[-empyre-] What is robot poetics? How/why should we teach it?

Michael Widner mikewidner at stanford.edu
Thu May 4 03:16:21 AEST 2017

Hello all,

The context in which I taught Margaret's poems was a course called 
"Programming && Poetry" in which we attempted to find the 
convergences/divergences between code and poetry. The readings included 
Margaret's poems, some by Neil Aitken (examples here: 
machine-generated poetry, and code poems. We also read many more 
"traditional" poems by authors that included Elizabeth Bishop, Walt 
Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, William Carlos Williams, Charles 
Simic, Wallace Stevens, Hayden Carruth, and quite a few others.

I only recently discovered that Morgan Parker, in her latest book "There 
Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé", has a poem "RoboBeyoncé" that 
I'm currently mulling. It starts: "Charging in the darkroom / while you 
sleep I am touch and go / I flicker and get turned on / Exterior shell, 
interior disco / I like my liver steeled / as a gun, my wires / 
unbuttoned to you". Had I known about this poem when I prepared my 
syllabus, I would have put it alongside some of Rhee's poems like "Beam, 
Robot", "Light, Robot", etc. I think it would be really productive to 
discuss the different ways in which the robot can represent marginalized 
figures. For example, I've always read Rhee's robot love poems as a type 
of queer love poetry. In Parker's case, her poems deal regularly with 
issues of black femininity. What does it mean that the robot--an 
ostensibly unfeeling, hard-shelled, potentially dangerous creation--gets 
imbued by these poets with sexuality and love?

Critical readings included 10PRINT (Nick Monfort, et al.), "Screening 
the Page / Paging the Screen" (Marjorie Perloff), Introduction to 
Expressive Processing (Noah Wardrip-Fruin), "The Time of Digital Poetry" 
(Katherine Hayles), Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark 
Johnson), Cognitive Poetics (Peter Stockwell), and several 
articles/pamphlets on text-mining of poetry and genre classification.

I divided the course into several themes; while code & poetry was the 
first, we also discussed electronic literature, critical code studies, 
distant reading, and cognitive poetics. The last topic, for anyone 
unfamiliar, concerns the application of cognitive psychology to the 
understanding of poetry: that is, if the current metaphor for mind is 
computer, then the poem must be a type of program that gets executed in 
that space. If so, what are the mechanisms that create meaning, emotion, 
etc.? My students found this a productive line of inquiry as they 
continued to use these concepts to analyze how the poems we read worked 
on the mind. One of students also put together this exhibit of "Keyword 
Poetry": https://keywordpoems.wordpress.com/, poems that she wrote using 
only the reserved words in different programming languages, along with 
her reflections on the process.

We also discussed WCW's description of poems:

"There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or 
large) machine made out of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental 
about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant. Prose 
may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a 
machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all 
machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a 
literary character."

Combined with our readings in cognitive poetics and our examinations of 
code poems, algorithmically-generated poems, and poems about code, 
Williams's idea reinforced the idea that a poem is like a program meant 
to create a certain state of mind, albeit one far less predictable or 
replicable than a computer program. Another aspect of Williams's thought 
here that I find particularly effective when close reading is the sense 
that every word, every punctuation mark, has meaning, contributes to the 
motion of the poem, and must be weighed in any analysis: much like a 
computer program, where (unless there are logic branches that go 
nowhere) every bit of code has an effect. These ideas required a 
balancing act in which, while providing different tools to decompile (so 
to speak) how poems work, I needed to keep the students aware of the 
ambiguity and variability of a poem's meaning and effects. I was 
regularly reminded of these lines of Whitman's:

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.



> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> A definition is challenging! Terms such as robot poetry, cyborg 
> poetry, or machine writing might potentially include a huge variety of 
> poetic practices: speculative poems about robots, poetic alterations 
> or palimpsests from texts in robotics, code poetry, hypertext poetry, 
> poetry produced via search engines (such as Darren Wershler and Bill 
> Kennedy's /apostrophe/) and other digital poetry experiments. Poems 
> using email or tweets. Poems that reenvision collaboration between 
> programmers and poets.
> There is already a rich scholarly tradition for many of these 
> robopoetics--/Fashionable Noise,/ /New Media Poetics/, /Digital 
> Poetics/, /Prehistoric Digital Poetry/, and Hayles's /Electronic 
> Literature/ and /Writing Machines/, and essays by John Cayley, Talan 
> Memmott, Stephanie Strickland, Ian Hatcher, Florian Cramer, Matt 
> Applegate, Steve Tomasula, and others, invaluable for teaching 
> digital, code, and machine poetics in a special topics seminar I'd 
> like to propose. Matthew Kirschenbaum's thoughtful "Machine Visions" 
> details texts whose styles truly enact Haraway's idea of cyborg 
> writing; Gregory Betts, too, discusses cyborg poetics in his article 
> "I Object," and Christian Bok's "The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed" 
> traces "robopoetics" to its roots in RACTER algorithms.
> Increasingly, robopoetics doesn't only reflect a world saturated with 
> technology but a forum where print and digital cultures interact 
> productively. In "Noise in the Channel," Wershler talks about 
> prose-poeticprint books, including Drucker’s /The Word Made Flesh/, 
> whose page layouts anticipate digital formats. /Writing Machines/ also 
> juxtaposes experimental artists' books and digital poetry.
> I've enjoyed teaching texts from Shelley Jackson's /Patchwork Girl /to 
> Brian Kim Stefans's /The Dreamlife of Letters/ and Jason Nelson's 
> /Game Game Game and Again Game/ in grad and undergrad poetry or 
> postmodernism classes; they raise provocative discussions about what 
> constitutes a book or a poetic collage. But I've taught robopoetics 
> most frequently in an undergrad literature survey class called 
> "American Cyborgs." Larissa Lai's "rachel" poems in /Automaton 
> Biographies/ pair magnificently with both /Blade Runner/ and Haraway, 
> Susan Slaviero's "Consider the Dangers of Reconstructing Your Wife as 
> a Cyborg" humorously (and menacingly) complements our cyborgs and 
> gender unit, and Margaret Rhee's ": Trace" from /Radio Heart/ 
> introduces "Race," in the title's wordplay, as a social construction 
> already-already present even when it hasn't been "programmed yet." The 
> "robot" in her book's subtitle pays homage to Asimov stories in which 
> robotic identity is linked to race and discrimination such as 
> "Bicentennial Man" and "Segregationist." And there is the short film 
> for the lyrics of "Many Moons,'" set amid an updated slave auction, 
> where Janelle Monae presses a button at her neck to change the skin 
> color of her android character. Studying robot poetics and robot 
> subjectivity becomes a way of talking about fights for civil rights, 
> human rights--and the interpretation of documents from the Declaration 
> of Independence to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
> I'm very eager to hear how others in the forum have taught any form of 
> robopoetics, and in what contexts, or with what results...
> Best,
> -Susan
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu

Michael Widner, Ph.D.
Academic Technology Specialist
Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages
Stanford University Libraries
Pigott Hall, Room 108
450 Serra Mall
Stanford, CA 94305
t: 650-798-9485

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