conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 22.06.2023
ANA MARÍA CABALLERO: "POEMS ARE WORKS OF ART"
POETRY ON THE BLOCKCHAIN
Colombian-American artist Ana María Caballero believes that “poetry = work of art”. As the co-founder and curator of theVERSEVerse, a digital poetry gallery, her efforts to bring poetry to a new and engaging audience by way of NFTs have made her one of the most notable and respected poets in all of Web3. Her internationally exhibited work pushes boundaries on the subjects of motherhood, societal and cultural rites, and the concept of sacrifice as a virtue.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Caballero speaks about the difference between writing a poem to mint as NFT or publish in a book, finding inspiration for her writing through her life experiences, and her optimism for the future of poets in Web3.
Anika Meier: Ana, you are a poet known for the phrase “poem = work of art”. Why is it important to emphasize that poetry is art?
Ana María Caballero: I think that the reason why the phrase "poem = work of art" has resonated so widely is that it states something that feels at once obvious and surprising. Certainly, poetry is revered as art. And yet, beyond the use of mostly short, sloganistic text, verse hasn’t participated in the art world or its markets in a way that honors poetry’s contribution to culture or reveres the poet’s craft.
I often say poetry had a logistical problem—it wasn’t easy to transact a poem in a way that reflected its value. Blockchain provenance solves this problem, opening a seat at the art world table for digital poetry that I believe will prove revolutionary. I also think this will result in traditional poems participating in unexpected spaces, allowing new audiences to engage with verse’s power.
My poetry books, for example, were recently exhibited at the legendary New York gallery bitforms. I was the first poet to complete a GAZELL_iO artist residency and perform at their London gallery. Many people who attended the performance experienced spoken word poetry for the first time, and were astonished by how much they enjoyed it. Both the recent CADAF Digital Art Month and Proof of People events in New York exhibited a selection of poems I helped curate.
AM: What was the first poem you read and remember having an influence on you?
AMC: I read THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros as part of my Miami school’s seventh grade English curriculum, fresh out of Colombia. We’d left over the summer after cartel violence in response to a government extradition campaign escalated into civilian bombings. Though I was grateful my family was able to emigrate, I was also a frightened fish out of sub-tropical waters.
Cisneros’ collection of short, quotidian, personal vignettes, written in a straightforward yet deeply poetic style, often incorporating Spanish, pays no attention to genre. Indeed, it spawned its own.
Cisneros’ book showed me that the poetry of the small could be written in an artful yet seemingly effortless way. It also introduced me to the poetic voice and the power it wields, enveloping readers within its words in a way that is fully immersive. A writer’s voice is no different from their soul. Encountering Cisneros’ soul helped me locate mine within myself.
I still love the word “mango.”
AM: When did you know you wanted to be a poet and artist?
AMC: I knew I was a poet (a.k.a. an artist) when, at twelve, I had to bike to the drugstore to purchase new notebooks for school halfway through the year, having filled mine up with poems. In my twenties, I created a blog called The Drugstore Notebook, where I shared my writing and book thoughts in honour of the composition notebooks I so often had to purchase growing up.
AM: You graduated with a magna cum laude degree from Harvard University. What did you learn at university that is still valuable to you today?
AMC: I was the only student in my class year in my concentration, which was Romance Studies, with a focus on French, Spanish, and Italian literature. As the only student on this track, I spent a lot of time with my professors and was shocked to learn how oppressed they felt by academia. In my young mind, being a Harvard literature professor seemed like a dream come true. But the realities were otherwise.
I also realized that I didn’t enjoy writing criticism. I didn’t want to write books about books. I wanted to write books that others would read and, if they wished, write about. The most valuable thing I learned at Harvard is that I wanted to create my own terms and on my own terms.
AM: You have published several books. Among others, A PETIT MAL about your son’s illness, and TRYST, a collection of poetic short stories. How do you approach writing a book?
AMC: Every book I’ve written has been its own experience, much like each child is their own person. A PETIT MAL was written in a cathartic outburst that accompanied me as I lived through the discovery and treatment of my son’s illness.
MAMMAL, which will be published in 2024, was written in rebellious bursts during my pregnancies and the time I spent raising infants, but I edited its words over several years. This book’s pages traverse many mindsets, and I think that its explosive yet gathered energy very much reflects my process.
