Commentaries - February 2013

Rochelle Owens: Hermaphropoetics/Desire

In this story

ripening on the vine so to speak

 

In this story a warhol-like

playfulness

 

a vinyl fruit of desire

teasing femme/homme

 

bringing millions to their knees

 

In a dream of a hermaphrodite

in silhouette

 

her/his body

elegant the fusion of human and bird

 

vertical horizontal

l’amour impossible l’amour possible

 

the physical poetic

iridescent her pelvis his/her body

 

spiritual/carnal

inside a dark purple fruit

 

the core divided

In a dream of a boy warrior

 

with bright red lips

her skin berries and apricots

 

diaphanous floating

languid the tendrils of pubic hair

 

a flush of wet hot air burning

her neck and face

 

Sorcery of his female brain

 

In this story a warhol-like

playfulness

 

teasing femme/homme

her teeth overlapping licking

 

a clot of blood

A hunter gatherer meat nuts fruit

 

his platinum blond curls

bringing millions to their knees

 

Love of the hermaphrodite

like a white swan

 

her hollow bones sculpted delicate

elegant the fusion

 

of human and bird

his hollow bones glowing under

 

a black light

magnetic her hollow bones

 

glowing in the dark

Meek sweetness the face the face

 

of the hermaphrodite teasing femme/homme

Out of the hole of Baudelaire

 

emerging from the mists of Cumae

A long curved fingernail

 

tracing a circle a cleft tracing

the pink mauve folds

 

tracing the flower vulva

 

the mother misery the father terror

a slit in the stalk blood seeping

 

carnal/spiritual

green and pale the scrotal lily

 

In this story a warhol-like

playfulness

 

a vinyl fruit of desire

teasing femme/homme

 

bringing millions to their knees

 

[NOTE. Rochelle Owens' latest book, Out of Ur: New & Selected Poems 1901-2012 is now awaiting publication by Shearsman Books. Of her poems here & elsewhere I wrote: “There is a voice in Owens’ work … like a fierce and unrelenting force of nature. Sharp and visual, she combines a landscape with a poetics, the domestic with the mythic, machines with the organic living world from which arises a construct and a fused vision: poetry and life.”(J.R.)]

Why archive dead media?

A question for Lori Emerson

Lori Emerson using an Apple Lisa in the Media Archaeology Lab

A fair amount of contemporary writing and art would benefit from media-historical analysis. What media at what time made this work possible? What media are brought together in this work? When we want to analyze form in the contemporary, are we not sometimes talking about technical supports, the bridgings between various media the work relies on?  Works like Goldsmith's American Trilogy for example, are not simply archiving the language we find in the books.  They can be analyzed in terms of their technical supports, or the crossings of various media the enabled the art or writing to happen in the first place. American Trilogy couldn't have happened without news radio and recording technology; Chris Alexander's McNugget would not have been possible without the database management systems undergirding a social networking / micro-blogging service like Twitter; a "book" like Kieran Daly's Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two) engages so many layers of technology one might not even be able to address them all adequately in one essay.

Digital poetry, or e-poetry, began almost as soon as the personal computer became available, and was the first movement in avant-garde poetry to take advantage of the programmable nature of the computer to create works that are interactive, or use generative or combinatorial approaches to create new kinds of text and text/image objects. When we were studying together as Ph.D. students in the Buffalo Poetics Program, Lori Emerson was working on a study of e-poetry. Now she's Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Director of its Media Archaeology Lab, which she describes as "trying to both preserve and provide access to several interrelated aspects of our cultural past: historically important works of electronic literature, generally from before the era of the WWW, along with the platforms they were created on and for; and historically important computer hardware and software, such as the Apple IIe, Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, NeXT Cube, and Hypercard." Her forthcoming monograph, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2014), will no doubt perform just the kind of media-historical analysis I'm looking for. But rather than wait until 2014, I asked her to share a little of her work now:

Why archive dead media?

The Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) is an open space for hands-on, experimental research and teaching actively using now-obsolete hardware and software. While the MAL does concern itself with trying to maintain access to dead media (or zombie media as nearly everything in the lab still functions) at the same as it tries to preserve early works of digital art/literature created for these dead media, it's still mostly preservation for the sake of active doing, not to create yet another museum.

In addition to landmark computers such as the Commodore 64 from 1982, the Vectrex Gaming Console also from 1982, the NeXT Cube from 1990, the lab also houses a number of working Apple IIe’s, an Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintoshes. All three computers are particularly important for understanding the history of personal computing and computer-mediated art and writing; while they were released throughout 1983 and 1984, the shift in interface from the one to the other, and therefore the shift in the limits and possibilities for what one could create, is remarkable. The Apple II series of computers all used the command-line interface and they were also the first affordable, personal computer while being open and extensible while the Apple Lisa was the first commercial computer to use a Graphical User Interface and the Apple Macintosh was the first affordable personal computer to use a GUI...one that began a legacy of the closed computer in the name of the user friendly PC encased in an aesthetically pleasing exterior that continues today with the iPad.

A work such as First Screening by bpNichol - a series of kinetic digital poems created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language - uniquely depends on the MAL for, the need to preserve these works aside, we cannot understand it if we view it only via a media translation. Everything about the Apple II system, its entire hardware and software system, offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read First Screening by way of an emulation on a system that uses a Graphical User Interface. The Apple II whirs, buzzes; the keyboard clacks; even inserting the 5.25" floppy disk puts you in direct contact with the material limits and possibilities of the computer as you wait with baited breath, listening to the scratchy sound of the computer processing the data, for the triumphant 'beep' that lets you know the disk loaded. It's a kind of friction that actually helps us understand the contours of the medium at hand that we no longer have access to in the current era of seamless computing and so-called "invisible" interfaces.

In other words, I see the MAL's collection of dead media as a thinking device: providing access to the utterly unique, material specificity of these computers - their interfaces, platforms, and software - makes it possible to defamiliarize or make visible for critique contemporary, invisible interfaces and platforms. Without having the ability to tinker with the countless different computers and operating systems that existed in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, without actually experiencing what it's like to operate a computer whose target audience is the DIYer, the tinkerer, the curious, I would never have understood to the extent that I do now the way in which an ideology of the user-friendly now determines the shape of contemporary computing - in which we are mere consumers of readymade content and 'user-friendly' is largely a marketing slogan.

A Walkthrough of 'Total Walkthrough'

With Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford

reading at Penn Book Center; making poetic wallpaper at 319 Scholes

Alejandro Crawford practices poetry at one of its most experimental edges, where it crosses with and benefits from the special capacities of computing. Crawford has done impressive work already in both fields; in 2007 he won a Fulbright and moved to Lisbon, Portugal where he had been commissioned to perform his operation “transmutilation” working, in part, with Orpheu, the magazine published by Fernando Pessoa and friends. Crawford’s radically recut remix based in part on poems from Orpheu is titled Morpheu (BlazeVox 2010). In 2009 Crawford moved to NYC to study in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU Tisch. His ongoing work with electronic communications media has expanded his arsenal of poetic technique to include things like video and sound-mixing and the reappropriation of video game hardware to run text-manipulating algorithms. But what he does is not only technically cutting edge, it's weird and funny and fun.

Take for example his recent work with Chris Sylvester’s Total Walkthrough. Sylvester’s project already crosses multiple media; it creates a a composite of several walkthroughs of a Legend of Zelda game (media 1: video game) derived from user-generated narrative accounts of game play uploaded to the public FAQ section of a gaming websites such as IGN or GameSpot (media 2: public user review sites), alphabetizes each line (media 3: spread sheet), and Troll Thread publishes it as a book (media 4: book) on Lulu (media 5: print on demand constrains aspects of the book's design, makes it available for purchase one-at-a-time and forever or available instantly on your computer, meaning you  save a tree). Crawford then takes the text of Total Walkthrough and, with software he has written for Xbox Kinect (click here to learn how Kinect works), translates movements from within the Kinect-field into the appearance of lines from Total Walkthrough on the computer screen, but potentially also via projector. Moreover, “Link” adds the further constraint of the computer screen's dimensions. No matter how long the line in Sylvester’s book, in Crawford’s version every line is limited to 40 characters so as not to roll off the screen.

