Saturday 17 December 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (11): Translating and uncertainty

Leyb Kvitko's A tsig mit zivn tsigelekh

When you learn another language, you eventually get to the point where translating seems like a feasible idea.  In fact, translating has been central to my experience of Yiddish, because rather than do the sensible thing and work my way through one or more of the excellent Yiddish textbooks out there, for most of the last two years I’ve been learning by reading and translating (with varying success and with gradually increasing speed) a glorious selection of Yiddish literature.  This suits me perfectly, since knowing how to ask for more coffee or describe someone’s clothes is absolutely fine when you might need a language for holidays and polite travel chit-chat, but my love for Yiddish came from knowing that so much of its literature was out there to be discovered, as yet untranslated and completely unknown to me.

Having moved from I. L. Peretz and I. B. Singer short stories to Celia Dropkin’s poetry, my eternally patient reading partner and Yiddish mentor (take a bow, Stephen Ross) suggested that we read Sholem Aleichem’s novel Motl, peysi dem khazns (Motl, the Cantor’s Son).  Although on a completely different scale from our previous readings, what Motl has in common with those shorter texts is that it isn’t written in standard YIVO Yiddish.  The Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem is not the same as the Yiddish of Peretz, which in turn isn’t the same as the Yiddish of Singer or Dropkin.  Each author mixes in different degrees of loshn-koydesh and their work is shaped by the Yiddish that surrounded them in childhood.  These different Yiddishes vary in their spelling and their pronunciation, and are often scattered with untranslatable words that I can’t find in any of my five dictionaries.  But while these authors have all had their work translated into English by far more accomplished Yiddishists than me, there are plenty who have not.

Leyb Kvitko (1890-1952)
Leyb Kvitko (1890-1952) falls into the latter category.  Known primarily as a writer of extraordinarily popular children’s books, Kvitko also wrote poetry in Yiddish, becoming increasingly politically active until he was arrested and executed by Stalin’s regime.  And yet it’s one of Kvitko’s poems, “Shteyner eyntsike”, which has been the best illustration of the complexities involved in translating Yiddish, particularly since Kvitko’s particular version of Soviet Yiddish tests my translation abilities to a staggering degree.  It speaks volumes about the level of my Yiddish obsession that my first thought on reading Kvitko was, “I wonder how long it would take to translate one of these poems?”  The answer was hours and hours.  And hours.  But my volume of Kvitko’s poetry has voyaged from Moscow, where it was published in 1967, to Montreal and now it is here in Warwickshire sitting demurely on my desk.  A book that has travelled so far certainly deserves this attention, despite the considerable challenges that it presents to someone with limited Yiddish, and a newly heightened awareness of just how slippery translation can be.

The first challenge with this poem is the title.  Shteyner I know means “stones”, so that’s easy, but “eyntsike” can mean “rare”, “single”, “individual” and “only”, amongst other possibilities. Unluckily for me, almost all of these potential translations work in the context of the title, so from the outset the different possible versions of the poem start multiplying with abandon.

Leyb Kvitko, 1919
The second challenge was that there were several words that I couldn’t find in any of my dictionaries.  “Shteyner eyntsike” was written in 1917, so I assumed that my earlier, pre-standardised dictionaries would be my best bet.  Alas, Yiddish just isn’t that logical.  And if eyntsike gave me grief, it was nothing on stosnvayz.  Four of my dictionaries drew a blank, but the fifth noted that stos is, or was, a card game.  In the context of the line, could stosnvays refer to a pattern in which these stones are laid out, as part of a game?  Then there’s arbelekh, another word that I can’t find.  Arbl means sleeves, so could arbelekh mean “little sleeves”?  Or is it something to do with arb, meaning “inheritance”?  That word occurs in a line about a child’s smile, mit arbelekh farshart, so is that smile covered with little sleeves or is it being described as a “mischievous little inheritance”?  Either way, the grammar doesn’t work – there are plurals nestling up against singulars in a most indecisive way.

