Our Shared World of Language: Reflections on “US” Poets Foreign Poets

If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language.

Today, as a sequel to this previous post, we are continuing to feature reflections on the computationally assembled poetry anthology “US” Poets Foreign Poets (ed. MARGENTO, frACTalia 2018) from some of the most outstanding contributors to the collection.

 “US” Poets Foreign Poets was launched in 2018 at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference and at Bookfest by the collective editor MARGENTO, featuring a line-up of Chris Tănăsescu, Diana Inkpen, Raluca Tănăsescu, Vaibhav Kesarwani, and Marius Surleac. The book won accolades from major theorists and practitioners in the genre such as Christopher Funkhouser, Maria Mencia, and David Jhave Johnston. It features both digital and page-based poets, represents and analyzes the resulting corpus as network graphs, and also includes an algorithm that expands the initial corpus by identifying poems that would “fit in,” that is, display certain stylistic features tracked down by computational analysis.

Regarding the previously mentioned way in which the anthology analyzes and expands its own contents, digital poet and critic Christopher Funkhouser has commented that, “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.”

In today’s feature, we choose to illustrate this “transcreation” Funkhouser speaks about as it goes even beyond the covers of the anthology, and continues in the digital or digitally inflected creative and/or critical work of four major names in contemporary electronic literature and digital humanities: John Cayley, Johanna Drucker, Alan Sondheim, and Brian Kim Stefans.


If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language . . .

John Cayley

If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language. My language comes to exist in our shared world of language when people read what I have made. If we read, then there is language. We perceive gestures in any malleable substance and when we read those gestures then they break with that malleable substance and enter our shared world of language. It is the reading, and our voices, not a substance of any kind. There is no digital or typographic or phonetic language. There are only languages, plural, to be read into the world of language, where they are shared and where they only come to exist as sharing of this kind. So. One: an anthology that collects language composed by any means deserves to be valued for what it is, a place where we can read. Only our reading will have a bearing on whatever art may be discovered there. USPoets Foreign Poets provides such a place, helping to remove a few of the misdirected, critically, and theoretically immaterial distinctions and barriers that more conventional anthologies maintain. Two: translation, which is reading back and forth across the horizons of so-called “natural” languages, is performed by USPoets Foreign Poets as a translation of process. Processes may be composed so as to render gestures in the forms of a particular language in order that they, in turn, may be read as, potentially, an entrance into our shared world of language as such. Translation, itself a process, must be able to discover commensurate processes in the gestures of “another language” that are able to render the same careful service. USPoets Foreign Poets has embarked on this translation of process, a journey of discovery across certain horizons. Three: USPoets Foreign Poets is a generative graph, instantiated from the nodes and edges of One and Two and thus transforming, as MARGENTO puts it, U.S. into “US” because reading and translating in this way is what makes us us.


Computation as Composition as Computation as [. . .]

Johanna Drucker

As US” Poets Foreign Poets makes abundantly clear, digital poetics is thriving and proliferating its many strains of invention through the textual fabric of contemporary literature. Across a wide variety, work that makes use of computational processes and concepts now has a critical history. This collection provides a generative foundation for us to reflect on compositional procedure more broadly.

Sitting down to compose, do you imagine you will write an “X”? Template to mind, constraints in place, operations prescribed, form circumscribed, outcome predetermined—the work appears. Only the particulars alter—the color of the words, tone of the text, sentiment and specifics of vocabulary. The rest is set, from the outset. For instance, this, here, now, this text is not a short story, a novel, or a dramatic monologue. The shape of form is an imposition on the composition, a calculated computation that results in that instigating notion of the form. The circularity of it all notwithstanding, works occur, arise, and discourse shifts.

We might assert: All composition is computation with discursive outcomes. And all computation is composition with algorithmic outcomes. Think about it, these are algorithmic koans.

But how does composition work within these prescriptions? Computational formats include: combinatorics work (word list combinations selected randomly), algorithmic work (create a text using this or that compression technique, search and probability, other procedural approaches), animation (design features in display either programmed, looped, or iterative), networked (production and/or display of connection and centrality relations), iterative and/or emergent texts (from bootstrapping rules that change over time). What else?

What if a composition could be analyzed and its terms of production abstracted into a set of procedural operations? Reverse engineered. Find the formulae for Remembrance of Things Past, Molloy, Making of the Americans, or The Wasteland? This is the Eliza model of simulation, where dialogue is a set of instructions for response and repetition. Make more like this, the command would go, and then, what does “like” mean in that circumstance? What are the terms of resemblance—formal or procedural, structural or sentimental, superficial or integral to the very fiber of the text?

At the other extreme, the question is whether it is it ever possible for something to be made up as it goes along? Are there any effects of compositional strategy that can be demonstrated to be fully non-deterministic? Are there iteratively re-emergent algorithm? Or are all formulae already, inevitably, encoded in all composition, the hidden but active engine of computation that brings the composition into being? Can an algorithm ever just pretend to be literal and procedural? Or not? Can we?


