Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.
What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.
But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.
Based on such notions, C.T. Funkhouser was able in his classic Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995 to set the date of birth of digital poetry to 1959 and break down the textual algorithms spanning the genre’s ‘prehistory’ or pre-internet age into two major categories, permutational and combinatory. Digital poems were, in other words, generated by algorithmic permutations or machinic combinations of pre-existing ‘traditional’ texts. Where those were or still are the procedures, argues Funkhouser, the overarching paradigm has been a postmodern-ish refashioned dadaism: just as Tristan Tzara would stir his newspaper clippings to randomly pull a poem out of a top hat during WWI, so would algorithmic and programming poets do with their textual datasets in the second half of the century.
Yet if one can speak of prehistoric digital poetry—and indeed a critic and practitioner such as Florian Cramer made a literal point about this and actually put together a repository of ancient permutational and combinatory verse—it means that our initial definition needs to be qualified. Digital poetry predates digital media; moreover, and somewhat symmetrically, on multiple levels, ‘page poetry’ has always been algorithmic. To further complicate the issue, late 20th and 21st century digital poetry, in its many forms and formats, has often not only done away with text, but in many cases is not even language-based anymore (or at least not ‘natural language’ based). Therefore, rather than endlessly splitting hairs over what distinguishes the two, it may be more fruitful for the contemporary poet-critic to dive into the multi-layered commonalities, overlappings, and synergies of digital and page poetry.
The Graph Poem Project (#GraphPoem) emerged out of such concerns and out of the urge to enrich poetic practice by tapping into those synergies. Started back in 2010 (with a manifesto I contributed to Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics), it applies graph theory in both analyzing and writing/generating poetry. Basically, the idea behind it is to represent poetry corpora as networks (“graphs”) in which the nodes are the individual poems and the (multiple) links are commonalities between every two poems, computed by quantifying their genre-based features: diction, meter, rhyme, metaphor (and other tropes), (sub)topics, syntax (including enjambments), etc. Digital and page poems can be wrangled together into such networks just as computational analysis can be fused with corpus expansion and creative work. This makes any such growing network of poems in itself a poem, a graph poem.
The most recent output of the Graph Poem Project is “US” Poets Foreign Poets / Noi poeți “americani” poeți străini (ed. MARGENTO, a bilingual collection, English and Romanian in facing-page translation, frACTAlia 2018). “US” Poets Foreign Poets is a computationally assembled anthology that was launched almost simultaneously last summer at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference—ELO 2018, held in Montreal—and at the international book festival Bookfest in Bucharest.
In the particular case of this anthology, ‘computationally assembled’ means mainly three different aspects.
It first has to do with the fact that—arguably for the first time ever in world literature—the anthology features both digital poetry and page-based poetry, electronic writing and ‘traditional’ writing. And while doing so, it showcases the work of some of the greatest names in both subgenres: from, among a large number of luminaries, Alan Sondheim, Christopher Funkhouser, John Cayley, Jhave, and María Mencía on the digital front, to Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Jerome Rothenberg on the page-based one.
Second, in ‘translating’ the poems included, we, the editors (collectively identified as MARGENTO) either replicated the algorithms that had generated the originals, or developed brand new ones to generate the Romanian poems featured as translations of the ones in English, or invented modalities to ‘mess up’ both the ‘original’ and the process of translation. As a result, poems were computationally ‘re-generated’ or remediated while the translational methods ranged from the algorithmic transcreation of page poems to the ‘literary’ translation of digital poems.
And third, the editors translated an initial corpus of poems into a network graph in which the nodes were the poems and the edges were commonalities between those poems. In-house algorithms analyzed the network for graph-theory-based features and then searched for more poems to include in the selection.
While analyzing the initial corpus, the editors noticed that certain poems ranked low in closeness centrality but high in betweenness centrality, or, in plainer words, they were remarkably marginal but helped many other poems connect to each other. So for the automated expansion of the corpus MARGENTO looked for poems that would have similar (diction-relevant) features and would act similarly within the network, that is, as far-out-riding connectors. And that is how the U.S. in the title started to metamorphose into ‘us,’ us poets across any borders and boundaries, joining other ‘foreign’ poets here and elsewhere . . .
Here, we invited three of the most notable contributors alongside the publisher (herself an established experimental e-poet) to share their thoughts about this unusual anthology.
Christopher Funkhouser (Contributor): My observations on “US” Poets Foreign Poets, as stated on the back-cover blurb—particularly where it says, ‘bursting with substance’—still accurately represent the crux of my viewpoints. I have never, in three decades of study, seen a literary anthology so determined to generate something out of itself, something beyond a 1:1 conversion, and then successfully do so. What an interesting idea, to both transcreate and more literally translate the contents of a collection of writing. Algorithmic, linguistic, and graphical expansion here grabs and holds onto my attention every time I delve into the book.
Speaking of which, isn’t it charming, in a way, and partly a conundrum, that the material is presented in a book where due to the limits of the page, materials such as the graph poems are basically curious suggestions, because we cannot fully identify or absorb the interconnections that are drawn out in the charts? I see this matter, not as a problem, but as something exciting, and perhaps the next iteration of the material will emerge in an electronic, ‘interactive’ form that will enable an even deeper type of poetics research engagement.
Much appreciated are the wild and delightful discrepancies and juxtapositions in content, proudly embracing digital and non-digital works. The editors’ on-the-sleeve bridging of the two is most admirable. Who among us ever dreamed that we’d see an anthology where Alan Sondheim’s work resides near that of Charles Wright and Rita Dove, and in fact gets more page space than they do? This is something we should see more of, but hasn’t really happened until now.
