Ten Questions on Poets & Technology: Eric Elshtain

The internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, iPad, iPod, podcasts, digital video and who knows what else. What do they all mean for the poet qua poet? For Poetry? Is it still pretty much where the Gutenberg press left it? Is Poetry technology-proof? In our fearless ongoing quest to exploit other people’s wisdom on poetry-related subjects, we are posing ten questions to a group of illustrious contemporary poets on this topic. This week’s responder is Eric Elshtain.

1. Characterize your general attitude as a poet towards technology.

One central poetic power of recent digital technologies is the ability to assist in the actual death of the author. If I may quote from friend and poet Matthias Regan, whose group the Next Objectivists is poetically mobilizing here in Chicago and beyond:

Until now the ‘author’ as authority and autonomous creator has only been ‘dead’ in theory, never in practice. Indeed, many of the previous generation’s critics and poets have proclaimed the death of the author so successfully that we all know them by name! A poetics based on the deconstruction of predominant economic sensibilities has become capitalized upon in turn. We must generate the language of a new kind of subjectivity—the language of the multitude. The theoretical discarding of authorship must be replaced by an actual anonymity.

The Next Objectivists use typewriters to create the “language of the multitude”; collective poetry writing situations set in public places that the Next Objectivists call “transcription events.” What computer assisted poetry can do (if used for good and not evil) is give a poet the ability to create a public situation in her own home, via software that gives the poet/end user access to language from existing texts (novels, newspaper articles, the complete works of Gertrude Stein), thereby composing poetry not out of some archaic sense of “genius” or “self,” but out of a collectivity of voices that inherently democratizes the poetic process on the level of meaning. That is, the reader is allowed to become the last link in the authorial chain. This extension of the poetic process outwards is what differentiates computer-derived poetry from many human poetic poetries and procedures, but the technology of scissors can perform the same task. The computer just makes it easier, faster, and gives one the ability to derived poetry from thousands of texts, rather than just a few, as well as chips away at the harmful poetics of distinctions.

As the editor of an on-line chapbook press, what can I say? Beard of Bees has a devoted set of readers in Tallinn, Estonia. What else can you ask for as a small poetry press that has never advertised, does not have a blog, Facebook page, &c? The web is a tremendous poetry delivery mechanism…as Ron Silliman suggested in his answers to these same questions, the implications of this new relationship to readers of poetry has yet to be fully considered, though at best the Web’s form of free and unfettered delivery (if used in this way) can steer the practice of writing away from personal entrepreneurship. For people who just want their poetry to be read, music to be heard, films to be seen, what better technology could there be than what we have available to us today? I am not doe-eyed and over-optimistic, but the potential is there less-privatized, anti-individualized, fully politicized poetry and poetry publication.

2. Do you use Facebook in your capacity as a poet? If so, how, and what are its upsides and downsides? If not, why not?
3. Do you use Twitter in your capacity as a poet? If so, how, and what are its upsides and downsides? If not, why not?

While the technologies are ethically neutral and can be used wisely and well as tools for dissemination of literature and ideas, the very notion of “friends” (Facebook) and “followers” (Twitter) feels suspect. Creepy, even. Sites like Facebook are fantastic tools to disseminate information and create collectives, though in reality, they are mostly used as billboards of the self, and all that. I created a Beard of Bees GoogleGroup to announce events and publications. That is about as close as I have come to anything like a networking site. I also began, but no longer maintain (that has been taken up by someone with much more energy than I) a GnoetryDaily blog where experiments with Gnoetry and other poetry-generating machines are publicly demonstrated. Twitter is interesting given its word count constraints—but I do not know if anyone is doing anything interesting with Twitter.

4. What other technologies – including blogs, websites and podcasts – do you employ in your capacity as a poet? Explain how, and the upsides and downsides of each. If none, explain why.

As I mentioned above, I edit an on-line poetry chapbook press, Beard of Bees. Besides my time and a modest fee to keep our web-moniker, it is free to do and free to use. That is a big upside. Working via e-mail also facilitates the ability to work closely with poets; that is, in fact being an editor rather than merely a reader with self-appointed privileges, a “gatekeeper.” Many chapbooks on Beard of Bees have been passed back and forth between the author and myself before publication, sometimes with the understanding that revisions do not automatic publication. Having worked as a poetry editor for a “traditional print journal,” the technology of email (the dispassionate frame of electronic circuits maybe?) seems to make people more willing to consider rethinking and revising their texts, thinking of the poems as semi-public property, rather than jewels dug from a lone mind. I think technologies assist in this attitude, just as using a typewriter must have facilitated the editorial and collaborative efforts of the Modernist poets. The downside is that the very screen that electronic media creates between the artist and her work creates a screen for some between a right relationship between human beings. Just like car horns are prosthetic shouting devices, so to is computer communication technologies. Never once did I get an angry letter from someone to whom I had sent comments back about his work while I edited the Chicago Review (okay, once—a hand-written screed). I have received tens of hate-filled emails from poets who sent to Beard of Bees, in response to my having sent the poets reasons why I did not publish their work. As one disgruntled poet put it to me, “I often wished I didn’t get back those impersonal slips and emails and that just one time an editor would tell me why he didn’t publish my work. I guess be careful what you ask for, especially since you’re obviously a frustrated poet who uses editing to get back at those of us who are more successful than you.” &c. I wonder if this poet would have bothered to take the time to hand write or to type such a missive?