Then there’s the challenge presented by being the kind of lunatic who owns five Yiddish dictionaries, all of which want to argue amongst themselves about the best way to translate any given word.  This means that oysgebroyter could mean “curved” or “crooked”, but it could also mean “constructed”.  Since the stanza where it occurs follows imagery of building, that’s less troubling than it might have been, but should I translate troym as “dream” or “ideal”?

Finally, Kvitko plays a really unexpected trick.  Many of his poems contain loshn-koydesh words that have been spelled out phonetically.  This means that mayse-bilder foxed me but good, until I realised that mayse (מײַסע) was the same word as mayse (מעשׂה), or “story”.  Oy, did I feel dumb.

Leyb Kvitko, Dos ketsele

This was when I realised that the various different incarnations of this poem weren’t going to resolve themselves into a single, final, coherent translation, at least, not for me.  All these crooked dreams and constructed ideals were going to continue to co-exist, implacably stubborn, no matter how many times I checked and rechecked every word in every dictionary.  Whether the narrator turns into a climbing frame or simply builds one, the outcome is the same: this poem is alive again after years spent stilled and silent, waiting for another Yiddish reader to come along.  I certainly never thought that I would love this linguistic uncertainty so much, or that seeing these competing narratives springing up from a single line of verse would produce such joy from such utter incomprehension.  I expect that as my Yiddish improves, these chimerical moments where the language squirms and flexes and resists being fixed into a single meaning will become fewer and fewer.  I will miss them.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (10): Di gantse mishpokhe

When I started learning Yiddish, pretty much the first loshn-koydesh word I encountered was משפּחה (mishpokhe), which means “family”.  As you might expect, family is a pretty fundamental concept in Yiddish, and not just in the literal sense of your own blood relatives.  משפּחה has an additional meaning that is much broader and more inclusive, signifying a cultural and familial fellowship amongst Jews that transcends nationality, religious conviction, and pretty much any other means of categorising people.  

Yiddish used to be the key to this aspect of משפּחה since it was the language that all Ashkenazi held in common, but it is by no means essential.  In fact, long before I started to learn Yiddish I knew what משפּחה meant, even though I still find it difficult to put into words.  משפּחה was that unexpected connection when you realised that the person you were speaking to in the supermarket queue or at the bus stop was also Jewish, a rare experience for me when I was growing up, and so all the more wonderful when it did occur. It’s the sudden awareness of commonality, that our family histories may not intersect, but they are bound to be similar to one another.

For me, learning Yiddish has been a way of amplifying that connection, not because I encounter many other people who can speak it, but because it reveals those threads of the past that run through the fabric of the present.  It’s not just about continuity – being able to understand the language that my ancestors spoke – it’s also about being able to hear those ancestors in their own words.  Thanks to the generosity of my wider משפּחה, I can read my great, great-uncle’s first book in Yiddish, since it was preserved for di Gantze Mishpochah by the Elovitz family’s donation to the Yiddish Book Center.  However, although משפּחה has that more open, tribal meaning, learning Yiddish has illuminated elements of my own family in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

One crucial person in this regard is a woman called Miriam Shumik.  She was my great, great-aunt, married to my mother’s crazy revolutionary great-uncle, Hersh-Mendel.  Actually, Hersh-Mendel was the reason that my grandfather’s family ended up in London: my great-grandfather got tired of the Warsaw police turning up on the doorstep in search of his brother.  Hersh-Mendel’s life was improbably adventurous and bleakly tragic, and his many unexpected exploits certainly deserve further discussion, but while I’ve known about him since I was a teenager, I knew absolutely nothing about Miriam.  This was at least partly because, unlike Hersh-Mendel, she didn’t survive the Nazi occupation.  Hersh-Mendel didn’t talk about Miriam and they had no children, so she was absent from the story of our family.  In fact, until recently I didn’t even know her name.  All we knew was that she and Hersh-Mendel had been betrayed by a neighbour in wartime Paris.  He escaped; she did not.  We didn’t even know what had happened to her.  Then I learnt Yiddish.  This meant that when my mum turned up a Yizkor book entry[1] for Miriam during one of her frequent family history Google searches, I was able to translate it.  Of all the gifts Yiddish has given me, this one remains the greatest.

