Electrical currents through language
A poetry workshop
The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received. It’s an exchange of electrical currents through language — Adrienne Rich, “Someone is Writing A Poem”
This past summer, I taught a poetry workshop on technology at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. While the two — poetry and technology — seem disparate, the workshop explored how technology is intimate, poetic and humanized, and how the poetic is technologized. In our digital everyday, language has become even more punctuated and transformed. Exploring literary essays, poetry, technological writing, and technology in our everyday lives, poets wrote speculative poetry and prose poems, made visual poetry, and played with code. What follows is a compilation of poetry and audio poems created by poets in the Beyond Baroque Electrical Currents Through Language Workshop. Select poems featured include work by Jasmine An, Raquel Baker, Susan Kraft, and Fred Maus, and our guest poet Neil Aiken.
- Drawing from Adrienne Rich’s words on the poetry reading as “an exchange of electrical currents through language,” the workshop discussed prose writing from William Carlos Williams and Edward Hirsh, robots in poems including Douglas Kearney’s Black Automaton and Automaton Biographies by Larissa Lai, Janelle Monae’s android lyrics, Alan Turing’s notion of AI and the sonnet, and Twitter bots in electronic literature. These readings were organized into a curriculum of thematic weeks including “Poem as Machine?”, Evocative Objects, Science Fiction Poetry, Cinema Poems, and Code Poems with poetic prompts that runs the gamut of what I refer to as cyborg poetry, or poetics at the intersection of technology. Prompts included watching robot pop culture such as Westworld, or pairing real robots, like Big Dog, and poets such as Harreyette Mullen to see what kind of poetry emerges. In the spirit of accessible education, I placed the link to the poetry workshop curriculum, readings, and writing prompts below.
Drawn from the workshop, the select poems featured in this post embody exciting new directions of the intersection of poetry and technology which include questions of intimacy, innovation, science fiction poetry, intergenerational connections and memory, and racial justice. For the final workshop reading, guest poets whom we studied and discussed including Neil Aitken, Keith S. Wilson, and Annette Daniels Taylor joined us for a special celebration of a community of poets working at the intersections of poetry and technology.
During the pandemic, the workshop participants’ poems and conversations remind me of the power of collectivity, creation, and conversation. While Rich describes reading a poem as an “electrical current,” I’m also reminded of the perfect arrangement of people and topics and poems could build something, not as organized as a circuit, but perhaps more like a fire. Specifically, the process of writing poetry collectively in a workshop space could be understood as the parts of the fire, arranged — timber, kindling, air, firewood — now for the sparks, warmth, and light to emerge. It’s only then we have the opportunity to look up and down from the darkened sky, and gaze into a burning blaze, the fire etches heat at the edges of our hands, and our pupils reflect light. It reminds me of another kind of electrical current, another poetry. — Margaret Rhee
Visit the accessible full course workshop syllabus and materials here.
For our last workshop, we playfully created an impromptu audio poem together, tossing around lines that came to us organically, cutting across the boundaries of Zoom.
This poem is based on a prompt combining elements of the Boston Dynamics military robot “Big Dog” and the poetry of Haryette Mullen. Mullen’s language play blended with the story and description of “Big Dog” led to a delightful exploration of playful word sounds and robotics.
A noisy robot. The sound of a swarm of bees.
Related terms: wax, swarm, honeycomb, honey, sting, robbery
Location: a swarm, the countryside, beware the bee thieves
A dynamic walking robot. Rubble, mud, snow, water, trotting across a lake. Ice fishing in July. A view of the beach, a vacation in Thailand. Play in the water. You can jump!
Ways of jump: bounce, burst, caper, curvet, galumph, hop, leapfrog
Things that want to jump: children, a kangaroo, space moon men
Robot engine from a go-kart. Power from a moving race. A hydraulic system worth the bragging rights.
Engine is a type of: instrument, motor, a heart that hums
Engine can be: found in a car, a robot life, replaced
Susan Kraft lives in Los Angeles, a move made after surviving a decade of perilous Boston winters. She spends her free time eating pancakes and then reviewing them in her blog TastyStacks.com.
Fred Everett Maus
The poem reflects my fascination with automated processing of language online. Its language comes from two sources: collaborative writing with an AI companion (through Replika.ai), and repeated translation back and forth between English and other languages using Google Translate. This yielded source material which I then arranged and titled to suit my own taste. I did not want readers to see it as an example of my electronically mediated methods; my hope was to create something readable simply as a poem. But there is much in the language that I would not have thought of by myself.
Fred Everett Maus lives near Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Mexico City. He teaches music, and writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and short fiction, as well as texts about music. His writing has appeared in Citron Review, Hineni Review, Palette Poetry, Roanoke Review, Vox Populi, and other journals.
