Thursday, April 05, 2001

Dear Contributors, Friends...

[A follow up posting with some more detailed thoughts on the experiment is here. The invitation that started this scheme off is here. The poem that was performed is here.]

I’m sorry it’s taken so long to put this all together—we pushed ourselves a little towards the end in getting the performance (which happened last Friday, March 28) together, and since then, apart from taking a little while to recover from the exhaustion, we’ve also been doing some unrelated things, trying to think through what happened a little, and have been gathering together and ordering all the stray lines that may have been missed (I believe we have them all). At any rate, we’re deeply, truly grateful to all of you for taking the time to contribute these lines. First:

1. At Sophea Lerner's website, phonebox, you’ll find a grouping of all the lines thus far donated to the public domain as part of this project. The “I heard…” lines are grouped from the shortest to the longest line, since for me this was the first step to grouping them formally and coming up with the poem for performance (see below). The “It is…” lines are, as best as I can tell, grouped according to the absolute sequence in time of their writing, corrected for time zones, in case anyone wants to look into that or do something with it. IST = Indian Standard Time.

Please do a quick search for the lines you have contributed, and if you find them missing from these lists, do let me know.

All these lines are unsigned, and are essentially under a license that should protect them and all their derivatives from copyright, for all time. (Although I think you can attribute your name as “organiser” or something, on a derivative, if you like.)

These lines are now available for remixing and recombining into longer poems or other things that you might think of. We plan to also put up some simple text processing / ordering tools written in open source software by Gora Mohanty, and you’re welcome to contribute to this effort as well.

2. These lines were presented as part of “I Heard it is One of Many Possibilities”, which is the poem I put together, with a selection of the lines, for performance by five voices [in this case, these voices were Danish Husain, Monica Mody, Annie Zaidi, Priya Sen, Iram Ghufran and myself] as part of “What Have You Heard?”, on the afternoon of Friday 28th March in Delhi, as part of the KhojLive Performance Art festival. My task was to put together and orchestrate a coherent poem that would last about 9 minutes. Given the time limit, I knew I wouldn’t be able to use all the lines of both the I Heard and It Is lists, but I did try to represent something from every contributor, although in practice I missed some of you—because I’d slipped up in typing in a few lines, or because your lines came after the poem was finally finished, after an all-night session, at 7 am on the 28th of March.

Interesting things start to happen in the process of arranging the lines; affinities emerge, some lines rhyme. This particular poem that I’ve put together betrays, of course, some of my own (perhaps “classical”) formal inclinations and indulgences. We would be very interested to receive and post other remixes of these lines that tackled the question of form differently. And—we would be very, very interested to receive an entry that, as a kind of formal constraint, had to use up all the lines in the archive in a convincing poem that was more than the sum of its parts. As to what exactly counts as a “convincing and coherent poem”—dare I say, a “good poem”—well, we leave that to you to show and assert. Perhaps it has something to do with movement and resonance.

The third by product of this process, “I Heard the Google Gong” was a trial run for this project that I did using the string “I Heard…” in a google search. In my opinion, the poem collectively composed by participants is better and richer than the one produced from google searches, and I discuss why I think this is so in the blog post, “Some further thoughts on I Heard It Is”.

3. For the time being, we plan to continue accepting lines for this strange little archive (see 5d below); lines that, as per the invitation form, are one sentence long and begin with “I heard” or “It is” (the latter describing something in the writer’s immediate environment). So let people know. All future entries should be sent to the following email address: ihearditis [at] gmail [dot] com .

4. This project was one element of a longer, hour-long performance put together by Sophea Lerner and myself that presented “a suite of site-specific, pre-composed and improvised poems, sound objects and audience interactions exploring and unveiling disconnections and echoes around time, place, language and voice, using a toolkit of poetry, performance and sound art practices.” This included, among others, the piece, “What Is Live”, a composition of sound and words that involved playing back recordings of the (outdoors) performance space at different times of the day, “dueling” with an earlier, improvising version of myself, and making a connection between the idea of “live” and “dead” spaces in sound theory and the solitude of writing in anticipation of an audience who would somehow “reflect back” the way a live space reflects sound. We should have the recording of the whole performance up at some point.

