UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 18 Spring 24 Library
Creative Writing & Architecture

Alexa Luborsky's Poetry Machine

Alexa Luborsky has long had a talent for finding words to tell difficult stories. She is a Makerspace Technologist, a Rachel Winer Manin Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, and an H. Kruger Kaprielian Scholar at UVA. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and working on a thesis project largely based around the atrocities suffered by members of her own family.

Diaspora Poem in Shannon Library in front of the Scholar’s Lab
(Photo: Alexa Luborsky, MFA Poetry ’25)

Last year, she added a literal new dimension to her work with Diaspora Poem, a multimedia effort with the UVA Scholar’s Lab Tinker Tank and the Fab Lab at the School of Architecture that resulted in the construction of a “poetry machine” that is operated by the user/reader. The machine features three drums, each containing wooden blocks etched with 46 lines of poetry. It is the result of a digital humanities fellowship that allowed her to enter a more material realm.

Each drum, Luborsky said, represents a different episode of unspeakable violence suffered by her ancestors, from the pogrom of Tetiev in 1920, which resulted in the deaths of some 4,500 to 5,000 Jewish people to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. The use of wood as the delivery method for the words is intentional, representing the pyres of the pogrom, the use and hasty destruction of the crematoriums in the Holocaust, and the trees that marked the path and provided shelter and, perhaps, hope for Armenian deportees trekking through the Syrian desert.

“I don’t pretend to know what this might have felt like,” Luborsky writes. “I say this to say that it is difficult for me to stand beside this poem-machine and not think of these things.”  Luborsky also contemplates her and all our roles in these atrocities and what it might mean to write after them. Is she guilty of any of it? For all of it? Are we? The answer is almost immaterial. What matters is creating a vehicle that lets us feel these things. 

The poem machine, powered by a casket crank, gives all a chance to do just that. Housed in Shannon Library, the machine allows anyone who uses it to better understand the mechanism of power that created these historical archives that changed her family forever. Each user who turns the crank exerts a form of power that draws different words out of each drum and creates a sense of ownership over the story through a slightly different poem. “As the drums are turned by a force that produces power, they mimic the movement of a past, physical, forced diaspora,” Luborsky writes. 

Alexa Luborsky uses the casket crank to spin the three drums of Diaspora Poem, meant to symbolize the three diasporas of her family (the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust, and Tetiev Pogrom), while surrounded by the survivors or descendants of forced diaspora that were invited to help lift the shroud off of the machine at the opening on December 1st, 2023.
(Photo: Holly Zhou, MFA Poetry ’26)

“I was trying to establish what I think happens when someone approaches an archive or any kind of a historical document,” she said. “This kind of mechanism of power really doesn’t get recorded in any material way, but as someone approaches the trajectory in a way of learning archives, the person is in control over its retention.” It is something, she added, that she could never accomplish on a page. 

While Luborsky estimates that the project was made 80% with her own hands, there is no underestimating the role of her collaborators. “Making something in collaboration with other people is not something I get to do a lot as a poet,” she said. “We like to brood by ourselves in dark rooms. So, I think building something in collaboration with engineers and woodworkers was really cool, especially when I was struggling with finding joy in the poetic work on the page, was more joyful than doing it by myself.” 

I dedicate the piece to my family who did and did not survive because I’m alive, and their stories inhabit how I live my life every day
Alexa Luborsky

In a project with a multitude of collaborators, Luborsky is quick to shout out Ammon Sheperd and Andrew Spears, who helped build the designs and provided endless support to help her believe this was all possible. And the Fab Lab team, who not only housed the project but believed in it as well. The members of her writing tribe also earn kudos for their support, including Creative Writing professors Kiki Petrosino and Lisa Russ Spaar.

Luborsky reserves special thanks for her family, to whom she dedicated the piece. She points out that her mother was particularly supportive of the project throughout and was present for its unveiling on December 1, along with other victims and relatives of victims who joined them in lifting the shroud and showing the machine to the world. 

Mostly though, it is a project for the survivors – people like Luborsky’s great-grandmother’s uncle Krikor Z. Yeghoyan, who survived the Armenian Genocide by hiding in a barely body-sized hole beneath floorboard. Or step-grandfather Morris Bitterman, a holocaust survivor who survived by sewing on a piece of fabric to his camp uniform to pose as an ethnic Pole rather than a Jew.

She is not the first of her clan to tell these stories through art – there are three memoirs by family members. Their words and courage to write them encouraged Luborsky throughout this entire journey.

Luborsky’s goal in making this piece went beyond telling their stories. It created a chance to tell the stories of genocidal mechanisms. 

“I dedicate the piece to my family who did and did not survive because I’m alive, and their stories inhabit how I live my life every day,” she said. “Genocide doesn’t end because of neatly tied numbers the history books tout. That’s what this piece is trying to allow the reader-participant to see – how my body moves along the same routes and how we both might be complicit in wielding power by trying to document the past and present.”

Alexa Luborsky reads the text that was laser burned onto “Diaspora Poem” as the victims and descendants of violent diasporas are invited to lift the shroud from the machine at the opening on December 1st, 2023.
(Photo: Holly Zhou (MFA Poetry ’26)
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