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Digi-Poetry: The Versatile Possibilities of NFTs

by madison hames

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have unearthed a wellspring of possibility for artists. Gaining mainstream notoriety in 2020 alongside the cryptocurrency buzz, NFTs have emerged as a seductive medium for creatives seeking to justly ensure their rights and royalties. Considering the well-known history of artists releasing profits to institutions and dealers when their work is bought and sold, the thought of baking royalties into the art itself (which funnels cash directly to the author of the work whenever the item trades hands) is undeniably appealing and, certainly, long overdue.

NFT markets support predominantly images, videos, and memes, and recent talk of incorporating them into publishing is creeping into the mainframe. Though it doesn’t seem likely that publishers will mint their ebooks anytime soon, another arena of writers are turning to crypto; Reddit feeds are springing up with poets seeking advice on minting their work. In fact, a NFT multimedia poem just sold for $75,000, and the first ever Brazilian NFT poem just dropped for auction.

Poetry has always been on tongues, paper, and even social media (Instapoets are a lively community), proving the alchemic ability of poems to transform medium; yet, there has never been a medium that offers the potential to seriously profit from poetry sans publisher until NFTs. This alleviates many poets from the burden of having to appeal to a historically white, cis-male industry, allowing for more diversified poetic expression. The digital shift towards virtual poems begs the question of what sort of advantages accompany the transmutation, and if this shift can encourage a (re)framing of poetry as a work of art.

One promising element of NFT poetry is increasing accessibility. Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities are typically well versed in screen reading technology, and this provides them with an opportunity to easily engage with digital poems. More, poets have the opportunity to overlay audio tracks of themselves or others reading the poem, a gesture that not only allows poets to synthesize performance and text into an atmospheric experience, but can nourish oral traditions of poetic storytelling. For instance, the actor and poet Laurence Fuller collaborated with the oil painter Sima Jo to release a multi-part poetic series, titled “Childish Force of Nature,” where Fuller overlays an audio recording of his poem on Jo’s paintings. The result is a medium that takes on the feeling of a current with the viewer swimming through a lyrical hymn.

Some poets and readers have lamented the digitization of this work, claiming that it loses the (arbitrary) rigor of poetic practice and orients it towards hyper-commodification and financial gain. Though, this view collapses when ‘artist’ is substituted for ‘poet,’ presenting the reworked idea that any artist selling their work for money is shoring up to capitalist ideals -- an argument that simply ignores the suffocating grip of capitalism. At its core, the notion that poetry is losing some sort of essence when authors are being paid directly for its sale assumes that poetry is not a serious pursuit that should be rewarded with financial resources. Consequently, it binds poetry as an indulgence to be done in the limited free time granted in a wage-driven world.

NFTs disrupt this. Not only do they level poetry with visual artwork through common medium, but they ensure monetary return to their creative authors through royalties. They provide greater agency to creatives to publish and an alternative manner of marketing their work that doesn’t have to appeal to the traditions of publishing. They allow for greater accessibility and encourage creative experimentation of poetic forms. NFTs are a promising medium for poets, and may very well be poetry’s next alchemic transformation.