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The New Literature

This is a piece I wrote for our class zine on  Critical Theory of Technology for Allison Burtch at the School for Poetic Computation. Hope you enjoy it.

Literature is first and foremost about having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form. So you have to ask, “What is the literature that is best written down on a computer?” – Alan Kay

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning” – George Orwell

What is the new literature? What is the most direct method of communication in an era of digital technology?

Much like Orwell’s ‘long words and exhausted idioms’ I think there are similar over-trodden tropes in digital technology that emerge to fill in the empty space where real meaning might have been. A project where you use a Kinect to control X with your body. What does it say about X, or about your body? I don’t know, but I guess it’s kinda neat.

In my poetry studies in college we focused a lot on how “form is content, content is form.” When Shakespeare leaves off the final stress in a line of iambic pentameter, he does it for a reason, it creates a palpable void that means something at that point in the poem. With our current state of digital technology we have unprecedented capacity to communicate with form, but instead we just see form being used to communicate itself. The Kinect shows you cool stuff you can do with the Kinect. Parallax scrolling shows you that parallax scrolling is pretty. I am all for things that are fun, cool or pretty and agree they are ends in and of itself, but they needn’t be the only ones.

When Alan Kay asks, ‘what is the literature that is best written down on a computer?’ I think of a literature that is felt out through Orwell’s ‘pictures and sensations’ and embellished with words to get the meaning across. People have become complacent in the complete control they have over endless pages of text across the internet: listicles thrive on their skimmability, longreads a gratifying self-flagellation. I want a literature that is more surprising, more frightening, more intentional in its medium, something that might require the reader to pay attention to how they are being told rather than just what.

But this creates a problem as to where one should focus attention: on developing technical skills to better communicate through ‘pictures and sensations,’ or on actually ‘having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form.’ Over the past two years I have been much more focused on developing new technical skills at the expense of interesting things to say, and mostly I think that is ok. I’m not convinced that important ideas and the ideal form for communicating them need to come from the same person.

In other mediums (music, film games) increased complexity of technology has simply led to more people being involved in the process. But writing, the discipline dedicated to the most direct communication of ideas, has remained the stronghold of the isolated auteur. I think it is important that there be people whose primary responsibility in life is to think about the world, but I don’t think they should necessarily be solely responsible for figuring out the best way to convey that thought. Just as data visualization allows for public consumption of vast troves of statistical information, I’d like to see new forms develop for better public understanding of theory, human experience and political argument.

For myself I’m interested in experimenting with my role on both sides of the equation: making myself a vessel for other writers I admire (a la Keats’s negative capability) and thinking long and hard about something and working with others to express it in in the best possible way. The new literature is immense and has barely been explored, there are so many things I still want to try. I hope you will join me.

On Leaving the School for Poetic Computation

As our time at SFPC comes to a close, we were asked to fill out a learning report by  selecting and answering four questions from a larger list as a way of summing up the experience. This is mine.

 

What are some of your memorable learning experiences at the school?

A lot of my learning experiences could be classified as “mundane successes in scary subjects.”

  • Learning to count in binary
  • How to make text show up in C++
  • How to make logic gates and adders out of basic electronics (I’d largely kept away from low-level electronics because I don’t have great fine motor skills, this was very encouraging for me)
  • Understanding how programming languages actually work in Ramsey’s class and then making a simple one

These small successes didn’t yield anything worth showing other people (except as evidence of the learning) but taken together had the effect of making me feel that there is no area of technology that is too difficult for me to engage with. This is a very empowering feeling. After SFPC I will probably spend a few months developing a video game (which is something I haven’t really done before) most likely in a language I’ve never used, and I don’t think I would have felt ready for it before SFPC, but now I’m pretty sure I’ll figure it out. I think this sort of holistic computational knowledge will also allow me to tackle much more complex projects down the line.

I learned a lot about organizing experiences for others from Ida. “Organize little, document much.”

Amit’s idea of teaching as a way to best help yourself learn fundamentally changed how I thought of the vocation and really made me consider it as a life option where I hadn’t really before.

I remember doing all the reading for Allison’s class one week (I believe on the topic of how the language we use to talk about technology defines the roll it plays in our lives) and thinking “wow, thinking is fun” and “I want to read more so I can think about this more.” I hadn’t thought about technology as whole in that critical way before, that was a valuable perspective to learn.

