Project will put WWI poetry by American immigrants online

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — American immigrants wrote an "enormous body" of poetry in response to World War I, a University of Kansas researcher says.

But most isn't readable without physically digging into a variety of repositories scattered across the country in various libraries and in various forms-- from bound books to more fleeting forms of communication such as newsletters and papers.

A digitization project is coming to the rescue, The Lawrence Journal-World reported ( ).

Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of German and academic director for the university's European Studies Program, is teaming up with colleagues at Kansas State University on the project to create a digital archive of American poetry written in response to WWI.

Specifically, Vanchena's branch of the project is focusing on poems penned by American immigrants, many German but also some Mexican and Irish, Vanchena said.

She expects hundreds of immigrant poems, plus hundreds more being collected by Kansas State University, to be live on a newly created website by 2017, the 100th anniversary of the year the United States entered WWI. But that, she said, is the "tip of the iceberg."

"We, of course, hope to keep working on this project beyond the commemoration," Vanchena said. "It has the potential to just grow and grow."

Enabled by a grant from the University of Kansas Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities and the school's Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, Vanchena and three undergraduate researchers joined the effort started at Kansas State University.

They've been combing holdings at the University of Kansas, including WWI periodicals housed at the Max Kade Center, and transcribing and encoding them, Vanchena said. Ultimately each poem will be presented online with historical, cultural and political context.

One student researcher is Caelan Graham, a Lawrence sophomore majoring in environmental studies and European studies, with a minor in German.

Graham, who connected with the project through University of Kansas Center for Undergraduate Research, said it's been fascinating to see the war from immigrants' perspectives, especially the contrast between German-Americans who were pro-United States and those who sympathized with their homeland.

"Normally with war you usually hear about the mechanics of war and the key figures involved," Graham said. "This project has really given us some insight into how war in general affects people, all over the world."

Vanchena said it sometimes astounded her that German-Americans, who had migrated to the United States since the 17th century, became targets of "virulent nativism" during the war even before the United States joined the fight, but they were.

"Some were tarred and feathered and even lynched for not buying war bonds, and many had to register as enemy aliens (even American-born wives of German immigrants) -- at least one elderly man showed up to register wearing his Union uniform from the Civil War," Vanchena said.

Some of the poems reflect those hardships, while others are patriotic, she said. Yet other poems describe horrors of the battlefield and being far from home.

"It is often times difficult poetry to read and think about," Vanchena said. "It's about war. These are difficult topics."

Yet the century-old poems remain relevant today, she said. Their themes mirror global issues of refugees in Europe, people being uprooted in war-torn countries and competing loyalties they may have.

In addition to the free online access the project will enable, poems themselves are an "accessible" way to see the war, said Andrew Crist, a senior in economics and math who's working on the project.

"If we're talking about a novel, that's something that a reader really has to invest himself in to digest," Crist said, in a video interview. "But when we're talking about poetry it can be two stanzas of four lines each in a newsletter that they get every week. And that's something that's much more accessible. It's these short little poignant poems that really can get the point across effectively."


Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World,

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