Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press, and includes work from writers Nick Montfort and Joseph Mosconi that involves technicolor palates and Python programming. They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss critical intimacy, display technologies, online corporate prisons, and the Burger King font.
Michael Martin Shea: Let’s start with a basic question–can each of you talk a little bit about where your pieces in BAX come from and what their compositional process was like? Or, perhaps more interestingly, where or how do these pieces fit in with your larger writing projects?
Nick Montfort: I often write computer programs that generate texts. Actually, I have three books, and two others coming this year, and another coming in 2017, that consist of computer programs and their output. That first page is often the program I wrote, which happens to be in Python in this case, and the pages that follow are the output of the program. This practice goes back almost to the beginning of general-purpose digital computers; it was being done in the 50s and 60s. I’m very interested in exploring language and computation, and writing text-generating programs can be a very good way to do that.
Joseph Mosconi: The most straightforward answer is that Demon Miso/Fashion In Child is a list poem. However, there is some crucial context missing from the poems excerpted in BAX. At the end of my book I write: “These are all the names of things I’ve eaten” and “The text is set in 46-point Insaniburger font. Insaniburger is based on the old Burger King logo that can still be seen on some signs in smaller cities.” So the compositional method was as simple as taking note of the names of dishes I ordered off of menus from various restaurants in America, Europe, and Asia. It is autobiographical and documentary in the most basic sense. The more complex answer is that some of the language is entirely made up, and the cover of the book (a manipulated photo of unidentifiable food waste), combined with the types of dishes I chose to eat, the choice of typography, and the fact that the book is printed in full color, situates the book in a global consumer context. It’s not just about food or eating. It’s also, at least in part, about language as commodity fetishism and the production of waste—the way that food distribution, and the way we talk about food, betrays a technique of control. It tracks a desire to normalize language, which is related to the struggle to communicate. As Andrew Maxwell, my accomplice at the Poetic Research Bureau, puts it: “Poetry is a commitment to food access.” Or as the inhabitants of Sweethaven would sing: “Everything is food food food.”
NM: I love how the principle for enumerating texts in your work is personal, autobiographical and documentary—and deviating from that seems perfectly apt, too—while the typography reaches out to the broader corporate and global context. We do get to control what we eat, to some extent, given what’s available, but Burger King commissions and owns the typeface; corporations seem to have more of a grip on graphic design. I guess I should mention that the particular texts in my “Through the Park” were composed carefully, without computer assistance, to be able to stand alone or in any context. The generated texts consist of eight of the underlying 25 sentences, kept in their original order. The underlying story I wrote is based on “Little Red Riding Hood” and is meant to change in emotional valence depending upon which particular texts are selected. It’s an attempt to make a story generator that is as simple as possible, but resonant culturally. The one simple technique used here is ellipsis, which might be the most fundamental technique of narration.
JM: It’s interesting, Nick, to see “Through the Park” printed in a book. I saw you read (or should I say “run”) this text live at the Poetic Research Bureau, and of course on a computer screen and projector the experience is entirely different—there’s different typography, of course, but also I believe the online version uses a different colored background, and if I remember correctly the text is available in several different languages. Where and how a reader encounters your poems seems constitutive of their meaning.
MMS: Joseph, this isn’t the first time you’ve been included in BAX–some of your work was also selected for the 2014 Digital Edition, and features a similar sort of polychromatic display of almost-aphorisms, ranging from the bitingly blunt (“I hope you fail miserably and never accomplish anything ever again”) to the bizarre (“Welcome to New Jersey Pork Rind Toes”). But what’s striking to me, both here and in the work from 2015, is the way the color palates interact with the language. The most obvious example would be the harsh red-and-lime-green of “I hope you fail…,” but I’m interested too in the more subtle combinations, like the pink-and-yellow which compliments “Muttered the old pineapple.” It’s almost as if the colors resonate with the words or phrases themselves. To me, this suggests something about the powers of language beyond its strict denotational aspects–and maybe beyond traditional ideas of connotation as well, since what’s happening is not really referential but imminent, language as a color experience. How do you see language interacting with its environment, whether on the page or elsewhere?
