Engaging the Public in Digital Space: The Kansas Renga

Fine arts communities are some of the most active and productive—but overlooked—sites for Digital Humanities scholars looking to make meaningful connections with the public.  When considering how one might engage the public in the humanities, I think back to my experience with the Kansas RengaTo the Stars through Difficulty: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices (2012)­. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as Kansas Poet Laureate (2011-2013) engaged poets, within and outside of academia, in writing this project.  Mirriam-Goldberg’s purpose was to celebrate Kansas, its nature, and its poets.

renga is akin to a haiku and collaborative in nature. Each poet was to contribute ten lines after reading the previous poems. Poets did not need to live in or be from Kansas as long as the poets had a meaningful connection to the state. In my case, I had attended Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, and I lived just over the border in Oklahoma.

The project was created using Google Docs, with each poet adding to the document at their turn. The entire project was produced online by poets from all over the country who had connections to Kansas. The Google Doc was not without its problems. Lines of previous poems were accidently erased, so communication was necessary in order to amend the errors, but by and large, the process went smoothly. Throughout the project, Mirriam-Goldberg maintained a blog of the project as it evolved, making the text available to the public in installments. Other digital environments—such as shared blogs, wiki spaces, and so on—might enable a smoother process and could create an immediately consumable public text.

The method for selecting poets allowed for word of the project and calls for participants to make their ways out into the community since poets tend to meet in groups to workshop their poems and gather together at public readings. When asked how she found participants, Mirriam-Goldberg said, “I just asked around and asked people to ask their people.”

Participants in the project included professors, published poets, students, a farmer, a high school teacher, a massage therapist, a high school guidance counselor, and others who consider themselves “occasional poets.”

The seemingly piecemeal project was produced as a whole and cohesive unit with the authors’ names placed in the title position for their ten lines. The project was similar to the Media Commons project here, but the renga strings each piece directly to the next and incorporates the voices and experiences of the community outside academia.

Although this particular project resulted in a print book, the final product of such a project could result in a digital-only document. Further, this creative example could be applied to other scholarly considerations. By including the voices and opinions of those outside academia, scholars open themselves to new perspectives and new approaches for study. ­

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