Miriam’s eulogy was written by one of her childhood friends, a woman listed only as M. P.  We will never know who she was but because of this unknown member of my extended Jewish משפּחה, Miriam’s actual משפּחה can remember her.  It’s thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was tall and clever, that she organised the first Communist cell in her home town, and that she had a way with words.  It’s also thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was the eldest of four sisters, and that the family home was three bare rooms with three beds, three chairs and a table.  We know that Miriam was רױז צװישן געװײנלעכע בלומען (a rose amongst weeds), and that she loved to talk about books.  We know that Miriam had read the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo and been captivated by it, but the library didn’t have the rest of the book.  We know that M. P. found the second volume and brought it to Miriam, causing her to dance for joy and immediately start reading it aloud.  And, of course, we now know that Miriam died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, possibly in the uprising but equally possibly from the heart condition she developed after she was tortured whilst a political prisoner in the 1920s.

Miriam may not be my blood relative, but she is part of the משפּחה in both senses.  I can recognise in her my family’s obsession with reading books, talking about books and, of course, talking in general.  More importantly, perhaps, I can recognise that my admiration for her courage and her capacity to stand up for what she thought was right means something, whether we are related or not.  At least now I can remember her not just as my great, great-uncle’s wife but as a brave, principled woman who risked her own life trying to improve the lives of others.  Our משפּחה is the greater for her presence.  

[1] A Yizkor book is a record of a Jewish communities lost in the Holocaust, written by the survivors of that community.

Welton Redux

Attention: one of the Editors has gone rogue, and has had some work - a 'director's commentary' on his own review of Matthew Welton, an almost unbelievably self-indulgent gesture for which he will no doubt be punished at some future date by the Hubris Furies - published by Stride magazine, which you can read here.  Stride's new iteration - a-shoot-from-the-hip, no-questions-asked, was-I-really-driving-that-fast-officer-? blogzine that seems to be posting on an unprecedented daily basis - is well worth reading, as is their extensive archive.
That is all.  Please return to your lives in a calm and orderly fashion.  Normal service will soon be resumed.           

Saturday 26 November 2016

The Passing of a Plum

"Hero-worship is a dangerous vice, and one of the minor merits of a democracy is that it does not encourage it, or produce that unmanageable type of citizen known as the Great Man.  It produces different kinds of small men - a much finer achievement.  But people who cannot get interested in the variety of life, and cannot make up their own minds, get discontented over this, and they long for a hero to bow down before and to follow blindly.  It is significant that a hero is an integral part of the authoritarian stock-in-trade today.  An efficiency-regime cannot be run without a few heroes stuck about it to carry off the dullness - much as plums have to be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable.  One hero at the top and a smaller one each side of him is a favourite arrangement and the timid and the bored are comforted by the trinity and, bowing down, feel exalted and strengthened."

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Code Poetry: The Conversation pt2 (5/6)

[02/08/16 and again 16-18/08/16] TC:

I write a lot and throw out the significant majority of the stuff I write. I used to think that code is a good way of giving me a chance to rethink how language works outside Greek, English, French or any other language I have some knowledge of. I still think that, but I also think that code language allows for something else: it allows me to rethink how language can often function (perhaps more often that we’d like to admit) as a strategy of acknowledgment, negotiation and reconciliation. Yes, the question of defamiliarisation and alienation of self and subjectivity has been a long running theme in a lot of the stuff I have been doing but there is also an implied negotiation folded in there [note: I wrote “neogotiation” instead of “negotiation”, which I love: negotiating with what is new? negotiating everything from the top?]. I think this is also why I am endlessly fascinated by musical remixes or variations on a musical theme: sometimes, the intent is to playfully appropriate while other times, the intent is to intentionally subvert the original track/theme. I was gobsmacked with DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing when I discovered it in the summer of 1998 (perhaps it was late summer?) and the idea of a flowing subjectivity working across different rhythms, times, series, strata and discourses. It helped that I spent most of 1997 reading Douglas Rushkoff’s books (Cyberia and Media Virus, in particular) and discovering in the summer of 1998 Kodwo Eshun’s mind boggling More Brilliant Than The Sun which exposed me to so many novel concepts and theories. More than anything, all this stuff showed me that one must in some way acknowledge their own, personal responsibility within the culture one finds oneself. And while all of this began from my being intrigued by people creating works of art borrowing, appropriating and modulating on existing artworks, this also eventually also dovetailed back to a discussion I had with a childhood friend who was moved back to Greece in the mid-1980s from Italy and brought along with him a huge PC and this book that taught you the BASIC programming language. That was quite the future shock. More defamiliarisation emanating from late childhood.

Code tends to equally frustrate and surprise me still: my fantasy of code - before I really got into it - used to involve the lightcycles from Tron (geek!) but I was rather disappointed when I realised that code turned out to be less exciting than motorbikes appearing out of thin air. The disappointment gave way to excitement when I realised code was a language which meant another grammar and another syntax one uses to make new stuff (geek!). So, even when defamiliarisation and alienation are present in these code poems, I view code also as an alleviation, or rather a rebuttal to nostalgia. To extend your line of thinking further, MIS needs to be dismantled every day bit by bit: as Deleuze and Guattari say, there is no such thing as a clean break but I think we need to conceive of strategies and mechanisms towards an investigation of aesthetically arid and socially irresponsible uses of language. So, to reiterate: your point about Making It New is very astute and the distinction you are making between MIS and MIN is necessary to acknowledge and express. But in using I think there is more to this: the ubiquitousness of code needs to addressed. My response to your message is made possible through the mediation of computers, and by extension code. As N. Katherine Hayles notes in, what I think will become a key text, ‘Traumas of Code’, “Derrida’s famous aphorism, ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ [there is nothing outside the text] has been replaced by its computational equivalent Il n’y a pas de hors-code [there is no outside to the code]”.[1] This inability to exist outside code in the supermediated world we live is bound to have some repercussions. We need to have some understanding how this supermediated world is constructed and how we live in it. One needs to acknowledge the existence of the code running in the background and what it does to us and our understanding of ourselves and the world. The internet of things and all that. I was discussing something along these lines with Sophie Mayer over coffee at some point and Sophie pointed out that the Singularity has already happened and we need to realise that the machines are actually training us in how they work rather than the other way round (hope I am not paraphrasing too much! Sophie can correct me if I am misquoting her).

And, as mentioned before, it is this ubiquitousness of code that I am trying to negotiate with in these poems. Expertise follows after acknowledgment turns into familiarity: a feedback loop. I am also attaching a poem in Greek written & published in 2010 [2] which attempts to consider what inspiration is all about/where it stems from and how code might figure in the creative process. The poem is an attempt to talk about many things: the actual language is inspired by the work of Mez Breeze, an Australian-based internet artist who has invented her own hybrid language mezangelle but it also attempts to ask many questions about machine language and its effect on inspiration using various oulipian techniques. The background of the poem itself is a graphic representation of the moves made by my hands while using the keyboard. So, the poem in itself is both a manifesto which playfully explains as much as it obscures.

