When Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poem “it took me all those years to remember who I was and why” appeared this past fall in a New York City storefront window, its words did not stay still: White letters flooded upward from the bottom of a black screen, then ebbed downward rhythmically, like breaths or waves against a shore. The poem appeared alongside other digital verse, animated and pulsating across multiple screens, as part of an exhibit Bertram curated for the Brooklyn headquarters of Poetry Society of America (PSA). It was also a non-fungible token, more commonly known as an NFT.
After falling from the height of their popularity in 2020 and 2021, NFTs are having a poetic moment. Artforum published an interview in March with NFT poet Sasha Stiles, among the medium’s foremost proponents. In its summer 2023 issue, Rattle published a special section of verse by NFT poets and a conversation with Stiles. Katie Dozier, who founded the online NFT Poetry Gallery, estimates that the number of regularly publishing NFT poets has ballooned from two hundred to more than a thousand in the past eighteen months.
NFTs are digital files that exist on a blockchain, which is an electronic, public record designed to be accessible to all but with no single user possessing the computing power to change it. To mint most NFTs, a user must first obtain a small amount of a cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin or Tezos. That currency, filling out some online forms, and a few mouse clicks are all it takes for a new NFT to be born.
NFTs were all the rage in the visual-art scene several years ago, with huge sums of money changing hands as artists, museums, and collectors streamed into the new market. But shifting economic conditions eventually led to a market crash, decimating the real-world value of cryptocurrency—and the NFTs collectors were buying with it.
Still, in the wake of that crash, Bertram and other poets whose work defies categorization have found the blockchain world to be a welcoming home. NFT poems often incorporate animation, sound, images, or video. Whereas traditional poetry is “a static thing, printed text on a page,” the NFT medium allows poets to play beyond that narrow frame, says Timothy Green, Rattle’s editor and an NFT poet himself. In his animated Distillations series, for example, longer poems dissolve into haikus. He has also taken to recording his computer screen as he composes a new poem and turning that video into an NFT.
Bertram’s curation of the PSA window was inspired in large part by theVERSEverse, the literary NFT gallery Sasha Stiles cofounded with Ana Maria Caballero and Kalen Iwamoto, whose slogan is “poem=work of art.” TheVERSEverse has mounted several real-world gallery exhibitions showcasing NFT poems on screens or other physical formats.
For poets, NFTs represent a paradigm shift, one that Green thinks has great economic potential. Treating poems as art pieces that can gain value as they’re circulated “really changes the way we confront making profit out of writing,” he says. The professional path for many poets has involved earning an MFA, publishing a book, and teaching college writing—hopefully with a job on the tenure track. But many poets are stuck on the adjunct track with low pay and little job security. In Green’s view, NFTs can provide not only an alternative income stream but also a source of communal support and an opportunity for more dialogue about the finances of surviving as a poet. He and other NFT poets point to the benefits of “smart contracts,” NFT transaction agreements with royalties for resale built in—a feature not available through, say, a used-book store.
And while some NFTs can sell for the equivalent of $1,000, friends also gift each other poems or buy minor works for as little as $1.50. Post-crash, with the speculators gone, NFT poets are focused on collaborating across media and building community. “There’s a sense that we’re all in this together, and the people here are here for the right reason,” Dozier says.
Another bright spot hailed by NFT advocates is the decreasing toll the medium is taking on the environment: Most marketplaces have stopped requiring “proof of work”—a process that demands huge amounts of electricity—in favor of less energy-intensive processes.
Still, cryptocurrency critic Molly White’s predictions for arts NFTs are not so rosy. The technology is prone to bugs, hacks, and scams, and cryptocurrency presents a high technical barrier to entry. She has also seen many artists try to use NFT marketplaces to solve structural problems in their fields, such as financial insecurity. But most of the time “blockchain doesn’t really fix anything: It’s a different way of doing the same thing,” she says. The result is a “strictly worse version of the thing you had already.”
Marketplaces take a cut of profits in much the same way a recording studio, gallery, or publisher would, and NFT artists still need help getting exposure. As for those much-touted smart-contract royalties, they are “the big lie with NFTs,” White says. For them to work, marketplaces have to enforce them—and some don’t.
Still, for Bertram, the transactional aspect of NFTs “is not what this is about.” The poet prefers to focus on the community, new audiences, and multifarious possibilities presented by the poem-as-art-object paradigm. For their newest collection, Negative Money (Soft Skull, 2023), Bertram minted and sold several poems from the book that tangle with difficult themes like bullying and growing up mixed race. Though many NFT collectors use pseudonyms, some have reached out through the scrim of online anonymity to tell Bertram that they find the work deeply moving. “These are people who would maybe never otherwise actually encounter the poems in the book,” Bertram says. “But they’re able to encounter them this way.”Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the names of VERSEverse cofounders Ana Maria Caballero and Kalen Iwamoto.
Alissa Greenberg reports at the intersection of science, history, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, and elsewhere.