Sunday, April 07, 4080

Some further thoughts on I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities

[To read the poem "I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities", go here.]

I had grown tired of doing too many performances where I only did my own poems and wanted to try something different. I went to Sophea Lerner, with whom I’d worked on one previous occasion, where we’d used mobile telephony to start the reading on the street outside and enact the entry into the theatre in a way that all of the audience would be able to identify with and think about. I knew that although Sophea works in interesting ways with sound and with technology, she also tends to find the simplest technological solutions possible, suggesting to participants “things they might try at home”. (This emphasis on low-tech turned out to be relevant when, half way through the March 28 performance, we had a power cut of the kind that is more frequent in Delhi in the summer—and we continued the performance.)

My original idea to Sophea was that the audience itself should be used to generate poetry, as a kind of surprise. In hindsight I remember that I had also been a part of a discussion at the Caferati site — concerning questions of audience, community, and growing numbers of poets— and this was lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. Sophea added that she wanted to do a performance that was site-specific while, at the same time, addressing dislocations of time and place. I knew that a) I wanted the result to be an enjoyable and entertaining, and not merely instructive or boringly demonstrative in the way that much contemporary art can be and that b) that despite being generated by the audience, it should somehow assert the existence of poetry, given that much of my audience, like many intellectuals and anti-intellectuals alike, especially some prose writers and readers, might not really believe in the contemporary existence of poetry at all. I wasn’t sure if this would be possible, but the only way I knew how was to put the audience through one or more formal constraints and/or procedures, producing a result that I could then somehow mix or assemble into a convincing poem. Sophea noted that, since I wanted to include as many people as possible, there should be a very low threshold for participation.

One initial idea, which unfortunately remained only in a vestigial way, was working with smses, but this was cut down a bit because we could not use a screen in the outdoor space during the day, and because we didn’t have time to build and fine tune an appropriate SMS internet gateway that would make the idea properly interactive. But what did remain from this was the notion that we should include, through the internet, people who were not necessarily attending the performance.

Eventually, we settled for the idea of a kind of questionnaire given in advance, as opposed to something that would put pressure on the audience to generate lines during the performance itself. Asking people to complete a sentence with a common beginning (or ending) would be a simple formal constraint that (unlike asking people to write a sonnet or complete rhyming couplets or a lipogram) would be almost invisible and produce the least amount of anxiety while, at the same time, it would guarantee a certain minimum amount of music.

I Heard the Google Gong vs. I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities

Having come up with a form though, I was unsure of what kind of results it would deliver and of whether they could be combined to deliver something that I considered a good, or even a decent, poem. On one hand, I knew that the more I took authorial control and edited a final version, the more it would undermine my argument that the poem was largely being generated by the audience, through a particular procedure; on the other hand, I knew that I had to make a convincing and entertaining poem for that very same skeptical audience. As a trial, I attempted to compose a poem using sentences returned for the google search string “I heard * .”, then selecting lines from the search results. I soon began to restrict my searches to the “.in” domain so as to make the poem more relevant for an Indian audience. Finally, after collecting some sentences, I set about arranging them.

The result was called, “I Heard the Google Gong”. I think it’s an interesting poem that in parts points to some peculiarly Indian contemporary neuroses and anxieties, but in the end, nowhere as interesting (in my opinion) as what emerged in “I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities”. The reasons for this are probably many:

-- the poem based on google searches extracts sentences out of a larger context, while the sentences specifically composed by contributors are aware that, in a sense, the sentence must contain everything the reader will ever know about the writer;

--the writers of “I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities” are aware of performing specifically for one time-bound event, aware of being part of a larger collective effort and, “disappearing into the occasion of it”;

--very importantly, I think, my own relationship to the texts as arranger was very different. I would like to go into this last point a little more.

A google search yields what everyone knows are unreliable results. One tries to figure out how one is supposed to feel about the truth of the statements. Sophea notes that the idea of better or worse microphones, for instance, is almost something of a joke in the audio-savvy community, since no microphone can be the best across the board, only best suited to one purpose or another. Zainab crying, “Papa, Papa, I am cold” seems to be part of some standard genre narrative; one’s relationship to it changes drastically when one learns it is part of an eye-witness accounts by Iraq war survivors. Other statements inevitably provoke laughter, even derisive laughter. Thus, a large part of negotiating a google poem involves the issue of how to negotiate one’s distance from google and the world wide web. I wonder if there is something about google as a dominating compositional tool that actually primes one to write an ironic, even mocking poem—that’s a point for discussion. By contrast, in working with lines specifically requested and contributed graciously, I feel a certain responsibility to the contributors, to the human subjects of the poem. A line like “I heard that you can be successful if you try hard” presents a particular dilemma, since I consider it a cliché, and I don’t know if it is true. The “I heard…” format helped here, since it ensured that all statements that were not sounds had to be indirect and not assertive. But even beyond this, I had to use this line and contextualize it in such a way that my larger poem did not belittle the writer of the line.

