10 Questions on Poets and Technology – Chris Hamilton-Emery

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, bringing us a UK perspective, is Chris Hamilton-Emery.

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

The end of hope. No, I’ve worked with new technology in publishing for almost twenty years, so a lot of my immediate thinking here centres around mark up languages like XML, XLink, XPointer, metadata, issues around discoverability, granularity, fragmentation, standards, subject classification, topic maps (remember them?) tagging and so on — the seriously boring end of things: the kind of stuff that gets cited in the divorce proceedings. The kind of stuff that ends up in sentences that start with “He was a real loner all his life…” I’ve been working on a new database system that encodes poetry for ePub and Kindle products, but that might seem a rather constrained and reductive way to approach this question! I love programming XSLT conversions, and thinking about XSL-FO and how we might auto generate books from vast corpora of tax returns. It’s a bit sad. It’s a lot sad, actually. I think technology is a metaphor for bereavement.

Still, I think that the way we approach literature, the way we read, is about to change profoundly. As far as I can see with my kids, give them new technology and you can kill reading altogether; we’re building a post-literate society. The preferred medium is shifting from paper to electronic and I can now see a future where physically printed books will diminish as the principal means of reading poetry, reading immersively, for pleasure, for insight, for wonder and entertainment. I keep thinking of all those Scandinavian forests. They’re slow crops and soon we won’t need them and I can imagine as the paper pulp industry collapses and all those lumberjacks have to change careers to become, you know, W3C programmers, that we’ll simply deforest Scandinavia and build housing. Neat and tidy housing, though. Wooden housing.

Technology isn’t in itself liberating, is it, but the range of tools available to us to disseminate works and the opportunities to augment our experience of a text is increasing steadily. I think we’ll all expect more from writers, too, and this may create new pressures for poets to see themselves as working in a range of media to create a kind of multimedia experience of their work, to capture the visual and aural experience of a poem. We’re moving into a second wave (or even third or fourth) of networked communities, further globalization and our sense of nationality, of place, of belonging, of political and social engagement, is going to be profoundly changed — that’s all self evident though now, and it’s rather banal to state it. Facebok is a nation isn’t it? Anyway, I’m hoping for more flashmob experiences of poetry and lots more dance videos.

In fact, technology is really a triumph of banality: it’s a trainspotters paradise, isn’t it? I mean we’re more likely to be stuck on Facebook than with our physical next door neighbour. More likely to join One Million Fans to Rename Des Moines Obamaville than to help old Mrs Silverstein clean her gutters over there. I’m kidding. But I think technology can give the impression of engagement, can symbolise engagement, but it can be disempowered and dissociative, too. Yet, when it works it’s quite incredible. Poetry can be like that, it can look like poetry and have lots of comments and friends saying ‘Wow, I really care about Haiti, too!” , but it can be a kind of new way to fail as well; but poets are good with failure. In fact failure is the manure of poetry. Technology multiples the ways to fail. It’s nirvana for Beckett fans.

So I think I’m saying that the real issue is this new networked society, this networked life and where it’s all leading, this kind of total exposure, but the instincts and processes are all still profoundly human: neighbourliness, collaboration, exchange, friendship — as well as those darker characteristics: like the obsession everyone has with being bothered about stuff. How much of social networking is about loneliness and belonging? Quite a bit I’d guess. There’s a lot of group think and flame wars that act to normalise behaviour, too, just like the parish council or the local branch of the WI (Women’s Institute). We’ve yet to see how this will really affect poetry reading (as opposed to its production), but we’re heading towards a new phase of World English, of English further dominating writing around the world. That has some serious implications, doesn’t it? I guess everyone will just have to accept English, like they do democracy and MFAs and BP.

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?

