The Hermit Poet

February 25, 2005

Code Poet: Where Programming and Poetry Meet

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 8:55 am

I came across another code poet today by way of The Poetry Blog. David Humphrey has an excellent essay on what being a code poet means and why programming and poetry are connected for him. It echoes many of my own sentiments as a programmer-poet. I wrote him what was intended to be a brief note and ended up much longer.

Letter writing is always an exploratory experience for me. I start writing with the intent to say simply one or two things and I find in the end to have written pages. I wander and connect as I go. Like an erratic shuttle through a loom, I’m not quite certain what tapestry is woven until the last movement is through.

Here’s an excerpt from my letter:

I’ve always found that what drew me to both was my love of language — especially when it is tight, compact, and efficient in its execution. I love language that explores the use of forms, surprises the reader in some sense, or perhaps reinvents the way we view it. Code that borders on poetry does this. The poetry I find appealing does this as well.

The two fields never really seemed in opposition to me — but I did find as a programmer that programming code really taxed the same part of my brain that writing poetry does — and that sometimes meant I had little energy left to write poetry during the crunch periods. Eventually I found I had to choose which one to devote my time to — working in the games industry kept demanding more and more of my time. Do I regret my time in computer science and programming? Not at all, I think the discipline I learned was invaluable.

I recently encountered another code poet — Lola Haskins. She read just the other day at UC Riverside. Evidently she’s been a professor of computer science and information technology out in Florida for long time. Recently she quit her job to dedicate more time to writing. But in any case, she also agrees that the tie between the two fields is a deep love of language.

Have you read Daniel Tiffany’s “Toy Medium”? He addresses the idea of the “lyrical automaton” — that is that the poem is a machine that enacts the underlying experience or moment into existence. In a sense, he is suggesting that the poem, the program, and the magic spell are all means by which we attempt to call into existence (or into our experience) the ineffable.

In any case, it was a pleasure to read your essay and to reflect again on the relationship between poetry and programming. In a way, I think the two are having an illicit affair in the context of language — and everyone else is just pretending that it isn’t happening.

February 24, 2005

Poetry, Materialism, and Anime

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:00 pm

Just finished my last class of the quarter with Chris Abani. We’ve been discussing Thylias Moss’ Slave Moth in relation to Daniel Tiffany’s book on poetry and materialism as enacted in toys, Toy Medium. Very interesting stuff.

Slave Moth is a book-length narrative in linked poems which explores the world of Varl, a young black slave girl who writes/records her thoughts and history (the poems) by embroidering the words on her white shift (the dress worn under regular attire). She creates layers and layers of text-filled dresses, alters her form, and revises events in her telling. Varl is sharp, witty, and merciless. She commands the language, reshaping her existence and her relationships with Master Perry and the other slaves of the house. The dress merges with the motif of the moth cocoon and in a sense, the whole book becomes that cocoon — that liminal space where the ultimate transformations take place. It’s beautifully done — thought provoking and unconventional.

Tiffany’s essay on Poetry and Materialism addresses the idea of the poem as lyrical automaton — ie. that the poem is a machine or simulacrum which calls into existence (or at least into our awareness) this other event or moment. The poem is spell-like — a means of enacting and re-creating. In this regard, Varl’s dress of words is that medium — that simulacrum which allows a full creation of self to happen. Tiffany is fond of pointing to the mechanical cuckoo referred to by Yeats — how it is both the machine and the thing represented. Tiffany’s fascination with the ideas behind dolls and toys in general is an extension of this thinking.

Which, oddly enough, brought me to thinking of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence which deals heavily with these very same ideas. The doll and the human. The machine which is both signifying and the thing itself. I highly recommend reading Tiffany’s book and watching (or re-watching Innocence) — it’s quite the enlightening experience to see his ideas enacted. I guess that makes the movie itself a simulacrum for his ideas.

February 18, 2005

Imagining Poetry in a Digital Age – Pt. III

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:30 am

I was reading Geof Huth’s Visualizing Poetry blog this morning and was pleasantly surprised to see an entry on poetry in the digital age. Very cool and innovative is already happening. Born magazine is one such venue for this new poetry.

February 14, 2005

Poetry and Dance

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:14 am

One of the more interesting things that Pinsky mentioned in his afternoon Q&A session which preceded the evening lecture, was the similiarity between learning to dance and learning to write poetry. He noted that like the dancer, the writer must learn and practice the steps and forms over and over again until they come naturally. It’s hard work, requires plenty of time, and often hurts. But the results are worth it. It occured to me that this parallel really goes even further — it relates as well to composition. Ballroom dancers must practice and learn all their steps and moves until they become a natural extension of their expression, but once they step on the floor to actually perform, these steps and moves must arise unconsciously and spontaneously — the man leading must have both foresight and skill to navigate the floor and the perform the maneuvers with elegance and flair.

