Gomringer’s Untitled Poem [“silencio”], an Unlikely Sonnet

The untitled poem by Eugen Gomringer that we can only call “silencio” is a classic, perhaps the classic, concrete poem. According to Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius, the “silencio” version of the poem dates from 1953. In my 1968 edition of The Book of Hours and Constellations I find the German manifestation of this poem (with the word “schweigen”) and the English poem (with the word “silence”), on the same page at the very beginning of the book — but no “silencio.” The place where I do find “silencio” is An Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967, edited by Emmett Williams. My copy is the re-issue by Primary Information.

Williams mentions tendencies and tries not to too strongly characterize any particular poets in the anthologies when he writes, in the introduction:

The visual element of their poetry [the concrete poets’ poetry] tended to be structural, a consequence of the poem, a “picture” of the lines of force of the work itself, and not merely textural. It was poetry beyond paraphrase … the word, not words, words, words or expressionistic squiggles …

There are several essential points here about the project of concrete poetry and how it differs from, for instance, the shapes of “Easter Wings” and the other poems in George Herbert’s The Altar, as well as the way Lewis Carroll presented the image of a mouse’s tail in words that tell the mouse’s tale in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. However brilliant these two writers were, in these cases they were using language to make pictures; the concrete poets, beginning with Gomringer, worked to create structures. Their poems are not just verse (lineated language), but made from lines of force. In many cases, as with the unnamed poem I must call “silencio,” an entire concrete poem can be understood to cohere as a word.

There are other interpretations of Gomringer’s poem that situate it in history, but I will give a simple one that situates it within the project of concrete poetry — followed by another that places it in a different and much longer-lived poetic tradition.

The lines of force of this poem are, most obviously, those that allow for the gap in the middle where the ground (the absence of text, the absence of “silencio”) becomes figure. As ink declares silence, or, if we read the text aloud, as our voice declares silence, attentive readers can’t help but notice a truer silence in the middle of the page.

At the next stage, there is silence between each “silencio,” horizontally and vertically. We overlook this gap, which is seen even when text is not presented on a grid. It too will be represented if we read the poem aloud, however, between each spoken word.

We can go further, although ear and eye would not agree about the silences. There are spaces, and thus silences of a visual sort, between each of the letters in “silencio,” too.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that John Cage’s 4’33” was composed and presented in 1952, preceding this poem? This poem, too, seems to structurally show, through its lines of force, that silence can take center stage.

In any case, without offering more than a brief appreciation, I mean to make it clear that this is a quintessential concrete poem. One can read it out loud, but that does not provide the listener with the effect of apprehending the structure of the poem on the page. The poem is not a picture of anything. It is a structure. And it is not squiggles or simply a bunch of words, even if the single lexeme “silencio” is repeated fourteen times. It is fitting to apprehend and read the whole poem as a word, not a bunch of words.

Accepting this, I would like to offer an interpretation of this poem that may seem perverse, but which I believe shows this poem’s radical versatility: It can be seen in the light of a poetic tradition that long predates concrete poetry. This poem is not only a concrete poem, but also a sonnet. Specifically, I’ll argue that although the repeated word is a Spanish word, it fits into the English-language tradition of the sonnet. Because concrete poetry is a transnational phenomenon and Gomringer writes in English as well as German and Spanish, this disjunction may be less unusual that it otherwise would be.

Consider that the poem consists of fourteen occurrences of “silencio,” which despite their unusual arrangement on the page can be read aloud as fourteen lines. It would be hard not to read them this way.

Because each word is the same, the poem follows the rhyme scheme of a sonnet — any rhyme scheme, including the Petrarchan or Shakespearean in English, including those typical in Spanish.

If some reader finds it impossible for the same line to be repeated fourteen times in a sonnet, I refer this reader to the 2002 “Sonnet” by Terrance Hayes, which consists of fourteen repetitions of the line “We sliced the watermelon into smiles.”

But is it metrical? The word “silencio” pronounced by itself has two metrical feet ( x / | x / ) and is in perfectly regular iambic dimeter. This is also the meter of Elizabeth Bishop’s last poem, “Sonnet,” which begins:

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle

There’s much more variation in Bishop’s poem, but the metrical regularity of Gomringer’s poem shouldn’t preclude it from being in this particular form. While I don’t have an example of a sonnet with repeated lines (like the one by Hayes) from before 1953, there are earlier sonnets in dimeter, or one, at least: a piece of light verse by Arthur Guiterman, published in The New Yorker on July 7, 1939.

