Get to Know a Researcher - English's Kim Blank

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Eight years ago, Department of English Professor Kim Blank set out to write a book about the poet John Keats (pictured above). Thousands of words, images and webpages later, Blank's book has evolved into an impressive online resource that captures and critically examines the English poet's life and work. Blank talks about Mapping Keats's Progress, and what distinguishes his digital humanities project from traditional academic outputs.

What inspired the Mapping Keats’s Progress project?  

The site began as a book about the extraordinarily rapid and remarkable poetical development of the English poet, John Keats (1795-1821).

The subject has a long scholarly life. As the famous critic Jonathan Bate wrote not so long ago in the TLS, “When, and under the influence of what shaping forces, did he [Keats] become a great poet? Any literary biographer who can answer those two questions will have achieved the holy grail of Life-writing.”

Holy grail aside, the inspiration for the site comes down to Keats. He remains part of our culture not just in the steady stream of books, editions, articles, essays, blogs, and conferences about him, but also on mugs, t-shirts, posters, motivational cards, and the occasional tattoo. He was also revived in a movie, Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009), starring Ben Whishaw as Keats. Whishaw captures Keats’s intensity, and he nicely ventriloquizes Keats’s eloquence, though, at five-foot-nine, Whishaw plays a rather tall, thinnish Keats, who was actually a well-built young man at five-foot-two.

Anyway, 157 chapters and 731 images later, the site exists: Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. By me, 181k words; by Keats, 116k words. ​

What you set out to achieve with the site, and how did it develop into the comprehensive resource it is today? 

What I set out to achieve: to say something new about Keats in a new way.

As far help goes: the website would have been difficult, if not impossible, without some technical assistance, though I did not need (or want) a grant. First, right across the hallway from me for years, was Dr. Arnie Keller, an expert on website development, though just moving into retirement mode. I told him what I hoped to do. Arnie liked a challenge (especially if it had possible provocative implications). He said anything could be done: just describe exactly how you want it to look, how you want it structured, and how you want it to function. His patience was tested by my extreme fussiness about things like layout. In the end, as a labor of friendship and as a challenge, Arnie worked some magic to get the thing up and running.  

Second, after Arnie withdrew from the project (who could blame him—he was retired!), for technical support I connected with the Humanities Computing and Media Centre here at UVic. Martin Holmes took sight of the site, performed some ingenious under-the-hood cleaning, mainly by enhancing functionality. He also immediately pointed me to a better way to develop the site (a particular xml editor), which allowed me to push forward rapidly while he made sure I didn’t do too many stupid things.  

Mapping Keats's Progress has been praised by scholars internationally as a “brilliant” resource that goes beyond what a conventional book can do. Can you talk about the limitations of traditional academic avenues and what you hope to achieve by “reimagining the critical book"? 

Struck by blind ambition, I figured I might be able to profitably probe, explore, and represent the complex story of Keats’s development via a website that could do things that a traditional scholarly book could never do—and also, by designing a structure that worked with rather than against the goggleized compulsion of users to click on and on. A critical book cannot have hundreds of paintings, portraits, facsimiles, photographs, and maps; it can’t have instant internal links, a little audio, a constantly updated bibliography, and the complete poetry of the subject. And generally, a book is not free, fully searchable, evolving—and correctable.

As for the site’s structure and purposes: it was designed so users can jump into any of the 157 chapters and, because of the measured repetition that discursively gestures both forwards and backwards in time, never be lost in terms of MKP’s greater critical narrative. All poems mentioned in each chapter are available via each chapter; all people mentioned have popup personographies; often there are internal links to related chapters; every chapter has a map of a Keats-related site; and beside every chapter there is a detailed, developmental chronology for the whole year.

With an extensive and current bibliography, the complete poems, and a Gallery of Keats images, the site is also a resource.

What is next for Mapping Keats's Progress? How do you see this site evolving over time? 

The site will never be done—although the chain of mortality will apparently have its say. They’ll always be new ideas, revision of old ideas, new material, and bibliographical updating. There are also some larger features I want to add, like a visual representation of Keats’s complex intellectual network, as well as a master map of Keats places that link to the chapters that discuss what Keats was up to at those locations.