[-empyre-] Emails and Ephemera: Continuing the Conversation

Neil Aitken neil.aitken at gmail.com
Wed May 10 18:24:11 AEST 2017

Hi All,

Thank you Margaret for bring us together for this discussion!  I've enjoyed
reading through last week's posts and, like Tung-Hui, feel very humbled to
be invited to participate in this forum.  I'm a poet, a former computer
games programmer, and a translator. I wrote my PhD dissertation on
nineteenth-century representations of artificial intelligence (eg. thinking
machines and machine-like thinkers).  My second book of poetry, *Babbage's
Dream, *draws on the life and struggles of 19th century computer pioneer
Charles Babbage, as well as offering monologues from artificially
intelligent machines from film and literature, and reinterpreting
programming terms as lyric poetry.

I apologize for being a little scattered, but hopefully this progression of
ideas makes some sense.

In reflecting on how the practices of programming and poetry might inform
my own work, I find myself thinking about the ways in which both were
present in my life from an early age. I was fortunate to have had very
early exposure to computers and programming. When I was 9 or 10, my father
brought home our first computer, an IBM PC Jr, and shortly thereafter I
taught myself how to program in BASIC. I had already started writing poetry
about this time, so it perhaps isn't too surprising that one of my first
original programs was a haiku generator, another was a random text
generator which produced nonsensical passages of word-sized clumps broken
into sentences and paragraphs. In hindsight, these early attempts at
computational linguistics and algorithmic poetry were pretty simplistic,
but they did spark in me a desire to understand better how a poem might be
broken down into a series of gestures or rhetorical structures that might
serve as a functional map for what a poem was doing -- or how it was

As I've continued to work and study both as a programmer and as a creative
writer, I think that the idea that a poem is a type of code has proven
valuable to me in making sense of what edits are necessary and where a poem
breaks down. I often write in a recursive fashion -- I'll write down a
line, read it aloud and listen to it trying to "hear" what the next line
might be, write down that line, reread the poem from the beginning and
testing it again. In this fashion, I'm writing a poem while compiling and
checking for errors, then debugging it when it halts or crashes. Some lines
feel false and get dropped. Sometimes the logic fails and I cut that
branch, or introduce another. In my head, the language and methodology of
debugging code intertwine with more traditional thinking about poetry
revision - or perhaps it might be better to say, I often tend to
reinterpret traditional editing and revision approaches and principles
through a programming lens.

The notion that the poem could be viewed as code was something I found
reaffirmed in Daniel Tiffany's, *Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric, *and
specifically his chapter on poetry as "lyric automaton." Tiffany links the
lyric poem to magical inscriptions which were meant to be invoked through
speech, as well as the idea that such speech acts called into something
into existence out of pure language. The spell or the poem then is not the
thing itself, but the means of summoning or evoking it -- a recipe or a set
of instructions to transforms the intangible into the materially real.
Program code works in a similar fashion -- the code itself is merely words
and when compiled, no more than a series of 0s and 1s -- and yet, the
execution of code produces a real result, something happens, perhaps even
manifesting in the real material world.  Something exists that, until that
program code was run, did not exist.

(Of course, this nothing that material existence or manifestation is
preceded by a linguistic existence is not new. "In the beginning was the
Word" writes John in the New Testament. Likewise, it is an old Kabbalist
tradition that should the true order of the verses of the Sepharith be
revealed and spoken correctly, one could create worlds after the same
fashion as this one, or raise the dead, or perform all manner of miracles.)

Lately I've been thinking about whether or not one could teach poetry using
programming concepts and approaches. What would object oriented poetry look
like? Do poems have constructors and destructors?  Do they possess private
and public data and methods? I feel intuitively that recursion,
indirection, polymorphism, and inheritance are useful concepts that could
be transferred over to thinking about poetry. Are there other concepts
might find their way into an imagined class that blended poetry and
programming in this way?

Tung-hui, I'm curious as to the ways in which you imagine the cloud and
distributed data storage relating to poetry and poetry-writing?

Likewise, Dmitry, I'm wondering if there are approaches, terminologies, or
methodologies from robotics that you see carrying over to writing?

Looking forward to this conversation and seeing where it goes!


