Causes of Moisture Left in My Opinion
Commentaries and Polyglots
He Stared Sternly Across the Atlantic
The Situation Philosophically Did Its Immortal Work
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QM: Could you say a word or two about your texts? I’ve sometimes had the feeling that you use found texts, but googling suggests that I’m mistaken. (Maybe I’m just stuck in a post-conceptual world in which every text must be suspected of having “unoriginal” origins.) Is concrete poetry a place for the traditional lyric “I”?
SC: I use found texts as a way to build a database of English words that isn’t using the dictionary. So yes, I’m using found texts, but no, they’re just stripped to the individual words so any copied text from a work is random and accidental.
The root of this was when I was doing artificial intelligence research. Dr Selmer Bringsjord started and still leads the BRUTUS project, which is an artificial intelligence that writes 1,000- to 1,500-word murder mysteries. He selected mysteries because they were, to him, the most formulaic literature. I did a little work on this project when I was in graduate school at Rensselaer. Then around 2012 (this timeframe is important in a later answer) I got to thinking about the project again to create short, 10-line or so poems. In the meantime I was doodling around weird poems inside shapes whenever I was at an office writing job trying to fill time. Trying to fill flowchart shapes, trying to draw with words, typical mid-’70s concrete poetry that you would look at and go “huh lookit that” and move on to the next poem you actually read. Like I said, I wasn’t trying to break ground, I was trying to fill time and generally do weird things with the available software.
Returning to the AI – the program I cobbled together was intended to generate non-rhymed, non-metered poetry, as a way to refresh my higher language skills. It worked, except I’d end up with mediocre poems. The original function of BRUTUS was to create formulaic mysteries, good enough to be a work of creation but only good enough to not stand out. The function was to show a machine could create the same middling prose a human could, and that you couldn’t tell the difference. BRUTUS does it magnificently, and is arguably the best AI because you can’t tell its stories from pulp.
And I was getting the same results with poems. They were boring. Hallmark-card level tedium. I couldn’t get them consistently dull, because one or two lines in every poem would be a garbled, nonsensical mess. (I’m a crap programmer.) So I decided I’d just have it output and rather than try to get good results I’d just edit together the output. I was editing multiple output poems to look more interesting than the program was built to do.
Right away I saw that the computer should be doing the same thing with the lines. Poetry’s first visual importance is that where you don’t write on the page is as vital as where you do write. So I had the computer generate lines to flow the text on. Mainly these were derived from the math used to generate the engraving copy protection procedures. So there would be these beautiful swirls but because I couldn’t get the math just right those too would eventually devolve into a garbled mess. So I started editing those results.
In the end I realized that I was creating a type of “glitch” work. Glitch is the use of a technological tool to accidentally add artifacts to something you’ve created. Now I’m the tool for the machine, glitching what it is creating.
QM: Does it matter if the texts of these poems are read, or readable? Is yours a poetry to be thought about as a concept, not examined as a series of objects?
SC: It matters that the words are visible and identifiable as symbols that could, somehow, be read. Flashes of the text will show through, and in some cases you can eventually work through all of the text. But this gets back to 2012. The Mayan calendar was supposedly predicting the end of the world, but if you just looked at one, you, the average twenty-first-century world citizen, would be hard pressed to identify the Mayan Long Count calendar as a calendar. You just look at it, and appreciate that something is communicated and consider what it could be, what it might be, what you would like it to be.
Similarly these poems can be read (and I have read them at readings), or they can be viewed and understood as their own symbol, communicating as any other non-word symbol. It’s both.
When you learn how to process a symbol, such as the alphabet, then it is impossible for that symbol to enter your mind (usually seen, read, etc.) and NOT be processed. In this way, these poems give you multiple non-processable symbols that you can then make up your own intentions and definitions for.
I do have a chapbook I want to create that does push this boundary of pieces considered independently of the whole. But it’s probably not like you’re envisioning. I assume I will have to publish the chap myself as the construction of it would be so atypical. But who knows?
QM: Why concrete poetry now?
SC: I think people see concrete poetry as the doo-wop of poetry. Doo-wop is a cul-de-sac on the map of rock and roll, to twist Paul Simon’s description of it. I think a lot of what’s been put out there lately is simply trying to ride circles in the cul-de-sac while pretending that you’re on your bike in the graphic design neighborhood. It is very possible that if we (we concrete poets) really push what’s possible we will only be making the cul-de-sac a block longer . . . but I really think there hasn’t been enough exploration of shape and symbol and the word to understand what we mean when we write a concrete or other form of visual poem.
One of my degrees is in German literature and I extensively studied the poetry of concentration camps (KZ-Lager Gedichte). I think that kept me from writing poetry with any serious emotional intensity for a couple of reasons. First, because when you write about poetry all day you don’t want to unwind by sinking yourself into even more poetry, and second, because I knew I was never going to feel the emotional intensity to write a poem after reading a poem by a child where he wonders if he’ll ever see something without also seeing a fence in the background. Computers probably let me disassociate from that level of reality to allow me to write. Eventually I had to write poems again and this is how it manifested.
QM: Would you say that the idea of organic form can be applied to concrete poetry? That is, does the chosen form emerge from the subject matter? Conventional poets may say that a certain structure or rhythm seems natural to them; can this be the case with forms as complex and “artificial” as the ones you use?
SC: It can be applied. I don’t currently do it. Sometimes I edit the shape first, sometimes the text first, so each is informed independently. But they easily could, and arguably should, be created as pieces that emerge and grow together. But the subject matter in these cases is moot. The computer is writing it. I could edit together a story, a thread, or force one via programming, but that’s not the point.
That said, everything about how these poems are created – from my programming to the computer’s output to my editing – feels completely natural and as if I should have been doing this all along, not toiling in ghost/tech/marketing writing obscurity.
QM: Without divulging trade secrets, what can you tell me about the process of creating concrete poems? Did you try your hand at concrete poetry before software was there to help?
SC: I think I described what I do as the answer to the first question. I have tried concrete poetry independent of the computer and it just feels childish to me. I don’t have the artistic skills to draw without a computer. I’ve had access to computers regularly since 1980, starting with a Digital VT180 and after that LOGO and Pascal programming on the TI-99/4A. Anything I tried to do with pencil and paper that wasn’t letters was never good enough to me. Any visual art on paper I tried was always ugly to me.
I did write what I called code poems mimicking the syntax of LISP and FORTRAN. They weren’t code poems in the strict sense as they wouldn’t compile. I suppose those would count as concrete in their own way. While I did write them in a word processor I didn’t write them in any way that would have been different than on paper.
QM: I hope I haven’t phrased any of this too clumsily. Of course, the questions are not about me sounding clever (thank God); I just wanted to give you the opportunity to talk a bit.
SC: You’ve been exceptionally kind to give me this opportunity to talk. I hope I wasn’t too manifesto-y in parts. Though I do love a good manifesto.
Luscious Dick Tacoma lives 18 inches above the Columbia River.