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

Margaret J Rhee mrhee at uoregon.edu
Tue May 16 10:20:01 AEST 2017

Thank you Dmitry, Tung-Hui, and Neil for your generative comments, and 
participating in the week's forum. I've been processing your thoughts 
here, and struck by some threads.

 From Tung Hui's post on the Google AI's personalities, and the new 
creative writing AI jobs, it is striking to think, while programming and 
poetry students may be more common, I wonder if it does depend on a 
cultural shift, and how we can grapple with the logics of capitalism and 

Thinking about the Google AI personalities reminded me of my job, when I 
was working to develop an online game for freshmen at Berkeley, a few 
years back. The game was an online Turing Test, and I was responsible 
for writing out the majority of the chatscripts for the game, it was 
what I could do as a writer. Others, as illustrators and technologists, 
worked on the art and programming side of things. The point of the game 
was for students to guess who was a machine or human, and learn about 
campus as well by way of chat bots.

When researching chatscripts, I thought of the scene in the play Closer, 
written by Patrick Marber, and later as a film, directed by Mike Nicols. 
In the play, two characters Dan and Larry meet in an adult chat room and 
have a back and forth, with Dan impersonating a woman, this, all 
unbeknownst to Larry. This scene was a particularly new development in 
90s theatre staging of chatrooms and information technologies.

I think Tung-Hui's comments connects to what Neil describes in his 
process of programming and writing poetry, and how both engage in a 
"series of gestures," and mapping. Neil's comments connects to Dmitry's 
words on his practice of poetry, and robotics research.

Bot of your posts, reminds me of what Helen Vender writes of the logics 
of the poet's process, in her book Poet's Thinking:

"In short, the relation of poetry to thought is an uneasy one. Some law 
other than the conduct of an argument is always governing a poem, even 
when the poem purports to be relating the undolfing of thought. On the 
other hand, even when a poem seems to be spontaneous outburst of 
feeling, it is being directed, as a feat of ordered language, but 
something one can only call thought."

Here, Vendler is interested in how poets think through their poetry, by 
grouping together four poets-- Dickinson, Pope, Whitman, and Yeats--she 
argues how poets embody a process of thinking, that is original, and 
unique to the poet.

As Vendler writes, "My question--by what means does a poet reproduce an 
individual and characteristic process of thinking? -- can be addressed 
to any work."


Not to stress that there is something extraordinary about this 
transgression, but I think as Dmitry and Neil raise especially in their 
process of writing poetry, and the differences or similarities between 
programming and robotics, that there is something unique about the the 
way poets express their unique logics in their poetry.

I like thinking of Daniel Tiffany's work and his notion of "lyric 
automaton," I also wonder about Daniel's engagement in theory, as a 
poet, and how this shapes poetics, and thinking. I guess I am also 
always trying to grapple with my own poetic practice, and scholarly 
practice. Tung-Hui of course, has been an inspiring model, as well as 
Dmitry and Neil in your programming, robotics, and poetry background.

Dmitry's point about the practice of poetry, and robotics, in which they 
don't overlap, but do so by way of the process of intuition, helps me 
think about creativity within all your responses and approaches to these 


On Thursday, Neil and I participated in a poetry reading and panel on 
literary activism at Literary Arts in Portland.  We discussed ideas of 
activism and the role of the poet, and Neil as a moderator of the event, 
had a really beautiful question I am still thinking about.

Forgive me, or correct me, if I phrase this incorrectly Neil, but you 
asked us, is the politics thrust on us, or is it chosen?

I think it was a generative framing,  I have realized in our 
conversation on Thursday, that for me, much of the science fiction 
poetry I write, allows the exploration of these themes without the 
burden of race and politics. Both of which, I think deeply about, but 
takes different directions when not overtly.

Perhaps in the same way, as we have separations and intersections, from 
our practice as roboticist, scholars, and programmers, and how the poem 
can hold a kind of thinking, that differs or augments our other kinds of 
expressions, and explorations.

I loved the humanity in Dmitry's poetry, and it helped me to see the 
world, in enlightened ways of living and thinking, and to think of the 
poem within a particular texture, and musicality.

I want to think through this more, all of your responses has stimulated 
additional questions, and understandings.

I am searching for something deeper, that "lay beneath," I wonder to 
understand it. At this point, I like that there is not much 
institutionalization of it, or a Google AI job market, it's an 
interesting tension, this kind of creativity.