On Tue, May 9, 2017 at 8:36 PM, Tung-Hui Hu <tunghui at gmail.com> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hi all,
> Thanks to Margaret for inviting me to participate on this forum, which I
> feel very humbled by; the collective wisdom here is miles above my head.
> I'm a poet and media scholar, working on a new (scholarly) book about
> lethargy -- about media art that is passive rather than actively resisting,
> doesn't speak out, etc. -- and also, at this moment, finishing up a
> manuscript of poetry. I had two off the cuff thoughts in response to
> Margaret's email:
> First, while flipping through job ads with a friend recently, I was struck
> by a position titled, simply, "Creative Writer": the job would be to give
> Google's AIs personalities by writing jokes, witticisms, etc. It made me
> realize that creative writing and algorithmic capitalism are no longer
> particularly separate from each other -- another creative writing grad I
> met had a job writing content for Demand Media, the content farm that pays
> you $3.50 per web page created to capture trending Google searches. This is
> all to say that perhaps the hybrid of programming and poetry is no longer
> that unique; more and more of my students do both: maybe 2-3 per class, but
> the number is growing. Perhaps it's a chance to ask what happens when
> programming is ubiquitous and disposable, to take a page from Ian Bogost.
> Maybe we no longer make grand but easy claims about the power of that
> hybridity -- challenging paradigms, democratic revolutions, etc. -- but
> instead look for more modest claims about what the hybrid can do (as the
> art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson suggested about the participatory artwork
> Learning to Love You More), as well as keeping a watchful eye on its dreary
> effects: e.g. how does it rely on or work with precarity, as the example of
> Demand Media might suggest?
> Second, and more of an aside: Margaret's robots and this forum's
> "soft-skinnned space" were in the back of my head as I read Vievee
> Francis's recent book of poems. Francis's poem "Skinned" is about black
> skin, the speaker's grandmother skinning raccoons, and so on, but then I
> read parts like this:
> Mine is mottled. Stress blemished,
> but soft as hers and I know it. Easy enough to remove. As a girl I tried
> to burn it off. To find the pink I was convinced lay beneath.
> and began to connect the poem's speaker to the recurring fantasy on sci-fi
> shows about making bodies that are skinnable and reskinnable, moldable,
> printable, and about self-discovery when that skin is removed. There's a
> way that that the speaker's epidermalization seems to apply to both
> positions. "She had been skinned herself (so to speak) / in that her skin
> was so often examined and found wanting." Maybe there's something in
> Francis's poem that speaks to the strange plasticity and hybridity of
> today's user, and the difficulty of being unable to claw one's way to what
> is said to "lay beneath".
> Anyway, that's all I've got for now. Hope something sticks,
> Tung-Hui
> On Tue, May 9, 2017 at 4:57 PM, Margaret J Rhee <mrhee at uoregon.edu> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> My apologies, I just came back from an opening of an exhibition I juried
>> entitled "Shifting Movements: The Legacy of Yuri Kochiyama" in San
>> Francisco, which made my messages delayed, and a bit more hastily written
>> then I would like. But emails, as Matias Viegener writes on the
>> correspondences between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark, can be "hastily
>> written, casual, and often indirect," yet, "map the correspondents within
>> their literary, critical, and pop cultural eras," and focuses on "questions
>> for each other, and on what they are reading..." The email correspondences
>> written from 1995 - 1996 is an incredible archive, a "tango of reading,
>> recognition, misreading, and self-recognition," and reveals the complexity
>> of email as intellectual and intimate form of communication.
>> I'm Very into You: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/im-very-you
>> Earlier this morning, I was working with the lab (research on poetics &
>> equality) I lead here, and I tried to explain to my team of research
>> assistants on empyre was, as they will help coordinate the "digital
>> readings" of the last week by Machine Dreams Zine contributors. They were,
>> at first confused, given that they are used to chatrooms, forums, and
>> snapchat. I tried to explain that it was an interesting way to hold a
>> discussion based on email, and they seemed to understand and were excited
>> to think of a forum based on the other possibilities of email.
>> I think often about technology, and the ways technology can facilitate
>> intellectual, and poetic exchange as well. Drawing from Lauren Berlant's
>> work on intimacy, and queer feminist interventions, and on the wonderful
>> exchanges between Acker and War, I want to reflect on the texture of email
>> and the possibilities.
>> Transgression, and communication.
