A Surrealist Poetry Twitter Bot:

Words are Marvelous Weapons with which we could Behead the Sun

Franklin Rosemont’s Introduction to SDS Journal of American Radicalism January, 1970
“Let us make clear at the very beginning that it is the fundamental aim of the surrealist movement to diminish and ultimately to dispose of completely the appalling contradictions between dream and waking life, desire and reality, the unconscious and the conscious; to “‘transform the world (in the words of Marx), to change life (in the words of Rimbaud), to create a society of freedom and exaltation, of poetry made by all, according to Lautreamont’s unparalleled watchword.”

In 2014 I was an artist in residence and adjunct professor in the English Department at UC Santa Barbara. There I worked closely with my ongoing academic mentors, Dr. George Lipsitz, and especially with Dr. Felice Blake, who is the lead architect of an ongoing project I joined, called ‘Anti-Racism Inc.’ Antiracism Inc. created collaborative and non-hierarchical spaces in which scholars, activists and artists engaged in work through multiple modalities to produce new connections, language, lexicons, and epistemologies for making anti-racist interventions in our current environment. For more on the work of Anti-Racism Inc. see this video made at the 2014 ‘Anti-Conference.’

As part of my work with Antiracism Inc. I taught a class called ‘The Poetics of Struggle.’ The course explored the intersections of activist, intellectual, and poetic interventions into the discussion of power, struggle, identity, hope, and healing in the post Civil Rights era.

You can see an incomplete but substantial digital version of the entire syllabus posted on genius.com:

The class was based on the idea that poetry and language are powerful tools, which people have and can use as effective interventions in shaping the world.

Here are four ways that people wield language to shape the world around them. These categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and are in fact almost always working in concert together.

Intervention 1 : Who I Am-not

Defining Ourselves; Authoring Our Own Narrative and Critiquing What&Who Has Been Told To&About Us.

This poetic intervention is marked by the power of language to define and re-define ourselves. It is often presented as a counter narrative, to combat the dominant practices of negative ascription interpolated upon people who are excluded from the ‘neo-colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchal’ imagination of complete personhood.

(see George Lipsitz ‘Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music’ Masquerades and Mixtures chapter for more on ‘Negative Ascription into Positive Affirmation’)

James Baldwin on Racist Projection through Language

The Art Work of Emory Douglas, The Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party.

With excerpts from Colette Gaiter’s excellent article ‘Visualizing a Revolution: Emory Douglas and The Black Panther Newspaper.’

“Continuing a long tradition of resistant and revolutionary art, concurrently practiced in conflicts all over the world, Douglas was the most prolific and persistent graphic agitator in the American Black Power movements. Douglas profoundly understood the power of images in communicating ideas.
“Conceptually, Douglas’s images served two purposes: first, illustrating conditions that made revolution seem necessary; and second, constructing a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized.”
“Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”

Audre Lorde ‘The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action

I have made an ‘animated annotation’ version of this profound and urgent text (which was originally a speech), which you can read and play with here. And read more about here:

Intervention 2: ‘There’s Something Happening Here’

The power of language to call attention to the realities we’re living under.

Language as a (re)action to injustice. Calling attention to/describing the realities of one’s life; in order to create a confrontation with reality that demands action.

“The profundity of the great realist (poet), the extent and the endurance of his or her success, depends in great measure on how clearly he or she perceives-as a creative writer- the true significance of whatever phenomenon she/he depicts. His or her goal is to penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society.” — Gyorgy Lukacs

Buffalo Springfield ‘For What It’s Worth”

Chance the Rapper ‘Paranoia’

Intervention 3: The Funk and The Wielding Of Magic

The Channeling of Ancestors, Spirits, The Past, Healing and Elevation to a New Plane. The Mystical, the Intangible.

This intervention concerns poetry and language that come from or take us to another place. It is the power of poetry to open portals. Connecting us to our collective subconscious, the visceral, a forever plane. Magic shit. It’s the element that when we make art gives us a sense of abandonment, that allows us to draw power when we feel like we have none. When there aren’t writing programs, and conditions are so terrible as to not be able to imagine a new world, or when nobody is listening to who you are or what’s happening where you are. It is the intangible unnamable spirit that can be drawn from the ethers; from the world that has been built outside this material one, by our ancestors and future dwellers, for us to draw upon and open portals to.

Gloria Anzaldua

“Why am I compelled to write?… Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger… To become more intimate with myself and you.”

RIP Rich D’ Turf Feinz Mourning Dance.

