poets and technology – the thesaurus?

I’m probably going to come across as a cave-person, but I confess it’s only been about a year and a half since I started using a thesaurus while writing poetry. And I never used a book thesaurus – went straight to the online thesaurus. I’m pretty sure it’s made a huge difference to the speed and facility of my writing. I always know the right word as soon as I see it in a thesaurus, but I don’t always have all the available words immediately accessible in my own mind. The thesaurus brings that pool to me instantly, with almost no effort on my part. Pre-thesaurus, I suppose I must have either gone with less than optimal word choices, or waited around for time to push the right word up to the surface.

Of course, there are two issues here – one revolves around the question of using a thesaurus at all, and the other around using an online version rather than a book version. The second is obviously by far the least significant – a question not of paradigm shift but of degree of convenience.

But now I’m wondering what the the invention of the thesaurus (Roget’s, the first one, was only published in 1852) did for poetry? How many poets use a thesaurus when composing? The reason I think it’s significant is because I recall this paragraph cited in this post (am substituting ‘poetry’ for ‘music’ – italics mine):

…human composers draw on a huge amount of data when they sit down to write a piece of music. “We don’t start with a blank slate,” [Cope] said. “In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we’ve heard in our life, segregate out what we don’t like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own.” What separates great composers from the rest of us, he says, is the ability to accurately compile that database, remember it, and manipulate it into new patterns.

In other words, the more that your accessible memory contains, the bigger your advantage as a composer. Surely that principle applies to words, the raison d’etre of poetry?

The thesaurus comes along as a big cheat, then – like a sort of external hard drive, or additional RAM purchased on the side. It gives would-be poets with smaller natural RAMs – who would have been non-competitive or less competitive in pre-thesaurus days – the same advantage as their more gifted peers with huge natural RAMs.

Works for me!

What if the Facebook (Un)Privacy Revolution Is a Good Thing?

The truth is that the events of the past few weeks have been no accident. I’ve interviewed Zuckerberg and/or members of his team more than a dozen times in the last three years, and I believe they all completely understood the company’s new privacy settings would be controversial. Indeed, I think they intended them to be controversial. Look back at the history of Facebook’s privacy firestorms — they happen roughly every 18 months — and you’ll see they all fit the same pattern. In order for Facebook to succeed, it needs to keep challenging existing conventions about online privacy. This isn’t a secret. Zuckerberg has said it many times. What he hasn’t said – but which he and anyone else with a brain knows – is that there is no way to do that without making some users angry.


Two tree poems accepted by the very cool Salt River Review for its fall issue – thorn and baobab.

SRR published my poem our mother in its Spring 2008 issue. A seminal poem for me at the time – it seemed to pull together and make sense of a whole bunch of identity and other issues suddenly, just like that. I was grateful to it.

10 Questions on Poets & Technology – Ren Powell

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 Ren Powell.

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

I would like to split that into two interpretations of “as a poet”, if I can.

First, how I feel about technology in light of how it has been central to my being able to function as a poet—that is, being received by readers, perceived by colleagues, and educated by mentors. Without Internet, I don’t know that it would have been possible. I owe so much to the poets whom I have met on listservs, to distance learning programs and to online journals. Not to mention Paypal.

As a person who expresses her creativity through the deliberate manipulation of language and metaphor, I am excited by how technology can enhance, frustrate and push language and metaphor—how it challenges established concepts of poetry, keeping the “literary” form as organic as language itself.

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?

You are catching me in the middle of my facebook midlife crisis. When I created a profile on facebook it was with the intention of networking with other poets I knew from listservs. Then I began adding some bloggers I read. Then people from work. Former students. Former teachers. It is out of control!

A couple years ago I was promoting an anthology by poets with mental disorders and illnesses: as a poet I am comfortable making public that part of my life, obviously, since I wrote the essay for the anthology. But I am not sure I want to promote that part of my identity with my current students or my kids’ teachers (or former classmates who are nodding and muttering, “Oh, that explains it”). I used to think the idea of deliberately creating an “online profile” (public persona) was silly. Now I think it is complicated and necessary.

As a poet who reads the work of other poets, reads reviews etc., it is unquestionably valuable to me. I get my almost all of my book recommendations from facebook contacts. I also love it when a colleague celebrates a publication in a status update and is cheered on by a whole community.

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?

I have a twitter account but rarely use it. I read tweets by people like the Norwegian poet Helge Torvund and the American poet “Stoney” (Deb Scott via Identica). But as a narrative poet, the 140 character format doesn’t interest me much. I wish I were able to participate in live discussions like Robert Lee Brewer’s #poettues, but I am rarely online at predictable times. Still, Twitter’s immediacy and brevity makes me feel under pressure to be witty. I am not that witty.

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.