Sonnets can be about anything, although the form does have a heritage. Reading the poem as a sonnet allows us to make a connection to the sonnet tradition if we wish. We can, for instance, ask whether this sonnet has anything to do with love, whether in the most traditional sense of love for a woman or, in John Donne and Herbert’s senses, religious love. Could the silence of this sonnet be that of being understood, and of not needing to say anything aloud?

Seeing this Gomringer poem as a sonnet also allows us to put it into conversation with other one-word texts (those that have several tokens but repeat a single type) that can also be viewed as sonnets, because they have fourteen tokens.

The one I know of, and which fascinates me, is Dance, a typing by Christoper Knowles that I saw contextualized as visual art in his 2015 solo show at the Philadelphia ICA. The page of this work is blank except for a line at the top that repeats the word “DANCE” (in capital letters) fourteen times, with a space between each occurrence. This makes for 83 characters: 5 × 14 = 70 for the word DANCE, plus the 13 spaces that go between each pair of words. While a sheet of paper is typically thought to accommodate 80 typewritten characters across its width, Knowles found that by beginning at the extreme left edge of the page and typing to the extreme right edge, he could fit exactly 83 onto it.

The typing Dance can be read as a sonnet in hemimeter — a term used by George Starbuck for “half-feet,” and associated with light verse. Where “silencio” offers a more static and contemplative structure, I can’t help but imagine Knowles typing DANCE repeatedly, his hands dancing on the typewriter, as he also produced a text that is a score, instructing us to dance. Not so much a structure, it seems to me, but an exhortation and a trace of its making. And, of course, a text that can be read in the sonnet tradition, asking us to consider how dance, repeated, insistent, filling the width of the page completely, relates to love.

A Bit about Alphabit

During Synchrony 2019, on the train from New York City to Montreal, two of us (nom de nom and shifty) wrote a 64 byte Commodore 64 program which ended up in the Old School competition. (It could have also gone into the Nano competition for <=256 byte productions.) Our Alphabit edged out the one other fine entry in Old School, a Sega Genesis production by MopeDude also written on the train.

The small program we wrote is not a conventional or spectacular demo; like almost all of the work by nom de nom, it uses character graphics exclusively. But since we like sizecoding on the Commodore 64, we wanted to explain this small program byte by byte. We hope this explanation will be understandable to interested people who know how to program, even if they may not have much assembly or C64 experience.

To get Alphabit itself, download the program from nickm.com and run it in a C64 emulator or on some hardware Commodore 64. You can see a short video of Alphabit running on Commodore 64 and CRT monitor, for the first few seconds, for purposes of illustration.

              starting here,
              these bytes load
at:     02 08 01 00 00 9E 32 30
$0808   36 31 00 00 00 20 81 FF
$0810   C8 8C 12 D4 8C 14 D4 C8
$0818   8C 20 D0 AD 12 D0 9D F4
$0820   D3 8C 18 D4 D0 F5 8A 8E
$0828   0F D4 AE 1B D4 E0 F0 B0
$0830   F6 9D 90 05 9D 90 D9 AA
$0838   88 D0 E0 E8 E0 1B D0 DB

Load address. Commodore 64 programs (PRG files) have a very simple format: a two-byte load address, least significant byte first, followed by the machine code which will be loaded at that address. So this part of the file says to load at $0802. The BASIC program area begins at $0801, but as explained next, it’s possible to cheat and load the program one byte higher in memory, saving one byte in the PRG file.

BASIC bootloader, $0802–$080c: This program starts with a tiny BASIC program that will run when the user types RUN and presses ENTER. When run, this program, a bootloader, will execute the main machine code. In this case the program is “0 SYS2061” with the line number represented as 00 00, the BASIC keyword SYS represented by a single byte, 9E, and its argument “2061” represented by ASCII-encoded digits: 32 30 36 31. When run, this starts the machine code program at decimal address 2061, which is $080D, the beginning of the next block of bytes.

Advanced note: Normally a BASIC program would need at least one more byte, because two bytes at $0801 and $0802 are needed to declare the “next line number.” You would have to specify where to go after the first line has finished executing. But for our bootloader, any non-null next line number will work as the next line number. Our program is going to run the machine code at $080d (decimal 2061) and then break. So we only need to fulfill one formal requirement: Some nonzero value has to be written to either $0801 or $0802. For our purposes, whatever is already in $0801 can stay there. That’s what allows this program to load at $0802, saving us one byte.

On the 6502: There are three “variables” provided by this processor, the accumulator (a general-purpose register, which can be used with arithmetic operations) and the x and y registers (essentially counters, which can be incremented and decremented).

Initialization, $080d–$081a: This sets up two aspects of the demo, sound and graphics. Actually, after voice 3 is initialized, it is used not only to make sound, but also to generate random numbers for putting characters on screen. This is a special facility of the C64’s sound chip; when voice 3 is set to generate noise, one can also retrieve random numbers from the chip.