So: how do you communicate in this language that is human in origin but also machinic in a very real way? What is the impact of this machine language on human language? How can register and tone be documented in code? Writing across and between languages makes one reconsider how one thinks in whichever language one is writing. I know I have written poems that have begun in one language that were finished in another (English to Greek and vice-versa); but I have also written poems in, say, python which have given me answers about impasses reached in half-finished or abandoned poems written in English or Greek. It is a rather peculiar process: sometimes, it feels like solving a puzzle but mostly it feels like negotiating with some sort of unresolved issue between languages and between different modes of perception, action and reaction. Hayles puts it succinctly, “Experienced consciously, but remembered nonlinguistically, trauma has structural affinities with code” (ibid). And while one can certainly disagree with Hayles’ point re. affinities of code with trauma, somewhat unconsciously I think that poetic languages, itself an excess/surplus of language, as a unique means of navigating trauma and its specific linguistic/semantic codes, code and its attendant traumas. I am too weary to begin such a discussion here because I am still thinking through these issues myself; I fear I will end up sounding callous or insensitive or insulting (probably all three simultaneously) so I will try and tread carefully. Surplus of meaning (or the exhaustion thereof as a result of the trauma of meaning surplus) can alienate: an excess of production often implies an inability to effectively process said surplus. But surplus/rarefaction of meaning might also require new reading capacities and code can be a way to think about this but also about new modes of meaning production and reception.

Code poetry offers that rare opportunity to simultaneously recontextualise without ‘breaking’ as you say the meaning of words, hence its inherent ‘strangeness’. Το repeat a claim made many times before, poetry is of the body and when it works, it amplifies the affective capacity of the body. Code poetry on the other hand can work both in paper but also when it runs, though the effect can be starkly different depending on the reader/viewer. This is where the familiarity comes in and to be honest, this is what I am least interested in. I am more interested in how code poetry makes me rethink about the friction between different languages, potential impasses, dispersals and breakdowns of communication and meaning production; in other words, code poetry offers the chance to think about how the machine as language and language as machine works and how and when they might break down. Code poetry makes even more apparent not only the constraints of language and their effect on the actual body but also the generation of new sources of meaning and the new affective challenges they pose.

Once more, we return to this: how do we read in this age of hypermediation? What is it that we do with what we read? How do we navigate the paradigm of too much communication, too much information? Poetry and code poetry might offer some sort of solution but there is a lot of work we have to do for (and on) ourselves if we want to keep up. The question is not what the AI overlords will do when they emerge gleaming from their perfect pods but how we are going to keep up with the evolution of poetry and language in a context when machine mediation will be seamless for a certain part of the population. What are the new cultural and social inequalities that will be created there and how must we tackle them?

I have meandered enough and have again offered more questions than answers.


[1] N. Katherine Hayles, “Traumas of Code”, Critical Inquiry vol. 33, no. 1 (Autumn 2006): 136-157. Available online.

[2] The poem was written in the context of a literary festival when asked by a newspaper that perennial question “What is inspiration?”

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Code Poetry: The Conversation pt1 (4/6)

[21/10/15] GT:


As to your own piece, the first thought (sorry) was that we could do an anthology of this stuff! Poetry, or poetry and poetics essays, making use of computer software language? But let's leave that thought aside for now.

This is only a starting point for a discussion. I'm not an expert, I've only dabbled in coding many years ago and I have only basic html. If anything, my interest is in my inability to make computer code functional: I fill it with mistakes and fall into recursive traps, lose track of my variables and collapse the sense of what I'm doing. That in itself fascinates me, and that's why I turn to it repeatedly.

The part that struck me recently, when I was thinking about your poem (I've been thinking about it on and off for a couple of months since we met and you showed me the print outs of your work) is that computer languages often separate out functional language from 'commentary' or 'notes to programmer'. So there's a separation of language which needs to be interpreted by machine, and language intended for the human robot working on the code.

That suggests hierarchies and the ability in semiotic terms to construct simultaneously a language that 'does work' and a language that reflects on the work done. Some of the early drafts of 'Static Exile' were written in that kind of format, as 'dismissable' sections of code which were designed not to be read by the 'authorities' lurking in the poem.