I use Facebook everyday, from morning till night, I pin my eyelids open so I can do more Facebook, but that’s for business, really. I’m trying to wean myself away but they’re closing Bebo down and my Ning is really dysfunctional and MySpace is like taking days to load and is full of music geeks wanting Wavves T-shirts. I’m an addict and I know it. I admit it openly: I wonder if there are seven step programmes for Facebook addicts. I create separate profiles for me as a poet and me in my day job as sales director for a secret publishing business. Actually, I run over fifty profiles and talk to myself in the evenings. I forget who the hell is speaking and find myself running over the same old themes all the time “What is it with your mother, Rich?”. I’m not sure I can keep these things apart, after all these conversations all take place within the same body, the same mind. This is what I tell myself. I think Facebook is the poet’s best friend, though. It has this astonishing ability to connect you to readers: in some cases this means more than your mum and that guy from Social Services you discovered who collects gnomes and uploads photos of his allotment on Flickr. In some senses, as part of the whole social networking phenomenon, it’s the tool which turns the Web from being passive to being active. After all a Website just sits there waiting for visitors like a big lump, but social networking makes it active, it proves that no one is interested in your writing. Seriously though, it draws people to you, people who share similar interests or similar trajectories, needs and desires. Like say, blancmange fantasies. Or NFA league tables. Or micro-breweries. It puts poets in the way of new readers and that’s got to be good for the art? On the other hand it can really show you that you have no friends in the virtual world, too, that you really are alone and that there’s good reason for this and it’s a lot to do with you learning Vulcan in your spare time and giving up deodorant. And writing poetry.

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?

No, I don’t use Twitter for my poetry, though again, I have profiles on Twitter which I use for business, and I link my blog to Twitter and Twitter to Facebook, so I have this kind of feed of my activities shifting around these tools: it’s a CIA paradise. But everyone is doing that now, it’s the connections between these tools that builds audiences and helps people to get a sense of what you’re doing.

Of course, for all these things, you need to be prepared to have a large window on your private life and social networking really works through how much of yourself you want to put on show — a bit like Bentham’s Panopticon — it’s about personal display as well as a form of control, there are consequences when thinking of social networking. For a writer this might mean going public about your life in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. Imagine discovering that Les Murray always writes naked on that OzLit Web cam, or discovering that Ron is really a franchise (and that’s how he does it). Depending on your own psychology that can be either liberating or imprisoning, a bit like day time TV — sometimes I do wonder if social networking is a form of neurasthenia.

In a way I imagine it reflects how writers consider audiences: as something close and participative or remote and disengaged. Or dead. You still get the “If lots of people read this stuff it must be a crock of shit” crew, and the “It’s only good if it isn’t read at all” crew as well as the “Only you are permitted to read this and in this precise way” lot — the literary eugenicists. Social networking is not a good medium for those who believe their readers aren’t yet born. But I don’t use Twitter to write a poem — 140 characters is really rubbish for epic poems in alexandrines. There’s no reason why one shouldn’t do this, but I’ve no creative thrill there. Someone mentioned haiku earlier in this thread, though I think haiku in English are pretty awful most of the time — it’s like opening a family bag of M&Ms and finding one sweet inside (well, two, so you can repeat it, naturally) — I always feel robbed. Twitter’s power is to simply natter, it’s a banal tool, and a lot of human experience is, well, basically pretty banal. That’s its charm. It’s a kind of conversational backwash, like chatting with folk in the bus queue while waiting for the No. 47. It’s just that the bus won’t ever turn up.

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.

I keep a blog, I use podcasts, to open out a window on what I’m doing, I see these things as sketch books, it’s no different than having an open studio as a painter, and folk can drop in and see what I’m working on and I can see what I’m doing too, and most of it is provisional and developmental, which means the failed stuff — well not always, but the really good stuff you have to keep offline or those Poetry Police come along and spread the word to magazine and competition editors that you published this thing on your blog and ought to be disqualified from entry, or worse your shortlisting ought to be invalidated. Actually, this really happens, I get this a lot in my business life. Poets shopping poets. It makes you think. I can see the pressure to read something on the Web as published, but I hope that poets can begin to share worksheets and warming up exercises with us all (I mistyped that as “arming up” exercises, which is kind of interesting, too). My instincts are that we should be open with our processes, though I know that many see this as demystifying the art.