TRYST holds up a mirror to much of the writing I did during COVID, when I experimented with fiction for the first time, writing stories that explored the many facets of entrapment. What intrigued me about the COVID years was the notion that we were trapped in a single place, but our routines had drastically changed. Adapting to my new routine felt like an exploration of myself, which made me question the fabric of freedom. The three stories in TRYST are all set in Brooklyn but truly take place within the characters' minds. Each story uses a different nail to scratch at the surface of entrapment.
AM: Is writing a poem to be released as an NFT different from writing a poem to be released in a book?
AMC: There is no difference at all for me. Most of the poems I’ve digitized already exist in the world. THIN LACE, exhibited at EXPANDED.ART, is part of my book MAMMAL, which I’m proud to share won the Steel Toe Books 2022 Poetry Prize and was a semifinalist for the Birdy Poetry Prize and the prestigious Vassar Miller Prize. It was written years ago.
I recently wrote a poem for the TIMEPieces project, created by visionary Web3 leader Keith Grossman and spearheaded by Maya Draisin (with gratitude to Patrick Amadon, one of my top collectors, for the invitation). I’m currently working on a commission for one of Spain’s major national newspapers, a poem that will be presented during the Madrid International Book Fair. The process for writing these two Web3-native poems is no different from how I write any of my poems.
I often write as I walk. By moving my body, I connect to the poem’s pulse—that ineffable thing that makes it tick and makes it need to exist. I am unable to put out pretty or intelligent-sounding words; the work must have a point, otherwise it won’t be able to pierce.
AM: In your NFTs, you combine the written word and code. Have you had the feeling that it is important for you to be able to code yourself in order to release your poetry as NFTs?
AMC: I was very fortunate to participate in the Tribute to Herbert W. Franke, which you curated brilliantly, including poets and thus paying homage to Franke’s literary accomplishments. The work I created, titled POME, expresses the nature of my interest in learning to code.
Franke was both an author and an artist, so I hoped this merging of code, verse, visuals, and spoken word would honor his immense legacy. I also hoped he might appreciate the nuances implied in coupling code and verse.
Code is a scripted set of instructions. Poems are scripted sets of suggestions. Yet the visuals the code generates are open to interpretation, like poetry. From concrete orders—such as code, grammar, and syntax—open-ended, emotive communication emerges. Biology, too, functions according to strict rules with infinite outputs. From the procedural to the visceral.
Generative artworks typically consist of visuals that result from underlying instructions. But POME is designed to look like an actual p5.js work screen, where both input and output are given equal weight.
I believe the effort to compose is as meaningful as the compositions we create.
AM: You not only combine written words and code; you also often read your written words. How important is the voice when it comes to understanding poetry?
AMC: I am heavily influenced by poets such as T.S. Eliot, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, and Sharon Olds—authors with unmistakable poetic voices. Beyond the form and diction of a poem, the soul of the poet must be palpable for the poem to elicit an emotional response from the reader.
Few things are as intimate as the sound of our voices. Most of my digital poems include a spoken-word component, combining poetic and physical voice to create a deeply immersive and personal experience.
AM: How did you get into NFTs? For a poet, a book seems to be the medium of desire.
AMC: As soon as I read about NFTs in early 2021, I had the idea to create a digital poetry gallery where I could share my own work and the work of my poet friends. theVERSEverse’s name came to me in a supermarket parking lot, and I immediately bought it, feeling deep in my bones that it would work magic.
Having published traditionally for nearly two decades, I felt that the life of a published poem was too short, too quiet, too insular. So, I began turning my published work into spoken-word video poems that I shared on social media. The jump from Web2 to Web3 was a very natural one.
I believe Web3, which gives poets the ability to transact digital poems in a way that adequately reflects our contribution to culture for what may be the first time in history, will reassert poetry’s agency and broaden the way verse is experienced, creating opportunities for poetry to be curated, exhibited, and collected as art.
My efforts to expand digital poetry go hand in hand with publishing and loving books.
AM: LA Weekly featured you as one of the top 10 authors to look out for in 2023. "While writing does not guarantee you a fortune...", LA Weekly writes in their introduction. It’s common knowledge that poetry doesn’t make a writer rich. Are NFTs also a support system for poets?