The initialization proceeds by clearing the screen using the Kernal’s SCINIT routine. When SCINIT finishes, the y register has $84 in it. It turns out that for our purposes the noise waveform register and the sustain-decay register can both be set to $85, so instead of using two bytes to load a new value into y (ldy #$85), the program can simply increment y (iny), which takes only one byte. After storing $85 in those two registers, the goal is to set the border color to the same as the default screen color, dark blue, $06. Actually any value with 6 for a second hex digit will work, so again the program can increment y to make it $86 and then use this to set the border color. Finally, the y register is going to count down the number of times each letter (A, B, C … until Z) will be written onto the screen. Initially, the program puts ‘A’ on screen $86 times (134 decimal); for every subsequent letter, it puts the letter on screen 256 times — but that comes later. The original assembly for this initialization:
    iny         ; $85 works for the next two...
    sty $d412   ; voice 3 noise waveform
    sty $d414   ; voice 3 SR
    iny         ; $86 works; low nybble needs to be $6
    sty $d020   ; set the border color to dark blue
Each letter loop, first part, $081b–$0826: This loop counts through each of the 26 letters. The top part of the loop has a loop within it in which some of the sound is produced; then there is just a single instruction after that.

Fortunately, the x register already is set up with $01, the screen code of the letter ‘A’, thanks to SCINIT. In this loop, the value of the current raster line (the lowest 8 bits of a 9-bit value, to be precise) is loaded into the accumulator. The next instruction stores that value in a memory location indexed by x; as x increases during the run of the program, this memory location will eventually be mapped to the sound chip registers for voices 1 and 2, starting at $d400, and this will make some sounds. This is what gives some higher-level structure to the sound in the piece, which would otherwise be completely repetitive. After this instruction, however many characters are left to put onto the screen (counting down from 255 to 0) goes into the volume register, which causes the volume to quickly drop and then spike to create a rhythmic effect. With the noise turned on it makes a percussive sound. All of this takes place again and again until that raster line value is 0, which happens twice per frame, 120 times a second.

After all of this, the value in x (which letter, A–Z, is the current one) is transferred into the accumulator, necessary because of how the rest of the outer loop is written. The original assembly for the beginning of the outer loop:
raster:
    lda $d012   ; get raster line (lowest 8 bits)
    sta $d3f4,x ; raster line --> some sound register
    sty $d418   ; # of chars left to write --> volume
    bne raster
    txa
Get random, $0827–$0830: This code does a bit more sound work, using the x register to set the frequency. Since this is the current letter value, it increases throughout the run of the program, and the pitch generally rises. Then, a random value (well, not truly random, but “noisy” and produced by the sound chip’s noise generator) is loaded in that x register, with the program continuing to get the value until it is in the range $00–$ef (decimal 0–239). If the value has to be obtained multiple times, frequency gets set multiple times, too, adding some glitchiness to the sound. Because the random value is bounded, the program will place the characters in a 40 character × 6 line (240 character) region.
random:
    stx $d40f       ; current letter --> freq
    ldx $d41b       ; get random byte from voice 3
    cpx #240
    bcs random
Each letter loop, last part, $0831–$083a: In the bottom part of this loop, the characters are put onto the screen by writing to screen memory and color memory. Screen memory starts at $0400, and $0590 is the starting point of our 6-line rectangle in the middle of the screen. The corresponding point in color memory is $d990. Our current character (A–Z) is in the accumulator at this point, while the x register, used to offset from $0590 and $d990, has a random value. After putting the accumulator’s value (as a letter) into screen memory and (as a color) into color memory, the accumulator is transferred back into the x register, a counter. Then the y register (counting down to 0) is decremented. The program keeps doing this whole process, the “each letter loop,” until y reaches 0.
    sta $0590,x  ; jam the current letter on screen
    sta $d990,x  ; make some colors with the value
    tax
    dey
    bne raster
Outer loop, $083b–$083f: This is the code for counting from 1 to 26, A to Z. Since the x register stores the current letter, it is incremented here. It is compared with decimal 27; if the register has that value, the program is done and it will fall through to whatever is next in memory … probably $00, which will break the program, although anything might be in memory there. It would have been nice to have an explicit brk as part of this PRG, but hey, this is a 64-byte demo with a BASIC bootloader, written one day on a train. If the program has more letters to go through, it branches all the way back up to the beginning of the “each letter loop.”
    inx
    cpx #27     ; have we gotten past ‘Z’?
    bne raster

Taper #2 Is Out

The second issue of Taper, a literary magazine featuring small-scale computational work, is now online.