I don’t think of writing as some kind of sacred thing, something sacral or filled with mystery. Some poets like all that spooky stuff, don’t they? Some go for the theory stuff, too. Too much theory is like acetone. It rubs the varnish off of a poem. Again I realise that many people do see writing as this primal, private and secret activity, where the kind of exposure I’m talking of here would be horrifying. Each to their own. I’ve never been turned on by the technology dictating new forms of writing though, I’m quite conservative in that sense, or maybe just pragmatic. I ultimately want the words. Do you know the Alice for the iPad thing? — I watched this, along with lots and lots of publishers and thought how sexy and whizzy it all was, but of course, you read Alice, don’t you, and in that YouTube vid you get the impression that this is really about people who hate words, they’re just like furniture in this little advertisement where the object is to shake Alice to bits. To knock her about. Ultimately, I’m just a words guy. I like words to look beautiful though. If you add bells and whistles, you’d better be sure they’re not dressing up a bad poem, or killing a good one.

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

Nothing really. I hope people do experiment, and experiment wildly. I see a lot of stuff come across my desktop using CSS typography (usually quite badly), and some try to create routes and tours of a text through hyperlinking, but this is ultimately a scripted and artificial thing. It’s an artificial form of heteroglossia where the tension is contrived and intended, but sometimes that can add this further contextual pressure to a text, but I’m not especially keen on it, you know, I don’t read a poem hoping for the footnotes. I don’t dislike this, but I think it fails on a number of levels. And navigation experiences, clicking from place to place discovering collisions of intention, a kind of online parataxis — this kind of thing, it strikes me, is difficult to succeed with: I mean that surfing is the entire nature of the Web, and so constraining it is somehow inauthentic. Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense. A lot of online “concrete” works fail for me too on the graphics side, because the poet doesn’t necessarily have a terribly sophisticated visual sense of the world or an ability to make it gorgeous. And sometimes, when a visual artist uses text in their work, that too can seem ineffective, contrived, sometimes bathetic. But when it does all come together I think that it can be quite astonishing. I guess that I feel that in the cases where this could succeed, the poet would have to forgo their sense of themselves as poet, and move towards being a multimedia artist? Maybe we’ll all end up there? Maybe we’re all filmmakers now. You’d better consider what your day job will be though, as there’s no money in this and you can’t gain tenure in a writing program working as Final Cut Pro 7 editor.

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

I like it when they innovate themselves an audience. I mean, there’s not much point in any of it without readers, so I love seeing how poets are using these tools to reach people. Blogging, reviewing, networking, drawing people in, sharing in the conversations, I love seeing the writerly generosity of it all. I’m not much into closed societies and locking readers out, so all that opening up in video, sound, performances, seeing and hearing the growth of a poet’s mind, that fascinates me. The boring stuff, I guess. The bells and whistles things are cool, but I want to see and know the person and get an insight into what’s going on there: I’d like more biography more of the orthogenesis. Shaky cam poetics can be okay though. I enjoy being surprised, so it’s good to avoid redoing stuff. I’m envious of those who can use Final Cut Pro 7. I like interviews actually. And you know I really like ads and promos, too. I love that W.W. Norton thing from AWP a year back I hope we have more poetry advertisements.

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.

I’ve never seen the Konyves piece, but why would we limit our experience of this to poetry? I can see this as an art installation, it’s a nice piece of filmmaking, and I do think that poetry has a lot to do with film — the same chthonic seams, but if I simply read this work, I’m not sure I’m getting a great textual experience. I guess I think it does the poetry a disservice in this example. I like it a lot though. I like it as film. You know it makes me want to go and write, that’s the highest praise! I wish more poets used YouTube and Vimeo and I wish more folk collaborated with filmmakers to create responses to poems and riffs on poems. I like Ronnie McGrath’s Mingus Music in this context and I also like the lo-fi triumph of it all. You know, we can all jump in and push the art.

I think we’re only just beginning to see this stuff emerge. I want more of it. Jen and I have been thinking about filming some of my poems in London, and I find that it’s my visual imagination that kicks in there, my painterly mind, coming back into the fray, much more than the poet stepping in. It’s a perceptual thing isn’t it? I like Miranda July’s kooky promo for her book. Do you know that? I like the fact she’s continued developing that promo. Especially talking to the dead. And then you turn up and think, “Hey maybe that’s me.”

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

I was unsure reading this what you might mean, how can one avoid technology? It’s all coming back to Blake’s “infernal methods” the celebration of the medium: the mythology of the medium, the medium dictating the outcomes and the poet overcoming these resistances. We all create our own resistances and mythologize our experiences, our collaborators, comrades, even. I would counsel against letting the medium become the whole story, though.

