• Astro Poets at the Library

    Most days, I check the Astro Poets Twitter account. It’s not a part of my morning routine, or my evening one — it happens spontaneously, when I think of it, like texting a friend. I read posts on my sign first. But the posts usually come in series, and after skipping down to Aries, I read the whole thing: the signs as Emily Dickinson lines, how each sign dies on Friday the 13th, the signs on jealousy.

    I’m new to astrology. I’ve always dabbled in horoscopes and chortled at astrological stereotypes that fit a little too well. But I never had an understanding of each sign ready to discuss on command, or felt the need to check out my partners’ star charts. After discovering the Astro Poets, that changed. I’ve become genuinely interested in what the stars have to say about me, about the people in my life, and about the tendencies of the coming astrological season. It’s still hard for me to call myself a believer, per se, but I am certainly not dismissive. Astrology seems more real than trickle-down economics, for example — on the spectrum of belief systems in America today, astrology doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

    The sociopolitical climate the Astro Poets account was born into a little over a year ago might be part of what has propelled its quick, intense success (the account now has 244,000 followers) — that’s a theory put forth by poet Alex Dimitrov, who runs the account with Dorothea Lasky, also a poet. He brought up the idea after reading his poem “1969” at the New York Public Library, where he and Lasky were invited to speak at the end of November. When people feel dissatisfied with and disheartened by dominant social and political systems, he explained, they look for alternative sources of meaning — in this case, astrology.

    For an account that stakes its success on frustration with power and truth-making in the US today, Astro Poets is largely light, funny, and distinctly literary. The poets do post the occasional politically charged tweet, but rarely stray from support for marginalized groups into more extensive political discourse. You’re more likely to see the signs compared to Virginia Woolf novels than their thoughts on Michael Flynn. If politics bring in followers, a shared interest or background in literature keeps them there. It’s this associating with literature that brought the project to the NYPL. The library’s Mid-Sentence: Writers in Conversation series, of which Dimitrov and Lasky’s talk was a part, aims to host “groundbreaking literary voices” exploring the “intersections between literature and lived experience.”

    Dimitrov and Lasky do exist at the intersection of literature and something else — call it lived experience, or the displacement of literature into a new medium that we write on but also live in. They are traditionally published poets steeped in literary vocabulary and reference, and their account, the Astro “Poets,” embraces that axis of association. But the effects of the other axis, for Dimitrov and Lasky, seems to have superseded traditional literary metrics of success and analysis with regards to the project. They both discussed their work online in terms of the way it has altered, for them, the experience of working as a writer.

    For Dimitrov and Lasky, the Astro Poets project takes the loneliness out of writing. Producing traditional poetry means scribbling alone in a room, unsure to whom they are writing, if they are writing to anyone at all. On Twitter, they see readers’ reactions to their work in real time, watching ‘like’ counts tick up on the first half of a series before they’ve gotten to Aquarius and Pisces. Readers are part of the process, present as the poets create. As followers retweet and quote, the text starts to change shape, shifting in structure and form. The account is a collaboration between writer and audience, tweeter and retweeter, forming through social media’s labyrinth of moving text.

    This labyrinth is visible to Dimitrov and Lasky; they get notifications for every retweet, quote, and reply, kept up to date by Twitter on the movement of their words. For readers, however, the labyrinth and their role in shaping it is harder to see: the main account is visible, but that’s mostly it. Perhaps they retweet or “at” a friend, but the dynamic, for most followers, remains primarily one-way rather than branched. You are, it seems, alone with the Astro Poets on your phone. Without the full, systematized view of the central Astro Poets account, sense of community and collaboration is invisible in the ether.

    There’s a lot of concern these days about how lonely social media makes us as it drains social relationships of the intimate, deep support that make them so necessary. That concern is reflected in this lonely way we can experience the Astro Poets account. It is belied when we consider the account an artistic project that allows political frustration and a love of language to draw disparate people together in joint parsing of the universe. It’s not the project’s location on Twitter that makes it lonely—in fact, according to the Astro Poets, that location is what makes the project a communal, collaborative effort. It’s the way participants see the project, from their individual devices, that isolates them.