There are always four lines on screen, which Crawford describes as “an infinite quatrain … where each line has its own depth value. For example let's say one of the four lines is programmed to change / chime when you’re 4.3 feet from the Kinect sensor.  When it detects that you’re 4.3 feet from the sensor this triggers the software to grab a new random line from Total Walkthrough and places it on the screen at a randomly generated x-y coordinate.  It then creates a new depth value (for example, 2.1 feet away) that will trigger the next line.” The poem generated, now a second remixing of the composite Zelda walkthrough, brings field and ambient poetics together through the technology of the video game. Movement within a field “writes” the poem, aspects of that movement determine where in the field of the computer screen the line will appear, and the poem generated offers the reader/player a new way to read Sylvester (and also The Legend of Zelda). There's also nice almost zen-like (though clearly digital) chimes that sound when the reader/writer/player passes through a coordinate.  

Equally exciting, for me, is to look under the hood at Crawford’s programming, which he makes available through screen shots, suggesting the code is as much a part of the poem as what’s on screen.

This image shows the main software, which Crawford has named “Link,” after the main character in Zelda, but also, Crawford points out, “as a play on the link between Chris's poem & my treatment of it.” The following two images show the algorithms “under the hood” of the main software.

These algorithms determine where to break lines and group lines in fours. They are parts of the overall “Link” program, and Crawford describes the relationship between these images this way: “[Quatrain] is the under the hood / insides of the green outlined Quatrain on the main software pic. Its first task is creating 4 distinct depth “Zones” or slices so that when you are X close to / far away from the Kinect it triggers a line and [Line] is the under the hood / inside of [Quatrain]. What it does is use a very short Python script to pull a random line from the book: 

then assigns it a random x y value on the screen where the line will appear (projective verse baby). You could think of the poem’s structure like this maybe: Link(Quatrain((Line)(Line)(Line)(Line)).”

In a future post, we'll be talking about algorithms and what — if anything — they have to do with poetry. I hope to simply keep our eyes on the in-mixing of coding and poetry. Just like perspective painting once changed seeing, digital computing is changing what we know about things like reading, attention, and the construction of meaning — and it’s also changing how those things happen, including the writing of poetry. I wonder, if we can see how the crossing with theory participated in the creation of a new strain of poetry in the 70s and 80s, can we not imagine that the current crossing with technology and programming is doing the same?

Crawford is one of the best artists I know of who can speak to the relationship between poetry and algorithm: “I guess in the history of poetry we've always called these 'forms.' For example here's the algorithm for a villanelle: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. With something like ‘Link,’ the notion of algorithm seems much more transparent, as they are literally instructions for the computer to follow but if we are to take the definition of an algorithm as basically the rules that govern something, then most of poetry's history is highly algorithmic.”  

This video is a recording of a performance of Total Walkthrough on Kinect — a work still in progress — generated by Alejandro making dinner with the Kinect set up in his kitchen on Sunday, February 17, 2013. (If video does not appear below, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV3uWaRMjVY&feature=youtu.be)

The Cambridge connection

King's College, Cambridge University
King's College, Cambridge (© Richard Humphrey, Creative Commons license)