JM: I read something by an artist recently (I’ve forgotten who it was) who wrote: I use color because I don’t believe in neutrality. I could just as easily say this about my own work. I gradually began introducing color into my poems because I was composing and publishing primarily online. It seemed ridiculous to me that most online publishers and writers were still mimicking black-and-white print. There isn’t any extra cost to displaying color online (there is extra disk space and memory cost, I suppose, but it’s rather negligible). However, I’m pretty committed to my poems existing both on screen and in print, and color print is still costly, which restricts where I can publish. Most poetry print publishers won’t consider color printing. I’ve been lucky to work with publishers like Insert Blanc Press and Make Now Books, who are willing to print in full color. With my previous book, Fright Catalog, I felt the use of color was necessary because of the content of the work. The book invokes the language and tropes of the occult, fantasy, horror and heavy metal. There is a long history in the occult of using color as a meditation technique, as a tool to manipulate emotion, and I was interested in playing with that use of affect. The color of each page was determined by feeding the text—each stanza on each page—through an open-source online color theme generator. Color combinations have been tagged with keywords by thousands of users on this generator, so I just used the top color result that most closely approximated each stanza of my text based on the keyword matching.
Demon Miso/Fashion In Child developed a bit differently. Originally I wanted the physical book to mimic the disposable cartons of fast food restaurants, with one side of the page being super shiny like the exterior of a food container–like a Burger King box–and the other side being rough and unfinished. So the color of the text on each page of the book is exactly the same as the color on the back of the page. But we couldn’t find a printer who could create this effect. We just ended up with normal color-printed pages, without the high shine. In the digital form of the book I kept the full-color textless pages as well.
NM: The textual output of a program can be presented on a screen or in print—and there are other ways, too, such as voice synthesis or having someone read it aloud. One of the reasons it’s important to me to present such output in different ways is to emphasize this point. There’s nothing inherent about the screen that makes it synonymous with the digital. It might be a nice display device to connect to everyday Web experiences, or to let people modify a program and see the output again. But printing things out and presenting in print, in a book, is a fine path for computer output, too. The environment of such language is of course important, but the first thing to note is that we shouldn’t constrain things too much and make assumptions about where it’s proper for such language to live. Presenting this work in print makes it clear that it isn’t confined to the screen.
MMS: Nick, as I understand it, the guiding idea of “Through the Park” is that a set of phrases is run through the program you designed, which by whatever logic it has creates passage with different tones, moods, or story arcs, right? In a sense, then, though you wrote the program yourself, you didn’t necessarily have complete control over what the output was–an idea that, though it has been around since the days of DADA, still runs counter to the way most writers compose. I’ll ask both of you, then: how important is authorial control in creating literary art, or is total control a myth (or a hindrance, or both)?
NM: Your description of my piece is a good one, but let me try to explain the sort of control I did and didn’t have. Let’s say I can’t decide what to do one evening and I set up this framework: I’ll flip a fair coin, and if it comes up heads, I’ll go have a cocktail; if it comes up tails, I’ll get ice cream. Now, the idea that I don’t have any control over the outcome is sort of silly. I’m going to be getting either a cocktail or ice cream. I defined that. The specific outcome is based on chance, but I only decided to base it on chance because I didn’t care one way or the other, so it doesn’t seem like I’m really yielding much control. In “Through the Park,” I very precisely defined a distribution over language. Which particular one we get is due to chance, but I set everything up exactly as I wanted it. Specifically, there is a sequence of sentences (all of which I wrote) and all but eight are removed, with the sentences kept in the original order. So, I would say the use of randomness/lack of control is, while not entirely unrelated, also not exactly like Tzara’s and also not exactly like Cage’s or Mac Low’s. I would say my writing (programming) is intentionally defining a distribution of language. Then, I’m letting the computer draw or sample from that distribution. But it really only gets to pick between options I approve of—such as a cocktail or ice cream. A throw of the dice … does not abolish … what I wrote.
