Process and Intuition 1: how I got into using Markov chains for my poems


This diagram has something to do with Markhov chains, apparently.

The above diagram is as clear to me as my own understanding of my writing process, or any theories or purposes I have for writing the way I do. I tell myself that it has a lot to do with enjoyment, but I don’t know about that either.

Even before I began using a computer program to generate semi-random source material for my poems, I was already working off of the bizarre syntax and associations of some of the spam e-mail that was flooding my g-mail account, rearranging groupings of repeated words and phrases that came in the related sequences of randomized text. The insinuations that rise out of words placed in bizarre and unusually orders are sometimes stimulating and “fresh” in a way that I wanted to recreate.

I took advantage of my brother, a computer programmer, and asked him if he knew of any wat to make a program that would generate output similar to what I was enjoying in the spam messages. He had been looking at a program that uses the Markhov chain to combine two texts to often humourous effect, a programming trick that I begun to see is not exactly new. He took the code and translated it into Python, rewriting the process to take advantage of some different database widgets in the Python language, and setting up different variables to enter into it as commands. [He is currently working on a GUI for an updated version of the program that I am yet to see.]

What the program does is create a Markhov chain. I first input a large volume of text. I usually aim for at least a hundred pages, but thanks to free e-text repositories like Project Gutenberg, I can put in thousands of pages, if I feel like it. I tell it what key length I want it to analyze for: the larger the number, the less random and mixed the output. (I usually set it at one.) Then it outputs a chain of a certain number of words based on how many times I tell it to chain (or iterate). The result is a total mess of semi-grammatical sentences that are often extremely tiresome to read, but occasionally inspiring. This is where the real process of writing comes in.

The question arises here on what the source of inspiration has become with this process. I like to think that it is not much different from whatever internal (?) source I had before, but the conditions are quite different, and appear to be more controlled (?). But then, I believe the separation of internal and external reality is merely something that is apparent, not necesarily true.

Anyway, the program takes meaningful texts (either e-books or often selected blog posts) and mixes them all into an incoherent stew of insinuations. The first part of the process involves selection: of what texts to put in; of what words and phrases are taken from the program’s output; and lastly, the selection of which parts seem to resonate. This resonance can be based solely on my reaction to the output, or it may be based on the original texts as well; this relies on if I chose to read the texts I put in (which is usually the case with blog posts) or if I just put them in without much consideration to their original meanings other than the genre or category.

The second part of the process relies upon, I hope, a keen intuition. What seems right (whatever that means) when put together in a certain order? What happens when you separate them? What comes out of the dissonance of certain juxtapostions? What is this output, from this particular input, and in relation to my own frame of mind, trying to say? And when I have selected certain phrases, how can I actually connect them together? Is there a voice or character that is coming out of the text I have selected from the output?

At this point, I have begun to heavily reword things, inverting the meanings of phrases, moving them around on the page, and adding quite a bit of my own material to fill in the gaps. If what I am working on seems to correspond to another poem I had been working on, I may work lines from that in.

What comes out of this whole process is usually very raw and mangled. I hope its confusion is mostly a reflection of my own confusion, or my mind’s lack of clarity on that particular day or series of days. What I have found most interesting about this process, though, is the effect it has had on my writing that doesn’t use the MChain program (or The Monster, as I sometimes call it). In some ways, the demands of the process upon my intuition, my sense of rhythm, and my idea of what seems fresh, carries over into a lot of what I write without the program. I never know what is going to come out, and making a poem out of the program that works never becomes any easier, and it has never been easier than writing a poem in a more traditional way. But I like what I’m doing, and I’m always trying to think of some other way to use (and not use) the MChain program.


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