin or end.
There is no gift shop.

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