 

What would you’d like to teach and share after the school? and how would you like to teach?

I want to teach writers how to experiment with code/technology to find new ways of conveying their stories and ideas. I also want to teach people with technology skills how to collaborate with writers or use their skills to convey non-statistical information in new and better ways. I’d like to run a workshop where writers get paired up with technologists to produce a project. I don’t think there are enough structures that facilitate this type of collaboration.

Amit has sold me on the efficacy of  very small groups, especially when teaching something people have a lot of inhibitions about (like code.) I once taught a workshop that only 4 people signed up for and I was all like “aw man, no one wanted to take my workshop,” I’m much more inclined to see that situation as an opportunity now.

I’m also excited by the possibility of devloping interactive online tools for this kind of work. I don’t know enough to make them yet, but a lot of times a good tool and instructions on how to use it can go a long way.

 

What do you want the school to become?

I want SFPC to be an enduring part of the cultural landscape of New York City and America. My small field of digital literature has been largely siloed in a few graduate degree programs scattered around the country and for the most part inaccessible to the public. I would like to see SFPC become more of a public institution that acknowledges poetic computation as a valid use of talent and effort and serves as a bridge between the general public and the work of its students and the larger community they represent.

 

What questions are you leaving the school with?  What questions did you come in with?

How can I structure my life so that learning is a constant part of it?
How should I balance my energies between technical skill and valuable ideas? Is it more important to have original technique or original politics?
Am I still a poet?
What makes a good space for working and learning?
Is there a business-model besides commissions and installations that makes sense for this kind of work? Can publishing (many copies low price) make sense for this kind of work?

Roof at Dawn

This is quite an old piece that I was just re-reading lately and thought I would post. An imitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’  The Windhover, I think it has some of the best sounding phrases I’ve ever written.

———-

Roof at Dawn

To Gerard Manley Hopkins

I smelt this evening evening’s feeling, svelt slight fleet-
ness of sun-less, Sophist-sequined bleakness: sable blanket in its brightness
Over bay-born breeze wisp wailing from the South, soft-silent gliding flightless
Skyward, where the brazen, cozened zephyr billets blazon to the heaven’s heat
In vain! What pain and pity process this defeat
As off it blows toward hallowed hollows, dimples dour and delightless
Leaving light, air, still. Lungs lifted from late tightness
By a baffled breadth of breath—to darkling drink; sip night so sweet!

Such starry smells of far-off fires faint kiss, yes, calm, Sol, solemn, speak
Loudly! And let life’s laughter quake the quiet’s shadow shimmer
‘Til ten-thousand thinkers, thoughts afloat awaken, love leave lover’s cheek.

A heady shine: beams bravest break first sunlight-sunrise simmer
From a half-horizon, sight-less blinding brightness, as I seek
Aloof, red rooftop-riding, gilded glimmer.

End Poem from Kiss Punch Poem 12/14/13

Welcome to the Drunk Sad Dad Power Hour,
time to put away those tears
and start pounding these beers

Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed
Velvet Underground Cover Band
performs on top of the empire state building
dressed as vomit-covered Santas
and this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang,
but a cover of ‘Sweet Nuthin’ about garlic knots

Sometimes T.S Eliot
just wants to have a blindfolded threesome
and really doesn’t care who’s sucking his cock.
This is the new American family.
This is progress.

Drunk santas burning their beads to stay warm
Drunk santas burning their bellies for fuel
Drunk sanas burning a pile of E-Z passes
trying to get the cash inside

The lighthouse is a santa burning to show us the way

Dead Drunk Burnng santas gave us this country and
Dead Drunk Burning santas can take it away

Dear Improvisers,
Thanks for tricking drunk young people into
listening to poetry.

Drunk burning santa corpses littering the streets
of 15th century England
Drunk burning santa corpses lining the road
to Magic Satan’s Magic Palace

This week on the CW
drama comes to the Plague House
where there’s only one treatment left
and the sexy bisexual doctor
is looking for the best offer

Hey Russ, see if you can find me?
– Are you hiding in the bushes?
No.
-Are you hiding in the trees?
No. C’mon Russ, you’re better than this.
-Oh fuck, are you hiding in front of the wall again?
I AM THE WALL, RUSS

Some puns fall into your lap,
and some you have to work for.

Drunk santas crossing the George Washington Bridge
Drunk santas marching down the Pennsylvania Turnpike
Drunk santas sleeping til April,
in a snowbank so silent and white.

Hotwriting

Hotwriting is a performance medium I’ve been developing over the past year or so, and I guess it’s a little strange that there isn’t a post about it on here. Basically I use a wireless USB keyboard, a full-screen word processor called Q10 and a hotkey-scripting language called AutoHotkey to tie strings of text (i.e. lines of a poem) to a specific key on the keyboard, so when I press the key the whole line will show up, and then a recording of that line being read will be played. I’m also doing other fun things with images video and sound design. The best way to get a gist of it is to see it. Below is a video of a performance I did at Derangement of the Senses in June:

 

 

And here’s a screen capture of a specific piece:

 

‘I’m always looking for more places to perform this, if you know of anything get in touch through the contact form on this site.

 

26 Year-Olds and the Tyranny of Four-Year Cycles

I watched this video the other day about James Murphy thrashing around in his early twenties, and finding himself doing nothing at the age of 26 which seemed especially bad to him, and eventually got him on the trajectory to making LCD Soundsystem.

The number 26 stuck out to me. I feel like I’ve heard about a lot of people making Major Life Decisions (marriage, career change), starting Big Things or generally doing something drastic at the age of 26. It’s an age when many get out of graduate, when many realize dead-end jobs are dead-end jobs, but most importantly, it’s the end of the post-college four-year phantom cycle.

Think about it, when you graduate college you’ve been thinking about life in terms of four-year cycles for the past eight years, that’s pretty much your entire adult life. It becomes the brains internal schedule for human development:

  1. The first year, you try out a bunch of new things and you suck at a lot of them but it doesn’t matter because you’re just trying to figure things out and everyone else that year sucks at a lot of stuff also
  2. Second year you start working harder, try to find what you’re best at and enjoy most and focus on that. You suck at stuff much less than year 1.
  3. You put some serious effort into whatever you chose to explore, you know the ins and outs of the school.
  4.  You accomplish something significant in your field, start thinking about the next Big Change, and significantly, you graduate.

Most people graduate college at age 22, and then get launched into the post-college four-year phantom cycle, in which you expect yourself and your life to develop along the contours of your past two four-year cycles, and to your great dismay, it doesn’t. You can spend your first year trying things out and its suddenly NOT OK that you suck. You can get fired for sucking.

It’s a lot harder to get better at things in the real world than academic institutions (especially with all the energy you spend just trying to live), and so you might get to the third or fourth year and discover you’re not that much farther along in deciding what you want to do or being the person who can do it.

And then it’s June, and you’re 26, and you’re ready to graduate. From what? To what? [Insert Big Life Decision Here]. I think this is actually what people mean when they talk about a quarter-life crisis.

The four-year cycle can be a useful way to think about things, but its also incredibly brutal when applied to the real world because there’s people out there who’ve been doing this shit for 15-20 years more than you, not just 3.

Life is so ridiculously long. You can wait until your 26 and make a big change, or you can do it now, or you can be like Dr. Seuss and write your first book at age 34 to the delight of millions, or you can just keep on living and keeping the things that make you happy and ditching the things that don’t. There’s pretty much no roadmap. You’re an adult. You make the rules.

I’m 24 and it’s the summer which officially makes me an incoming junior in the school of life and I’m still figuring my shit out and that’s just fine.

Poetry Observed Illustrated Broadsides

So as some of you may know, we had our release party for the new Poetry Observed series for New York on Monday at Louderarts. It was a huge success and I want to thank everyone for coming out. The videos will be coming out online soon, but right now I want to show you these illustrated broadsides we put together for each video in our series. We matched each poet up with an artist and the results of the collaboration were astounding. Check ’em out below:

These were our most popular Kickstarter reward and will be going out to backers within the week, but they’ll be available for sale to the public soon after at poetryobserved.com.

And finally a shout-out to our amazing artists who made this all possible:

Deb Berman – The Sky Now Black With Birds
Kailyn Kent – Pinocchio and A Letter to Sarah
Matt Loxley – When You Sew What You Reap
Henry Moskowitz – Barcode
Gabrielle Peterson – Repetition
Sarah Rebar – My Friend and Advice to the Photophobic
Eduardo Santana – One
Tyson Schroeder – The Session