C.P. Cavafy’s introduction to the English literary world was accomplished largely through the efforts of E.M. Forster. Forster met Cavafy during the First World War in Alexandria where, as a conscientious objector, he served with the Red Cross. Already a successful novelist, he was intrigued by both the poet (Daniel Mendelsohn characterizes Forster’s interest as a “crush”) and his work. He composed a vivid portrait of Cavafy, published in 1919 in The Nation and the Atheneum and again in his collection Pharos and Pharillon, which included the description — by now a cliché — of “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” This essay also featured a translation of “The God Abandons Antony.” After the war Forster brought Cavafy’s poems to the attention of T.S. Eliot, who published “Ithaca” in The Criterion in 1924, and Leonard Woolf, who published “The City” in The Nation and the Atheneum the same year. The translations of all these poems were made, with Cavafy’s involvement, by George Valassopoulo. Woolf also tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade Cavafy (who did not publish a book of his poems in Greek during his lifetime) to let the Hogarth Press bring out a collection of Valassopoulo’s English versions.[1] Cavafy and Forster continued to correspond until the poet’s death.

E.M. Forster by Dora CarringtonForster, who had been an undergraduate (and member of the Apostles) at King’s College, Cambridge, returned to the college as an Honorary Fellow from 1946. A familiar if unobtrusive figure around the Wilkins’ Building and the courts, it was his habit at the beginning of term to invite the handful of undergraduate King’s men reading English to his rooms for tea and conversation. Among the handful reading English in 1954 was a freshman named John Dixon Hunt. 

As Hunt recalls it, Forster told the group that while he was shy and tended to look at the ground when he walked, they must not hesitate to address him by name if they wished to speak with him at any time. Taking him at his word, Hunt approached “Morgan” later in the term in order to write a short piece about him for a Swedish newspaper. The following year Hunt, like many at the time, became intrigued by the evocation of Cavafy in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and resolved to read the poems in the original. He spoke to Forster about the possibility of studying modern Greek. Forster’s generous response to Hunt’s interest in the poet was to lend him, among other things, the Valassopoulo translations, most of which were still unpublished.

The young scholar made good use of them, reading them against Mavrogordato’s collection and the French versions of Théodore Griva as he set out to augment the classical Greek he’d learned at Bristol Grammar School. By June of 1957 he had written a concise and perspicuous appreciation of Cavafy’s work (reproduced below; click to read a full-size PDF version) for Granta, then the university’s undergraduate magazine. Quotations in the essay show that Hunt had also read Bowra’s essay “Constantine Cavafy and the Greek Past” from The Creative Experiment as well as Edmond Jaloux’s prefatory study to Griva’s translations.

Granta coverHunt article startHunt article finish

Formed at a time when Cavafy criticism in English was sparse, Hunt’s judgments were consistent with those of his mentors as well as the consensus of later critics. In a note of acknowledgment appended to the Granta essay he wrote: “Cavafy’s collected poems have been published by the Hogarth Press in the translations of Professor John Mavrogordato and they are the only edition available. They often lack the essential magic that is such an important aspect of the poet and which has been captured with greater success by Mr. George Valassopoulo.”

John Dixon HuntMany readers will know John Dixon Hunt as an internationally eminent historian and theorist of landscape, gardens, and placemaking and as a longtime professor at Penn. He began his academic career, however, as a literary scholar and maintains a lively interest in poetry. I’d like to thank him for sharing this personal link to Forster and to Cavafy and allowing us to overhear the “great conversation” as it passes from one speaker to the next.

In a 1951 article, reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy, Forster said of Valassopoulo, who was born in Alexandria but studied in England, that of all the people who had tried to translate Cavafy, he was “most to his taste.” “He had the advantage,” Forster went on, “of working with the poet and he has brought much magic across; Cavafy is largely magic.” Even as an undergraduate, Hunt clearly shared this opinion. Besides, like Forster and Hunt, Valassopoulo had been a Cambridge man, and Mavrogordato was a professor at that other place.

 


1. The Hogarth Press did, however, publish the first collection of English translations of Cavafy, by John Mavrogordato, in 1951.

