Welcome to the website for UVa’s Puzzle Poetry group. We’re all about lasers, prosody, and supercomputers …

Our Story

Over the summer of 2017, Neal Curtis and Brad Pasanek started scissoring poem-puzzles out of paper and sharing them with colleagues in the English department. Soon enough Melissa Goldman trained Neal to use the laser cutters in the Architecture School’s Fab Lab and he cut our first sonnet from a sheet of dayglo orange acrylic. A group of faculty, staff, MFAs, grads and undergrads began to meet regularly in the semester that followed to read poems, discuss literary theory, fabricate a variety of poetry puzzles out of wood and colored plexiglass, and spec an online game. We’re keen to put on events and sponsor workshops and have hosted several Sonnet Games, a two-day conference, and three Humanities Week Cipher Hunts. We’re still at it and meet during the school year most Fridays at 3:00pm on the first floor of Wilson Hall (typically in Wilson 117). Cipher Hunt 2024 is already in the works. Let Brad or Jason Bennett know if you’re interested in participating.

The The Institute of Global Humanities & Culture and the Page-Barbour Committee provided our startup funding and support. The group is now part of UVA’s Humanities Informatics Lab. Julie Gronlund at the IHGC has been especially attentive and supportive. We owe a special thank you to Chris Jessee of Cardboard Safari and Antler Home; Chris has generously donated materials and shared his expertise.

This website was originally developed (and has been adapted from) a code base created by Brad Pasanek, but which was much improved and expanded by Timothy Schott. Lauren Johnson has contributed site and graphic design. Katherine Donnally worked out the CSS for our collapsing puzzle navigation menu. The site was developed using Jekyll, a slick, Ruby-infused flavor of Markdown. From the outset, development efforts were greatly assisted by the UVA Scholar’s Lab, particularly Jeremy Boggs.

The Increase Puzzle Project

The group is fitfully working to convert a sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets into pentomino puzzles. These will be laser cut from wood, acrylic, and other materials, and then assembled as an art-object titled Increase. Preparing the the puzzles requires finding ways to pack pentomino shapes into a sonnet-shaped frame. Working by hand, we’ve carved up several sonnets into a set of pentomino shapes but we hope to do better, finding all possible solutions (under our constraints) to the sequence of sonnets, that is, all the ways that a given sonnet can be cut up into pentomino and tetromino shapes.

With the help of Clay Ford, Brad Pasanek figured out how to process sestets in R and match them with solutions to the 6x10 pentomino problem. Matching octaves to a packed rectangle of pentominos and tetrominos has proved more elusive as sorting through solutions is much more computationally intense. Indeed, the effort has involved us with consultants from The Scholars’ Lab (Shane Lin and Brandon Walsh) and Virginia’s Advanced Research Computing Services. Jeremy Little, Katherine Holcomb, Jacalyn Huband, and Karsten Siller have all helped with getting our code to run on Rivanna, UVA’s High Performance Computing system.

We’re glad to sponsor undergraduate research. In 2019, two of Nathan Brunelle’s CS students worked on our dissection and tiling problems as a capstone project. And the ingenious Jesse Alloy had success in designing a piece of software that discovers tessellations in poem-shaped grids. In 2021 Noah Holloway took up a new project studying the “laminate” layers of poetry, computationally separating and re-integrating syllabic, prosodic, alliterative, and semantic features. A new project involves a literary videogame envisioned and prototyped by CS undergraduate Yusuf Hacking.

Other Projects

The group has imagined and produced a variety of puzzles in various media, some of which are collected as part of this site under the Puzzles rubric. We hope some day to co-sponsor an event with UVA’s Center for Poetry & Poetics. We also hope to continue collaborating with Gavin Garner and UVA’s Gizmologists. We haven’t fabricated anything with the Gizmologists as yet, but have an idea for a twisty puzzle-poem.

Contact Information

Email Brad Pasanek (bmp7e@virginia.edu) with questions, comments, and corrections.

The Github repository for this website can be found here. A related Github repository for the code used to “solve” our puzzles can be found here.