So many blogs, so little time. I stumbled into the online possibilities for poetry at the exact same time my life got insanely busy, so I still feel as overwhelmed as a kid with a map of Disneyland. I see a website as an absolutely necessity for poets these days. A standard calling card. If you aren’t going to have one yourself because you share Albert Goldbarth’s aversion to technology, you better be an Albert Goldbarth, with Poets.org calling on you.

I love the idea of podcasts and enjoy Writer’s Almanac especially. I am hoping to organize my virtual resources this summer. I am trying to use google reader as a kind of clearinghouse for the blogs I don’t want to miss. It takes an investment of time to understand the technology, but it’s worth it. I plan on scheduling my podcast downloads so I don’t lose them in the chaos of the rest of my life; and I will resume uploading podcasts myself.

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

I wish I could say something like, “Oh, all the publishing opportunities will mean so much more exciting poetry,” and stop there. I know many people think I am against self-publication. I am not. But I don’t believe that self-publication will rescue poetry from any alleged tyranny of publishers. There will always be hierarchies and gatekeepers and schools of form, whether they are academics or bloggers. I don’t think self-published poetry is any more original or authentic than poetry published by established presses.

I read a quote by Chris Wink of the Blue Man Group about how he dislikes it when people throw first drafts out there and say it is “good enough” by virtue of its authenticity—I feel that way, too. The definition of art that I adhere to includes the idea that the creation of art is a skill that is mastered. Few people wear a diamond in the rough as jewelry because it is not “art” it is “nature”. I don’t think craftsmanship and editing is the absence of authenticity as it is so often implied in discussions about self-publishing. I get very defensive.

I live in a culture that is still very much seeped in the tradition of craftsmanship. I once told a friend of mine, a visual artist, that I was going to try making paper for a handmade book. She told me how her colleagues spent years studying the art of papermaking. She herself had traveled to Korea to study it briefly but won’t attempt it herself. I felt like I had just told Gaudi I was going to build a Cathedral out of Popsicle sticks. Being a “published writer” used to indicate that you paid your dues and studied the skills it takes to take on the role of “author” in a community. Now people go to Lulu after spending their month of NaNoWrMo and describe themselves on their Facebook profile as “published author”. It isn’t that I dislike it, but I do feel a little cheated since I went through years of submission and rejection to get to say “published”. Sour grapes and envy, maybe? Could be. I have read some really great poetry published through Lulu.

The only thing that I have seriously disliked about the technological boom is the plagiarism, or forced collaboration I’ve seen on occasion. I once saw a videopoem in which a poet had videotaped a film shown at an art gallery and incorporated it into his/her own work. But these kinds of ethical questions that technology has brought us aren’t restricted to poetry. I have listened to TEDTalks given by minds much greater than mine advocating the doing away with copyright all together. I know, I know, we are supposed to be above needing recognition and lauds for our work, right? Not me. I am not Gaudi, but if I ever do build a cathedral out of Popsicle sticks I damn-well want recognition what I did with my time on Earth. Sorry, Nic. That is a long-winded and very personal extrapolation of my ambivalence.

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

I am grateful for poets like Ron Silliman, Dave Bonta with his Moving Poems and Jilly Dybka with her Poetry Hut. There are so many out there, but I point to those three specifically for personal reasons. Dybka’s because it was the first of the kind that I saw. I am continually overwhelmed by people’s generosity with their time and knowledge. Silliman’s because it was my introduction to the fact that serious poets and an interest in craftsmanship are flourishing outside of academia. And Bonta’s because it made me remember that thinking you are “original” may simply be a matter of ignorance. I had jumped into animated poetry fearlessly because of my ignorance, and growing now as a poet because of Bonta’s dedication to archiving and community.

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.

Aren’t we living in an exciting time as poets? Some books still give the definition of poetry as “metered language”. The printing press and availability of affordable books and poetry became something we recognize in part by how it appears on the page. Now we are being pushed even further in our search to define poetry.

Konyves work has elements of found poetry, of Dadaist experiments and it uses music. The literary element of this piece isn’t experienced aurally and I am not an expert, but I would dare to say that we don’t even truly read the words in the graffiti as language – we process the images almost as graphemes, the “font” communicating as much of the meaning as the words themselves. This is a huge step away from traditional definitions of poetry. It begs a post modern and very liberal definition of language. It is not a literary piece as far as I can see. I don’t experience or approach this as a poem. I am being extremely subjective and not claiming any academic ground for my response. As an artist, I am drawn to his work. As a poet, I have no desire to emulate or experiment with this form of art.

Having said that. I think it is extremely exciting. I think it is similar to how technology gave rise to Performance, which is a genre unto itself now – no longer the stepchild of visual art or of theater. If I have understood Konyves correctly, that is what he is really after anyway?