JM: When people talk about “authorial control” of a work, one of the things they’re referring to is how vestiges of control persist in a work’s reception. As far as reception goes, I think it’s fine if readers resist meanings imposed by the creators of texts. I fully support creative misreadings and fugitive analyses. Language possesses a subterranean life outside of our intentional life. When confronted with art or poetry, I expect readers or viewers to take a political stance. That doesn’t mean I think authorial intent is irrelevant–just that readings are not entirely governable by the artist (This seems a rather non-controversial point). Regarding authorial control in the creation of a text, by which I assume you mean procedural or chance-based operations–well, I don’t think my writing engages with that quite as deeply as Nick’s does. And when I do use such methods, such as with the selection of color in Fright Catalog as outlined previously, they are used in highly determined environments.
NM: Of course, my choices were made in the context of the English language and a familiar masterplot, and that by itself means it’s not just an omnipotent author. Also, I can surprise myself by putting together programs like this. I just don’t want anyone to pat me on the back for dissolving my ego and yielding the function of authorship to the computer, any more than they might take your work, Joseph, as a pure expression of a particular diet, without any authorial touch.
MMS: Perhaps on a similar note, one of the ideas that comes through both of your bodies of work is the notion of language as a data set, that meaning-creation is sometimes just plugging objects into already-extant frameworks. Certainly social media might reinforce that belief, with its highly prescriptive forms and formal limits–and yet many people find social media interactions meaningful, at least in some ways. Do you see this plugging-things-into-a-framework as a lived reality—and maybe even increasingly, the primary reality—of language, and how do you think art should respond to or engage with this reality?
NM: While I do have a Twitter account, online corporate prisons aren’t generally my thing. All of my computational poetry work, including “Through the Park,” is available as free software, so people can study, share, and modify it however they like. People are not restricted to replying with one of six emoticons. They can make a book based on my programs (as two people have done), modify my work and publish it online (as dozens have done), make artwork for installation, teach using my work, use it to insult corporate social media, or use it to insult me—whatever. I’m not trying to juice people into money. I’m producing code and ideas that people might leave aside, if they don’t like them, or might find productive and build upon.
JM: I disagree with the notion that language is just a data set, or that a limit of meaning arises simply by copying and pasting and plugging-in. There are so many things we can do with language; it’s mutable and uncanny. The most I’m willing to concede is that these are a few of the things we can do with language. These are features, not limits. These ideas probably arise in my work because I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life as an analytical linguist working on taxonomy development, text classification, and semantic and behavioral modeling. I worked every day with language represented as data—phrases and keywords and ads and word clusters and URL strings—so I’m sure it was bound to seep into my poetry. If anything, I feel like I’m trying to work against these received ideas, to frustrate strict logical mappings and hierarchical groupings. I’m more interested in formal scrambling than ordered categorization. Plugging-things-into-a-framework sounds too practical for me.
MMS: Both of you have worked before with computer-generated text: Joseph, I’m thinking here about your recent Renaissance Realism, which features a string of often-nonsensical (and hilarious) sentences about animals, whereas for Nick I can name any number of relevant works, from Upstart to An Algorithm. In discussions of found-text or computer-generated writing, there’s sometimes a tendency to (unfairly) conflate these strategies under the banner of Conceptualism, especially as practiced by Kenneth Goldsmith—and we’ve seen a lot of recent push-back against appropriation as a method. Could you speak a little as to how your personal writing process engages with these varied strategies—found-text, appropriation, or computer-generated writing—and perhaps comment on the ethics of these methods?
