Digital humanities VR site takes you into poet John Ashbery’s home to understand his work

[This story from Yale News describes a project designed to evoke presence to help users better understand the poet John Ashbery and the inspiration for his work; for more information and the link to the website (when it launches July 1), see the project’s web page. –Matthew]

[Image: Award-winning poet John Ashbery stands outside his Victorian home in this screenshot taken from a new Digital Humanities Lab project. John Ashbery’s “Nest” takes visitors on a virtual tour inside of his house, and invites them to “walk” through the spaces that the poet inhabits to learn about the objects that have provided the inspiration for many of his works.]

New virtual reality site creates a ‘sonic collage’ of esteemed poet John Ashbery’s works

By Elizabeth Connolly Martell
June 29, 2017

In many of his poems, John Ashbery endeavors to create for his readers the feeling of home. A new Digital Humanities Lab project takes that one step further — by creating a website that takes visitors on a virtual tour inside Ashbery’s house, and invites them to “walk” through the spaces that the acclaimed poet inhabits and learn about the objects that have provided the inspiration for many of his award-winning works.

The project, John Ashbery’s “Nest,” is the brainchild of Karin Roffman, a senior lecturer in humanities and in English, and research associate in public humanities, who has just published “The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life,” the first biography of the poet. The website, which will have a soft launch on July 1, is centered in the 14-room Victorian home of the award-winning American poet, art critic, and collector, who has been heralded as the one of the greatest contemporary American poets. Ashbery carefully chose each of the items in his house, and as the website continues to grow, it will highlight the importance and provenance of each of these items via photographs, biographical details, and audio clips of Ashbery and his partner, David Kermani, describing each room.

Roffman says that the idea for the project originated while she was teaching and reading Ashbery’s poems as a visiting professor at Bard College. Ashbery, who was an emeritus professor at Bard, visited her class and then invited Roffman to see his home. It was after this first visit to Ashbery’s home that Roffman became curious about the poet’s past.

“I was really fascinated with the relationship between poets’ spaces and their poetry, and didn’t know that he was a collector at all when I went to his house. I was quite surprised by the house itself,” she says. She used her extensive research on Ashbery to develop the written content for the site.

The project, which was a year in the making, is sponsored by a faculty project grant from the Digital Humanities Lab. Monica Ong Reed, the user experience designer at the Digital Humanities Lab, led the collaborative production of the project and served as its visual designer.

To develop the site, Roffman and Reed engaged with two teams who were responsible for the virtual reality photography and the development of the 360-degree immersive tour environment. When Reed was first approached about working on this project, she thought the idea was “compelling in its cross-disciplinary nature.”

“We wanted to create a sonic collage that a visitor feels when they go from piece to piece as they are hearing different moments of Ashbery talking about how he came across the piece as well as the poetry related to the object. There was a lot of collaboration involved in terms of curating the kind of experience that helps to amplify Karin’s research,” says Reed.

The objects that Roffman selected for the site touch on different poems that the poet wrote at different times in his life. “Rather than trying to be encyclopedic, the project focuses on a concise number of things that create larger impression of the most interesting aspects of this infinitely interesting person,” says Reed. “We wanted to make each stop somewhere that informed people but made them want to come back for more.”

Roffman and Reed worked closely together to ensure that the site is an immersive experience for the visitor. “I wanted someone to have the same experience digitally, that I have physically, in the house,” says Roffman. “That has been our goal.”

When a visitor enters the site, they walk up a sidewalk where John Ashbery stands on his porch welcoming them to his home. A voice-over greets guests with a message telling them that the interactive site will provide them with a tour of the spaces that inspired Ashbery’s life and work. The center hall, which serves as the main focal point for the project, is brought to life with 3D images that hone in — by way of overlays — on the wide variety of objects that are on display in the room. Among the objects are Royal Teplitz “male and female” candelabras, which were bequeathed to Ashbery by his grandmother and grandfather, and inspired his “Heavenly Days” poem from the volume “Chinese Whispers.” The overlays feature descriptions of where each item was purchased, the history of the object, and what poem it inspired. Visitors can also choose to hear Ashbery read from the related poem.

The website also features a video (created by Open Road Media) about Ashbery when a visitor enters the house. This provides “a beautiful introduction to who Ashbery is,” notes Reed.

Roffman and Reed focused not just on the specifics of the virtual tour of the house, but also on the mood and the feeling that they want to convey through the experience of touring the site. Reed and Roffman felt it was imperative to set the tone in the room through “evening light,” which is something that Ashbery writes about in some of his works, in particular his poem “A Mood of Quiet Beauty.”

“He wanted it to convey a sense of that light in the rooms in his house,” says Reed. “He writes a lot about this in his work, and it is present in some of the imagery in his poetry. He refers to it as ‘a gloom that one knows.’”

Reed continues: “This was done intentionally because of what I have read and from talking to Karin about his aesthetic. There is always a surprise with him. I wanted the interface itself to reflect that and in a way always be able to have something unexpected that you might find as you move around the center hall in the house.”

For both Reed and Roffman, it was important to design the site to appeal to both ardent fans of Ashbery and newcomers to his poetry. “We want people to feel like they are welcome to come in and enjoy his really complex and colorful creative life,” says Reed.

The prototype of the website covers the center hall, but there are about 13 other rooms in the house and about 250 objects that Roffman has had documented. “This project is only going to grow and become quite comprehensive and amazing,” says Reed.

“I’m really excited that Yale is behind this project and that the Digital Humanities Lab exists,” says Roffman. “To have a grant that allows you that kind of collaboration at Yale is wonderful.”

“It is really a tremendous honor and privilege to be able to contribute design to this project,” Reed says.

“By the time you leave the room we want you to feel like not only do you know what is around the room but you also have a feeling of what he was trying to do with the room and also how that room relates to his poetry. My hope is that looking at the house and hearing about his objects will send people right back to his poetry,” says Roffman.

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