Your piece has that in abundance - a hierarchy and ancestry of precision and lists, but also a disruption of reading approaches, as if a machine might make sense of the code where a human can't, but accesses the narrative, or the emotion, or, more likely, the structural politics. Who talks about the structural politics of computer code? (That reminds me of a story I heard about Cold War coders, about how Russian programmers had so little storage space, they had to work harder to execute the same calculations as US programmers using fewer lines of code.)

The question of reader/processor is a strange structural problem in reading such texts: the layout in your piece forced me to read with two heads, a machine-head and a poetry-head. I found myself delighted by certain lines in your work, but they weren't 'yours' or anyone's so to speak, even where they were credited. They belonged to some kind of process; and the idea of the 'code' poem being decodable was fascinating, that there was only process in front of me, no sense of meaning. And that became meaning, forced attention to how structure carried meaning.

The 'resistance' Perloff takes from Adorno and discusses in one or another of her books (I think reflecting on conceptualism in Unoriginal Genius) lies in a resistance at the level of process: language, at the level of the word, the line, or units and stanzas, has actually begun to recede as the alienness of process (against the partial familiarity of syntax) takes over. Which sounds a lot like conceptual poetry, but done without the need to devolve responsibility for the 'curation' of texts so far from real world issues.

Am I making sense? I think my point is, I was hit by the context and concept. When you showed me some of these a couple years ago, I was puzzled and found the difficulty overrode my sense of enjoyment of the lines, but couldn't explain why. Now, with a bit more understanding from certain 'linguistically innovative' poetries (god, how I hate having to write that phrase for job applications), and the context of my own slightly more McSweeneyish response to a similar conundrum, I 'get it' at the level of process better. I can see a degree of human motivation behind it, even where I haven't decoded the specifics of your content, the arguments you've assimilated (although I take signifiers and signposts to the direction they point in).

[I would love to chat more about the process of these poems. It matches up with some experiments Andrew Bailey tested out on me once, and still occasionally uses, though you've a much more developed architecture in these and you did explain some of the simultaneity and serialisation at work. Rather than go into the coding influences, where you found things, I'm fascinated by the effects on language at this stage. I'd love to attempt a dialogue in writing, if you have time, maybe we can use these emails to think about a conversational essay for Gists & Piths, which, incidentally, I've been full of plans to restart now the thesis is over.]

[28/10/15] TC:


Many thanks for reading and thinking so thoroughly about 'Codeswitching'. There is so much I want to expand on what you have written but I think you have really zeroed in on what I was trying to do with this observation: "That suggests hierarchies and the ability in semiotic terms to construct simultaneously a language that 'does work' and a language that reflects on the work done."

This piece was written on a January morning 2004 almost in one go. I am definitely trying to work my way out of some of my own frustrations re. machine and human language, but I think more importantly I am trying to think what it means to write as a writing subject whose sense of agency is gradually slipping away.

So, yes I did try to write in different styles and different discourses (hence, my attempt at using the Dewey Decimal System and transcribing as accurately as possible a Scottish accent); in the end, it did not matter: I wanted to put down a feeling of alienation and alienness to the whole idea of writing. I am always thinking that writing is the most natural thing to do but if you ask me how certain lines have come about, I have no idea. I know this sounds like I am veering dangerously close to fairy-land stories about the "transcendental nature of writing" but in fact, what this piece is trying to do is to figure out how the process of writing (and language) actually has a very material consequence.

I remember being taught Ancient Greek and one of the better teachers explaining to us the concept of the infinitive as an ice cube and we must think of the declension of verbs as the melted water that comes from the ice cube. Does that make sense to you? So, yes as you say I am hugely interested in process if only because process gives a glimpse into how we come to think about the world. I am afraid this all sounds very airy-fairy but I am maintaining this is all very hard line materialist and we need to question the process of how we come to say what we say, constantly.

This is where some of the poets N. Katherine Hayles has been championing fail: it is fashionable to diss Goldsmith for his politics but the interesting thing is that for all his talk of appropriation and process, his work and work ethic seem to be completely unburdened by the practical ramifications of his own practice. Hope this all makes sense.