On 2017-05-12 10:33, Dmitry Berenson wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hi everyone,
> First, sorry for the delay, I'm digging out after some email-less
> travel. Thank you to Margaret for bringing us together in this
> conversation. To summarize what I do related to robotics and poetry is
> difficult. I've felt like these were two separate interests of mine
> ("left brain" and "right brain" so to speak) that didn't overlap much.
> In response to Neil I'd say that recently I've started to notice
> something they share, namely that the draw from a common source:
> intuition. This may be obvious, but to see the way in which a vague
> idea becomes a robot motion planning algorithm or the way it
> concertizes into words is fascinating to me.
> My approach to robotics is to observe what I'm thinking and how I'm
> moving to do a task (like picking up a cup) and try to understand the
> fundamental aspects of the process so that I can make a robot do the
> same thing. What data am I gathering? What am I expecting to happen?
> How do I react what something unexpected occurs? Based on what I
> observe there, I can intuit an algorithm that might do the same kind
> of thing, though the true algorithm my mind is using is, at least
> through this method, probably unknowable. Given the inputs, outputs,
> and the sketch of the algorithm, I try to fill in the rest using a
> combination of ideas already existing in robotics so it actually
> works. I'm under no illusion that this produces anything like what the
> mind does, it's more inspired by what the mind can do.
> My approach to poetry is more open-ended but there are some
> similarities. When writing, I start by just letting my mind wander for
> a while. If it comes across something that hooks me either
> intellectually or emotionally, I write it down and kind of let it flow
> until something develops. It's a very open-ended process that doesn't
> produce anything I'd show to anyone most of the time, but once in a
> while something comes through. If there's something interesting going
> on in the poem, I then edit using some of the same techniques as
> algorithm development; i.e. using tricks I've developed or have seen
> others use to enhance the weaker parts of the poem. Basically, this
> kind of tweaking is making the poem more interesting to read and more
> clever with language (this is what I think of as making the poem
> "work"). I wish it came out clever to start with but unfortunately
> that doesn't happen to me very often.
> When I look at both of these processes I realize a lot of what I'm
> doing is getting something to work for some recipient. In robotics,
> this would be making the algorithm work on the robot and making sure
> it's interesting enough for publication as an academic paper. In
> poetry, it's making it work on the page for the reader and perhaps at
> a poetry reading. Not to be too flippant, but I see both of these as a
> kind entertainment for the reader of the paper/poem. In both products
> I endeavor to entertain the reader with something interesting and
> unique and make clear that I did it. Seems kind of like a waste of
> time when you think about it, but then again, what else are you going
> to do?
> Dmitry
> On Thu, May 11, 2017 at 3:01 PM, Margaret J Rhee <mrhee at uoregon.edu>
> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Dear all,
>> This is so generative, thank you Tung Hui, and Neil for your
>> insights as always.
>> I'm struck by your inclusion of Vievee Francis's poetry, thinking of
>> color, and skin.
>> I am always in awe of color in poetry, specifically contemporary
>> experimental poetry
>> by Harreyette Mullen + Stein, and Maggie Nelson (Blulets) to name a
>> few.
>> What pink, white, and blue means, in terms of race, and poetry.
>> This is a bit digressive, and I want to get back to poetry and
>> programming.
>> I love the way  Neil constructs his poetry process.
>> But currently, in terms of color, I have been interested in the
>> color orange, and how
>> to dismantle it, and how does robot poetics intervene with politics.
>> This video interview with Elizabeth Alexander and Claudia Rankine
>> was striking,
>> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LMh95m8snQ [1]
>> Do our identities as, shape our poetic process, and what we write?
>> I think also about Terrance Hayes, as I know Dmitry and I have
>> discussed his work,
>> and they have worked together.
>> Hayes's recent speech for the NEA on Cave Canem:
>> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V58BYM4DtE [2]
>> I am still thinking of the generative provocations of the google ad,
>> poetry, and programming.
>> I know Dmitry is traveling and gets back, and look forward to his
>> comments soon.
>> yours,
>> Margaret
>> On 2017-05-10 01:24, Neil Aitken wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> 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.
>> 1.
>> 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 operating.
>> 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.
>> 2.
>> 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.)
>> 3.
>> 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!
>> Neil
>> 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 [3]
>> [1]
>> 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/ [4] [2]
>> 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/ [5] [3]
>> 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 [6] [4]
>> _______________________________________________
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
>> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu [6] [4]
> --
> Neil Aitken
> www.neil-aitken.com [7] [5]
> Author of _Babbage's Dream [6]_ (Sundress, 2017), _Leviathan
> _(Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016), and _The Lost Country of Sight_
> (Anhinga, 2008).
> Other projects:
> www.boxcarpoetry.com [8] [7] | www.thelitfantastic.com [9] [8] |
> www.havebookwilltravel.com [10] [9]
> Links:
> ------
> [1] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/im-very-you [3]
> [2] http://bcnm.berkeley.edu/2012/05/16/mutated-text-workshop/ [4]
> [3] http://aawaa.net/programs/exhibitions/shifting-movements/ [5]
> [4] http://empyre.library.cornell.edu [6]
> [5] http://www.neil-aitken.com
> [6]
> https://squareup.com/store/sundress-publications/item/babbage-s-dream-by-neil-aitken
> [11]
> [7] http://www.boxcarpoetry.com
> [8] http://www.thelitfantastic.com
> [9] http://www.havebookwilltravel.com [10]
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu [6]
> --
> 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 [6]
> Links:
> ------
> [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LMh95m8snQ
> [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V58BYM4DtE
> [3] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/im-very-you
> [4] http://bcnm.berkeley.edu/2012/05/16/mutated-text-workshop/
> [5] http://aawaa.net/programs/exhibitions/shifting-movements/
> [6] http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
> [7] http://www.neil-aitken.com
> [8] http://www.boxcarpoetry.com
> [9] http://www.thelitfantastic.com
> [10] http://www.havebookwilltravel.com
> [11]
> https://squareup.com/store/sundress-publications/item/babbage-s-dream-by-neil-aitken
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu

Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.

Visiting Assistant Professor
Women's and Gender Studies
University of Oregon

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