Good Article for Young Poets

Off The Shelf: Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry,” by Matthew Zapruder.

Thanks to Ron Silliman for linking this on his blog. This seems like it would be a great resource for instructors teaching introduction to poetry courses, or anybody else new to poetry. It does a good job filling in crucial history of the formal shift in English language poetry from the old days of rhyme and meter to our more contemporary (in)formal tendencies. I know I had a few students who seemed determined to write like Alexander Pope, Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickenson who might benefit from this. Zapruder also connects poets to visual artists–a connection which I think is good to encourage in young writers’ minds–and introduces some helpful ways of thinking about the discursive element of poetry, the level of statement and idea, instead of focusing only on the formal aspects of writing.

Some quotable moments:

For about a year, I carried around a rhyming dictionary, writing terrible sonnets, lousy sestinas, atrocious villanelles, abysmal pantoums. I felt like I was working, which was good, but it was also painful and embarrassing to write so much bad poetry.

I didn’t realize then that I was doing my own clumsy version of what art students do when they learn to paint. Now every time I go to the museum I see at least one of them with a sketchbook, copying the great paintings, and it makes sense to me. I’m glad I did it, even though nothing I wrote was any good.


One thing I do notice about my poems is that, though they might not have overt formal elements, there is always a rhythm that develops, subtly, in the voice of the speaker. Maybe something more like a cadence. Most poetry is “formal” in that way.

And I think, secretly, that my poems actually do rhyme. It’s just that the rhyme is what I would call “conceptual,” that is, not made of sounds, but of ideas that accomplish what the sounds do in formal poetry: to connect elements that one wouldn’t have expected, and to make the reader or listener, even if just for a moment, feel the complexity and disorder of life, and at the same time what Wallace Stevens called the “obscurity of an order, a whole.”

I would only suggest that conceptual rhythm be added to the idea of conceptual rhyme. The most interesting poetry these days, for me at least, must be engaging on this level–of patterns of thought, the play (or disruption, or explosion) of signs, of making words mean elsewise, of making statements or impressions that are  surprising to both reader and author–and only after that do I admire its formal, linguistic or aural ingenuity. Alternately, I would also say that I have used formal, linguistic and aural constraints to give my writing a framework within which these “conceptual” elements might better flourish. In either case, the conceptual level of works end up taking precedence over the other (still essential) elements; i.e. I would not consider the work to be good without perfection on that level, though I might tolerate a lack or have more flexibility with the rest.

The education in literature Americans receive through high school is overall totally inadequate at giving young people the necessary foundation to make it an important part of their mental lives (if they are allowed these). Poetry suffers especially, and I have seen it in undergraduates that know nothing of poetry after 1900. Maybe this article will help to make up for this gap in understanding, or at least point them in a more relevant and timely direction. And just maybe, after reading this article, jumps to more experimental “forms” of poetry and works of conceptual poetry might not be so difficult for students to make.


I Stopped Myself Just Short of a Twitter Pun… Be Thankful!

Twitter_melon_256x256So yeah, I’m tweeting away these days. Tweets of exactly 140 characters (including spaces and line breaks). They’re on the side of the page and on my Twitter page. I’m not sure if these are poems or just stupidity, but I’m bored and I need some other outlet for my energy.

Let me know if you enjoy them or hate them. I’ll let you know if you’re awesome or a dumb dumb head.

Visit the Updated Mchain Poetics Blog

Major updates, revisions and extensions have been made to my Mchain blog, now entitled Markovian Parallax Generate. Some of the most important changes were made to better promote the distribution and use of two of the digital writing programs that I have been using for several years, Mchain and Gnoetry 0.2.

The goal of Markovian Parallax Generate is to spread the use of Mchain, Gnoetry and the digital writing process in poetry as widely as possible. On top of that, I plan to develop new programs and host them on the blog. Feedback is welcomed and encouraged, especially from new users. Drop a comment there to let me know how you react to writing with programs such as these. It opened my eyes to new possibilities in language and writing, and my wish is that it do the same for others too.

New and Updated Pages:

Digital Writing with Python Course in NYC

python_logoI’m beginning my Python self-education this week while on vacation, with the intention of creating new programs to augment the ones I’ve been using to write digital poetry for the last three years (e.g. Gnoetry and Mchain). I’m starting with How to Think Like a Computer Science and working my way out from there. For shits and giggles, I was doing a Google search for info on python text processing +poetry and found a course description of the course I’ve dreamed of taking/teaching for the last year or so.