[I would be very interested in taking this further and yes, I would love to do this for a revamped Gists & Piths. This is a lot to think about. Apologies if I am not making perfect sense (which, as you know, it would not be the first time).]

[18/1/16] GT:


I wanted to carry on with this discussion about computer code and poetic language. I completely understand the idea of language as having a material process. Sociological studies hold that the 'frame' through which we experience the world is often stronger than the material evidence, or even the material language we see in front of us.[*] So, yes, poetry needs to tackle that head on.

Lately I've been reading studies about climate deniers and the language of the Anthropocene. I wouldn't say I've yet the grounds for a solid foundation for the argument, but the idea that language is itself a filter to our experience of the material world meets up (perhaps a skewed joint) to what you say.

[I'm thinking about Kamau Brathwaite's argument that the iambic pentameter can't capture the experience of people in Commonwealth countries, like in the West Indies, where snow never falls, even though they were been bombarded with such poems under colonial rule. What does it do to your sense of reality when the language you have to respond to and experience the world is almost exclusively from a culture thousands of miles away?]

The ice cube/melted water problem: what happens when you restrict your vocabulary, as the Dadaists (or was it the Futurists?) attempted, to just nouns and verbs? What sense of the world do we learn? And so too, a static, past-tense vocabulary: the close, third person past tense of a generic literary novel?

The question of 'doing work' with code had me thinking along related (OK, possibly tangential) lines. I have a sense of a functional language in code (accompanied by a reflective //commentary which the computer is told not to read). Which makes me wonder how 'new' comes about in coding. If you are given only a finite set of 'functional' words to work with then 'originality' comes about only through contextualisation. You can't re-purpose the meaning of words, the code would 'break'. At least, that's my limited sense of it and I defer to your better understanding.

Against this, I started thinking about the 'function of poetry'. Which is a dangerous path, but hear me out. For myself, I guess I'm still thinking about the whole 'make it new' (MIN) dictat. And I acknowledge there's a separate approach which I'll describe as 'make it safe' (MIS).

The MIN approach suggests a constant re-purposing, re-contextualising, restructuring, of language and its architecture: the word, the sentence, the line, the stanza, the paragraph, the book. MIN is a moral condition which suggests the world is not right; there's always a need to open up the structures of discourse so that power can be reassigned, questioned, challenged; but also a need to think our ways through external challenges. Both are a form of adaptation.

MIS then is using language to preserve, conserve, those factors which supposedly are already OK. You could say, from this reading, that MIS is written by people who think the world doesn't need changing. The complacent/bourgeois/already powerful/blind. They're quite insulted in literary history, even by people who'd fit that category.

I'd say you need a balance of both (but I would say that (but still)). And I lean toward MIN. Only, I understand it as a practice of making poetry wherein the language is simultaneously unfamiliar and understandable.

I don't want to start setting up more binaries than I have already, so I'll put this on pause. But with all the ways that you can defamiliarise, alienate, make new, with poetry, and the limits to code languages by comparison, I wonder why or how, you turn to code language to alienate yourself? Doesn't the code require a degree of expertise, thereby, familiarity, already? Is it yourself or your reader you want to alienate?

More questions than offerings, given how late, how late.


[*] I was thinking of George Lakoff, an article in Alternet full of typos I read around that time, but his book, Metaphors We Live By, might be more relevant now.

Monday 21 November 2016

Code Poetry: IMM LHO by George Ttoouli (3/6)

I am in that long drag
of democracy between
betrayal and the next election.

What should I do?

The city
        has fractures in its tarmac;
        is like earthquakes;
        turns me into a fault line;
        turns our stomachs;
        leaves our mouths
                        plugged with denials;
                        stitched shut with a pencil; // if no one speaks of terror then
                                                                   // perhaps we will not know it when
                                                                   // it comes so tell me lies if lies are
                                                                   // what you have inside your heart
                                                                   // don’t follow us and find yourself
                                                                   // in pieces where we fell apart
                        marked X;                          // with no men left to pick the fruit
                                                                   // or sow the fields or dig the
                                                                   // trenches and so we all turn into
                                                                   // farmers bury our hearts in the soil
                                                                   // and go to work
        is a non-neutral it;
        is an unexploded bomb.

