Monday, March 24, 2014

Shall I Compare Memes to a Summer's Day by William Bobby Shakespeare

Shall I compare memes to a summer's day?
Thou love to party and got tiger blood:
Rough winds do shake the rainbow, all the way,
And summer's double rainbow. Oh my God.
Sometime too hot the numa numa shines,
And often that's racist complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair over 9000,
By chance or nature's changing oh my dayum!
But thy eternal turtles shall not fade
Nor lose your base that are belong to us;
Nor Boxxy brag thou trawll'st in his shade,
When epic winning trololo to time thou growest:
So long as Charlie bit me eyes can see,
So long lives this and this now back at me.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The idea behind Cillit Bang by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Cillit Bang by Percy Bysshe Shelley takes inspiration from various sources. In spirit it is closest to the kind of remixed media found on Youtube. In this respect it is patchwriting and also a form of intertextual copypasta. Yet it also resembles an Oulipo piece, because there is at least one fixed constraint imposed on the writing process. While it uses Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias as its basic material, the text is altered by mixing in words and phrases from the Cillit Bang ads.  The constraint is that the inserted text be actual words and phrases from the ads, rather than words and phrases that could be from the ads. That is not to say they need to be complete sentences or entirely meaningful.

The rest of the guidelines are indeed no more than guidelines, and allow  some flexibility. They are: to keep to the original meter as much as possible, and to maintain rhyme where practical. The spirit of the ad now infuses the romantic spirit of the original, and the two cohabit the same space. Whereas Ozymandias' rigid structure more or less keeps the house together, the invasion of latter day sales talk occasionally spills out the door, marking its novelty.

In a sense there is a struggle for the identity of the poem, and both sides are changed in the process.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cillit Bang by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met Barry Scott here from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and toughest toilet stains
Look at this blockage. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered limescale, rust, whose shine
And ground-in dirt, and sneer of Cillit Bang,
Tell that one bottle well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these pongy drains,
The hand that sparkles, and the dirt is gone;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"I'm Barry Scott and I'm here with Jill
Look on my works, what do you think? Well Barry ..."
Nothing beside remains. Cleaning is a doddle
with that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
flowing free and smelling fresh stretch far away.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Promising the Waste Land

My previous post outlined how poetry can reclaim an influential place in the internet era. To illustrate a way of actioning the idea, I have created this new genre's * first ever poem.

First, a bit of background. Two years ago I walked down the neighbourhood high street with my companion. An old shop space, recently boarded up, sported bright big letters on the outside that said: "Exciting new gallery space! Coming soon". My companion was surprisingly enthused by it, whereas I couldn't muster any excitement at all. The area is full of artists and studios, and such a blatant commercial statement seemed a little heavy-handed. Sure enough, a year later the banners, now a little worse for wear, were still there. As yet there was no sign of the "exciting new gallery space".

Naturally, I was amused.

It was a reminder that commerce, and consumerism in particular, often interacts with human desire through a hall of mirrors to project value where none may be. It is also an indication that commerce relies on, and may succeed, through its ability to occupy space - even when the space itself is vacant or infertile. Its ability to occupy space lends credibility to its promise.

The poem I created takes inspiration from this idea. It is called "Promising the Waste Land". As explained, it lets the domain speak its name, and is therefore located at

By promising The Waste Land, arguably the single most influential poem of the 20th century, it is promising the extraordinary and improbable. Yet by offering a waste land, namely an empty site, it delivers on its promise.

But there is a second, more meaningful sense in which it promises The Waste Land. By claiming a space it mirrors the emerging commercial and political interests of the internet. In other words, it is a signal of intent. It suggests no less than an ambition to refresh poetry for the internet era.

Go forth and conquer!

* We may call this new genre web poetry in the true sense of the word, because it uses (at least in part) the fabric of the internet to manifest itself.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Towards a Manifesto for Poetry in the Internet Era

Poetry, not to mention writing in general, is ripe for a shake-up. The internet is a territory. The territory is vast. Poetry, impotent, is little more than data in this ever expanding structure. Impotent, it can not affect the structure.

Or can it?

I would like to propose a different approach to poetry, to writing: poetry as action. Poetry as structure. To do so, we may need to let go of traditional ideas of literature and poetry, before we can rediscover it for the internet era.

Forget Twitter, Facebook, Youtube. Contrary to what you may have heard, they are not the new voice of poetry. They are content. Text. Images. Mere data. Poetry was never just content. It is not the spirit of poetry. Once it became content, it became passive, an invalid.

If the territory is the internet, how can poetry reclaim its space?

I propose, to start with, a little experiment. Publish your poem as a domain. Don't let it disappear as content on a page on a website somewhere. Give it an identity. Do you remember the sensation? If it hadn't its own domain, would you have remembered it? Enough said.

Make the domain the title of the poem. Did you ever think of the possibilities? Poetry enters the internet by name, no longer as footnote. The title of the poem on the page becomes unnecessary. The poem itself can shine. Let me repeat: The name of the website is the name of the poem. Simple as.

A signature isn't needed. Not everyone is interested in the poet anyway. In an era where, following Barthes, the author is redundant, incognito is just as appropriate. A whois lookup may reveal a subtler gesture. Or nothing.

Liberated, the poem is allowed to shine.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Kenneth Goldsmith and Uncreative Writing

Kenneth Goldsmith teaches Uncreative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, and it sounds like heaps of fun. Traditional writing courses seem awfully traditional compared to Goldsmith's methods. For instance, he instructs students to take old slogans and write them as graffiti in public spaces; or at other times to take a film and transcribe it onto the page as a screenplay. The results are often unexpected. In the latter case, one student transcribed a porn film, altering the reader's  engagement with the source material and highlighting the mediating qualities of language and imagination.