Re/Action [fREACTalia] (to MARGENTO’s “US” Poets Foreign Poets)

Alan Sondheim

The computation in my work is culled from the body of my own

texts, called forth from the body. I’m an animal, an organism,

collocation of microbiomes which are intrinsically and

constantly shifting; code wrytes/writhes on the surface. It’s

all non-objects, dis/plays, dis/figurements. Language is a

momentary carapace, immobilized on a surface subject to

dissolution, dissolute. Code chatters everywhere. I swallow

myself into production. I’ve been interested in repetitive and

absorptive coding:












embracing everything in one or another form – check the last

letter of each line which reconstitutes the whole. This is

substitution, simple to work out; folding creates other basic

patterns constituting sameness and difference, simultaneity and

escape always brought back into the sememe. I use awk, sed,

grep, perl, dialog, tr, wc, w, cat, tac, echo, ls, wc, emacs,

and others in my work, jumping from one to another in a linux

terminal located in NYC. I’m aware always of transmission,

netstat, traceroute, whois, who, tcp/ip, the works. I’m

breathless among the processes 2074 pts/43- I 0:00.00 leave

+59 831 pts/46 O+ 0:00.01 ps -g 5166 pts/46 I 0:00.01 leave +59

16321 pts/46 T 0:00.41 pico zz (pico-2.21) 17810 pts/46 Ss

0:00.07 -ksh & even now I don’t sleep / k27% sleep usage: sleep

seconds & small time left.


Fri Apr 12 19:04:51 EDT 2021



What, here, is an “original” poem? And when will this be translated into French?

Brian Kim Stefans

As Christopher Funkhouser notes, this collection places writers like the highly experimental Alan Sondheim alongside mainstream figures like former poet laureate of the United States Rita Dove and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Wright. But it’s stranger than that. I certainly don’t expect ever again to appear in a collection with the great Mexican poet David Huerta (translated into both English and Romanian), alongside poems translated from English into Anglo-Saxon (“taking advantage of the pivotal þ,” or thorn) and then into Romanian, or translations (and transliterations) from the Sumerian of “Old Babylonian Contracts.”

The collection takes some of the basic features that we’ve long associated with poetry, at least since Modernism, and concretizes them in new ways. Yes, we know that poems are often webs of allusions—think of Pound and Eliot—and here they are appearing as graphs, not in some sterile scholarly analysis but toward the creation of new texts. We know that poems can be pastiches of prior modes—Stacy Doris’s book Paramour (2000), which appears in a morphed form in Miekal And’s text, was a great example of this—and, naturally, that poems could be made of a collection of fragments (hello, Novalis, but also David Baker in his “Scavenger Loop”). Database-driven algorithms make these practices par for the course, but add to them other features not often explored in poetry—the possibility of superhuman excesses (think Issueone) and of sublingual condensation (the code behind The Truelist).

The authors appear in short bios in the back—but who are the real authors? Here we see old stalwarts like John Cage’s Mesostics, half-forgotten acquaintances like Charles O. Hartman’s PyProse, and programs I never got to know like the Deep-Learning Poetry Generator and the Spawning Perigram Reader writing as much if not more than the mundane machines listed in the table of contents.

What, here, is an “original” poem? And when will this be translated into French?


John Cayley is a writer, theorist, and pioneering maker of language art in programmable media. Apart from more or less conventional poetry and translation, he has explored dynamic and ambient poetics, text generation, transliteral morphing, aestheticized vectors of reading, and transactive synthetic language. Today, he composes as much for reading in aurality as in visuality. In 2018 he published Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art. He is Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University. programmatology.shadoof.net @programmatology

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She is internationally known for her work in artists’ books, the history of graphic design, typography, experimental poetry, fine art, and digital humanities. Her work is represented in special collections in museums and libraries in the North American and Europe. Her recent titles include Downdrift: An EcoFiction and The General Theory of Social Relativity, both published in 2018. She is currently the inaugural Beinecke Fellow in Material Cultures at Yale.

Alan Sondheim is a city-based new media artist, musician, writer, and performer concerned with issues of virtuality, and the stake that the real world has in the virtual. He has worked with his partner Azure Carter among others. Sondheim is interested in examining the grounds of the virtual and how the body is inhabited. He performs in virtual, real, and cross-over worlds; his virtual work is known for its highly complex and mobile architectures. He has used altered motion-capture technology extensively for examining and creating new lexicons of behavior. His writing stems out of codework, a problematic style in which code substrates and surface content interfere with each other—in which, in other words, the textual body and body of text are deeply entangled. His current music is based on the impossibility of time reversal, on fast improvisation, and anti-gestural approaches to playing.

Brian Kim Stefans’s interest in electronic writing stems directly out of his work as a poet and has branched into any number of art genres that have fallen under the persuasion of digital technology, such as photography, lm/video, and book publishing. His research interests include creating a “bridge” between the concepts and traditions of various twentieth-century avant-gardes—Language writing, the Oulipo, concrete poetry, conceptual art, Situationism, meta-action, etc.—and the various genres of digital literature, including animated poems, interactive texts, algorithmically-generated and manipulated texts, “nomadic” writing, hacktivism, and experimental blogs.

MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu) is the author or editor/translator of over twenty-five books, and the incoming Altissia Chair in Digital Humanities at UC Louvain. 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.


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