Jonathan Williams: The lord of orchards

A giant feature in Jacket 38

Jonathan Williams
Jonathan Williams

INTRODUCTION:  
[»»] Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens: The Lord of Orchards: Jonathan Williams at 80: (Excerpt:) Throughout his life in poetry and the arts Williams preferred active involvement with artists and the world at large over cloistered study or administrative labor: “I clearly did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of The Morgan Library; or an art critic for The New Yorker; nor did I want to live in the world of competitive business.” His work in the arts thus demanded direct and persistent engagement with the world — a form of engagement that gave rise to both enduring friendships and irreconcilable conflicts. 

REMEMBERING:
[»»]
Jonathan Williams: A Life in Pictures
[»»]
Basil Bunting: Comment on Jonathan Williams
[»»]
Dear JW: Erica Van Horn
[»»]
James McGarrell: Mountainside Reader; for JW
[»»]
Ann McGarrell: À mon cher Stodge
[»»]
Anne Midgette: On With It
[»»]
Bob Arnold: Swept in with the Rain
[»»] Charles Lambert: Acts of Kindness
[»»] Diana C. Stoll: Jonathan Williams: More Mouth on that Man
[»»] Gary Carden: The Bard of Scaly Mountain
[»»] Harry Gilonis: from Pliny: Naturalis Historia XXVII. xvi 58
[»»] John Mitzel: Jonathan Williams: An Appreciation
[»»] Michael Rumaker’s Last Letter to Jonathan Williams
[»»] Robert Kelly: Colonel Generosity — Saying Thank You to Jonathan Williams
[»»] Ronald Johnson: A Microscopic/ Telescopic Collage of «The Empire Finals at Verona»
[»»] Simon Cutts: Anglophone Digressions
[»»] Thomas A Clark and Laurie Clark
[»»] Thomas Meyer: Kintsugi — with a Foreword by Robert Kelly

RESPONDING:
[»»] Guy Davenport: Jonathan Williams, Poet
[»»] Charles Olson: For a Man Gone to Stuttgart Who Left an Automobile Behind Him
[»»] Charles Olson: Nota to «Jammin’ the Greek Scene»
[»»] Robert Duncan: Preface to Jonathan Williams’ «Elegies and Celebrations»
[»»] James Maynard: Some notes on Jonathan Williams and Robert Duncan
[»»] Jed Birmingham: William Burroughs and Jonathan Williams
[»»] David Annwn: Mustard & Evening Primrose, the astringent extravagance of Jonathan Williams’ metafours
[»»] Eric Mottram: An Introduction: “Stay In and Use Both Hands”
[»»] Jim Cory: We Were All Beautiful Once (or) Never Bare Your Soul to an Asshole
[»»] Jonathan Greene: Jonathan Williams: Taking Delight In Two Worlds
[»»] Kenneth Irby: “america’s largest openair museum”
[»»] Ronald Johnson: Jonathan (Chamberlain) Williams
[»»] Thomas Meyer: JW Gent & Epicurean
REVIEWING:
[»»] Jonathan Williams: Image Gallery: 24 photographs by Jonathan Williams
[»»] Richard Deming: Portraying the Contemporary: The Photography of Jonathan Williams
[»»] Vic Brand: Burr, Salvage, Yoke
RECOLLECTING:
[»»] James Jaffe: Jonathan Williams, Jargonaut
[»»] Kyle Schlesinger: The Jargon Society
[»»] Tom Patterson: If You Can Kill a Snake with It, It Ain’t Art: The Art History of a Maverick Poet-Publisher
[»»] Michael Basinski: Some Facts and Some Memories: The Jargon Society Archive at the Poetry Collection State University of New York at Buffalo
[»»] Dale Smith: Devotion to “The Strange”: Jonathan Williams and the Small Press
[»»] Jonathan Williams in conversation with Richard Owens,1 June 2007
[»»] Robert J. Bertholf: The Jargon Society and Contemporary Literary History
[»»] Jargon Society: A Checklist
[»»] Jonathan Williams: A Checklist