Markovian Parallax Generate: On digital writing and poetics

Response to Issue 1

Posted in Computational Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on October 26, 2008

I guess I’m a few weeks behind on this internet sensation, but on a blog (that nobody reads) purporting to be about computational poetics, I feel obligated to say something. Chad alerted me yesterday that my thunder may have been stolen by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter (of Erica T. Carter and The Prosthetic Imagination, I just remembered) with this poetic event–or parody, stunt, statement, conceptual art piece, as you like. I don’t think they stole whatever thunder I may have, but they have certainly shaken up much of the poetry world with this gesture.

If you’re even more behind than me, get it from for godot and see it for yourself.

I browsed sparingly through the 3,000+ page “issue,” and the first thing I noticed was a great deal of Joseph Conrad showing through the fly. It seems pretty obvious to me that this was a computer-generated project. Erica T. Carter is Jim Carpenter’s baby, after all. I’ve spent some time using that program (it’s a great project), and having worked for a year now on a series of “sonnets” with Heart of Darkness and the Gnoetry 0.2 program (see Beard of Bees), its impossible to miss the signatures of cut-up Conrad. The intention and point behind Issue 1 is very different from what I’ve been doing, though, so I don’t see how this impacts my own project, except perhaps for more people to be aware of the computer process behind it.

The poetry itself feels trivial to me, intentionally, I assume. The sheer volume of it, and it sounding all the same, undermines the meaning of any particular line or poem in order to make its point: others have already interpreted this as a statement about poetry all sounding the same, or something like that. You can read Jim Carpenter’s own statements of intention here on his blog. Their “parody” of anthologies, as he puts it, or their “plagiarizing” as its “victims” have put it, has upset enough poets to make it a significant enough statement.

Of all the responses I read in comment streams, I have found myself agreeing most with Nada Gordon’s on Silliman’s Blog:

Whoa. It’s OBVIOUS that this is an art project. A rather clever one, to my mind. It’s anarcho-flarf, maybe, but not vandalism. It’s not “playing with other people’s reps.” The poems in this anthology will neither make nor break the reputations of anyone except perhaps Stephen and Jim, who should be lauded for the grand scale of their conceptual art piece, which no doubt entailed a lot of work.

Maybe it’s just because you, Ron, actually make a little money off your work that you care so intensely about this. The financial tough talk at the end of your post would seem to support this notion. You seemed to have a similar reaction to Google scanning books a while back. You are a man with influence and power, Ron, and these are COLLEGE STUDENTS, you are threatening COLLEGE STUDENTS. Is it really warranted?

For myself, always condemned to (revel in) triviality and utter monetary profitlessness, this is merely… amusing.

At heart, fear of loss of name seems to me to be connected to a fear of Thanatos, of having one’s “singular identity” merge into a great pool of indeterminacy. This will certainly happen to all of us, to our physical bodies firstly, and secondly to all of our “literary reputations” when human history finally (and maybe, blessedly) ends.

The massive scale of the thing neutralizes any “reputation- destroying” potential that a more targeted hoax might have. I might be peeved, honestly, if someone had written an entire book and passed it off as mine (although… wait… someone did that… and I liked it! I even wrote the preface to it!). We’re all thrown into identity soup here, though, and that changes the game.

It would behoove us all, therefore, to untwist our knickers. It’s not… NOT… a big deal. It is an art project.

This may not be a big deal as a collection of poems, but it has exposed A LOT of poets to one example of a compositional process and aesthetic which is gaining momentum in the poetry world. Kenneth Goldsmith’s conception of the contemporary poet as a “word processor” is a powerful one for me and a growing number of poets who see new technologies as a way to move out of the stagnation of poetry in our times.

And so, without further ado, here is my rant:

I think this poetic event should make all poets ask themselves (again, I hope) what function poetry serves and what means work best to serve its ends. In the current environment of poetry, especially for young poets, there is a growing sense of irrelevance (or is it hopelessness) regarding the established institutions of the trade: journals, book presses, anthologies, contests. I am not kept going as a writer out of any expectation of reward for my toil through such mediums, or of acknowledgment for it through the dominant economic and cultural institutions, though I accept their still necessary role for us. I hope vaguely to have some beneficial impact on the lives I may interact with through my work, but beyond this I expect nothing in the way of fame, career, or money. Is it right that it should be this way? I don’t know. Will new institutions and media emerge that give poets greater cultural presence? I certainly hope so. At this point in time, though, I partially agree with Nada Gordon that, for a poet getting started, to cling so vehemently to name recognition and the hope of making a “career” of poetry seems inappropriate. For myself, I feel this would get in the way or working productively towards something greater than the current institutions allow. The Language poets made their own journals and presses, and worked in other ways to resist the forces that would have buried them. I don’t believe, though, that these same techniques alone will work now for the emerging generation of poets. We need to stop worrying just about our own words and our own reputations and start working to create new venues and mediums for the experience of poetic language and imagination. This is the most important kind of creativity needed from poets right now, and it is good to see so many poets displaying it through their work–including both Carpenter and McLaughlin as well as many of the poets “included” in their anthology.

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