The second issue was edited by Sebastian Bartlett, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Angela Chang, Judy Heflin, and Rachel Paige Thompson, working collectively. Bad Quarto (my micropress) publishes the journal.

The call for issue #3 is posted. The deadline is February 18 (2019).

Taper #2 features 18 works by six a., Sebastian Bartlett, Kyle Booten, Angela Chang, Augusto Corvalan, Kavi Duvvoori, Esen Espinsa, Leonardo Flores, Judy Heflin, Chris Joseph, Vinicius Marquet, Stuart Moulthrop, Everest Pipkin, Mark Sample, and William Wu. Go take a look!

Hard West Turn at Time Farm

For two weeks only (today through October 23), my limited-edition computer-generated book, Hard West Turn, is available for reading in an installation at Time Farm, underneath the MIT Press Bookstore, 301 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA.

Time Farm entrance

Hard West Turn awaiting a reader

Hard West Turn open to the title page

Hard West Turn is a computer-generated novel about gun violence in the United States. The copy exhibited is one of three artist’s proofs; only 13 copies (one for each of the original states) were made for sale. The generating program is free software, but the specific copy-edited text of this book has only been made available in print. Hard West Turn will be regenerated annually for limited-edition publication each July 4.

Consult the staff of the MIT Press Bookstore for access to Time Farm. Visitors are asked to remain for an hour without using devices such as phones or computers.

A Web Reply to the Post-Web Generation

At the recent ELO conference in Montréal Leonardo Flores introduced the concept of “3rd Generation” electronic literature. I was at another session during his influential talk, but I heard about the concept from him beforehand and have read about it on Twitter (a 3rd generation context, I believe) and Flores’s blog (more of a 2nd generation context, I believe). One of the aspects of this concept is that the third generation of e-lit writers makes use of existing platforms (Twitter APIs, for instance) rather than developing their own interfaces. Blogging is a bit different from hand-rolled HTML, but one administers one’s own blog.

When Flores & I spoke, I realized that I have what seems like a very similar idea of how to divide electronic literature work today. Not exactly the same, I’m sure, but pretty easily defined and I think with a strong correspondence to this three-generation concept. I describe it like this:

  • Pre-Web
  • Web
  • Post-Web

To understand the way I’m splitting things up, you first have to agree that we live in a post-Web world of networked information today. Let me try to persuade you of that, to begin with.

The Web is now at most an option for digital communication of documents, literature, and art. It’s an option that fewer and fewer people are taking. Floppy disks and CD-ROMs also remain options, although they are even less frequently used. The norm today has more to do with app-based connectivity and less with the open Web. When you tweet, and when you read things on Twitter, you don’t need to use the Web; you can use your phone’s Twitter client. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat would be just fine if the Web was taken out behind the shed and never seen again. These are all typically used via apps, with the Web being at most an option for access.

The more companies divert use of their social networks from the Web to their own proprietary apps, the more they are able to shape how their users interact — and their users are their products, that which they offer to advertisers. So, why not keep moving these users, these products, into the better-controlled conduits of app-based communication?

Yes, I happen to be writing a blog entry right now — one which I don’t expect anyone to comment on, like they used to in the good old days. There is much more discussion of things I blog about on Twitter than in the comment section of my blog; this is evidence that we are in the post-Web era. People can still do Web (and even pre-Web) electronic literature and art projects. As Jodi put it in an interview this year, “You can still make websites these days.” This doesn’t change that we reached peak Web years ago. We live now in a post-Web era where some are still doing Web work, just as some are still doing pre-Web sorts of work.

In my view, the pre-Web works are ones in HyperCard and the original Mac and Windows Storyspace, of course. (It may limit your audience, but you can still make work in these formats, if you like!) Some early pieces of mine, such as The Help File (written in the standard Windows help system) and my parser-based interactive fiction, written in Inform 6, are also pre-Web. You can distribute parser-based IF on the Web, and you can play it in the browser, but it was being distributed on an FTP site, the IF Archive, before the Web became the prevalent means of distribution. (The IF Archive now has a fancy new Web interface.) Before the IF Archive, interactive fiction was sold on floppy disk. I consider that the significant number of people making parser-based interactive fiction today are still doing pre-Web electronic literature work that happens to be available on the Web or sometimes in app form.

Also worth noting is that Rob Wittig’s Blue Company and Scott Rettberg’s Kind of Blue are best considered pre-Web works by my reckoning, as email, the form used for them, was in wide use before the Web came along. (HTML is used in these email projects for formatting and to incorporate illustrations, so the Web does have some involvement, but the projects are still mainly email projects.) The Unknown, on the other hand, is definitely an electronic literature work of the Web.