I’d just like to note (since it might be assumed that she only worked with the sound mixing and recording) that Sophea was a co-conceiver and co-designer of “I heard it is” as well—given her long experience with orchestrating large scale collaborative performances with many participants from around the world. She has also been working with the question, “What have you heard?” in her own research and the idea of giving the audience questionnaires. Among many other things, she was, crucially, the designer of the easy-to-use invitation form—since I am by nature a little long-winded! I’m also very grateful to Michael Scharf for his advice and thoughts, and the long conversation we had about all of this.

5. A copy of this letter goes on my blog and, for the time being, I invite your comments there. If you’d prefer to discuss this project on your own blog, please provide a link in the comments section of this post.

Specifically, we’d like some some *critical* comments that address:
a) What do you think is going on here?

b) What kind of histories / precedents can this kind of practice (a mass-coordinated exercise in formal restraint by several writers, a concert of unsigned lines then arranged into a poem) be located in, and what kind of future might it have?

c) What do you think of how we have handled attribution? We decided to keep it completely anonymous for various reasons—because that was how we had started this exercise, because we didn’t want to start a guessing game on which poet had written which line, because we wanted to free up the ownership of the archive as much as possible, and so on. Another option we could use for future projects is to list all the contributors alphabetically. What’s your opinion on this?

d) Should we close contributions (at what point) or should we continue accepting contributions? Ie., to what extent should this be a restricted time-based performance?

e) How might it be done differently and how might it be done better?

That’s it for now. I’ll keep a more detailed account and postmortem for the next posting, which will be up in a couple of days.

Thanks & yours ever--


Falstaff said...

I don't know if this qualifies as a critical comment, but reading through this, I kept thinking what would be fun to try would be to arrange the lines completely at random - using a random number generator of some sort - then read them aloud to an audience along with a more deliberate arrangement and then poll them (the audience, not the lines) to see a) which one they liked better b) whether they could tell the 'human' poem from the computer generated one. It would be an interesting experiment in how much of the meaning of the poem is intended and how much is simply imagined by the reader.

I'm also curious to know why you chose to isolate the two sets of lines into separate sections. I could imagine it would be interesting to set up the dialog between them, mixing them together.

To point b), the one thing I was reminded of (aside from Whitman) was Silliman's Ketjak. Silliman isn't using lines contributed by others, of course (at least I don't think he is) but what he is doing is taking a set of lines and arranging and rearranging them in changing patterns to see how different juxtapositions bring out different meanings as well as how those variations tie back to the whole. That could be an interesting way to go with this collection.

Of course, if you really wanted to be ambitious, and could find enough people to participate, you could try converting the main poem you've created into a poem sequence, each poem starting with one line from the poem and ending on the subsequent line (and, possibly, including other lines from the collection in between).

equivocal said...

Hi F-- interesting comments as always. Will look into Ketjak-- thanks.

About isolating the 2 sets of lines-- I'm not sure if you're talking about the poem ("I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities") where I rearranged some of the lines for performance...? In that one, the first section is only I Heards, the second section mixes both, introducing the It Is as a second theme but keeping the I Heard...? So it's a kind of musical choice. The lines at, on the other hand, are merely a comprehensive listing of the archive, catalogued for ease of use.

About the interesting spinoff idea you have, I think that would start more peacemeal. Perhaps you might launch it? The thing is, at the length of a single line, it's very hard to tell the difference between the line contributed by a 7 year old, say, and the lines by practicing poets with years of reading, experience and practice behind them. Further more, each individual self is snipped to just a flicker. This makes it easier to put together. These are the elements that would change and become more (perhaps interestingly, I don't know) problematic when people are asked to write whole verses...