What should I do?

I’ll shuttle from this city
        like cathodes emit heat;
        escape from this un-exploded bomb with
                a radar blip;
                a rocket;
                a grey cross on my flag;
my nation ruptured by that long drag
        through police files;
        electoral registers;
        of pencils in the boxes
                top left to bottom right;
                top right to bottom left;
        through the pieces of me they have gathered;
all ruptured;

and I will kill the Prime Minister I will slip in behind the wooden panels of democracy and kill him with the heavy gavel of democracy and I will kill him and I will cut WAR CRIMINAL into his chest and hang him in a gallery and I will call it WAR CRIMINAL and they will ask for my signature and I will deny everything.


Some brief context: this was written around the time of the illegal invasion of Iraq, when I was writing poems with titles designed to test whether one could be arrested in the West for writing poetry. This title was probably the most benign/coded (I've also removed the dedication), but I soon realised people were actually being arrested for this stuff and I was just being immature. And this comes with a big disclaimer, that it didn't and still doesn't condone violence toward any individuals. The poem filtered into a portion of ‘Static Exile’ and the ‘DVD Extras’ in Static Exile. (Yeah, I know, shameless plug, but it is back in print and I am completely broke.)

Code Poetry: 'CodeSwitching 23µg' by Theo Chiotis (2/6)

Code Poetry: Lolwhut? (1/6)

George Ttoouli and Theodoros Chiotis have been having a (very long and very slow) conversation about Code Poetry. This began before the relaunch of G&P in its new incarnation as a bastion of sweeping cultural misjudgements and ad hominem salvos at the human world’s failure to stimulate our overweaned attention spans away from the stupor of growing global isolationism and ignorance-entrenchment.*

The conversation has been about code and poetry, poetry which uses code, the poetics of computer language. Let’s be honest here: Code Poetry is not a thing yet. But let’s raise those capital letters; let’s make a thing where no thing was, to see if that brief act of objectification can achieve some kind of good. To that end, GT has taken a crude series of amateur snapshots of that conversation, beginning with this introduction, and to include some examples of work by each of us – mostly by Theo – to illustrate the exchange.

The concept of Code Poetry arose for me when I swapped some poems with Theo Chiotis, many years ago. While we were back and forthing, Theo edited and published an anthology of work from Greece and the Greek diaspora (including a piece by me): Futures:Poetry of the Greek Crisis. We discussed the anthology back in August 2016 at the Poetry Library and, if you listen to Tom Chiver’s intro, you’ll hear mention of Code Poetry, but – horror of horrors! – the panel never discusses Code Poetry!

To prevent the spread of this logical black hole, herein: the gap plugger. This article carries the pretence of offering you everything you need to know about Code Poetry, but were afraid to ask, sufficiently thrown about the digi-room like two dogs playing squash with a kitten until you’re too frightened to ask more questions, in case it goes all grid-shaped right through the racket.

To begin, the codepoem (look! it’s become a compound noun!) by Theo which triggered the discussion. Then a piece by me, referenced in my first email. Then the discussion in two parts. Then, to close, a final codepoem by Theo (in Greek, no translation) with procedurally generated spheres.

What is CodePoetry? Answers on a postcard, to the unusual address. Or keep reading.


* Feel free to take scissors, cut out this last, clunky, overstretched sentence from your screen and replace it with whatever phrase you prefer to use to describe late capitalism’s self-immolation. G&P accepts no responsibility for your attempt to cut out a piece of your computer screen whatsoever, but will be grateful, should your attempt succeed and you not be horribly electrocuted by the process, for the loss of your readership.