Thus, this experiment, the way we have conducted it, and the result it has produced, is also meant to be a kind of friendly argument with (even as it relates to the work of) the Flarf poets, and writers like Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bok, whose theoretical formulations and stances I find interesting, but have differences with. I appreciate that Bok, for instance, seems to keep his theory and practice a little separate— like everyone else, I have found things like the “I” chapter of Eunoia quite triumphantly amazing, but I feel that Bok’s poetic practice is more playful, uncertain, tentative and exploratory in comparison to his manifestoes and accounts of his own and his friends’ work—which can be programmatic and absolutist, even defensively promotional, and which try to push a certain theory. In a series of postings about poetics and human-machine interactions (“poetic machines, 1- 8”), over at Harriet, Bok argues:

“We can already begin to see here the embryonic inception of a robotic culture—one where writing does not necessarily emanate from the lyric voice of a human agent, so much as it might arise on its own from the uncanny actions of a machine, working on our behalf….”

What I see Bok as trying to do here, essentially, is to argue in favour of “machinic” as opposed to “organic” processes of poetry, the transfer from human to automated labour (although the word “uncanny” raises the question of—uncanny to whom?); but what this provocative position rests invisibly on is merely a continuation of a particular tradition within philosophy and science that seeks to figure the human body as a machine (the wheezing pistons of the lungs, the throbbing engine of the heart, the programmatic software of the mind, and so on). What if, instead, we began to investigate the organic, contingent, even willed, nature of machines, to conceive of machines as composed of and animated by humans, to find ways to humanize mechanical processes instead of the other way around? This project thus attempts to take human agents seriously as part of mechanical processes and forms and treat their utterances with a sense of responsibility.

I never felt that tension of responsibility more than when I walked around with a clipboard, handing people the form and trying to convince them to spare two minutes of their time to complete it. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety that people connect with the act of writing—anxiety that they would no doubt negotiate more easily if they were writing smses with their thumbs on their mobiles. I worried that people would give me “poetic” lines. I thought about it and decided against specifically telling them not to be poetic. At the same time, what no one realizes, and what I didn’t realize myself at the time, is that, at the rate of a single line, the self can only express itself as a flicker, at best. Things get equalized; it would be quite hard to tell whether the composer of a given line were an “amateur” or a “professional” poet even if, I suspect, in more obscure ways, the larger poem was helped along by the participation of experienced writers of poetry. I’m embarrassed to think that at one point I worried if I could collect “enough good lines” for the poem I would arrange to work. Although there were a few lovely lines—“I heard the best minds of my generation blame the silence so offered” being my favourite— the larger poem, and all poems, must obviously depend on relationships between lines, and not good lines, to carry weight.

For these relationships to emerge and be clear, there has to be a larger form to carry the lines too, I believe. The listing of all the lines by itself falls flat. The formal constraint or challenge here would be to use as many of the lines as possible in a coherent poem, and coherence, I think, is a partly musical question. This was the question I tried to answer tentatively, using many but not all the lines in I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities. In that poem, I removed one or two specific references (they are restored in the full listing of lines) and corrected any grammatical errors in the lines. (The form’s low threshold meant that anyone with even a little English could participate; although one trial at Sarai showed that this game could be much richer if it incorporated several languages, certain technical problems prevented us from making it a multilingual exercise this time; and I didn’t want this poem to be even unintentionally comic in making fun of anyone’s English.) I used up almost all of the “I Heard”s and some of the “It Is”s – the latter in a second movement of the poem. To answer a question from Falstaff in the comments section of my blog, then, I do think that arranging the lines makes a big difference, allows the lines to come out and speak in a certain way. A random, computer generated ordering would be a useful tool for rapidly going through all the possible ways in which the lines could be arranged, but an audience –even if it is the audience of one writer— is necessary in order to make it a poem.