From a historical perspective, it is clear to me that “US” Poets Foreign Poets is the latest installment in an aesthetic ancestry first established by forebears such as R. W. Bailey, whose Computer Poems (1973) set out to illustrate the point that poets were going to endeavor to use computers creatively. This lineage has been spottily extended by others, perhaps being furthered most in works rendered by Gnoetry collective (e.g., see https://gnoetrydaily.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/gnoetrydaily-volume1.pdf). Now the MARGENTO anthology comes along and indeed impressively expands the lineage to include algorithmic efforts by its editors to collect and dilate works they’ve solicited in multifarious ways. Bravo and onward!
María Mencía (Contributor): The anthology of “US” Poets Foreign Poets explores digital, page, and multimodal works by experimental digital poets, multimedia artists, performers, coders, critics, writers, essayists, editors, and literary historians. But, what makes it unique is the methodology MARGENTO—or rather Chris Tănăsescu himself—has used to assemble the works through his responses to individual pieces in various languages and poetic forms.
The translations of the featured works into French, English, and Romanian (by various translators) are not only ‘translinguistic’ translations but in many cases they are ‘transcreations’ and ‘transmedial’ responses using remediation, remixing, and re-appropriation to create new works, works of their own. For instance, he selected one of my digital poems, The Winnipeg, The Poem that Crossed the Atlantic and responded to it by using, as he explains in the translator’s note, “a kind of double mesostic,” algorithms and constraints between the two names he has rightly highlighted as the main characters of the background story: my grandfather MENCIA and the poet NERUDA. On the page they act as two vertical spines that the personal narrative that inspired this work revolves around, inviting the reader to re-assemble the story in this kind of recombinant visual poetics, interlacing the qualities of the page and the digital in one.
Iulia Militaru (Publisher): In his essay ‘The Alchemic Digital, the Planetary Elemental’, Jussi Parikka advances the idea that ‘we move from panpsychism to panmetallism, the geopolitics of metals and minerals: the luxury smartwatch digital culture of the elemental. It is alchemy in its visual rhetorics, but it is the chemistry of the periodic table in the potential of its molecular combinations.’ That kind of movement was practised by the MARGENTO Community when they translated and assembled their book of graph-poems. The central question raised by such an assemblage, besides the concepts that inform it, is after all the question of choice, an old but current theme. The true-blue war of those supporting an under-control choice against those talking about the possibility of free will becomes outdated here, as the collaboration between man and machine blows up this split. What is free will and what is the output of the internal chemistry of the machine? The molecular level, the invisible power of its alchemy activates new ways of classification and, as is the case with MARGENTO’s anthology, engenders new textual identities.
This is an essential process for all of us, very helpful in understanding the place and role of literature today, how analogue culture is deconstructed and embedded in a new medium where it is recreated by a gesture that cannot belong to the visible authority of a human author anymore.
Jhave (David Johnston, Contributor): Marginal ambiguous elliptical: What is MARGENTO? A mode of being? A multi-faceted research excursion into poetics, digital humanities, and literary informatics? The collection confounds, as well as surprises and challenges. Translations flow in many directions. What belonged in one language now belongs simultaneously to another. What emerged in one genre now co-inhabits a section with an utterly disparate other.
MARGENTO’s “US” Poets Foreign Poets as a collection situates itself as a sprawling intervention spanning print-poems, generative literature, tf-idf graphs, and translations. Identities are analysed. Close neighbours may not be connected. Distant poems may be connected by one node or less. All of these flow-lines, somehow, suggest an implicit meditation on taxonomies, what goes where; and more precisely on what belongs.
As a few may know, Newfoundlanders from remote communities (instead of asking ‘Where are you from?’) often ask ‘Where do you belong?’; and respond ‘I belong to this place’ (fill in the blank with any town or community of your choice). And so it is with MARGENTO, which destabilized identity until poetics is a field phenomenon: poetics belongs to this place, language splayed over and outside the margins.
Poet, scholar, and multimedia artist Christopher Funkhouser is a leading researcher in the genre of digital poetry. In 2009, the Associated Press commissioned him to prepare digital poems for the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration. He is author of a major documentary study, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995, published in the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series at University of Alabama Press (2007), as well as of another widely praised book, New Directions in Digital Poetry (Bloomsbury 2012). Funkhouser is also the Poet Ray’d Yo host and performs with Most Serene Congress.
David Jhave Johnston is a digital poet. His work is an attempt to harmoniously reconcile computation, emotion, concepts, and the ancient idea of artist as conduit. He has developed interactive online literary-art that features typographic experiments with Python, Unity, Flash, Mudbox, Vegas, Ableton, After Effects and Mr. Softie. Since 1999, he has been publishing language art online (instead of on paper) at www.glia.ca.
María Mencía is an artist-researcher and Course Leader of the BA in Media and Communication at Kingston University, UK. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, and it is published in the Electronic Literature Collection (ELC1) and the ELMCIP Anthology of European Electronic Literature. Her many publications include, most recently, Transient Self-Portrait: The Data Self (2017) and #WomenTechLit (2017), recipient of The N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature, 2nd Prize (2017).
Iulia Militaru is a poet/performer, Editor in Chief of frACTalia Press, and co-founder of InterRe:ACT magazine. Her poetry collections—among which, most recently, The Seizure of the Beast. A Post-research (2016) and Atlas (auto)mat/on (auto)BIO/graphy/I© de câteva tipuri principale de discursuri (2017)—are everything but poetry. She published poems and digital collages in Asymptote, MAINTENANT, Plume, and elsewhere. One can find more about her literary work here.
MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu) is the author or editor/translator of over 25 books. He draws on natural-language-processing algorithms and multilayer networks in his communal poetry. His alias alludes to his cross-artform band and/as a continuously growing transnational network of writers, artists, and coders shaping his migrant connectivity.
Read more essays on the Asymptote blog: