Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Hidden Forms

I was chatting with someone yesterday who described how he has lately been working with speech recognition software to edit his poetry. He takes one of his old poems and reads it into the computer. The software then invents its own version of the spoken poem as text. He repeats this process until he arrives at something he likes, or can work with.

I put that idea together with this one, from this article over at n+1:

Paintings, apart from the very occasional tondo or altarpiece triangle, all start out as rectangles... Its impolite rival and savior is now called postminimalism, but it went by many names: body art, performance art, conceptual art, land art, protest art, process art, anti-art art... Not having been there, we learn about these new art forms from the leftover paraphernalia. Books and museums show us black and white photographs, gallery invites, artists’ statements and manifestos—all of minimal visual interest—and the putatively unrectangular event gets reduced, through a ruse of history, into that very familiar rectangle: the 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of copy paper in a course packet.

It's amazing how unimaginative the process of poetry composition often is. Sitting with paper and pen - often described as the most liberating tools because they're cheap, readily available and can be used in most environments - is the stereotype, the cliché of composition. Strangely, not a lot has changed over the centuries. We've seen phases of oral composition and recital, but that's about it. Poetry on paper, or poetry out of the mouth. Public poetry, such as Gwyneth Lewis' poem for the Wales Millennium Centre, can seem downright experimental in light of the endless trend of paper and pen poets. It's fairly likely, though, that it was composed on a sheet of paper first.

The computer, another kind of paper, was a revolution for writing in some ways. One which many writers seem to reject - any number of them, from Peter Scupham through to A S Byatt, still compose their first drafts in the traditional manner. Those that embrace the technologies delve into the weird like gizmo-addicts - speech recognition software, machine translation tools and text scramblers are bells-and-whistle devices, fast action methods for older techniques of cut ups and language distortion. But the downside of computers is being forced to work within their parameters.

I always get annoyed when a process's limitation, which has been insiduously working upon me, becomes transparent. Some of the new ones are obvious like spelling and grammar checkers. They drive me mad, particularly the automatic capitalisation of new lines (a great, heterogenising act if ever I saw one) - I've heard some creative writing tutors even teach their students how to get rid of it.

It can be used in your favour though. Mario Petrucci used an automatic spellchecker's suggestions on WC Williams' 'This is to say' to make his own poem. Arguably, they bring everyone who can't type or spell competently up to a certain level of mediocrity. It also means they don't bother to read their work through carefully, leading to a neglect of language, perhaps even encouraging laziness. (The rise of blogging may be a sympton of enabling this neglect further.) It also brings people with a bit more deftness down a few pegs, particularly people who aren't so hot with technology and software and find themselves struggling to translate their weird and wonderful page drafts onto a machine.

Cross-platform poetry winds me up. Moving a poem from computer to computer, program to program; even trying to make a poem appear cleanly in blogger without some compromise of layout or font, is an effort beyond what it should be. As one West Indian poet said to me (about the after effects of colonialism on his homeland's language, though it seems relevant), "That's hegemony at work." In response though, poets like Charlie Dark create one-off poems (I think he called them 'dumplings') that he only reads at the particular event he's at and then never again. A kind of theatre improvisation poetry perhaps. It's a rebellion against the infinite array of storage chips, the Google Archiving, the digitisation of life.

Or there's the art-poems, painted straight onto their exhibition surfaces. In Athens during the German occupation, people could be executed for writing grafitti. In that context, a single epsilon, symbolising the Greek work 'eleutheria', or freedom, became challenging, avant garde. A kind of art poetry - the context created the depth of meaning. Banksy-style modern poets perhaps lack the context, but the form of placing your poetry onto walls, into the public domain, is similar, shaping the poet's awareness of audience, the font, the content.

Forms of process can both enliven the imagination and also leave it running in the same hamster wheel as everyone else. I started writing this with a vague sort of optimism at having heard about a new composition and rewriting method. Will it lead to great swatches of charged imagery, or just a fizzle of sparks in a snowstorm? Here at the end, fingers on the keyboard, eyes aching from a day staring at screens, followed by more screen-staring to muster this into the world, paper and pen don't seem so unappealing a recourse.

But at the same time, not much has altered - where is the next advance on the page, or the screen? What other ways do we have to resist? The page is the mainstream when it comes to the tools of the craft. More questions than answers, as usual.

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