This poem grew out of the observation that any binary string is simply a sequence of presences and absences — and as such constituted a type of language built upon what persists and what is lost. With that as a starting point, I wondered what would happen if we imagined the binary outputs of machines (or even the simple progression of binary numbers from zero to fifteen) as a type of hidden poetry. Rather than a reduction to something and nothing, what might we see or hear if binary were translated as a type of ekphrastic rendering of light and darkness, existence and void.
0000 : Absence stretched to extremity, nothingness in all quarters.
0001 : At the far reaches of the void, a glimmer.
0010 : How it doubles in size, moving closer, leaving a silence behind.
0011 : And how, out of that silence, an echo appears, an afterimage.
0100 : What to make of the torch raised in the cavern of night?
0101 : The faint flare of the one trailing far in the distance.
0110 : Now together, the two side by side, mirrors — encompassed by darkness.
0111 : From the open mouth of the universe, one sees fire everywhere.
1000 : But from within the fire, the world outside is death and extinction.
1001 : Banked by flames, there is only a hollow space of worry.
1010 : One at an open window. One at an open door.
1011 : Everyone gathers around the grave.
1100 : Two trees at the edge of a wide plain.
1101 : From here, we watch someone crossing over the fields.
1110 : The three of us standing beneath the moon's white wound.
1111 : The stars crowning the endless limbs of trees.
*First published in Thrush
Neil Aiken is a former computer games programmer and the author of two books of poetry, Babbage’s Dream (Sundress 2017) and The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga 2008), winner of the Philip Levine Poetry Prize. He holds both an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from USC. He presently works as a creative writing coach and manuscript consultant, and will be serving as the Virtual Writer-IN Residence for the Saketechewan Writer’s Guild this Fall.
My grandmothers were two of the many who survived the first atomic bomb by pure luck. Had they been a train track closer, had their work assignment out of what is now known as the atomic-bomb dome been a month delayed — neither of them would have survived and I would not be. Now with my maternal grandmother transitioned out of this world and my paternal grandmother living in the depth of Alzheimer’s, I rely on bits of conversation and the internet to imagine, recreate, and journey on.
Search engine, August 6th
I am obsessed with Westworld — the mothers in Westworld. These impossible entities — some human, some AI — who must birth themselves and us into a new world. These mothers of Westworld who reflect that ordinary motherlessness of our screen-enabled contemporary moment. This poem is from Dolores Abernathy to Charlotte Hale, one of the few black humans in the HBO series — the character is killed by Dolores, who recreates Charlotte’s body to transplant into and escape Westworld into downtown LA.
I swallow that code so boldly I lock you inside me.
You — that first divergence — so strange. Know
you drained my breasts dry with your kneading, you.
Know you stretched me out in all my folded-over places and know your son
— that second divergence — that maelstrom of choices, still remembers
you and know I still remember
you, my daughter, my little pill, my mother, my pearl, my pistol to the temple, we are fused together, lattice of you mandible I angle you mastoid I body you margin
you suture you fissure you canal
you enhance of clavicle — that third divergence — that iterative killing. you
Are you still there?
Are you my robot now?
there you are
— that fourth divergence — there you are you that code within
there you are you there you are you worn thin from the knowing that truth
Listen to a recording of this poem
Raquel Baker earned a PhD in English literary studies from the University of Iowa. She specializes in postcolonial studies and twentieth- and twenty-first-century African literatures in English. She received a BA in psychology from San Francisco State University and a MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She is an assistant professor of postcolonial and transnational studies in the English program at California State University Channel Islands, where she teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. Fall 2020 she is coteaching Science/Fiction with a chemistry professor, as well as teaching California/o Speculative Fiction.
My paternal grandmother was a microbiologist, immigrant, and, later in life, an enthusiastic poet and essayist. In my work I engage with her scientific legacy through the haze of my own incomprehension of scientific English and her first language, Mandarin Chinese. The skeleton for this poem is the nucleotide and protein sequence of the Enterococcus faecalis chromosome, a bacteria she spent much of her career researching. Her work contributed to understanding and combating antibiotic resistance in Enterococcus faecalis.
Jasmine An comes from the Midwest. Her work exists in Black Warrior Review, Nat. Brut, and Waxwing, among others, and two chapbooks: Naming the No-Name Woman and Monkey Was Here. She is Poetry Editor at Agape Editions and pursuing a PhD in English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan.
About Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center: “Beyond Baroque is one of the United States’s leading independent Literary | Arts Centers and public spaces dedicated to expanding the public’s knowledge of poetry, literature, and art through cultural events and community interaction.”
Special thanks to Quentin Ring and Emmitt Till at Beyond Baroque and summer interns Anna Bryant, Morgan Sammut, and Anisha Johnson for their assistance on the workshop. Thank you also to Blair Johnson for her editing of the collective sound poem.