The other capacity in which I use technology is as a poet, and I suspect my relationship with Gnoetry, the poetry generating software written by Jon Trowbridge, is the main reason I was asked to be part of this excellent Q&A session. I will get to Gnoetry below.

5. What do you dislike most about how other poets use technology?
6. What do you like most about how other poets use technology?

On the order of computer-generated poetries, I find myself in disagreement with those who have tried to and would like to use this form of poetry to pass some form of quasi-Turing test to prove that work generated with software can be mistaken for work written only by human hand. Why not let the machine have some integrity beyond a comparison with human poetry? Why use a machine to try to “infiltrate” some perceived non-inclusion (as with some efforts to get computer-generated work in journals and then lift the veil—“A-ha! Fooled you!”) Rather than try to pass off computer-generated poetry as not computer-related at all, for me it is more interesting to consider human-machine collaboration as a new paradigm for what can be considered poetry, and who can be considered a poet. One of the best moments I have witnessed with Gnoetry occurred during one of our early field tests—a gentleman who is a self-proclaimed “non-artist” reluctantly used the software and announced that he “felt like a poet,” that he had a hand in making language do interesting things. Imagine people using (abusing?) work hours composing poetry using Web-based computer-generated poetry software rather than playing yet another round of FreeCell. That would be sweet.

7. Technology is enabling poets today to take poetry off the page in ways that were previously inconceivable. Either comment on this piece by Tom Konyves or provide a link to and comments on a different piece of work that uses technology to take the poem off the page.

In some ways this question hinges on defining the Konyves piece as a poem in the first place. Is it a poem and not a “film” because it incorporates language? What makes Max Ernst’s “poemes visible” poetry? Or a Joseph Cornell box (his work has long been deemed poetic)? What is at stake when we declare something a poem or call something “poetic.” Whatever the case may be, the Konyves piece is a great reminder that we are always surrounded by poetry and potential poetry, by images and texts that scroll past us or that we stroll past every day; maybe most poems are in fact never written, but are left as thoughts, or spoken as conversations, that just float in the aether…until, perhaps, they get captured and sung, filmed, sculpted, written, painted. Technologies can certainly facilitate a page-less poetics, and in particular a participatory poetics, in which end-users are am active part of the poetic process. That is, the reader becomes a poet.

8. Do you use technology as an integral element of your poetry? If so, how? If not, why not?

Over the last nine years, I have been part of the creation and dissemination of the aforementioned Gnoetry, a poetry generating computer program. Discussion of its origin and how it works can be found here and continuing experiments with Gnoetry and other tools for the creation of computational poetry can be found here.

Much of my poetic output over the last three years, coincident with the birth of my daughter, has been in collaboration with Gnoetry in one way or another. I may use it to create a “rough draft” of a poem that I then revise in the traditional sense. I may use the program to compose “notes” for poems, culling lines here and there to create inspiration. I many ways, Gnoetry as a tool is no different than the many procedures poets invent to compose poems (I also use procedures to compose poetry) but Gnoetry is immediately collaborative since the language you are using with the software is from extant texts. There are some interesting implications with using a tool like Gnoetry. The language is randomized, but not beyond the reach of syntactic integrity. An author’s style resides in syntax. A group of syllable-based renga composed using the statistical analysis of a novel by Edith Wharton is, in essence, written in Wharton’s voice. Who is to say that the renga are not long-lost poems written by Wharton herself? See here.

In any case, a procedure is just another form of technê (might we say that all poetry is procedural on a certain level?) and Gnoetry is a wonderful way to proceed towards poetry. Maybe not for everybody. During a Gnoetry interactive demonstration, a young woman sat down to use the software, happy with the interface, happy with the texts she could choose to use as the language corpus, &c. Then, in a synapse flash, Gnoetry composed the poetic solution to the problem she posed (how to make blank verse out of several texts) and she read a few lines, shot up from her seat and back away from the machine slowly saying “No, no, no, that’s not what I want at all.” I have no idea what she was expecting. At another demo, the people in the crowd applauded and ohh’d and ahh’d at each gnoetic creation like they were watching fireworks. In both cases, I have never seen people react to poetry in those fashions.

In the very least, Gnoetry presents many people with a novel way to compose poems. Some do not like it because it eradicates some sense of creativity or originality or inspiration that they hold dear; others find little difference between composing with Gnoetry and composing poetry “by hand.” How else do we write poetry but with pre-existing language handed down to us through oral and textual traditions that we then randomly choose from, arrange and re-arrange into poetry? Gnoetry just makes this process very fast.

