Code Words Day 4, with Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Blog post by Liza St. James

Students and teachers arrived early again on Wednesday to continue work on projects and to discuss with one another, some about the questions still posted on the whiteboard—one of which was: “Is it possible for computation to be unpoetic?” Nick and Eitan talked about before class on Wednesday, prompting Nick to fill the rest of us in over our group email. He wrote, “I don’t think it’s useful to speak in absolutes here, but I do think computation can be more or less poetic and, for instance, more or less rhetorical. (We discussed a first approximation of how rhetoric and poetics are different in class.) If particular computation is making a point or taking part in an argument, it seems to more rhetorical. If it is trying to open up possibilities and participate in inquiry of sorts, perhaps it is more poetic. Of course, these aren’t the only two options.”

We were lucky to have Lillian-Yvonne Bertram with us at Code Words on Wednesday for a reading and a lesson. Lillian is the author of a number of poetry books, and she began by showing us her javascript poems “Weights & Measures" and “for the pool players at the Golden Shovel.” (Introduction of ‘Golden Shovel’, as a form, where the last word of each line is the word of another poem. Initiated by Terrance Hayes here.) Then she read from her stunning poem “@Tubman’s_Rock,” which uses code adapted for Python3 from github and translated from the Italian. The code is a reconstruction of the method thought to have been used for Nanni Balestrini’s electronic poem Tape Mark 1, 1962, and here is combined with information about Mamie and Emmett Till, Harriet Tubman, the rock that struck Harriet Tubman in the head, and slave patrols.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. Photo by Vinicius Marquet

Lillian described the ways she uses coding as a means to generate a creative spark.Coding for her allows for a collaborative process between her, the code, and other texts — including texts of her own. Lillian described the body of her work as self-referential, which we could already see in just the poems she selected to read. When asked how code fits into her practice, Lillian responded, “Programming is a continuation of my interest in language.”

Then we began the day’s student presentations, led by Milton Läufer.

Esen Espinoza presented a poem of which he explained, “I was very afraid to do the presentation in English. So I used that fear to create a poem about the feeling of having someone recriminate you for having spoken badly. I think it’s very interesting to allow the program to generate poems or texts in the second person. It lets us feel that it is the computer that is talking to us and not that we are talking through it.”

Szenia Zadvornykh displayed a poem: “Westward is a transition from one place, language, and time to another. With the mouse on the left side of the screen, the text is presented in Dutch. As you move it to the right, the text becomes scrambled with its translation, before being presented fully in English on the right. The Dutch text is written in the present tense. The English in the past. No attempt is made to reconcile the text as it transitions, reflecting the scrambled nature of going from one language to another. The code for this piece is present alongside it. I would encourage anyone with a migratory experience to replace the text with your own, and read it, perhaps out loud, as it transitions.”

Tina Lee presented a poem called “The Weather in Your Head” of which she said, A big chunk of my early internet was LiveJournal, so I’m forever interested in feelings. And I liked the idea of combining two very imprecise systems — weather forecasts, interior selves — whose outputs sometimes confuse (or thwart), sometimes coincide with, the given inputs.”

Shawna’s poem.

Shawna X presented a poem which she described as “a generated argument I created from sentences exchanged between a friend and me, a cathartic and personal exercise that allowed me to see anger in a different light — that a bot can simulate effortlessly but also interesting analysis for human passion and emotion.”

After the break, Lillian began her lesson by asking, ‘Who here is new to programming?’ She explained that she is relatively new to programming herself, and that she learned from her local makerspace. Then showed us some of her newer work. She showed us a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire, and then a poem of her own that borrows the structure of lines from Brooks’s poem, structure of lines and phrases, then fills in other parts of speech from Brooks. Lillian challenged us to diagram a text, to map its syntax. There was a question about using found texts that could possibly reproduce harms or oppressions.

What happens when you take multiple narratives and combine them? How can we breathe new life into underrecognized voices using code? If code is a megaphone, what do you want to use it to amplify? What kind of work do you want your work to do in the world? She explained that code foregrounds rhetorical choice, foregrounds language, foregrounds intention.

We then discussed the ways in which algorithms are used as tools of oppression (she mentioned the book Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble).

The Poem Printer at work. Photo by Vinicius Marquet

Lillian left us with a number of prompts for Thursday:

Exercise 1: For this simple exercise, you will need a plain text document with lines to upcycle. As I have a lot of poems broken into lines already, this was pretty easy for me to come up with. You don’t have to use your own writing, but I encourage you to do so. I have conjured useful surprises from my own work using this program.

Code for Exercise 1

Exercise 2: For this exercise, you can remix the “A House of Dust” code. My strongest suggestion is that you focus on the content and how many different kinds of changes you want to make. This exercise doesn’t require as much coding knowledge as it does content awareness and intention. Are you using your own language, or that of others? If this is a megaphone, what are you going to say?

Exercise 3: This exercise is a bit more involved but is essentially a combination of the aleatoric with a slot program. It requires a text (though you can start with a single line or two) wherein you map the grammatical structure and “slot in” replacements . Where you choose to draw those replacements from is up to you, but again, this highlights focused intention on the choice of texts. Choose a work that you are really drawn to — how can you remix it with purpose? Experiment with the “An Aspect of Love” code and see what happens!