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Tiny objects hide stanzas of New Zealand Poet Laureate

Tiny objects hide stanzas of New Zealand Poet Laureate

At first glance it looks like a display of typical every-day objects. There’s a piece of cardboard, a bus pass, a camera lens and a piece of coal, alongside a paua shell, a watch and a chunk of glass.

But each object has a secret. Invisible to the naked eye, scribed by very short laser pulses in microscopic letters is a poem by Ian Wedde, New Zealand Poet Laureate 2011-2013.

This extraordinary feat called Poetry off the Page is a collaboration that had its origins last year in the English department course of the same name, co-taught by Professor Michele Leggott and Professor Helen Sword at the University of Auckland.

Ian visited the Poetry off the Page students in September 2012 to talk about his role as New Zealand Poet Laureate and to read the first ten sections of his evolving poem Shadow Stands Up. Later the 21 students took stanzas of the poem into communities of their own choice, real and virtual. Ian's poem appeared in neighbourhood letterboxes, on the Link bus and on wine bottles in a local Glengarry store. It went to a city pub quiz, to Poetry Live at a pub in K Road, to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, FictionPress and Tumbler sites. It morphed through an email chain and it went to the beach in a beer bottle.

The students then picked ten inscribed objects, one for each of the first ten sections of Shadow Stands Up. Next they visited the University’ Photon Factory to meet and talk with Director Cather Simpson and her team of science and engineering students about laser micromachining stanzas of Ian's poem onto the objects.

The Arts, Science and Engineering students worked together to finalise designs for the laser-written objects.

Ian says the poem was inspired by journeys on the Link bus and looking through the transparent and reflective environment of the bus window.

He says the project reminds him of his favourite museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, where you find objects such as tiny sculptures that can fit inside the eye of a needle.

"It’s certainly off the page and on to something else. I just think it’s kind of fun and kind of quirky."

The objects, microscopic images of the laser writing, and some of Ian's notes for Shadow Stands Up are in the University's General Library special collections section and the project has been displayed in the library foyer of the University’s General Library. Special Collections Manager Stephen Innes, with help from Simpson and science student Jake Martin, curated objects within the collection, which are now part of the University's library archives.

Jake has created a video presentation which can be viewed on You Tube by this link:

You can also see the work on the website at
Jake says the most difficult object to laser micromachine was the paua shell, and several were sacrificed in the making of the display.

He explains that each stanza was typed into a computer programme before being programmed into the laser system. The laser then engraved the stanzas using millions of tiny dots to form each letter.

The laser does its scribing by hitting the material with a tightly focused series of pulses. Simpson says, "each of our high-tech pulses is a billionth of a second long, or less – much faster than a human can see light."

"The method we use is very important in high-tech manufacturing, and we recently received a $7.8M grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to make laser micromachining more economically viable for NZ industry," Cather says. "This project was fun and innovative, and showed just how far laser technology can stretch!"

Despite knowing where they had chosen to laser the stanzas, even the students occasionally struggled to find where they themselves had put the poem.

"It could sometimes be a little challenging to see," Cather says.


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