Machinery and the Imagination: Tim Kindberg asks poets about the relationship between the two
Do new technologies and multimedia forms affect how we exercise our imaginations when writing and reading poetry? Tim Kindberg delved into this aspect of the soul and the machine by asking some well-known poets for their views.
A poem is “a small (or large) machine made out of words”, according to William Carlos Williams. And we are machines according to some: even our consciousness is rooted in the material world; one day some combination of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, systems thinking and the like will explain it as such. The writing and reading of poetry could thus be construed as no more than exchanges of machines between machines – rather as organisms exchange genes in a cold universe.
What, then, of imagination? The reductionist view does not of itself repudiate imagination. Its very discourse can be regarded as a product of the imagination, including the examples to which it appeals: every machine, every computer program, every scientific and philosophical theory; indeed every theory of the poem as a machine. Imagination is more fundamental than the reduction
of everything to mechanistic terms, in that those terms themselves are products of the imagination. At least, without wishing to rehearse Romanticism’s rejection of Rationality, it should be considered as such. Imagination is the production of what isn’t, of the Other. And there is plenty of room for that, in terms of better understanding, and a better world in political, material and psychological terms.
o here is a different picture, of a coexistence of machinery and the imagination; of a competition or a working together between them. Which is it to be?
When we encounter either spoken or written poetry, the sounds and the text themselves are purely symbolic carriers of meaning. It is our imaginations and other mental faculties that transform what we hear and read into images, thoughts and emotions. And there is something unbounded and yet shared that takes place between the writer and reader.
But that is not to say that the poem’s words exist in a vacuum, or that technology – machinery – is absent. Even paper is technology. Perhaps a picture, from pen or camera, accompanies the poem on the page. And now, in the age of the internet, what if the poem appears on the web or in a mobile app? Suddenly there are footnotes. Links. Multimedia accompaniments (sound, images, video, animations). We have had sound and even film recordings for about a century, and commentary in books about poems for centuries. But we have never had access to such a volume of extra media before, or been able to access it so quickly.
What if we were to be shown a video or animation of someone opening an icebox, of finding it empty of plums? Perhaps there is a shot of the person who ate them, and who found them delicious. This kind of explicit multimedia rendition or accompaniment occurs in poetry apps for children. Is it ever an asset to a poem?
Similar considerations apply to linked commentary. If someone else’s interpretation of a poem is just a click away, might it preclude our own personal response to it? Have our imaginations been compromised?
Then there is interactivity, and the possibilities for new hybrid forms of authorship: for example, poems created a line at a time, a different person tweeting one line each day. And remixes. You don’t like the ending of The Waste Land? Change it! Put your version back out into the public sphere. After all, this happens to music a great deal. Why not poetry?
Machinery – and the commercial forces behind it, including Amazon, other device manufacturers and e-book publishers – is burgeoning. What is to become of
14the poetic imagination, both for writers and readers?
Magma asked several poets for their thoughts on these and related questions. Some wrote about the effects of the increased availability of poetry on the web versus the printed page. Emily Berry:
The internet (and its user) favour the fragment, or the short form, so poems are ideally suited to be read and circulated online easily. Some people are suspicious of this ease, but I don’t think they should be. Poetry is remote enough a lot of the time. […] I have the sense that poetry is more accessible, more consumable, in the age of the internet. But of course the amount of attention a poem receives is much more visible online – through numbers of tweets, reblogs etc. – so the fact that there is any visibility at all may be deceptive.
And she went on to consider how this affects her writing:
In terms of the imagination, I’m sure there is a huge impact, positive and negative. But, as a ‘digital native’, I am probably too close (to the screen) to interpret it. I notice the effect of tweets and status updates on my imagination; there’s now maybe more of an emphasis on phrasemaking than on thinking about the whole poem at the outset.
The internet brings not only new types of granularity and exposure, it also quickens the pace of reading and potentially writing. Jacqueline Saphra:
I can write a poem any day of the week and post it on the internet knowing that at least a few people will read it. But for writers, there is a danger in this: poetry is a long game. When an audience is there, there is a temptation to give them a poem too soon.
And as a reader, she finds a sense of intrusion from the web, due to the presence of other media and their tendency to hurry our attention:
My own feeling is that the text of a good poem is best when either read privately, or spoken for an audience (but obviously spoken well) without adornment. And the pleasures and satisfactions of private reading are in the joy of being alone with the poem, being able
to read it at your own pace and to allow the words to transform into a unique hybrid of the imaginations of writer and reader. A flawed poem might work better with some visual or sonic intervention, or even a complete artistic overhaul, but the best poems should probably be left alone to commune directly with their readers.
Kathryn Gray echoed this desire for private time with the poem:
So much of modern life is noise and shift, distraction and intervention. Poems offer a quiet place for the mind to rouse and to relish its always surprising possibilities and resourcefulness. Do not disturb.
Several responses suggested consciousness of one’s performance as a user of the internet, and sometimes an unease which is no doubt prevalent in many parts of the population, as to whether one is a “digital native”, a “technical whizz”, a “Luddite”. Kathryn Gray thinks reader anxiety is a fundamental problem that poetry faces, one that the internet cannot necessarily help with. She speaks of:
…people of my acquaintance being struck with ‘reader performance anxiety’ in the face of a Heaney poem. They are alienated from poetry, because they have been robbed of their reader authority. They do not trust their own emotional comprehension of a work of art. They do not feel qualified to interpret or to assign a value. How would multimedia challenge this, exactly?