AMC: Web3 and blockchain provenance can activate poetry by making it transactable. The word “transaction” is a good word. When we transact something, we exchange it, we share, we give, we receive, we sell, we buy, and we assign value. We can also give life via transactions. When we send our mother a poem we love, we give this poem new life within our mother’s mind. Transactions are important.
I believe Web3 will indeed become a support system for poets. Poems are art, and I am committed to making this truth a tangible reality via the preverbal power of words and via technology.
AM: You are part of theVERSEverse, a gallery and collective supporting poets in the NFT space. What is your mission?
AMC: When I read about Web3, I felt very strongly that blockchain provenance would prove revolutionary in expressing the value of a poem. I instantly began dreaming up a digital poetry gallery. This vision became theVERSEverse.com.
Our mission is simple: poem = work of art.
AM: Why do you think it is important to introduce poets to NFTs?
AMC: I think it’s important to introduce poets to new tools, to innovation, and to anything that broadens their craft. I also think that poets should speak a digital tongue to connect with new audiences, to the benefit of these new audiences.
AM: Who are some of your early influences?
AMC: My work fits within a long trajectory of text-based art, much of which could be considered performative, as the use of language implies an active rather than passive exchange with the work’s audience. From Ed Ruscha to John Baldessari to Tracey Emin, text in art overtly presents words as vessels of meaning. In doing so, such works touch upon the instability of language itself as a mechanism for storing and transmitting meaning. Words mean different things to each of us; meaning can evolve over time.
It is precisely this vulnerability that draws me to words. To borrow Derridean sentence structure: "Within the limitation lies the limitless. I believe words and their intended and unintended evocations remain the best tools we have to voice our private worlds.
AM: Have these influences changed since you started coding?
AMC: Lately, I’ve been lovingly gazing at the work of Alida Sun and Andreas Gysin, trying to understand their construction via visual osmosis.
AM: Motherhood and love are central topics in your work. Would you say that you have a message to share with your readers?
AMC: Yes, my work probes how the inescapable rhythm of our physicality governs our emotional hunger. We like to view ourselves as in control, but the reality is that desires we don’t quite understand determine how we relate to ourselves, our partners, our children, and our parents.
Even metaphysical and spiritual quests are launched from the plane of the sensorial, which hinges on our animalistic need for survival. Intimate relationships, too, are at the mercy of our inborn—and often opposing—longings for both emotional stability and adventure, generating subtle layers of conflict with others that we have difficulty comprehending. My work sings from deep within these layers.
AM: When I invited you to be part of the exhibition A BEATING HEART. FEMALE PIONEERS OF DIGITAL ART you instantly said that you had a piece you held back for a special occasion. What makes this poem special for you?
AMC: As I mentioned, THIN LACE is from my book MAMMAL. I’ve released several poems from this book as NFTs, but I don’t plan to release any more for the foreseeable future. This will be the last for a while.
THIN LACE was exhibited at Fauve Paris and at L’Avant Galerie Vossen as part of POÈME OBJKT. It’s a racy, sultry poem with a jab of fatalism—perfect for Berlin.
I’m so honored to be included in A BEATING HEART alongside some of the true pioneers of digital art—visionaries who’ve fearlessly created. Like Cisneros, many have even spawned genres of their own.
AM: You are widely recognized as a Web3 poetry pioneer. What does being a pioneer mean for you?
AMC: It means fixing broken synapses so that electricity can reach others.
AM: What advice would you give your younger self, who struggled as a writer?
AMC: What you have to say—and the way you want to say it—matters. Say it.
AM: Is that advice different from what you would tell artists struggling in the NFT space today?
AMC: The NFT space is one of struggle. I struggle. But I believe that what many of us have to say—and the way we want to say it—matters. Here we must remain to say it.
Ana María Caballero is a first-generation Colombian-American poet and artist. Her work explores how biology delimits societal and cultural rites, ripping the veil off romanticized motherhood and questioning notions that package sacrifice as a virtue. She is the author of five books and has a sixth volume forthcoming in 2024. As co-founder and curator at digital poetry gallery theVERSEverse, Caballero is transforming the way poetry is experienced, exhibited and transacted.