Twitterbots, as long as they last, are great examples of post-Web electronic literature, of course.

With this for preface, I have to say that I don’t completely agree with Flores’s characterization of the books in the Using Electricity series. It could be because my pre-Web/Web/post-Web concept doesn’t map onto his 1st/2nd/3rd generation idea exactly. It could also be that it doesn’t exactly make sense to name printed books, or for that matter installations in gallery spaces, as pre-Web/Web/post-Web. This type of division makes the most sense for work one accesses on one’s own computer, whether it got there via a network, a floppy disk, a CD-ROM, or some other way. But if we wanted to see where the affinities lie, I would have to indicate mostly pre-Web and Web connections; I think there is only one post-Web Using Electricity book that has been released or is coming out soon:

  1. The Truelist (Nick Montfort) is more of a pre-Web project, kin to early combinatorial poetry but taken to a book-length, exhaustive extreme.

  2. Mexica (Rafael Pérez y Pérez) is more of a pre-Web project based on a “Good Old-Fashioned AI” (GOFAI) system.

  3. Articulations (Allison Parrish) is based on a large store of textual data, Project Gutenberg, shaped into verse with two different sorts of vector-space analyses, phonetic and syntactical. While Project Gutenberg predates the Web by almost two decades, it became the large-scale resource that it is today in the Web era. So, this would be a pre-Web or Web project.

  4. Encomials (Ranjit Bhatnagar), coming in September, relies on Twitter data, and indeed the firehose of it, so is a post-Web/3rd generation project.

  5. Machine Unlearning (Li Zilles), coming in September, is directly based on machine learning on data from the open Web. This is a Web-generation project which wouldn’t have come to fruition in the walled gardens of the post-Web.

  6. A Noise Such as a Man Might Make (Milton Läufer), coming in September, uses a classic algorithm from early in the 20th Century — one you could read about in Scientific American in the 1980s, and see working on USENET — to conflate two novels. It seems like a pretty clear pre-Web project to me.

  7. Ringing the Changes (Stephanie Strickland), coming in 2019, uses the combinatorics of change ringing and a reasonably small body of documents, although larger than Läufer’s two books. So, again, it would be pre-Web.

Having described the “generational” tendencies of these computer-generated books, I’ll close by mentioning one of the implications of the three-part generational model, as I see it, for what we used to call “hypertext.” The pre-Web allowed for hypertexts that resided on one computer, while the Web made it much more easily possible to update a piece of hypertext writing, collaborate with others remotely, release it over time, and link out to external sites.

Now, what has happened to Hypertext in the post-Web world? Just to stick to Twitter, for a moment: You can still put links into tweets, but corporate enclosure of communications means that the wild wild wild linking of the Web tends to be more constrained. Links in tweets look like often-cryptic partial URLs instead of looking like text, as they do in pre-Web and Web hypertexts. You essentially get to make a Web citation or reference, not build a hypertext, by tweeting. And hypertext links have gotten more abstruse in this third, post-Web generation! When you’re on Twitter, you’re supposed to be consuming that linear feed — automatically produced for you in the same way that birds feed their young — not clicking away of your own volition to see what the Web has to offer and exploring a network of media.

The creative bots of Twitter (while they last) do subvert the standard orientation of the platform in interesting ways. But even good old fashioned hypertext is reigned in by post-Web systems. If there’s no bright post-post-Web available, I’m willing to keep making a blog post now and then, and am glad to keep making Web projects — some of which people can use as sort of free/libre/open-source 3rd-generation platforms, if they like.

VIdeo of My PRB Reading

Thanks to host Joseph Mosconi, I read at the Poetics Research Bureau in Los Angeles from two recent computer-generated books. Sophia Le Fraga and Aaron Winslow read with me on this evening, on July 21.

I have now posted 360 video of my readings of both The Truelist and Hard West Turn.

Montfort’s Poetic Research Bureau reading of July 21, 2018

I read from The Truelist (Counterpath, 2017). The Truelist is available as an offset-printed book from Counterpath, as a short, deterministic, free software program that generates the full text of the book, and as a free audiobook, thanks to the generosity of the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, its Wexler Studio, and PennSound.

After this, I read from Hard West Turn (Bad Quarto, 2018), a computer-generated novel about gun violence in the United States, the first of a series. Each novel, copy-edited by the author/programmer, will be re-generated annually for release on July 4. Hard West Turn (2018) is available in print in a very limited edition, only 13 copies for sale + 3 artist’s proofs. The short free software program that generated the text is available as well. The first draft of this project was done as a NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month) program in November 2017.

