There is a website that pumps out poetry at breakneck speed, 24/7. Trivialities, death, grief and love; instant poetry authored by millions of unknowing but ego-centric Twitter users around the world. This was one of the results when researchers and students at Medea met poets from Malmö!
Text by Magnus Sjöholm, originally published in Praktik & Teori no 2, 2011. Translated to English by Richard Topgaard.
The cafe Sorl (which translates to murmur) is an appropriate venue for a conversation on practical poetry. Especially if the poetry consists of tweets: a maximum of 140 characters of distributed existence. When we finally got the young lady behind the counter to turn the background music down in the otherwise empty cafe, we begin to discuss a project based on what may appear to be opposites. Twitter, a symbol for quick statements from men in their middle-ages, and poetry that for thousands of years has been considered to be the most sublime and profound thing we can think of; preferably written with a quill pen in a freezing attic by a young and skinny poet.
Twitter and poetry: despised opposites and/or cultural neighbors!
It started when Erling Björgvinsson, researcher at Medea and teacher at the masters programme in interaction design at Malmö University, had questions regarding the digitization of literature and new narrative forms. He contacted Anders Bräck and Per Engström, editors of the literary journal Pequod. They selected a few poets and went to Medea.
Now, Per and Erling sit in front of me at Sorl, both equipped with a cup of coffee.
ERLING: For us it’s important to link our research to teaching and the masters programme in interaction design. It was within a course for that programme that students had the opportunity to work with the poets. The project is called “I am poem, together we are literature” and the poets are Klas Mathiasson (Ljungby), Helena Olsson (Stockholm), Azita Ghahreman, Linnéa Eriksson and Pär Thörn.
ERLING: Pär Thörn came up with some ideas and the students began to develop them. They explored digital flows and wrote software and code that made queries for sentences starting with “I am”. Google, the first choice, turned out to be too limiting. Twitter worked better, but if you create poetry with the same speed as the world tweets “I am …”, it would become completely unreadable. A certain percentage of tweets had to be skipped to slow the pace. In addition, we excluded all retweets, all links, and names.
The feed was then presented on a website. It is still there, on iampoem.net, this ego-centric chorus of prefixes.
PER: What is most exciting is that Pär not only transformed a text to a new medium, but also created something that might be entirely new. Pär works with the poetic rather than “only” presenting traditional poetry in new ways.
ERLING: He works with the qualities of new media in ingenious ways. He argues that the ego – the I – is central both in poetry and in social media. He saw similarities between the two, even though their cultural status are quite different; the somewhat exaggerated self-centredness that can be found in poetry. Pär Thörn works extensively with an aesthetics of ready-mades. He is a poet who “does not speak in his texts”, neither the I nor a cult of personality is present in his poetry. At poetry readings, they often ask him “where are you in this, where is your voice?” And he replies: “it is not important”.
The first days, the flow was, unexpectedly, a mix of large and small concerns. Mainly small. Then, suddenly, something happened: Fukushima.
ERLING: It was fascinating to see what people tweeted: declarations of love, messages of death, grief and joy, and people who drunk-tweeted. This mix of the minutiae of everyday life and world-changing events results in that people get stuck to the poem. It’s like you are devoured by the flow. It is something, it has cinematic qualities and it’s like a chorus of scattered voices; voices that still have something in common.
ERLING: The poem only lives for a few seconds. Then it’s gone. Even though it always lives, the sentences you see you only see while they flutter by. The poem is a momentary glimpse of the world. As long as Twitter does not shut down, or Pär Thörn shuts the poem down, it’s an eternal poem that is in constant production on iampoem.net. And all over the world!
Whose work is it then? Who could claim the copyright for it: the students, Thörn or the Twitter users?
ERLING: Pär Thörn says that the real poets are those who wrote the code, the program, those who made the selection and decided the characteristics of the flow – he sees himself primarily as a concept maker.
What about the authors that unknowingly are being sampled?
PER (rhetorically): Does Duchamp exist, or is it Ulf Linde?
PER: Ready-made works within the arts, as well as in literature, raise questions about uniqueness. But to simplify the question, you refer to Duchamp… …or Pär Thörn.
ERLING: I had hoped that the printer could be exhibited somewhere – as a living book of artistry. Perhaps a museum or institution could fund it. There will soon be a printed version of the poem in the magazine Pequod with fragments of the poem in the form of a landscape printed on A2 paper.
So, the results were an eternal poem, a printed magazine, an exhibition at Gallery 21 and, to the students, an exceptionally good masters course.
ERLING: The students had to make many decisions on the conceptual level. They had to really stop and carefully consider what should be conveyed, designed and developed. In poetry, you often work with subtle nuances and expressions and you can simply not be sloppy. At the same time, poetry often deals with basic questions about language and communication, and it was interesting to see how the students took on the task and how they confronted these issues.
Pär Thörn is, of course, not the only writer working with new media. Erling talks about the Danish writer Pejk Malinovski who googled what his countrymen dreamed of and then put it all in a book, Den Store Danske Drømmebog (The Great Danish Book of Dreams). Similarly, theater groups increasingly create plays based on content taken directly from the flows of the Internet.
I’m trying to be provocative and claim that poetry symbolizes the personal and Twitter the impersonal, but they won’t listen, one can e.g. not separate the text from the display!
ERLING: You have to know what social context the communicative practice is part of to be able to discuss it. It is, to put it academically, the socio-material relationships that are of interest.
I look at Per for support. He is quiet and I comment his silence somewhat ironically “he nods in agreement”, then Per really, really re-tweety says “he nods in agreement” with a smile. He then puts the cup on the table and continues:
PER: Literature has always sought to embrace every innovation and to find new ways to communicate. Maybe people find the world of social media to be very impersonal because there is so much nonsense: a lot is communicated simply because it is possible to communicate it. I can tweet to the world, “sitting at Sorl in Malmö with Magnus and Erling”. Sure, you can think it’s only noise out there, but it’s still a way to communicate and I think that writers, and poets in particular, would love to get in there to tinker and find ways to make the Internet a bit more… exciting and romantic.
We agree on that what characterize culture today is neither the stage nor the art-form, but that “I am” is merely another form of expression among many others. That culture can, and should, switch between different words, different platforms, between large and small flows like the ethereal ink of a quill pen and the perpetual printing of the Twitter machine.
Read Praktik & Teori!
The most recent issue of the magazine Praktik & Teori includes articles on gaming, guerilla embroidery, participatory comics and Dolly Parton – download it here (pdf). All back-issues can be found on mah.se/pt.
The Journal of Electronic Publishing has a special issue on digital poetry.