Duke Kunshan faculty duo publish books on history and poetry

Two Duke Kunshan faculty members have published books, one looking at aspects of the American slave trade and the other an ‘amorphous’ digital work of poetry and art.

Jesse Olsavsky, an assistant history professor, spent years researching and writing his book on the history of America’s slave trade, delving into historical archives and correspondence in the process, while Tyler Carter, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric, took inspiration from the poet Ted Berrigan and ancient Chinese culture to produce an online work in collaboration with artist Eric Goddard-Scovel.

Olsavsky’s book, The Most Absolute Abolition, tells the story of how vigilance committees across the United States organized the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine routes and safe houses used by enslaved African Americans escaping to the free states and Canada.

Assistant History Professor Jesse Olsavsky

During the six-year writing project he trawled through archives, researching the correspondence of abolitionists, treasury accounts of vigilance committees and other organizations, newspapers, pamphlets, old books and memoirs, government documents, and much more.  

“One thing that surprised me most was the sheer diversity of the activists within the vigilance committees,” he said.

“Among the many lively characters in my book are black and white activists, intellectuals, and insurrectionaries, from West Africa, Brazil, Ireland, and Haiti (not to mention the US and Canada). There are children and elderly people, rich and poor, insurrectionaries and pacifists, intellectuals and men and women of action, as well as thousands of runaway slaves,” he added.

Olsavsky talks about the range of ideas this broad group of people brought to the vigilance committees, among them prison abolition, spiritualism, feminism, and various theories of revolution

“My book seeks to show how this motley cast of characters worked across their differences, debated radical ideas, and tried to create a revolutionary front, led by enslaved people, to overthrow slavery as well as the political, cultural, and economic institutions that supported it,” he said.

Tyler Carter’s book, No Blame, is a digital work of poetry and art, with text by Carter and artwork by Eric Goddard-Scovel.

Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Tyler Carter

Its contents are reshuffled each time the reader visits using algorithms partially derived from the casting of I Ching hexagrams. The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text, also known as the Book of Changes, that is used in Ching divination, where bundles of yarrow stalks are manipulated to produce sets of six random numbers ranging from 6 to 9. Each of the 64 possible sets corresponds to a hexagram, which can be looked up in the text of I Ching. Many commentators have used the book symbolically, often to provide guidance for moral decision making as informed by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. 

“We call it an ‘amorphous’ digital book because it presents a unique outcome each time the program runs,” said Carter.

“Just as a hexagram of the I Ching is cast when the I Ching is used as a method of divination, the content of No Blame is cast with every generation so that the lines of 32 of its poems are shuffled into new arrangements, the 16 artworks are generated in new variations, and each poem and artwork is associated with a new hexagram. This casting is not simply random but is instead an outcome of the algorithms of the I Ching and an algorithm derived for this project,” he added.

The project was inspired initially by a book-length poem cycle called The Sonnets by American poet Ted Berrigan, published in 1964, according to Carter, which recycles their lines as the poem cycle progresses, giving the same lines new meanings as they appear in different contexts. “I hope that a reader will try to engage both with the poems themselves and the concepts as they are presented on the site,” he said. “I’d also hope the reader seeks out more information about the I Ching.”

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