If you look at work by someone like David Moolten, you can see there is no doubt that the work began with the literary art form and developed from the language (language as defined by fuddy-duddies like me). Moolten’s poetry is traditional poetry with a visual presentation. It may not be as radically new or as ambitious as Konyves, but I think it is exciting, too. Technology is a tool in the service of poetry for Moolten. Poetry is a tool in the service of a technological art form for Konyves. I mean…. if I were to be putting things in boxes…

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

I do, in part to reach people who otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reach because my books are published in Scandinavia and cost far too much to attempt to sell abroad, and in part because my first love was the spoken language. Listening to the pastor read the Bible, to my mother read Dr. Seuss. Later I read Edna St. Vincent Millay aloud to myself in my bedroom. It isn’t that I love the sound of my own voice, but I love what good prosody does to the body. Poetry readings are wonderful intimate experiences because they are very physical. Listening is as physical as laughing, singing or weeping. Poetry resonates. Whether it is your own voice or the voice of the reader across the room or the Garrison Keillor coming through your headset at your cubicle at lunch hour. Technology makes that possible for those of us who can’t get to readings.

I also studied studio art a while in college and like playing with visual images. I am not a very good craftsman when it comes to visual art, though. Technology is absolutely a tool in the service of traditional poetry in the work I have done. I have even made interactive flash buttons so that the reader can pause the animation and see the poem “on the page”. There are buttons on some of the poems that allow the “reader” to access notes. Of course, most people just watch the QuickTime versions and are passive viewers. I’m not complaining. But I think of how often at readings I have wanted to hit the pause or review button to hear a line again or to double check a reference I thought the poet made to something in the previous stanza…

One of my advisors at university told me he thought the video versions of my poems were less interactive than the poems alone on the page. Several people at that meeting pointed out that people will not use the interactive buttons, will not put in the effort they would with a poem on the page. Well, does that me we accept limitations based on people’s habits? Or can we try to get people to use technology differently in the service of literature? We don’t read a poem once. Why should we watch a 2-minute video version of a poem just once and expect to have digested everything it has to give?

I am doing a lot of thinking these days. I will return to action soon. I am working on an entire interactive collection that will be published here in Norway.

9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?

The printing press changed poetry, the atom bomb changed poetry in another way. We could ask how Internet is changing poetry in regard to international/intercultural exchange, reader’s attention span and expectation, academic influences, grassroots publishing: how technology effects the dissemination of poetry, as well as the form. Most interesting in my mind is how it is changing the way we view the world and how we will express that in terms of actual material presentations as well as “form” (as in style). Can we know that yet, being smack in the middle of all this experimentation?

I think new kinds of “schools” will certainly emerge now that people with common aesthetics don’t have to be able to meet in a living room on Tuesday evenings to have ongoing conversations.

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

I wouldn’t presume. I do hope that poetry remains true to literature, to literacy. I love that language can be presented on the page with clauses that have to be seen and connected in the mind, that a metaphor about grief can hover in a collection until it is completed twenty pages later in a poem about a dog. But there was a time when Scandinavian poets used complicated meters and they could make those kinds of wonderful epic artworks through memory and oral performance. We’ve lost that, as poets and as audience members. We will certainly lose something of Poetry along the way. I expect we will have a newly defined form of Poetry through which to express our grief.

Ren (Katherine) Powell is a poet, playwright, teacher and translator. She is currently completing her PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her fourth poetry collection, forthcoming in 2011 (trans. Eirik Lodén) with Wigestrand Publishers in Norway, forms a biographic novel in verse about the American reformer Dorothea Dix and will feature an interactive CD-ROM. In the autumn of 2010 Phoenician Publishing will give out a “new and selected works”, which will be available in North America. She has recently begun blogging here.


Previous responders:

Amy King
Collin Kelley

Coming up:

Chris Hamilton-Emery
Cati Porter
Ron Silliman
Sandra Beasley
Dave Bonta
January O’Neil
John Vick
Eric Elshtain

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

music & technology (why not poetry?)

This is a fascinating read. I couldn’t help but substitute “poetry” for “music” while reading it. A couple of excerpts:

Cope has been writing software to help him compose music for 30 years, and he long ago reached the point where most people can’t tell the difference between real Bach and the Bach-like compositions his computer can produce. Audiences have been moved to tears by melodies created by algorithms. And yet, it’s not exactly that Cope has created a computer than can write music like a human. The way he sees it, it’s that humans compose like computers.


…human composers draw on a huge amount of data when they sit down to write a piece of music. “We don’t start with a blank slate,” [Cope] said. “In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we’ve heard in our life, segregate out what we don’t like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own.” What separates great composers from the rest of us, he says, is the ability to accurately compile that database, remember it, and manipulate it into new patterns.