Digital Writing with Python is being taught this Summer in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) by Adam Parrish (check out his website – cool stuff). The course description:

This course introduces the Python programming language as a tool for writing digital text. This course is specifically geared to serve as a general-purpose introduction to programming in Python, but will be of special interest to students interested in poetics, language, creative writing and text analysis. Weekly programming exercises work toward a midterm project and culminate in a final project. Python topics covered include: functions; object-oriented programming; functional programming (list comprehensions, recursion); getting data from the web; displaying data on the web; parsing data formats (e.g., markup languages); visualization and interactivity with Python. Poetics topics covered include: character encodings (and other technical issues); cut-up and re-mixed texts; the algorithmic nature of poetic form (proposing poetic forms, generating text that conforms to poetic forms); transcoding/transcription (from/to text); generative algorithms: n-gram analysis, context-free grammars; performing digital writing. Prerequisites: Introduction to Computational Media or equivalent programming experience.

Summer Session II begins on June 29, so if you’re in New York and interested in innovative writing techniques, check it out. If my plans work out well, I’ll be in New York in August or September trying to get a job and exploring a digital arts/poetry/jazz scenes. Otherwise I would be there. If I could afford it now after the M.F.A. Sounds like a fantastic course.

P.S. – I’ve been putting off finalizing the cross-platform Gnoetry installation howto, but I think I’ll put it up in the next week or so. Something to look forward to.

My Chapbook Gets Some Press and Pingbacks

Eric Elshtain sent me a notice a few weeks ago about this little bit of press that Beard of Bees and my recent chapbook publication received during National Poetry Month at Publish Chicago. It’s nice to get some notice.

In a similar vein, I recently received a pingback on my publication announcement on imperfect offering, one of Katherine Parrish’s blogs on digital writings and teaching poetry. The post “digital matters” links to some poetry generating PERL scripts and to a whole bunch of Interactive Fiction (IF) sites, a realm that I had yet to be exposed to. As I keep finding more blogs, articles and books discussing/using digital forms or programs, I become more and more convinced that there is a movement of young writers, academics and writer-academics who are intensely interested in how digitally- or computationally-assisted methods (or whatever term you prefer) can be and are being used in the composition of various literatures.

Personally, I think its about time that more poets and fiction writers start to pick up some of the more accessible programming languages like Python or PERL and start creating their own software. I plan to learn Python and start modifying existing scripts/programs myself as the next stage in my own writing. (You can see the program I had my brother write for me over at my other blog). The possibilities are vast, not only “generated” poetry (a term I do not apply to my own poetry and computer collaborations), but for compositional processes that incorporate the forms, formats, languages, and syntax of new media and text-generating tools into the writer’s engagement with language, the imagination, and the world in all the wealth of their diversity and depth.

Of course we cannot avoid the demands of relevance and insight in our art, but these tools are like any other: they open new possibilities for the artist to engage with the art, and I have found from my own writing experiences that the use of certain programs and processes have opened up my work to a more intense engagement with the political, spiritual and historical realms than the postmodern lyric ever allowed for me. I hope it may have the same result for others.

“In a Strange and Foreign Country”: Composing Poetry from Existing Texts

Attached here in PDF format are the lecture notes for a Looseleaf workshop I led this week called “’In a Strange and Foreign Country’: Composing Poetry from Existing Texts.” What follows is the opening lecture:


I have taken the title for this workshop from a passage in Helene Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing which I believe says a lot about the nature of the methods that we will be learning tonight:

The writer is a secret criminal. How? First because writing tries to undertake that journey toward strange sources of art that are foreign to us. “The thing” does not happen here, it happens somewhere else, in a strange and foreign country. (20)

Tonight, we plunder. We will be “secret criminals,” or we should at least believe in the thrill of this.

None of the methods presented here are traditional ways to write poetry. They are often used for satire and social commentary than for “serious” art, but let that be a reason for encouragement rather than derision.

Where we will begin is with the language around us, the language we find and read and are fascinated by. The language that catches us like little children get caught up in anything wonderful.

A movement developed in music recently called plunderphonics which utilized samples from existing recorded music to assemble or provide the basis for new music which, though it uses others work almost exclusively as its means, is highly original in its ends.

We will do some plunderpoetics. We will use the methods of constraint and selection to create new works out of existing texts.