“East Oakland knows the mourning ritual: a hastily constructed streetside altar, owers and teddy bears propped at signposts, heavily circulating air-brushed RIP T-shirts imprinted with images of recently passed loved ones. RIP RichD is a transmediation of these rituals, extending the mourning ritual from street to cyberspace. At the same time, turfing transmediates ritual tools of mourning into sensory-kinesthetic modes of commemoration.”
Shot and Captured: Turf Dance, YAK Films, and the Oakland, California , R.I.P. Project.’ — by Naomi Bragin

Saul Williams ‘Coded Language.’

Intervention 4: Imagining New Wor(l)ds.

How does a poem get someone out of prison?

“When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets-no matter the medium-who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing. Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting the clouds. Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” — Robin Kelley ‘Freedom Dreams.’

My own poetry, for many years, was almost entirely in the register of the first two intervention tropes discussed above; ‘who I am(not)’ and ‘there’s something happening here.’ Poetry has been one of the primary sites for my reflecting, critiquing, re-imagining, and dreaming out loud with the world around me. For many years my poetry was primarily the voice that was given to my frustration and pain. Poetry was a space for me to talk to and about my friend, Chris Hollis, who was and is imprisoned. It was a space for me to take on and address the people and policies which would try denounce and deny my family structure in service to an imagined nuclear family. It was an articulation of agency even in my most helpless moments.

A later developing branch of my poetry, guided and inspired by the surrealism of Aime and Suzanne Cesaire, as well as Robin Kelley seeks to explore the wildest horizons of our imagination. It seeks to imagine new wor(l)ds. It seeks, in the words of Suzanne Cesaire:

“the domain of the strange, the marvelous and the fantastic, a domain scorned by people of certain inclinations. Here is the freed image, dazzling and beautiful, with a beauty that could not be more unexpected and overwhelming. Here are the poet, the painter, and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversions of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness.”

My academic introduction to surrealism was through Robin Kelley, author of ‘Freedom Dreams.’ Kelley says,

“The surrealists not only taught me that any serious motion toward freedom must begin in the mind, but they have also given us some of the most imaginative, expansive, and playful dreams of a new world I have ever known. Contrary to popular belief, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought…By definition subversive, surrealist thought and action are intended not only to discredit and destroy the forces of repression, but also to emancipate desire and supply it with new poetic weapons.”

I had the opportunity to further realize the practice of Freedom Dreams, through my work with Project SAFE in Brooklyn, NY. Kelley’s book was one of the central models and guides for our organizational pedagogy.

Project SAFE World Aids Day 2007.

While working with Project SAFE, I got to accompany a group of young people on a tour of the Salvador Dali exhibit at NY MOMA. It was through experiencing the surrealist work of Dali, come into dialogue with these young people, through the lens of Freedom Dreams, that I wrote my first surrealist poem. At some point the museums’ guide was explaining one of the Dali pieces (below.) They described the image as a cyclops (or third eye) shooting a yellow beam at a woman, who was clearly in danger.

One of the young women in our group responded that the beam of light was not being shot at the woman, but instead was being shot by her, into the cyclops’ eye. The young woman in our group instantly transformed the figure of the woman in the painting from object in peril, being acted upon, to an active character with agency, who is acting on the world. Her interpretation of the power relations on display in the painting insightfully illustrates one of the most resounding and resonant parts of surrealism for me; it interrogates and unveils the policing and assumptions of our behavior with regard to social relationships and power. It obscures and makes transmutable the forms of object and subject. It encourages the radical re-imagining of relations in line with ones own desire.

I felt myself opening. The kind of rush that will come through you regardless of how prepared you are. Writing a poem seemed a more appropriate mechanism then vomiting the shapes of a dali painting; a new interactive exhibit, sprawled across the museum floor. I began scribbling furiously on the back of a flyer I had received walking up the block to the museum (also known as a NYC moleskin). Life is a salvador dali painting….

Recently I began to pursue what had become a growing obsession of mine, the intersections of emerging technological possibilities and our use of language as an intervention in reality. I am learning how to code now, I am beginning to be able to exercise some small portion of the potential and power of computers to be used as tools in our practice of generating Freedom Dreams.

The most recent example of my work at this intersection is a surrealist poetry twitter bot, which attempts to generate poetry in the register of the marvelous. In this first stage, the twitter bot is programmed to generate short surrealist poems based on the structure of my poem ‘Life is a Salvador Dali Painting.’ It is an experiment in leveraging and unharnessing the creative potential of the human-computer cooperative dialectic. It is an exercise in Darius Kazemi’s work on “How to Coax the Soul from A Machine.” And it is an invocation of Ingrid Burrington’s ‘Bot Benediction’:

“Twitter bots aren’t the magic of alienated labor or the magic of manipulation. They’re honest magic, they’re chaos magic, the’yre real fuckin magic.”

Here are some of my current favorite tweet bot poems that have been generated. You can see all of them for yourself, and new ones as the poem and code are further developed at @ifIWereABot