Martyn Crucefix writes about this as a more general consumer anxiety, ranging beyond multimedia and the internet:
Psychologically, I suffer anxiety from a felt absence, fearing I may be missing out on something I cannot name. I crave distraction, the CGI panorama of sights, sounds and thrills, the informational vistas accessible with the swipe and dab of a finger tip. Our cultural economy (driven by our fiscal economy) produces stabs at happiness in the absence of more genuine satisfaction, ensuring that if at first I do not succeed I will pay for it again… It’s a vicious cycle, manufacturing pleasures which are short-lived, liable to collapse, the deflation of a non-event. I become the perfect subject of such an economy: the sensation consumer who continually itches for further distractions, eyes jumping without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up.
And he finds a negative impact on our imaginations themselves:
More than in the age of Whitman, the impulse of desire – which begins in the impulse to look up, to observe – suffers interference from secondary desires: of riches, of pleasure, of power, of praise, all of which ultimately resolve to the predominance of the self. As Shelley realised almost 200 years ago, in such moments new imagery ceases to be created.
Jacob Sam-La Rose, on the other hand, sees an opportunity rather than a cause for anxiety:
Should we question the ramifications of the new tools, processes and modes of production/dissemination of creative work? Perhaps so. Should we ask whether marriage of sound, still or moving image, attractive user interface design and any other ‘appification’ of a body or piece of poetry adds real value to the work at the core of any such enterprise? Without question. But not from a position of fear.
And he goes on:
How do we re-imagine the concept of an anthology or collection of poetry in an age of touchscreen applications and e-readers? How can we explore different ways of linking or navigating between series of poems in a coherent/discrete body of work in a way that offers another layer of experience to the reader experiencing that work? Can experiments in digital publishing offer any new perspectives in the division between page and performance? What can poetry mean in a tactile, responsive context or setting? I’d like to believe that there are ways of putting technology to use in working with text and spoken word that we can’t even conceive of with our current biases and modes of thought… Why shouldn’t poetry have a place within some of the most compelling platforms and markets of recent history?
This is a very different perspective. Instead of technology and other media as intruders, here we have a conception of putting them to imaginative use. Malika Booker provides an example. She runs a collaborative space on Facebook, the 30/30 poetry group, which:
… challenges every preconceived idea about how poetry is created. Everyone thinks of the poet sitting at a desk in a lonely room over a desk toiling day after day in order to find the correct word, or as a distrustful writer who hoards their poems, only showing them to their editors or in workshops with people that they trust. The 30/30 group challenges all of these notions. The community exists in cyberspace. Most people have never met in person. The idea is to write 30 poems in 30 days whenever there is a 30- day month. Members can opt into the challenge or not as the case may be. Opting in means committing to posting a poem up on the site every day for 30 days. The radical glue that holds it all together is the prompts. Seven poets pick a day of the week and agree to post prompts on that day until the end of the
month. These prompts are responsible for sparking the imagination, they challenge the poets and arm them with a new way to approach their particular project or theme and this alters their relationship with their own poetry.
Tom Chivers is interested in the imaginative possibilities that arise when poets work with machines, and his Electronic Voice Phenomena project, a collaboration with Mercy due to tour in 2013, reflects this (www. electronicvoicephenomena.net):
EVP is a platform for commissioning new work which provokes debate around the intersections of the electronic world with creativity. There is a long tradition of working with technology as an ‘interruption’. John Ashbery is known for writing with the TV turned on. Modernist poets could be said to have had a kind of internal TV switched on, in that their work absorbed and threw back out references to the rest of the world. The Waste Land is a good example of that. The surrealists used techniques such as the exquisite corpse: a playful, collaborative technique of combining words together. Now, despite the apparent predominance of imagery, the internet is overwhelmingly text-driven, from web searches through to spam emails and computer code. Poets from the Flarf movement, and those I work with such as Ross Sutherland, Hannah Silva and Theodoros Chiotis, are experimenting with feedback loops, cut-up machine voices, and the poetry of internet code. All of these poets work imaginatively with the sonic and semantic accidents that ensue from interactions with technology; their techniques take the experiments of Dada into the internet age.
Sam Riviere, when contacted on this topic, offered his blog article at http://pooool.info/unlike-forms- of-refusal-in-poetry-on-the-internet/. He sees both an inevitability in the technological foundations of poetry, and that the embrace of new forms afforded by technological change is its ‘job’:
… poetry only really exists to the extent there is technology available to produce it. It is entirely indebted to this technology for its presence in culture. Since printing became possible, poetry has been tied into an economic situation, and its presence as a material object is a direct result of this.
One might add “its presence as a material and digital object”. And:
Something in our awareness of poetry knows that its ‘job’ is not to slavishly follow established trends; we realise instinctively it is by its nature a subversive practice, connected with a kind of ideal spirit of honest perception, resistance and dissent. Probably this is partly why the people who are drawn to poetry are drawn to it in the first place. In the moments when it becomes culturally relevant or emblematic, poetry interrupts, derails, shifts; it does not reinforce.
We end on this note, of a call for poetry to respond to its new context. While the internet might be said to interrupt our pristine communing with the poem, at the same time, it is poetry that should be doing some of the interrupting. We should perhaps reconsider our working practices, too. My own perspective, as a creative technologist and writer who works with filmmakers, theatre companies and others to create interactive experiences, is that new forms do not necessarily arise from donation or appropriation, from passing work from one to another; they require new ways for artists and writers to work together. And the imaginative embrace of what machinery has to offer will help us find them.
*This interview was originally featured in Magma 55 — The Soul & The Machine.