In writing poetry we must acquire a similiar set of moves, turns, and skills. Timing is also important. Elegance and beauty arises out of the seemingly natural execution of these things. Dancing is a narrative of its own. Poetry as well. The poet must let go of an overly conscious control of the poem, trusting instead that instinct and intuition will guide him to someplace new. He/she steps out from the concrete first position and into the unknown where anything can happen. The dance floor and the page are both liminal spaces. The poet and the dancer both engage in composition which is driven by a strange blend of passion and foresight.

Even the dance itself is a figure — a representation of the play between the lyric and narrative — or the concrete and the abstract.

Imagining Poetry in a Digital Age – Pt. II

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:47 am

If I were speaking, I think that the following subjects would need to be addressed:

1. The proliferation of online poetry. Given that the webspace is practically free and web editors are easier to use, there has been a bit of a revolution. Every would-be poet now owns the means of his own production. It’s easy to create a webpage and stick poetry on it. Is this “good” for poetry? Gone are the old checks and balances — there is no editorto establish any standard to measure the poetry against (of course such standards have their own problems). How do we separate “good” from “bad”?

2. Hypertext and linked poetry Hypertext and linked poetry has been experimented with, but I haven’t seen too many good examples. Perhaps this might function as a new form? Much like the interactive story form which involves the reader in the development of the story by making choices, perhaps an interactive poem could provide multiple versions. Each variant text a slightly different arrival place. Is this interesting enough to pursue, or merely a curiousity?

3. Flash poetry. Use of Macromedia Flash to create a dynamic poem — a poem that based on the mouse position (on rollover), alters its subsequent lines to create variant texts. Instead of one poem, the poem is a meeting ground of many texts, the reading of which is dependent on where the focus is placed. In other words, a quantum text whose reading is determined by the reader’s interaction with it. This would less clunky than the hypertext poem and come across more elegantly. However, it would also require some degree of programming expertise to pull off nicely.

4. Computer generated poetry. Whether generated by a program which follows strict formal rules (haiku generator, sonnet generator, or sestina generator for example) or one that has no rules beside line length and poem length, it is possible to create something that has the appearance of poetry without the poet. Or is the programmer the poet? Is this really poetry? I’d argue probably not — that poetry implies at least a semi-conscious selection of words. However, given a good AI algorithm, it might be possible to mimic that as well — to have certain families of words favored or to follow a neural network model of associated words (see the Visual Thesaurus for one such example)

5. Internet tools and techniques. With the wide and indiscriminant access to information and noise that the internet provides, I wonder how other poets might make use of the internet in the creation of poetry. For example, do people use Google (or other search engines) to research their ideas? Has anyone played with the form of the returned results of a websearch — either to create a found poem or to write a pseudo-returned results poem? How about sites like Googlism which when given a name will tell you what Google thinks that name represents?

6. The online workshop. Another interesting phenomenon is the rise of the online workshop — in these settings it is quite likely that you will never meet the other poets (or perhaps even know their real names or appearances), and never sit across the table from the one running the workshop. Does the anonymity of such a workshop environment tend toward better criticism and a greater separation between poet and poem? In what ways do the public personae (the nicknames and email addresses we use) influence the reading of our online anonymous work?

February 4, 2005

Imagining Poetry in a Digital Age – Pt. I

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:51 pm

Last night I attended a lecture entitled “Imagining Poetry in the Digital Age” given by Robert Pinsky (former US Poet Laureate). The lecture was part of an ongoing series presented as part of the UC Riverside Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture series.

It was a bit of let down.

First, while Pinsky was his usual charismatic self, he failed to address the topic head on. Instead, he talked at some length on the primordial urge for poetry — poetry as it arises out of the “grunts” we use to pass knowledge and wisdom down to the next generation. Probably the most interesting comment he made was in relation to the medium of the poem as being the body of the individual reader – and by extension that a poem operates on the human scale (all overtones of meaning carefully noted).

Second, the digital aspect of his lecture consisted of the showing us excerpts from a DVD of “ordinary” people reading their favorite poems (this was a product of his Favorite Poems project). As one of the audience members queried afterward in the Q&A panel section, are these true depictions of people reading poetry or are they manufactured? How can video truly communicate a person’s emotional response to poetry? And, as I wondered, were these single take productions, or did the film crew film the same person reading the same poem multiple times. The introduction of the film crew certainly would affect a reader — it’s an intrusion into the personal space in which the poem is enacted. Pinsky, to his credit, did ask the film makers to resist the urge to accompany the reader’s reading with visual elements. Just film the reading, he directed them. Still, showing us digital video of people reading isn’t really addressing the larger issue of how digital media affects poetry.

Third, what I wished had been covered was a more extensive exploration of how poetry has been influenced by the digital age. The panel which followed featured Robert Pinsky(poet/professor), Juan Felipe Herrera (poet/professor), and Toby Miller (film/media studies/women studies). Toby Miller had some interesting comments, but these never had a chance of being fully explored. This I thought was a shame. He commented a little on the role of the internet in the rapid dessimination of poetry — mainly in light of blogs, web pages, and poet & press web presences.