    Moving it from URL to IRL space has the potential to change that perspective and to make invisible online connections tangible. The Astro Poets, who promoted their event as an “anniversary party” and “1st birthday party” (in lieu of the NYPL’s choice of “conversation”), seem cognizant of this potential: they viewed the talk as a party, a community gathering, a joyful celebration of human relationships.

    Readers, too, seemed to sense something exciting about the talk, something worth leaving the Twitter feed and trekking to 42nd street for. The event, announced the librarian introducing the talk, was the first Mid-Sentence conversation to garner a full house. Community, connection, parties — they’re always a bigger draw than a lecture (or, even, a “conversation”).

    Like all good parties, this one was full of infectious, generous energy and laughter. The Q&A section of the talk was as spirited as the banter between Dimitrov and Lasky. It was like the Astro Poets notification box had come to life: Dimitrov and Lasky were the central focus of the project, but everyone was a participant. Looking around me, I saw faces that, when confined to a number on a tweet’s “like” or retweet count, would be indistinguishable from the inhuman social media system they were a part of. Yet here they were, a living, chattering human network of dissatisfied citizens.

    I didn’t talk to anyone at the event. This was my first foray into an IRL iteration of my URL life, and seeing it was enough, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some Twitter handles or phone numbers were exchanged in the book signing line. Regardless of whether sustainable personal relationships were made that night, however, the illusion of a one-way relationship between tweeter and follower was challenged, contextualized, and branched. When we participate in the Astro Poets’ project, we are not alone. Community formed online might not look like community formed in classrooms or neighborhoods; but here it was, a new form, with benefits that come precisely from its digital home. As an experiment in making community on social media sites salient, and in making collective participation in the shape of online art visible, the event was a success.

    What wasn’t visible at the event was the promise that communities that form online are diverse and inclusive. As soon as an IRL location is introduced, that promise becomes irrelevant: if the IRL location is especially far, inaccessible, or unwelcoming to you for other reasons, you’re out. The Astro Poets talk was populated almost exclusively by guests under 30, almost all of whom were white, and a clear majority of whom were female. It’s probable that this group accurately reflects the Astro Poets online community: the literary vocabulary that shapes the account is not always welcoming, and astrological analysis is not universally appealing (even amongst those looking for new sources of meaning). But it’s also likely that the event’s location, in midtown Manhattan at the NYPL’s central branch, affected the demographic of the event.

    The homogeneity of the crowd probably contributed to the frenetic goodwill of the room — it’s easy to feel connected to people that look just like you. It also made any “outsiders” easy to reject as irrelevant. An older gentleman, perhaps the only member of the audience over 30, was summarily shut down by Dimitrov during the Q&A. When he asked the poet why he felt he could write a poem about 1969 when he was, presumably, born later, Dimitrov asserted that he could write about whatever he wanted — a dismissive response to a dismissive question. A similarly inane question, if on a very different topic, from a girl about to turn 20 — one of those questions that spends far too long explaining itself, only to end with a how do I celebrate becoming an adult this year — garnered a laugh, but ultimately a much more generous response: Sagittarians never grow up, but also love psychedelic drugs.

    On the internet, there is space for difference because there is simply more space, and that space is more flexible. Putting aside the question of whether that older gentleman was an Astro Poets fan or an NYPL lecture fan (I’d hazard the later), there wasn’t space for him in that room — or, that IRL community — and that’s a shame. Bad questions, as we saw with the birthday girl and Dimitrov’s response, can garner good answers. A literature that exists between, amongst, and at the behest of an internet community can have branches that accommodate difference, even if it’s built on a foundation of commonality — of dissatisfaction with the current systems of power, of love for literature, of delight in the stars.

    But the crowd was too giddy with its own community to touch those branches, too constricted by the benefit/limitation of a URL made IRL. It chose not to deal in negotiation, because the offer of togetherness, a party, where before there was just you and a Twitter account — that’s heady. To see your peers in the seats around you and then remember them as you stare at the enormous fracturing of words across your screen is a wondrous thing.