I set my scanner for JPEGs at 70 percent compression, then assembled them into PDFs. Fast and cheap. I also took photos of various ephemera with my phone at god-knows-what resolution. Not every version of every poem would survive. But I’d do my best to preserve the words themselves.
I began to rip the hell out of his folders. Unbinding, yanking, feeding stacks through the scanner and watching some originals crumble as they came out the other side. It felt good being a bad librarian. A little destructive, drunken joy. (A large bottle of bourbon vanished over two weeks of night scans.) Ah well, Dad! What are you going to say now? I put many duplicate manuscripts in the recycling bin, at first relishing the idea that this heavy, heavy paper would go out of my life, and then, as I pulled the bag to the curb, well—lossy.
But that was just the atoms. Dad also left a lot of bits. There was his daily poetry blog, which I spidered and parsed into a many-thousand-page virtual book. That was easy enough, one night’s work. He also wrote flash poems for decades—a few lines a few times a day, one file per thought, yielding thousands of documents with names like POEM12A.WPD, inside of hundreds of folders with names like COPYAAA.199. I loaded them into a database and threw away all the duplicates. I converted the remainder into more modern, tractable LibreOffice files. That format would preserve all the tabs and spaces that were so important to my father. He was a devotee of white space.
I intended to organize the flash poems into one volume per year, but the time stamps were screwy after decades of moving files between computers. I loved my father, but not enough to undertake thousands of forensic poem investigations. So I fulfilled my filial duty through batch processing. I used all the wonder-tools at my disposal: text-chomping parsing code and Unix utilities galore; Pandoc, which can convert anything to text; SpaCy, a Python natural language library that can extract subjects and tags (“New Haven,” “God,” “Korea,” “Shakespeare,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “America”). I decided that my father wrote two things—Poems, which are less than 300 words, and Longer Works, which are longer. I let the computer sort the rest.
My father’s last decade was one of relentless downsizing, from apartment to assisted living to nursing home, shedding belongings, throwing away clothes and furniture. And at the end: Two boxes and a tiny green urn. The ultimate zip file. After I parsed and processed and batched his digital legacy, it came to 7,382 files and around 7 gigabytes.
The sum of Frank took two days and nights to upload to the Internet Archive, at a rate of a few files per minute. I wonder what the universe will make of this bundle of information. Who will care? Scholars of short plays about the Korean War? Sociologists studying 1930s Irish childhoods? I am sure his words will be ingested, digested, and excreted as chat by untold bots and search engines. Perhaps they’ll be able to make sense of all the modernist imagery. At least he’ll have slowed them down a little. In time, we all end up in a folder somewhere, if we’re lucky. Frank belongs to the world now; I released the files under Creative Commons 0, No Rights Reserved. And I know he would have loved his archive.
The two boxes have become one, taped back up and placed in the attic. No one will worry about that box besides me, and one day my inner bad librarian may feel ready to throw it away. All the digital files are zipped up in one place too—partly because I don’t want his poems to show up every time I search my computer for something. Tomorrow I head to the interment, just my brother and I, and the green urn, too, will be filed away into the ground. I am glad this project is over, but I ended up welcoming the work, guiding these last phases of compression. My father needed a great deal of space, but now he takes up almost none. Almost. Death is a lossy process, but something always remains.