Platform Studies at 10

The Platform Studies series from MIT Press is now about ten years old. The first book in the series, my & Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, was published in 2009. (We also edit this series.) Before our book on the Atari VCS/Atari 2600 came out, we launched the site and announced the series, back at the end of 2006, and Ian and I were presenting about it at conferences the next year. So, although the exact birthday is uncertain, let’s say a (probably belated) happy 10th.

Pong's circuit board on the left, BASIC code from Hunt the Wumpus on the right
Pong compared to Hunt the Wumpus: The platforms, not just game structures and interfaces, fundamentally differ.

Nine books have been published in the series:

It’s worth noting again that platform studies isn’t a subset of game studies. You can see this from the above list, which includes books about two home computers (the Amiga and BBC Micro), a software platform used for different purposes (Flash), a national telecommunications system (Mintiel), and a peripheral used to connect computing to motion picture film (the Stromberg-Carlson 4020). On the other hand, its intersection with game studies is quite significant; four books are about gaming platforms while games play an important role in most of the other five studies.

As Ian & I have written, we have put forth platform studies, as a concept and (in capital letters) as a book series, simply as a way to focus an investigation of computational media.

It isn’t a methodology or even a method. It doesn’t require or preclude any particular sort of scholarship or analysis. We do think that since computational platforms are the focus in platform studies, some serious engagement with their computational aspects is needed, but this engagement can come from many different directions, from people with training in many disciplines and interdisciplines.

The point of the series and concept is to invite a focus on platform, just as we already have studies that focus on particular national contexts, particular historical periods, particular game/creative genres, particular games and creative works, and work done by particular organizations, collectives, and individuals. We describe this in, for instance:

That said, we have put forth a five-layered model to explain what a computational platform is and how it interacts with other layers of digital media. (This was introduced in Montfort, Nick, “Combat in Context,” Game Studies vol. 6, no. 1, December 2006.) We do believe computational platforms can be defined and that they have significance. So platform studies is meant to be an inviting space, but it is not one that is completely unfurnished.

Several people have done critical writing about the platform studies concept in the academic literature:

Others have taken a platform focus in their studies outside of the series, often in articles. These are a few that have come to my attention:

Ian & I continue to welcome inquiries from potential Platform Studies authors. We are available, as we have been, to help prospective authors develop book proposals for the MIT Press.

While we welcome books on all sorts of platforms, we want to particularly encourage writers to think about some of the platforms of major historical importance that are not yet covered in the series:

  • The Apple II series, successful home computers for which many games and business applications first were developed; also the basis for the success of Apple Computer.

  • The Commodore 64, the best-selling single model of computer ever made; highly influential in early online systems, gaming, the demoscene, and music.

  • The IBM PC, whose open architecture led “PC compatible” machines to dominate in home and business computing by the end of the 1980s.

  • The Macintosh series, influential in bringing the GUI into popular use; used in education and desktop publishing; the basis for the continued success of Apple Computer/Apple Inc.

  • Microsoft Windows, the operating system/desktop platform that has dominated in business but also many creative contexts and propelled the success of Microsoft.

  • HyperCard, the first widely-used hypermedia system before to the Web, included for free with Macs when it was released in 1987.

Again, books focused on any platform — or on a series of computers or a closely-related family of platforms — are welcome in Platform Studies. If a case can be made for studying a platform, it doesn’t need to be a popular favorite throughout the world. And, even if a platform is very prominent, a proposal still needs to explain why a study of it will be valuable. I just don’t want authors to shy away from these six!

Updated July 26 to add an entry for Samuel Tobin’s book on the Nintendo DS.

Exquisite Corpses are Now on Display

"Some red pendulums will quickly consume the grim president ..."

In 1984, a type-in program appeared in the French Hebdogiciel—no surprise there, since this weekly publication was all about type-in BASIC programs! This one, however, was not entirely unlike the games and mathematical recreations that typically appeared; it did, however, have an explicit link to a French 20th Century avant-garde movement, Surrealism. The program, by Philippe Henri, was for the TRS-80 and called “Cadavres Exquis.”

Ariane Savoire and I have translated this program to English (as “Exquisite Corpses”) are very pleased that the Vassar Review has just published the edition we have prepared, which includes:

  • A working version of both French and English programs running in an in-browser TRS-80 emulator,
  • The BASIC code for both French and English programs, and
  • A high-quality scan of the program as it originally appeared in Hebdogiciel.

I spoke about our work on this program in my talk “Preserving Corpses with Emulation” at the Stanford Software Preservation Workshop, February 22, 2018.