An interesting thing happened when I first started doing and witnessing extensive experiments with Gnoetry. I noticed that collaborations with the software were churning out poems that sounded remarkably like the poetry I was writing—a parataxis based assemblage of images and ideas. I felt challenged to do what the computer could not, and began to transform my own approaches to composition, and started hand writing drafts and using the typewriter much more. So: in some ways, even if I am not collaborating with Gnoetry, I am writing in reaction to Gnoetry.

9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?
10. What should Poetry do with or about technology that it has not yet done?

Computer and Internet technologies have made reading and publishing poetry available to people—free—in an unprecedented way. I want to note two reactions to this form of free publication. The slow integration of Web-based publishing into the fold of “legitimate” publishing, something many poetry “professionals” became anxious about. That is, one could start putting Web-based publications into one’s CV since they were deemed just as “serious” as print journals. Fortunately, the Internet allows for self-publication and self-promotion, and while this may be bad for the novel, it certainly cannot hurt poetry. Poetry best exists outside of the usual marketplace; the Web helps keep more and more poetry safe from the typical arbiters of verse culture.

The other reaction I have noticed to the ease of publishing on the Web has been the explosion of small presses using older technologies such as letterpress, making beautiful hand-made, hand-sewn book objects.

There will always be a new lyre for poets to strum, for poets to imagine being strummed by some wind or another. There is always someone out there doing interesting with or to the lyre, and with the communication technology available to us, we are more likely than not to be able to see it. How great is that?

I recently finished my PhD at the University of Chicago. If you see me, call me “Bones,” please. I work as poet-in-residence at John H. Stroger, Jr, Hospital, conducting poetry and art workshops for hospitalized children through Snow City Arts, a non-profit foundation. I also edit the exclusively on-line Beard of Bees Press.


Previous responders:

Amy King
Collin Kelley
Ren Powell
Chris Hamilton-Emery
Cati Porter
Ron Silliman
January O’Neil
Dave Bonta
John Vick
Sandra Beasley

This series’ standing page: click here.


Previous Ten Questions series:

1. Ten Questions on Poetry
2. Ten Questions on Publication
3. Ten Questions for Poetry Editors

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9 thoughts on “Ten Questions on Poets & Technology: Eric Elshtain

  1. jessiecarty says:

    I like, as well, that the internet gives more poets and more poetry the chance to find readers, but I do wonder sometimes how to dig through and find the material that really sings!

  2. Hey Jessie, thanks for stopping by.

    In addition to the whole ‘assist in the death of the author’ and ‘human-machine collaboration’ concepts Eric discusses (which just blow me away, I have to say) I am very struck by this comment: “..the technology of email (the dispassionate frame of electronic circuits maybe?) seems to make people more willing to consider rethinking and revising their texts, thinking of the poems as semi-public property, rather than jewels dug from a lone mind.”

    • jessiecarty says:

      It is an interesting thought but I don’t know that I would agree. I think the desire to revise is a very individual thing. The ease of being able to revise doesn’t mean some people are actually going to do it. Think how many people send emails before proofreading them?

      I don’t think I revise more now that I do most of my work on the computer but it certainly is easier. I’d rather not go back to writing out countless drafts like say Elizabeth Bishop did. Thinking of her because I enjoyed seeing different drafts of her poems in that collection “Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke Box” if I got the title correct :)

      • Eric Elshtain says:

        To clarify my point: the computer as a tool makes revision easier, yes, but the format of e-mail and sending drafts back and forth electronically seem to facilitate the distancing of the individual ego from his or her creation, thus making revision more acceptable to the author.

      • jessiecarty says:

        Interesting thought Eric and I think what you are saying can hold true for the revision process. For the rejecting someone’s work, however, it is the exact opposite as people will send scathing emails after a rejection because they know they will probably never meet the editor face to face!

        I love working on critiques through email. Takes away a lot of the drama :)

  3. Eric Elshtain says:

    Exactly! The distancing is a double-edged sword. I have received some very nasty emails from authors whose work I didn’t use for Beard of Bees–what bothered them most was the fact that I dared to tell them *why* I didn’t take the work. However, I must say that I have also received some very grateful emails from authors who were happy for the fact that their work was given a thoughful reading, despite the work not being taken for use on Beard of Bees.

    • Jessie Carty says:

      I know exactly what you mean Eric! I have a very specific nasty scenario that happened but too specific for me to give details as the person most likely would know who I was talking about :)

      But boy does it make my day when someone thanks you even though you had to reject them. I know I love to receive personal comments even if I’m not a fit for the magazine!

  4. Shelley says:

    Regardless: I’m not dead.

  5. Eric Elshtain says:

    But your author is…unless you’ve invented a completely singular language that refers to things and to ideas only you are privy to.

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