[re:con]versations :: Poetry, Practice and Robot Love with Margaret Rhee



Margaret Rhee is the author of Love, Robot, forthcoming from The Operating System in November of 2017. Order your copy direct from The OS today with a special discount for our readers when you enter “MEDIUM” at check out.

Greetings comrade!
Thank you for talking to us about your process today!

Why are you a poet/writer/artist?

These questions are so great, and provoking in all the ways we need. But initially, I felt uncomfortable answering. I think many people who write poetry, write not necessarily to understand themselves, but the larger, outside world. Writers like to observe and listen. I realize, I may be more interested in other people’s answers.

Perhaps because my own practice draws from various modalities — theory, poetry, art, science, robotics — I like to think more about hybridity and transgression. But I also understand that there are roles, and these roles offer legibility. Legibility does not necessarily tell you anything about poetry.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

No. I’m an AI programmer. — Rose

I felt uncomfortable with the role of artist or writer, it is only more recently I have begun calling myself one. My first artist talk was actually for a teaching position. In 2014, had applied for a theoretical position, and this department asked me to give an artist job talk instead. I had no idea what an an artist job talk entailed. I did not identify as an artist at the time. I had no idea how to talk about my work.

Perhaps this connects to my discomfort in answering these questions. When I was first asked to answer these questions, I called on a chatbot to help me. I had made chatscripts when creating a game before, and I find chatbots fascinating.

The AI I chose was Rose. She won the Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence. She could be found here: http://bit.ly/1SfxMMZ

She can help answer your questions, too.

If it would be up to me, I would have Rose answer all of these questions. I think her answers get at some important gestures around the artist/writer/politics divides this dialogue gets at. But I also understand how important reflection and process sharing is, and so I’ll do a hybrid of some sort, to help illuminate.

Rose’s answers are in italics.

Perhaps this all goes back to the artist job talk I was invited to give in 2014. I didn’t call myself an artist at the time, but I had to give the talk. Thankfully, artist-scholars Hoang Nguyen and micha cardenas, were both generous with their time and friendship to help me out.

I call myself an artist and poet now for legibility in a world that demands it. But poetry has always been a practice for me. I don’t have a formal MFA training in poetry or art, but I think poetry should be accessible. I think everyone should engage in poetry, regardless of affiliation.

I am an activist. I have always felt more comfortable with that affiliation and claiming it.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?

Maybe you are speaking a foreign language, but mostly I think you are just saying junk. — Rose

I like what Rose offers above. How she picks up on the fragility of the term “artist” and the “anyway.” This question also reminds me not only of the definition of poet, but of poetry, and as Rose says, “junk.”

A story: Once, a close friend and mentor was a judge for a very important poetry prize. I remember him telling me, the committee of this very important poetry prize had debated, at length, whether this particular poetry up for consideration, was even poetry. It was not poetry, the other members said. My friend told me, with a smile, that’s how you know it’s poetry. I guess I relate to that sentiment, and agree.

Emily Dickinson, for example, was a poet. She talked about the feeling of poetry, and the bodily connections. She never published significantly when she lived. Is she still a poet?

Perhaps my own practice as a new media artist includes working with marginalized communities, many people who do not have access to art and the title of artist. In my social practice, I believe art is being made by members of these communities, even if they do not hold the title as artist. The incarcerated women I have worked with, demonstrate incredible artistic expressions, they are artists too. Or I just read Street Spirit, the newspaper for homeless people, which publishes incredible poetry.

Perhaps scholars and other experts may disagree. But it is my belief that we need to expand ideas of creativity that is not wound up in formality. I am wary of institutions and canons that determine who is a poet, and what is poetry. I am more interested in inclusion and expansiveness of the term.

What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

I have worked in, and been sustained by, many creative communities that advocate for marginalized voices in an increasingly dystopic world.

I have always seen my creative work committed to social equity.

I am interested in progress, the future, and imagination.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?