NM: I’m impressed that you know my one experiment in the medium of the Twitter bot! But I don’t understand how conceptual writing in the appropriation vein and computer-generated text has been grouped together as the same thing. Goldsmith himself rejects computer-generated work in Uncreative Writing. Marjorie Perloff champions the former, but not as far as I know the latter. The line of work I’m involved in doesn’t start with recent conceptualist writing but extends from the 50s—from Christopher Strachey, Theo Lutz, Victor H. Yngve, Brion Gysin and Ian Somerville, Alison Knowles and James Tenney, and others—through today (I’ve reimplemented some of the early works in this form in my site Memory Slam, a different sort of appropriation that makes this work available for others to study and modify). “Through the Park” on the other hand doesn’t use anyone else’s words, although it’s based on a folktale in the way lots of writing relates to and in a very general sense “appropriates” earlier master plots. While I don’t object to the appropriation of texts, or to most conceptualisms, I wouldn’t usually try to defend this type of practice in the same terms as I would discuss computer-generated writing.
JM: I think Michael may have grouped together appropriation and computer-generated text here partly because my book Renaissance Realism uses both found text and computer-generated text. But yes, we should resist conflating the two—they have entirely different histories (and futures). Regarding appropriation, I think you may be overstating the case a bit, Michael. Even poets and critics who have been blistering in their assessments of certain conceptual writers continue to use found text in their own work—and champion it in the work of others. With appropriation, subject position matters. But do I think copy and paste is inherently unethical? No.
I’ve been thinking of my work recently less in terms of appropriation and more in terms of fandom. In fanfiction communities, textual poaching is expected. You wouldn’t have Fifty Shades of Grey without Twilight (Not that we need either of them, necessarily, but you get my point). Being productively wrong about a text often engenders fascinating and more interesting alternative texts. It can also produce shit. But hey, there’s value in shit! That’s part of the point of Demon Miso/Fashion in Child. And so I’ve observed that many of my peers could potentially be described as writing a type of “fan poetry.” Fan poetry differs from fanfiction in the sense that fan poetry is not trying to re-write episodes of Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer as slash fiction or Hurt/Comfort narratives, but engages with media such as music or TV shows, or genres such as science-fiction and fantasy—or even previous canonical or non-canonical poems and poets—from the position of a fan, which means that there is very little critical distance. These poached texts are enthusiasms and objects of love and empathy, even when the poet is critiquing them, or using them to critique something else in our culture. What I see instead of critical distance, which characterized previous forms of pop-culture appropriation, is a type of critical intimacy.
NM: Your distinction between critical distance and critical intimacy is a very nice one. I think there’s a lot to learn from in fandom in terms of curating originally-digital texts, fostering community in various ways, and in the way fanfiction and vids combine strong positive feelings for media franchises with alterations that address social concerns. For instance, slash fiction addresses the media industry’s unwillingness to directly portray homosexual relations, and Fifty Shades of Grey addresses the fact that BDSM couldn’t be part of mainstream novels and films (even if it was present as a shadow, so to speak, of a series of teen novels). Fans have actually thought through trigger warnings much more deeply and systematically than poets and teachers of poetry have. You might disdain to use such warnings at all, but if you wanted to think about the issue and study what has been done to implement them (in a voluntary way) online, you’d have to look at the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own rather than any poetry site.
When I talk with poets about fandom I usually find that they’re very interested in it, often more so than in mainstream culture itself.
My main fear is that fandom has historically been extremely insular, supported by its own small-circulation publications that no one else reads, visible in conventions that only die-hard fans go to . . . is that starting to sound like anything else we know?
JM: Ha! Well, I’m not sure fandom is so extremely insular any longer. I go to both fan conventions and poetry conventions, and the fan conventions are so much larger, so much more diverse, the dedication to cosplay so amazing—and everyone is so freaking delighted to be there, it just makes most poetry conventions seem like the recitation of the minutes of the Lawn Mowing Diarists Society (And I’m sure those lawn mowing diarists are passionate about what they do.) (And I’m sure there are conceptual poets out there who would love to get their hands on these diaries.).