Kenneth Goldsmith's 2011 book "Uncreative Writing" opens up this brave new literary orientation and traces its roots to the situationists of the 50s, the Dadaists, and various cultural movements of the 20th century and late 19th century. Central to his thesis is the observation that, where the arts are concerned, the literary arts are behind .... waaaay behind; behind the visual arts, which has practiced decontextualisation even before Marcel Duchamp's seminal toilet fountain; behind the musical arts, which embraces sampling (hip-hop), remixing (dance and pop) and chance collaborations with the environment (John Cage); and, frankly, behind the only medium that is truly evolving: the internet and the digital. Let's repeat that: writing, and literature in particular, is decades behind every other art form. Decades. Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Time magazine on heiress Ruth Lilly's philanthropic gift of $200 million to the Poetry Foundation:

"nothing, not even money, can get people to enjoy something against their will. What poetry really needs is a writer who can do for it what Andy Warhol did for avant-garde visual art: make it sexy and cool and accessible without making it stupid or patronizing. When that writer arrives, cultural change will come swiftly, and relatively effortlessly." (p. 93)

Note that it is not poetry's lack of "coolness" that is lamented, but rather its lack of change. Poetry, like "Literature" in general, simply hasn't kept up with the times. As he notes elsewhere:

"I'm sensing that literature - infinite in its potential of ranges and expressions - is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment - and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn't imagined." (p. 7)

One only has to look at the novels gracing the bestseller lists or even the major prizegiving short lists (the Booker, the Pullitzer). Whereas no one doubts that many of these books are well written, by and large they still employ writing techniques that date from the era when the novel was born.

But is that so bad? we might ask. Perhaps it is not that bad, and perhaps it really is a perfectly appropriate approach for us as humans. After all, who does not still look with wonder and appreciation at the expressiveness and beauty of a Turner, Titian, or Constable, and conversely feel a bit faint when looking at a Maurizio Bolognini? In case that sounded like a rhetorical question, the answer is perhaps: those with a primarily postmodern sensibility.

Lest we forget, it was photography that produced the radical shift in the visual arts. Until the internet, literature was not perturbed in any comparable way. Their was no medium or method of textual communication that radically challenged the hegemony of print and linear reading. As Goldsmith notes,

"While traditional notions of writing are primarily focused on 'originality' and 'creativity', the digital environment fosters new skill sets that include 'manipulation' and 'management' of the heaps of already existent and ever-increasing language." (p. 15)

So what would this new type of writer do? In a sense, postmodernism and even post-postmodernism is already passe. The notion that meaning is somehow attached to words, and then that meaning is or has become unstable, and that shifting signs are disrupting our understanding all the time; are notions that rely on words' primary attachment to humans. But there is already more text than we can ever hope to read, and texts that no one ever will read, including many texts, not written by humans, that have "died" without a single human reader.

What of them? What do they "mean"? The construction of texts by machines are occuring at an ever-increasing pace. We can safely assume that theirswill exceed human production sooner rather than later. And let's not be arrogant and think that "human literary works will always be better". Because that is foolish. There are no guarantees, and given the pace of technological trends, it is safer to assume the opposite, uncomfortable as the thought may be.

So what is left for the "writer" in this new landscape? In some respects the role of the writer itself is in question. Goldsmith points out that the way creative writing is taught generally relies on outdated notions of creativity and originality. The old concept of genius, generally considered a hangover from romanticism, is that of a solitary individual expressing their thoughts and emotions in imaginative, startling ways. An uncreative writer, on the other hand, uses the existing surplus of language as material to manipulate and rearrange, rather than as a vehicle for expression.

Rather than attempting to "be original" by "expressing themselves" and inadvertently adding to the cacophony of voices, the uncreative writer "constantly cruises the Web for new language" and comes to resemble "more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualising, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine" (p. 1-2)

Indeed, this is the single most important distinction that Kenneth Goldsmith draws between the traditional writer and the new avant-garde: the difference in how they view language: language as a vehicle for expression, vs. language as raw material.

This topic is rich with material, and in a follow-up post I will look at some of the forerunners of uncreative writing, as well as contemporary examples of the emerging genre.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

News Roundup

The advent of the web as a mainstream medium of communication and transmission is changing the rules of literature irrevocably. For those who have, for some time already, felt that literature and the word is in decline there is news: the online world has seen an absolute explosion of words. All the crap that people used to talk in private, with no one to record for posterity, has now become publicly recorded in new formats en masse. Blogs, Twitter feeds, Youtube videos, to mention just a few, collect words in unbelievable volumes.

Without a doubt this is rich material for scavengers of literary material, but today I want to focus on another aspect of these phenomena: the change in the nature of news. If news once was reportage of "events that happen in the real world", we may now recognise that the status of news has changed. Whereas we still read and watch news - perhaps more than ever before - it has become almost primarily a source of entertainment. News as a way of finding out about events that affect us (wars, elections, new policies) have for many consumers become relegated to the weather report. Instead, news is sought out for its spectacle, drama, and entertainment value.

In the age of the web everyone has become newsworthy, and the playing field has levelled. Why should news about a potential cure for a rare form of cancer be more important than the real and present anger a Youtube user feels when his pop hero has been insulted by other Youtube users?

These and other ponderable questions may be provoked by the News Roundup, a look at the online world today.

Welcome to today's Roundup!