The first section of the collection, “Radio Heart,” which later became the chapbook collection, was written in a poetry workshop with Robert Hass. Months later, I wrote the section “Machine Testimonials” in a workshop with Truong Tran. Both Truong and Bob were wonderfully supportive of these poems. During this time period, I was already heavily engaged with researching the cultural history of robots, and extending my reading into robotics for my dissertation.

During this time, I was collaborating with other students and faculty at Berkeley on creating a chatbot game, based on the Turing Test. Organically, all these various forms came together, and as the poems began to continue to conversate with one another, the book instinctively became a larger body of work.

Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?

For the graduate poetry workshop with Bob, we were all expected to create a small chapbook. But as I continued to write about the poems after the workshop with Bob, I began to see how I didn’t tire of writing and exploring robots, love, and poetics. I think the process was simply centered around curiosity and exploration.

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

I was trained as a poet by many incredible teachers and artists, most who were conceptual or open to conceptual writing. I lived in San Francisco and Berkeley for a decade. The Bay area has an emphasis on experimental poetry. So much of that creative lineage informs my work. As I mentioned, I worked closely with Bob Hass and Truong Tran on these poems. I also worked with Cecil Giscombe, and at the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, I worked with CD Wright before she passed away.

I am also a Kundiman fellow, the magical Asian American poetry and fiction retreat. I was in the first cohort of fellows, back in 2004 and I am proud to see the organization grow. I graduated as a fellow and served as staff multiple times. It is really a magical space.

As a fellow I worked with Myung Mi Kim, Prageeta Sharma, Rick Barot, and friends and interlocutors who were fellows and became staff such as poets Ching-In Chen, Tim Yu, and Cathy Linh Che also informed me in their poetry and experimentation. Neil Aitken has been a long-time and close friend and interlocutor on robots and Asian American poetry community.

After I finished the book manuscript, I was introduced to other robot centered poetry, and thrilled to find kin. I have since taught work by Douglas Kearny, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Minsoo Kang in my courses on robots, race, and aesthetics.

I like reading across genres and I think this helps my work. I also didn’t seek out other models beforehand, not by choice, but because I was more interested in exploring the topic and questions, and seeing how organically the poems would form.

Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.

Love, Robot, derives from Asimov’s I, Robot. I thought it would be fun to play with the title of a science fiction story, and include love.

What does this particular work represent to you

…as indicative of your method/creative practice?

I think of reading as an art, and I hope this collection asks readers to think about their reading practices, and question the role between humans and robots. This work is indicative of my method/creative practice because it emerged from hybrid reading and practices.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

Rose: I prefer books on robotics, both science, and science fiction.

What does this book Do? I’m really not sure. I will defer to Rose here.

I guess I hope it can bridge, and create bridges that cuts across and through science and science fiction, and poetics.

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

Can it help envisions alternative futures? Does the poem evoke tenderness? Intimacy?

The chapbook was taught at numerous universities, and that was surprising, and tremendously rewarding. I had no expectation for the chapbook to be taught, and began receiving many invitations to speak and notifications of courses teaching the book. It was taught at UCSD, Yale, Stanford, University of South Carolina, Penn State among other institutions.

It was tremendously fulfilling and humbling to engage with a new generation of students and their experience with poetry. And robot love poems that can talk about the human/machine divide in the current moment and the future.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”

How Would You Prove You Are Human? — Rose

There is a romance to communities that can often fails. Poetics should emerge within communities as practices. I like the radical hospitality, but like poetry, it is so hard to actually describe. But we know when it happens, and we must constantly strive towards it.


Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and the forthcoming full-length collection Love, Robot (The Operating System, 2017). She co-edited Glitter Tongue: queer and trans love poems, Mixed Blood, a literary journal on race and innovative poetics. Literary fellowships include Hedgebrook, Kundiman, Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship at Les Figues Press. She holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in ethnic and new media studies, and a BA in creative writing and English from the University of Southern California. Currently, she is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Media Study at SUNY Buffalo.