Welcome to PLIX Spatial Poetry! This activity combines the expressive flexibility of poetic language and local data research skills behind local data research to encourage a re-imagination of maps and renewed understanding of place. Poems have historically influenced many of the place names we know today. Many contemporary poets rethink the ties between language, place and belonging. Similarly, participants will become aware issues of place-naming in America, particularly its historical ties to colonization, and possibly connect with local renaming campaigns or future naming initiatives where they live. It draws on current topics in geography, poetry, and journalism, and media-making.
Spatial Poetry at a Glance
This activity can operate as either a structured workshop or a drop-in activity.
- Age Range: Ages 5 & up (able to read and write)
- Group Size: 10 - 15 participants
- Number of Facilitators: 1 - 2
- Activity Length: 30 to 60 minutes
- Cost: a few cents for photocopies, printing, or paper and art supplies
Below you'll find some materials that we've found work well for this activity, but it's not necessary to have them all! The prompt you'll explore determines what materials you'll want to have on hand.
Spatial Poetry Zine
Remixable / editable version here → NEW! Google Docs zine format
One-page PDF to print here →
The Spatial Poetry activity supplies can be used with a wide variety of workshop prompts (open the toggle for detailed descriptions of each prompt). Below you'll find a few that we love 💕— and we encourage you to come up with your own!
Think of your poem as a portrait of a street. Use it to tell us about the street's name and it relates to the people who walk on the street today.
Choose a street in your area (note it's easiest to do research on the bigger, well-known streets). Take some time to look up the history of this street (we’ve compiled some resources to get you started on this process here). Who or what was the street named after? When was it named?Who was it named by? Who lived on this street historically, and who lives there now? Why have these changes happened?
Write a poem that follows the shape of the street. If you want to, make the poem branch off into intersections where the street intersections with other streets. Look up the origins of those intersecting streets and continue the process. You can make the poem branch off as many times as you want (or not at all!)
Maps contain all types of language - they're COVERED with names. This activity encourages participants to look closely (and critically) at the words on a map.
Materials and tools: Patrons might use digital maps such as Google Maps, Open Street Maps or online map archives such as the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection or the Library of Congress or Old Maps Online. There are also many localized online map archives maintained by city governments, local libraries or local centers. Participants might also bring in their own paper maps such as old navigational maps or hiking maps. Librarians might help participants find atlases or books or maps in their library's collection.
Collage (Option 1): Pick and choose words from the map to make a poem. When coming up with your poem, you might try to collect words that revolve around a common topic. Find patterns on the map - such as which words repeat, which words sound similar, which themes are common. Themes you might often see on American maps include patriotism and history. Try to notice what other things groups of words on the map have in common - for example gender or race or language. For this exercise, you do not need to keep the words in the same place as they are in the map. You can also do this exercise by actually cutting words out from a paper or digital map.
Erasure (Option 2): Create a poem by deleting words off the map. This could be done by using white-out or crossing out or cutting out words out on a paper map (you might make a photocopy or printout of the original map to work with, or use a simple digital editing software like paint). Think about what it does to the map to delete words off of it. What does it do to a place to have certain names removed? Try to have a reason for why you are erasing certain words — for example, removing problematic words, removing English language words, removing everything named after 1776, removing everything you don't recognize,
etc. You could also remove parts of words and just leave certain letters. For this exercise, you should keep the words in roughly the same places they were on the original map.
Take a walk around your area and write down place names that interest you. It might be helpful to try to write down names that revolve around a theme, such as proper names, nature names, non-English language names, patriotic names, etc.
When you get home, look up the origin stories of a few of these place names. Take a moment and think about all the language you just saw in your area, and what it meant to you. Do these names make you feel included or excluded? Do you see yourself reflected in these names? How do these names contrast or compare to what you saw or felt or heard on your walk?
Write a poem that incorporates each of the words you wrote down in the order that you saw them. Your poem could narrate the process of your walk or be completely unrelated to your walk. Either way, use the poem to reflect on what it feels like for you to live among these names.