I would insist, by the way, that the formal trigger here is more important than any thematic unity the poem must have; I think if poets had been restricted by a particular theme rather than by a formal device, then the results would be less interesting. I’m thinking, for instance, of the precedent for this exercise (that I only discovered yesterday) in the collective world trade center poems which, for me, don’t hold together because they put the pressure of a specific theme and a given relationship to that theme (one of mourning) but don’t build any formal relationships that might help to make unexpected and subversive connections. I am grateful to my colleague at Sarai, Kamal Kumar Mishra, who is a literary translator and an historian of the Hindi public sphere, who points out a precedence for this exercise in the competitive traditions of the Tarahi Mushaira in Urdu and the Samasya Purti (lit., “problem solving”) in Braj bhasha where practicing poets (highly skilled poets, of course) would offer improvised, competing versions of how a line and its requisite formal requirements of rhyme or metre could be fulfilled. What is interesting, I learn from Kamal (if I'm not distorting his point greatly), is how the emphasis on form and style by these groupings (especially the latter) was considered decadent and transgressive and eventually suppressed by the early 20th century nationalist / reformist critics in favour of an emphasis on themes…

Finally, this project emerges out of thinking through the startling work and insistent provocation of writers such as Kent Johnson relating to authorship, and on a formal level, Ron Silliman’s “New Sentence” and related histories of form. I’ve also been shifted quite a bit in the time I’ve worked at Sarai-CSDS; I’ve learned from the ongoing discussions around copyright, piracy, open source culture, and so on that have been happening at Sarai and with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore.

For some time I’ve wanted to find formal structures and procedures that would address the question of ownership and authorship in poetry and find ways to admit writers of poetry into this discussion. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, “poets” have been, of all creative producers, among the most anxious about copyright and ownership. Part of this is the (sometimes healthy, sometimes not) skepticism and aesthetic / ahistorical conservatism that often instinctively reigns in poetic circles. Of course, part of this anxiety also has to do with wanting to be credited for the immense amount of hidden labour that poetry sometimes requires, and it may be that a single line requires so little labour that writers are more willing to give it up. At any rate, poetry’s position at the margins of capitalism means that we probably would have the least to lose and the most to gain by cutting our lines loose; anyway, the history of poetry is a long history of derivation, quotation, remix and replay. (As I write this, the bpNichol website has just gone live and makes me deliriously happy and, among other revelations, shows this great poet’s lifelong engagement with the question of ownership.)

And there was also another hidden but very obvious trigger here that I’d completely forgotten about, and was reminded of by Michael Creighton: Kenneth Koch’s brilliant poetry games for children, first articulated in Wishes, Lies and Dreams. I’d played similar games with kids here and there, but it was not clear at all whether what works so well for children was also going to work for adults. I believe now that it does work for adults, and I hope we can continue to evolve various kinds of formal structures that help us to do such mass collaborative performances--



Falstaff said...

You know, it's interesting that you bring up Bok because those poetic machine posts were exactly what I was thinking of when I commented on your earlier post.

I think the question that Bok's speculations leads to in this context is a kind of poetic Turing test - could a (human) audience tell an arrangement of these lines by a computer from an arrangement of these lines by a human being? There's no question that a human audience is needed to appreciate the output that results - but I don't think Bok is questioning that either - what he is questioning is whether the role of human agency in the creation of the poem can be (completely or partially) substituted, and I'm not sure that this experiment, as it stands now, can really answer that.

There are, as I see it, three instances of human agency in the creation of this poem - the contribution of lines, the selection of lines (how many? which one?) and the arrangement of the selected lines (though obviously two and three may be somewhat iterative). The question to ask is - what would happen if we replaced the human agent in one or more of these processes with a computer? Would it really result in an inferior poem? Does it depend upon who the agent is? Or which process we use the computer for?

Personally, I'd like to believe that a computer couldn't do as good a job of putting the poem together as a human being could; that there would be something notice-ably missing if we relied on the computer to select the arrangement of lines. And I suspect you feel the same. But I don't know that that's true, and it would be an interesting test.

equivocal said...

F-- it doesn't matter to me very much whether a machine could pass a Turing test for poetry or not-- presumably it would depend on which machine or which human one was talking about, and more on the human on the other side of the wall than anything else. I'm not technophobic in that sense. What I'm more interested in is whether we think of human-machine interactions (even machines working solo bear the stamp of the humans who dreamed and loved them) in ways that are mechanical or human/organic, if that makes sense-- ie, whether we mechanise human processes or humanise mechanical processes. I'm trying to ask what kind of poetic processes might result from the latter approach...

Perhaps this is not very clear. A good place to start for this kind of thinking would be one of my favourite books ever, Bruno Latour's Aramis. ( )I will also think more about how I can clarify this point.

Space Bar said...

I had too many unordered thoughts to leave as a comment here, Vivek, so more here

Space Bar said...

continuing with alok's comment on my blog about cinema as collaboration - it occurs to me that 1) that's not a statement that one can accept without question and 2) that where cinema has a very varied range of production tasks, a poetry collaboration has only one kind: to produce a line or a few lines according to some previously agreed upon limitations.

Is the sameness of the task at hand more likely to trip up the project? How does anonymity really function in the kind of collaboration you've just done?

(Sorry about the number of questions I have.)

equivocal said...

Falstaff continues his response to this post here.