There’s a passage in Fic, Anne Jamison’s great book on fanfiction, where she sketches a similar comparison between the poetry and fanfiction communities, but she describes poetry in more optimistic terms than you do, as a community based on “exchange, praise, mutual respect, and critique,” where the work produced in the community has no monetary value, and where those few who do somehow make money from their work are “mocked by true believers.” Actually, re-reading this passage now, I’m not sure if this is optimistic or pessimistic.
In the same volume there is an essay by Darren Wershler in which he describes conceptual poets as essentially writing a type of fanfiction about conceptual art. That’s only partially what I’m describing. I’m also interested in poets who seem to be actual fans of something outside of poetry or visual art proper, poets who write through their enthusiasms in order to critique either the object of enthusiasm itself, various aspects of culture that create, enable or exploit the object, or any other attendant social and political concern. There’s a latent relationship to internet memes here too, I think, and to artistic or poetic research practices as a form of “geeking out,” as the artist Julian Hoeber has described it (cue the Poetic Research Bureau).
MMS: Nick, for a while now you’ve been at the forefront of the intersection between computing and writing-production–your website hosts interactive fiction projects dating back to 1999, and you’ve recently published a book, Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. We’re now seeing the first real push of VR and AR technology into mainstream culture, and with that will undoubtedly come a change in the way we consume art, including literary art. We can definitely expect a lot of handwringing about the place of traditional literary arts in a VR world–the death of the novel, the death of the poem!–but what possibilities do you (and Joseph as well) see for writing with this advent of new technologies?
NM: The clearest answer would surely be at Brown University, where John Cayley continues the project Robert Coover started of developing literary experiences for shared virtual reality. VR is ultimately a display technology—like your phone’s small screen, your computer’s large screen, your laser printer, and so on. It might be an awesome display, but what’s central to the new life of language in digital media, whatever the display, is computation. I encourage poets, writers, artists, humanists, and others to learn to program and to understand at least some of programming’s potential for inquiry and creativity. I think it’s important not only from the standpoint of literary and artistic practice, but also from the standpoint of being a citizen, informed and aware of how the systems around us are used for control and how they could be used to improve our lives. My recent book is a course in programming (for classroom learning or for individuals) with these goals in mind.
JM: I agree with Nick that VR is essentially a display technology. How we interface with emergent technology (or don’t, as the case may be) will always be of interest to artists and writers. Whenever new technology comes along, you can be sure there is going to be a group of misfits who will want to fuck with it, to play with it, to manipulate it, to undermine and exploit it. And VR and AR are still language-based, that is to say code-based. They are writing tools. But I’m probably the wrong person to say anything profound about this. While I can’t say that I have worked with VR technology very much in my own writing, many artists and writers who are enthusiasts of VR inspire me. Xárene Eskandar uses photography and video to consider how the body navigates landscapes, both real and virtual, and how the passage of time affects spatial perception and bodily self-perception. In poetry, Ed Steck is exploring similar ideas around physical embodiment and virtual landscapes, and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford is killing it with pieces like Egress and Diana Hamilton’s Dreams, in which poetry, both written and spoken, is integrated into the landscape of virtual space.
Joseph Mosconi is a writer and taxonomist based in Los Angeles. He co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau and co-edits Area Sneaks. He is the author of Fright Catalog (Insert Blanc Press, 2013), Demon Miso/Fashion in Child (Make Now Press, 2014) and Renaissance Realism (Gauss PDF, 2016).
Nick Montfort develops computational art and poetry, often collaboratively. His poetry books are #!and Riddle & Bind, and he co-wrote 2×6 and 2002: A Palindrome Story. His more than fifty digital projects include the collaborations The Deletionist, Sea and Spar Between, and the Renderings project. His collaborative and individual books from the MIT Press are: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, and most recently Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. He lives in New York and Boston, offers naming services as Nomnym, and is a professor at MIT.