Please visit the site and run this classic program for yourself. When you do, note that you must click on the black emulator area to give it focus and press a key each time you want a new sentence. That’s how the original program ran; we have not modified the way it functions. In some ways the program does seem a bit obsolete. It refers to Czechoslovakia, for instance. You can see from the included snapshots that almost 25 years later, however, “Exquisite Corpses” maintains some relevance!

Cadavre Exquis

“Bullet” and Poem without Suffering

A bullet
Discussed in this review: “Bullet,” David Byrne, American Utopia, Nonesuch, 2018; Poem without Suffering, Josef Kaplan, Wonder Books, 2015

David Byrne’s earworm takes a distant yet close perspective, describing a bullet’s fatal encounter with a human body. Did he know about Kaplan’s similar short, rapid, book-length poem? Byrne’s song sets its sights on an adult man, Kaplan’s poem on a child. The life of the child is hinted by describing what a warm maternal relationship is like, and by mentioning injuries from falling off a bunk bed and being hit by a baseball. We hear about the man’s life because of what the bullet cuts through: “Skin that women had touched,” “Many fine meals he tasted there,” “his heart with thoughts of you.” The general description is very effective. There are striking metaphors — positive associations — for the bullet itself, also. In Poem, it is a triumphant runner (such as Usain Bolt, who bears the name of a crossbow’s projectile) dragging gore from the body as if it were a trophy or banner. In “Bullet,” it is “Like an old grey dog / On a fox’s trail.” Perhaps America’s reliable old dog cannot be taught new tricks.

American Utopia · Poem without Suffering

Concise Computational Literature is Now Online in Taper

I’m pleased to announce the release of the first issue of Taper, along with the call for works for issue #2.

Taper is a DIY literary magazine that hosts very short computational literary works — in the first issue, sonic, visual, animated, and generated poetry that is no more than 1KB, excluding comments and the standard header that all pages share. In the second issue, this constraint will be relaxed to 2KB.

The first issue has nine poems by six authors, which were selected by an editorial collective of four. Here is how this work looked when showcased today at our exhibit in the Trope Tank:

Weights and Measures and for the pool players at the Golden Shovel, Lillian Yvonne-Bertram
“Weights and Measures” and “for the pool players at the Golden Shovel,” Lillian Yvonne-Bertram
193 and ArcMaze, Sebastian Bartlett
“193” and “ArcMaze,” Sebastian Bartlett
Alpha Riddims, Pierre Tchetgen and Rise, Angela Chang
“Alpha Riddims,” Pierre Tchetgen and “Rise,” Angela Chang
US and Field, Nick Montfort
“US” and “Field,” Nick Montfort
God, Milton Läufer
“God,” Milton Läufer

This issue is tiny in size and contains only a small number of projects, but we think they are of very high quality and interestingly diverse. This first issue of Taper also lays the groundwork for fairly easy production of future issues.

The next issue will have two new editorial collective members, but not me, as I focus on my role as publisher of this magazine though my very small press, Bad Quarto.

Using Electricity readings, with video of one

I’m writing now from the middle of a four-city book tour which I’m on with Rafael Pérez y Pérez and Allison Parrish – we are the first three author/programmers to develop books (The Truelist, Mexica, and Articulations) in this Counterpath series, Using Electricity.

I’m taking the time now to post a link to video of a short reading that Allison and I did at the MLA Convention, from exactly a month ago. If you can’t join us at an upcoming reading (MIT Press Bookstore, 2018-02-06 6pm or Babycastles in NYC, 2018-02-07 7pm) and have 10 minutes, the video provides an introduction to two of the three projects.

Rafael wasn’t able to join us then; we are very glad he’s here from Mexico City with us this week, and has read with us in Philadelphia and Providence so far!

Author Function

The exhibit Author Function, featuring computer-generated literary art in print, is now up in MIT’s Rotch Library (77 Mass Ave, Building 7, 2nd Floor) and in my lab/studio, The Trope Tank (Room 14N-233, in building 14, the same building that houses the Hayden Library). Please contact me by email if you are interested in seeing the materials in the Trope Tank, as this part of the exhibit is accessible by appointment only.

There are three events associated with the exhibit happening in Cambridge, Mass:

February 7, 6pm-7pm, a reading and signing at the MIT Press bookstore. Nick Montfort, Rafael Pérez y Pérez, and Allison Parrish.

March 5, 4:30pm-6pm, a reception at the main part of the exhibit in the Rotch Library.

March 5, 7pm-8pm, a reading and signing at the Harvard Book Store. John Cayley, Liza Daly, Nick Montfort, and Allison Parrish.