All media dates, some dates badly, some ends up looking nostalgic, like those poets who dye their manuscripts with gravy browning to make them look really, really old (a bit like those who use ‘innovative’ techniques from say 1910). We prize nostalgia when the original artists were being new and radical — a lot of collage is like this, isn’t it? — we may even adopt certain practices because they symbolise authenticity, codify authenticity, when they’re really historical reenactments. A bit like punk, it was really all over by 1979. I think this can often be a failure in some works — some art fails in this respect: it can be repetitive and predictable — it pretends to be new, but it’s actually already ancient, synthetic, it also has a very narrow range of effects — though that might be a deficiency in my experience of it as a reader! New technology obviates this kind of thing — so I think we’ll see this pressure to really create something sensually new, something like opening up a new vista rather than ploughing the dead land.

Every writer I’ve ever worked with has a procedure for writing, a methodology that utilises old technologies like, you know, pencils and paper, and combines that with new one’s like iPhones and palmtops, laptops and now iPad, I imagine. I wonder if we’ll start with a visual or sonic idea, and then work through to a text, I wonder if poetry will become this filmic script, this intense collision of media?

Rather predictably, I write on a laptop in the main, I like overwriting immediately. I don’t leave traces. I like that whole erasure thing. Erasure is very important for writers, isn’t it? But it can be annoying, when you realise that, forty drafts in, it was that first one that really had something. But it’s gone. You only set for 10 levels of Undo and you’ve exhausted them. So another damn Mancunian Canto bites the dust. But then there’s always Facebook and a new protest to join about privacy settings or being made to pay for stuff. Or another natural disaster to campaign for.

9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?

It’s got it out of the mouth and the head and then put it back again some place else, hasn’t it? If we’re talking about new technology here, about electronic texts, I think we’re only seeing the beginning of things. Poetry is being put centre stage with these new means of disseminating works, it’s a revolution of logistics not of art. We’re seeing more poets than ever before, more output, like millions of writers, millions of poems, there are no gatekeepers now, we’re all free, but I imagine this was always the case. The amateur world or writing (in the proper sense, not as a pejorative) has always been with us, literacy has expanded it over the past 100 years, and we’ve industrialised it with teaching creative writing, it’s big money and big business, after all.

At one level, we’re all poets and I don’t know many people who haven’t penned something in their lives, usually at a moment of high emotion like the Spice Girls Reunion Tour. There’s a very high pain threshold for people to get involved in writing poetry — you know, not too many barriers to practise it. It’s a different experience reading it though. I guess we live in an age of ubiquity and abundance where poetry is concerned, but most of our attention goes on production and not consumption. We’ve created this vast infrastructure for production: most of the money in the genre goes on people making stuff. We have to remember that there are many billions more of us than there were in 1900, so there’s just bound to be more amateur poets out there. It’s the paying readers that just aren’t turning up: where the heck are they all. Maybe they’re all playing Red Dead Redemption.

But the changes in new technology can only help to take poetry to more general readers, but I think it will come at a cost and that cost is even more participation in writing and we haven’t seen tools emerge to help us edit our experiences, to discover what we want as readers, which is largely an issue of visibility and relevance. I like those words, Visibility and Relevance. I think they should be pinned up above every poet’s desk.

The question we should all keep asking is “Is this stuff really for me?” What we need are powerful referral engines. And I’d like to see more ghost writers for poets, you know, where you can go when you’re having a bad year and say, “Look help me write this next collection for FSG, it’s about thinginess, the thinginess of things,” and this ghost writer will say, “Sure, Bud, sit down here and let me get my iPad and log into this online thesaurus. It worked pretty good for Ashbery last month.” I think Ballard really had this covered in Vermillion Sands. He was way ahead.