Do some research on the street. What events have taken place there? Who has lived there and who lives there now? How has it changed over time?
Visit the street or look up pictures or draw on your memory of the street. When writing your poem, use lines to describe the street. What does it look like? Who do you see? What are they doing? What kind of buildings are on the street? What kind of trees and flowers? What does the street sound like? Smell like? Feel like? How can you describe in ways that are more true and honest to you than its current name?
Making Example Projects
When preparing to facilitate a creative learning activity, we always recommend populating your space with diverse example projects. Feel free to print out the above examples from librarians in the PLIX community to help inspire your patrons! A good example project is thoughtfully designed to inspire your patrons, spark their curiosity, and be easy enough to understand to support them in getting started with the activity.
Since there are many ways to explore symmetry, patrons may need some guidance in how or where to get started. When facilitating this activity, we encourage you to support a tinkering mindset, and consider the following to culture a creative learning environment:
Facilitation Techniques to try with Spatial Poetry→
For some, the hardest part of writing poems can be choosing your first words! As a facilitator, experiment with different ways to help patrons overcome the hurdle of getting started. We've loved using this place-specific haiku generator to help plant some seeds for key words or phrases that might serve as a poem's nucleus. Sprinkle words on the table in the style of magnetic poetry. Ask participants to focus on a small area of their maps, or cut apart and pass out small sections of a map to reduce the overwhelm. Have extra copies to experiment with so that patrons are less concerned about destroying your only copy. You might also build a prompt around a full-group exercise, starting with everyone identifying words or themes they spot in a shared map.
Run a family creative learning program where younger patrons are encouraged to co-create with older adults — guardians or anyone who can potentially share/discuss historical context of a place’s past while creating poems about your community. Elders may have memories of how a community used to look compared to today, or they may want to reconstruct memories with others.
Consider having examples on hand that reflect the history of the different populations who have inhabited your community. Tap into your library's archives to find some examples of maps made during or depicting different eras, and bring these to the workshop. Your patrons may learn from or create with these materials. You might also consider bringing in a docent from a local historical society to share some stories about how your community came to be.
"Traditional" poetry can feel restrictive, technical, and too rules-based. Encourage patrons to explore more free-form and expressive styles of writing. Bring examples of of works by both historical and contemporary poets to your workshop, and highlight their stylistic differences. Seeing a range of poetry styles may help those who feel stuck or unsure of where to start. Remind patrons that any expression can be "poetry"!
Don't limit your poets to traditional street / city maps as source material. Your community has many different data types associated with it that also feature geographic information. Engaging various types of maps and data could inspire a variety of foci in patrons' poems. Have a variety of maps and geographic data readily available, such as transit maps, geological, climate/weather maps, and the like. Pictorial maps are popular, illustrating local landmarks in an often quirky way.
If a safe location to explore is not easily accessed from your workshop, leverage digital tools like Google Street View to complete the Walk Poem prompt. As an added bonus, the "walk" can be anywhere in the world!You may also use digital tools to create multimedia poetry (like collages, animated gifs, and html sites).
PLIX Spatial Poetry connects to a lot of ongoing social justice efforts, particularly in renaming efforts throughout the country. Tie into events in your own community, and use the activity as a discussion point with your patrons to connect creative expression and justice in the real-world. See the Data Feminism Lab's Audit the Streets Project for more information.
PLIX Spatial Poetry in Action
About PLIX Spatial Poetry
This activity was developed as part of the PLIX Co-Design program, in which Media Lab researchers team up with public librarians to create new PLIX programming, in collaboration with poet and artist Hua Xi of the Data Feminism Lab's Audit the Streets Project.
Other ways to engage with the PLIX Beautiful Symmetry activity:
- Looking for some background music? Check out our PLIX Spatial Poetry Playlist 🎶
- Questions? Ask them on the PLIX Discussion Forum 🙋♀️
- Share your experience running this workshop on social media using #PLIXSpatialPoetry 😎
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The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) is a project of the MIT Media Lab Digital Learning & Collaboration Studio. Except where otherwise noted, all materials on this site are licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Accessibility.