>> This week, I am very pleased our correspondence will include participants
>> who embody creative transgression within their roles as poets, scholars,
>> roboticist, and programmers. In part, to build upon our previous forum on
>> robotic poetics and pedagogy, my collection was formed and shaped by my
>> scholarship on robotic art, and poetic questions that mutually shaped the
>> poems.
>> As someone who works as a poet and a scholar, I was blessed to have
>> models, and mentors who offered that being both, artist and scholar, is
>> possible. As mentioned Ken Goldberg was a formative mentor as a roboticist
>> and new media artist, and continues to serve as an inspiration. There were
>> other individuals at BCNM that were models and embody both artist and
>> scholar included dancer, choreographer, and scholar Ashley Ferro Murray,
>> performer and scholar Caitlin Marshall, and DJ and scholar Reginold A.
>> Royston, to name a few. It was formative to be a graduate student
>> surrounded by individuals who worked through creative, critical, and
>> scientific lens.
>> "Improper Informalities :: Strange Writing :: Eclectic Ties"
>> Reflecting back, creating space for these explorations were important.
>> With Martha Kenney, now professor at SFSU, as graduate students in 2012 we
>> co-organized Mutated Text, a creative writing workshop for graduate
>> students in various fields: http://bcnm.berkeley.edu/2012/
>> 05/16/mutated-text-workshop/
>> As a workshop that emerged with Donna Haraway and Karen Barad at UCSC, it
>> attracted many graduate students who were interested in transgression in
>> their academic writing, and for artists interested in including theoretical
>> or research in their work.
>> When thinking about writing Radio Heart, I was informed by the model of
>> the love poem, Pablo Neruda, and Shakespeare's sonnets, as much as reading
>> robotics theory and history. Yet, the convergence of both in a poem felt
>> challenging or impossible. As mentioned earlier, it was only until I met
>> Dmitry, and our shaped conversations on poetry at UC Berkeley, that helped
>> make possible the exploration of robots in these poems, and bringing my
>> theoretical questions on the robot in larger culture and labor, into my
>> poetic questions, and practice.
>> I am grateful to those that inspire these conversations and
>> possibilities. In particular, poets who draw from differing fields like
>> Dmitry, and others are greatly formative. As a poet and scholar, Tung Hui
>> Hu also informed my emerging practice as a scholar of new media, along with
>> my poetic practice, given his writing as a poet and scholar. Neil Aitken's
>> poetry on Babbage and his own experience as a programmer turned poet, and
>> vice versa, also speaks to the symbiotic relationships between the two
>> roles. I should mention Hui Hui served as faculty at Kundiman, the national
>> Asian American poetry retreat, Neil is one of the early founding fellows,
>> which also sparks questions on Asian American and ethnic poetry, and robot
>> poetics.
>> Perhaps more simply, I am interested in a poetry that is not limited to
>> Poetry, and the ability to embody various forms of expressions, even if
>> larger institutions or culture, may deem it impossible.
>> Going back to our quote by WCW raised by Mike, it is interesting to think
>> about WCW as a doctor and a poet, and how these various visions of our
>> work, and world, help form our poetics, and poetic practice, and
>> intellectual and human engagement? Perhaps WCS also asks questions on
>> diaspora and ethnicity as well, within American poetry.
>> ++
>> The Shifting Movements exhibition in San Francisco continues for the
>> month, and for those in the Bay Area, I encourage you to check out a
>> gorgeous collection of socially engaged art at SOMArts:
>> http://aawaa.net/programs/exhibitions/shifting-movements/
>> I also attached a photograph of the exhibition and the social justice
>> dance (Dnaga Dance), and art in the space: http://dnaga.org
>> In another way, I wonder about the role of activism and political
>> engagement within new media studies, art and how we can be vigilant around
>> these questions of justice.  That perhaps when Martha and I co-convened
>> Mutated Text, we were centrally interested in feminism, but felt the
>> transgression of new media, STS, and creative writing, (strange writing,
>> electric dies) also spoke to the ethos of resistance.
>> best,
>> Margaret
>> --
>> Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
>> Visiting Assistant Professor
>> Women's and Gender Studies
>> University of Oregon
>> _______________________________________________
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
>> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
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Neil Aitken

Author of *Babbage's Dream
2017), *Leviathan *(Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016), and *The Lost Country of
Sight* (Anhinga, 2008).

Other projects:
www.boxcarpoetry.com | www.thelitfantastic.com | www.havebookwilltravel.com
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