Patchwork Poetics

Anne Sullivan, Katie Farris, Maria Elena Margarella, Zehua Chen

Patchwork Poetics is a digital and tangible exhibition that speaks to the feminist dialogue of a woman’s place in relation to the established handmade practices of poetry and craftwork. With this installation we aim to make the history of intersectional activism in poetry and quilting accessible with color and shape, and through representing text within textiles. Our project uses the material language of traditional patchwork quilts to visualize linguistic sound patterns in poetry, and a digital interface to invite participants to engage with dynamic poem and quilt design creation.

In the tradition of exquisite corpse, our digital interactive experience invites participants to add an original line to an ongoing poem, which in turn will add a line of patchwork to a digitally generated quilt. The individual patches of the quilt are determined by poetic sound devices present within each submitted line. Devices such as assonance, consonance, meter, and rhyme can be represented, although the goal is not to create easily legible data visualization, but rather use the data to help generate an aesthetically focused quilt design. In this way the text-based metaphor of the poem is translated into a design-based metaphor within the quilt. Along with the online interactive experience, quilt designs based on highly regarded poetry will be shown alongside the digital piece.

Choosing quilts to represent poetry stems from an effort to juxtapose the feminist tradition of handmade craft with the gender prejudice present in the history of poetry and draws inspiration from written works such as Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Larsen’s Samplers. Similar to these works, we have focused on the interconnection between text and textiles, but instead of quilting inspiring the writing, here the writing inspires the quilting. Salter’s Re:Traced Threads and Salter and Sullivan’s Blocked Connections integrate quilts with computationally generative systems, and while our work is inspired by this, in Patchwork Poetics, it is poets and participants that are generating the designs as opposed to the computer.

The Patchwork Poetics project is also inspired by Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Prologue,” a seventeenth century meditation on the difficulty of writing poetry as a woman. Bradstreet’s subversive wit made her a favorite of her era, though her appeal still rings true all over the world; the poetry of women, and especially women of color, disabled women, and queer women, is still silenced.

Quilting similarly grew out of a culture of oppression towards women and minorities. Crafting was used to meet a need for an outwardly appropriate form of community-building while also allowing for women and minorities to gather, while supporting subversive storytelling. Therefore, we chose to use the visual language of quilts to visualize poems by female and non-binary authors, and to queer the texts of male authors for the quilts displayed alongside the system.

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