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

Please god, let there be more humour. I really don’t want an increase in seriousness. I’m pretty much done with seriousness: you know tumours, addiction, conflict, — I think we’ve done these pretty well. It’s so depressing. It had better entertain me if it’s going to be about tumours again. Have you noticed how few comedy poets there are these days, there are too many lemon suckers now? And let’s stop all artistic revolutions, too. Let’s have a revolution about having no revolutions. I mean this is pretty boring, I’m okay with the anarchy T-shirts and campus politics, but the revolutions are really in Craig Venter’s realm, all those exciting patents on Life™. Poetry isn’t a match for this; well, maybe it is — maybe we’ll see some real techno changes, there, like a sonnet writing bacterium. Imagine, suddenly, every poet on Facebook going, “Yeah, I’m really with this new Coalition Government, thing!” Imagine an online poetry revolution for small government! See that’s the kind of thing that would get you hate mail for a year. Maybe I hope that technology won’t normalise poetry in some sad way. I hope we don’t all end up with institutional poetry. That it won’t all end up vanilla. I hope the young show us how it’s going to be. Shake things up with new media. Take things to new communities and bypass old farts like me. (Let’s ban poetry written by over 40s.) I want poetry on my iPhone. I want poetry on Kindle. I want poetry that wakes me up in the morning on my radio. I want a zillion bytes of beauty. I don’t want any nineteenth-century ideas, either.

Oh, I’d like poetry for stupid people too, so I hope technology delivers that. I hate the pressure to buff up on PhDs to get to grips with this line from Robinson Jeffers. There’s this tendency towards intellectual inflation, so I hope technology delivers stuff I can understand without needing third-party intervention, or maybe there could be dial-in numbers for when I get stuck on the big words. Maybe someone could program something to read all this stuff for me, too? I’d especially like something programmatic that had a vast array of single sentence answers to poems: I’d use that every time someone says to me “Yeah, but what does that mean?” I could look it up on my iPhone and read back, “Partridges, ma’am. It means complete partridges today.” And, yeah, more adverts please.

Chris Hamilton-Emery was born in Manchester in 1963 and studied painting and printmaking in Leeds. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals including The Age, Jacket, Magma, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, PN Review, Quid and The Rialto. His chapbook, The Cutting Room, was published by Barque in 2000. His first full-length collection, Dr. Mephisto, was published by Arc in 2002. His latest collection of poetry, Radio Nostalgia, was published by Arc in 2006. He has been anthologized in New Writing 8 (Vintage, 1999) and a selection of his work will appear in Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets edited by Roddy Lumsden, available from Bloodaxe in 2010.

He is also author of a bestselling writer’s guide 101 Ways to Make Poems Selling: The Salt Guide to Getting and Staying Published, and editor of Poets in View: A Visual Anthology of 50 Classic Poems as well as a range of pocket classics, including selections of Emily Brontë, John Keats and Christina Rossetti.

He also writes regular articles for The Writer’s Handbook and occasionally blog for The Guardian.

He lives in Great Wilbraham, near Cambridge, UK, with his wife, three children and various other animals.

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Previous responders:

Amy King
Collin Kelley
Ren Powell

Coming up:

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

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

9 thoughts on “10 Questions on Poets and Technology – Chris Hamilton-Emery”

  1. I hate to keep sounding like a cheerleader here, but I’m impressed by how different each response has been so far. Chris’ response to question #6 was my favorite, but a lot to chew on all along — in between guffaws. Well done.

  2. “Take things to new communities and bypass old farts like me. (Let’s ban poetry written by over 40s.)”

    Yeah. We could install little crystals in their palms so we could spot them at AWP. Dating myself?

    Please. God forbid that we admit people may continue to grow and learn after 40 and have insights and experience they didn’t when they were 20.

  3. Despite my little outburst about ageism (which is partly fueled by my frustration with my own students’ lack of technological knowledge and skills), I really enjoyed this interview – as Dave pointed out – the variety of ideas these questions bring to mind is fascinating…

    “You’d better consider what your day job will be though, as there’s no money in this and you can’t gain tenure in a writing program working as Final Cut Pro 7 editor.”

    I have been thinking about this and about the university departments I have been in over the years – theater departments who employ carpenters, electricians and other craftsmen to keep it running. Is it unthinkable – if we are indeed moving toward a post-literate society – that technicians will become integral parts of the “establishment” that is the university programs?

  4. This is the best interview I’ve read in along time, very candid and timely. Hits things where the rubber meets the road. A lot to consider, mull through, incorporate into my own efforts. Thanks!

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