Here Comes Everybody

Well, I’m directing my posts for the time being towards writers and those interested in literature and writing. My tiny audience, after all, is mostly in the MFA program with me, so I can only assume these websites will interest them. There are a lot of great (and free) publications and resources on the internet, and I keep finding new ones all of the time. While updating my links section on my new blog, I found a few that I’m going to be posting about sooner or later. The first is Here Comes Everybody: Writers on Writing, a large collection of interviews done over the past few years with contemporary writers. Some of the more recognizable authors interviewed here include:

  • Dan Beachy-Quick
  • Sarah Manguso
  • D.A. Powell
  • G.C. Waldrep
  • Ron Silliman
  • C.D. Wright
  • David Shapiro
  • David Baker
  • Rae Armantrout
  • K. Silem Mohammad
  • Robert Creeley, “Onward.”
  • Gabriel Gudding
  • Mairead Byrne
  • Paul Hoover

That’s a relatively short list for all that’s offered, and I’m sure there’s names of great authors that I’ve overlooked or I’m just unfamiliar with. So check it out. I personally find interviews with poets very inspirational, or at the least thought provoking. The short list of links to some of the interviewee’s blogs (on the left hand side) is worth browsing through too.

In the works: my short review of Mairead Byrne’s pdf book, SOS Poetry, available and free for all to download off of UBU Editions’ website (see the links to the right).

Drifting Through the Interwebs

Thomas Briggs, Avatar #1

So much free time! I’m coming to grips with it now. The schedule is becoming less wasteful of my time, though at the same time, time is disappearing much more easily. I’ve gone back to random blog searching, to scour for source material for the Markov Chain program. I’ve decided to start keeping these “Random Blogs of Note” in a bookmark folder so I can keep track of them for future use.I’m revamping my approach to the Mchain writing process with two separate approaches (possibly combinable at some point, who knows). One is to be more selective of what is input by entering only text that has been digested by me in one form or another. I guess I am saying that I should have read and thought about something in the individual texts that I am putting in, so as to create some resonances with the output.

The other approach is to keep a running log of freewriting sessions and use that as input. I’m shooting for an average length per entry of one half of a page, single-spaced, for now. I’m a bit rusty, it seems.

For your amusement (and my records), here is my Random Blogs of Note bookmark folder. Of course, I do not necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed in these blogs. I actually disagree with quite a few of them, which is probably the reason for their inclusion, as they give rise to as clear aversion in me that warrants exploration. Most are more or less harmless.

Random Blogs of Note

View from the Front Desk
The 4th Avenue Blues
Paranoid Pedestrian Ponderings: You have a happiness level of: 92%
Process Junkie
Heal The Land With Spiritual Warfare
I have a vagina and I’m not afraid to use it.
MY WAR (Iraq war blog, just published a book based on the blog. Check the archives)
Destiny and her pet chance

Spamish Blogs

And here is a spamish blogs (bizarre, probably generated by a program). These blogs come up often in random blog searches, and in some ways resemble the output of the Markov chain program I use, though with different input. I should post a running journal of the complete process of the writing of a poem with the mchain program sometime, including the imput, output, and various drafts.

Slut Suzie (warning: adult content)

Weird, huh. Is there an aesthetic possible with these? And what is it? What is the effect of reading this kind of prose? I’ll look around for better examples.

Process and Intuition 2: Entrada

What do you see in this picture below? I see an alien face on the left; in the center, a helmeted ninja balancing two large green bottles in his right hand. There were messages there, dozens and dozens of them, but the only word I can really make out anymore seems to be “entrada.”

entrada.jpgI’ve had trouble writing with the Markov chaining process lately, and I think my problems have to do with the lack of any clear intention. I have a difficult time accepting the output from the program as aesthetic in its own right; it’s so sterile and inhuman, which is telling, as Markov processes were employed in the 1970’s experiments at MIT into artificial intelligence. Everything that seems evocative in the output is derived from the reader’s associations (or subconscious, perhaps, if you believe in such a thing).

The last input file I input into the program consisted of interesting blog posts that I had found when I searched for “dream” or “dreams” in Technorati and Google Blog Search. That’s how I found Robin Whitmore’s art blog (I appreciate the comment, btw). The best thing about looking for input is usually the discovery of such internet gems in the mountains of information garbage. But when I put this input of posts from dozens of different sources into the Markov chain program, what came out was uninteresting, difficult to sift through, and exactly the opposite of what I had hoped for. I wonder how much control is right for this process, and how much is too much. At what point does thematicizing the input stifle the quality of the output?

What I’ve done before, what I’ve attempted before in some of the poems I’ve made through this program, focused on enhancing the associational effect from all possible ends, input and output, and even the recycling process that goes on as the fragments are arranged and expanded upon. What is different about the Markov chain output from the perspective of a reader who is familiar with all of the text that has been input? Does this condition allow for more associations to be made, and are the associations then more relevant or resonant? And does this focus of the process on my [the author’s] personal associations only create a poem that is meaningful to the author himself (too idiosyncratic, to esoteric)?

A larger question may have to do with what I expect to come out of the whole process. What fits into my idea of what a poem is? How does this constrain the possibilities that the process opens up to me? Is it good enough to just do, just experiment, just hope that each poem works out? Or is this just ignorance running amok?