In addition to a shelf of computer-generated books that is available for perusal, by appointment, in the Trope Tank, the following items of printed matter are displayed in the exhibit:

  • 2×6, Nick Montfort, Serge Bouchardon, Andrew Campana, Natalia Fedorova, Carlos León, Aleksandra Małecka, and Piotr Marecki
  • A Slow Year: Game Poems, Ian Bogost
  • Action Score Generator, Nathan Walker
  • American Psycho, Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff
  • Anarchy, John Cage
  • Articulations, Allison Parrish
  • Autopia, Nick Montfort
  • Brute Force Manifesto: The Catalog of All Truth, Version 1.1, Series AAA-1, Vol 01, Brian James
  • Clear Skies All Week, Alison Knowles
  • Firmy, Piotr Puldzian Płucienniczak
  • for the sleepers in that quiet earth., Sofian Audry
  • From the Library of Babel: Axaxaxas Mlo – The Combed Thunderclap LXUM,LKWC – MCV – The Plaster Cramp, Christian Bök
  • Generation[s], J.R. Carpenter
  • Google Volume 1, King Zog
  • How It Is In Common Tongues, Daniel C. Howe and John Cayley
  • Incandescent Beautifuls, Erica T. Carter [Jim Carpenter]
  • Irritant, Darby Larson
  • Love Letters, Letterpress Broadside, Output by a reimplementation of a program by Christopher Strachey
  • Mexica: 20 Years – 20 Stories / 20 años – 20 historias, Rafael Pérez y Pérez
  • My Buttons Are Blue: And Other Love Poems From the Digital Heart of an Electronic Computer, A Color Computer
  • My Molly [Departed], Talan Memmott
  • no people, Katie Rose Pipkin
  • Phaedrus Pron, Paul Chan
  • Puniverse, Volumes 32 and 38 of 57, Stephen Reid McLaughlin
  • Re-Writing Freud, Simon Morris
  • Seraphs, Liza Daly
  • The Appearances of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in Increasing Amounts of Smog and at a Distance, Poster, David Gissen
  • The Poiceman’s Beard is Half Constructed: Computer prose and poetry by Racter
  • The Truelist, Nick Montfort
  • Tristano, Nanni Balestrini
  • Written Images, Eds. Matrin Fuchs and Peter Bichsel

Here are some photos documenting the exhibit:

Author Function Rotch main display case

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Sentaniz Nimerik, E-Lit in Haitian Creole

A week ago, on October 2, we put Sentaniz Nimerik online. This is an electronic literature work, an example of digital storytelling and digital poetry, that is by Sixto & BIC and was facilitated by Michel DeGraff & Nick Montfort. It is in Haitian Creole — Kreyòl, as the language is called in the language itself. This language has a community of about 12 million speakers worldwide and is the language shared by everyone in Haiti. It is not the same as Haitian French or mutually intelligible with Haitian French (or any other kind of French).

You can read more about Maurice Sixto, a famous Haitian storyteller who died in 1984, on Wikipedia, in English — of course there is an entry in Haitian Creole as well. His story “Sentaniz,” well-known in Haiti, is the storytelling basis for our digital work.

BIC is a singer, songwriter, and poet who is also known as B.I.C. (Brain. Intelligence. Creativity.) He came to MIT to work on this project with us and to do a concert, which was very well-attended. His songs and poems are mostly in Haitian Creole; some in French; not in English — although BIC is fluent in English and has worked as an English teacher.

Professor Michel DeGraff is a linguist and is my colleague at MIT. Among other things, he heads the MIT-Haiti Initiative and works to advance STEM education in the Boston area in schools where education is in Haitian Creole.

We (BIC, Michel DeGraff, and I) sat down together and looked at and discussed several simple JavaScript poems, some historical, some of mine, some done by others recently. We settled on “Through the Park” (a work of mine from 2008) as a starting point for our collaboration. We changed several things about the workings of the page, and the text used in this piece is also a new text related to “Sentaniz,” not any sort of translation of anything I have written.

To make concrete a few of the formal and conceptual differences: The final result has two generated versions presented one after the other. The underlying “story” is not only an story that originated in Haitian Creole, but has been elaborated into its digital version with frame statements and questions that do not correspond to anything in “Through the Park.” The visual design is simple, but also a bit different from the simple earlier version.

To be more specific about our roles in the project, for the most part I dealt with the JavaScript code, Michel typed in what was to be written in Haitian Creole (using my different keyboard layout), and BIC said what lines we should use. But Michel and BIC consulted about particular phrasings, as you might expect, and all of us talked a bit about the types of sentences that could be used, the linguistic constraint (no reference between sentences), and the design and functioning of the page.

We spent a while in discussion beforehand, and did some work to polish the project after the three of us met, but BIC was only at MIT for one full day. It took us about an hour to actually do the core creative and development work on Sentaniz Nimerik. The project was thanks to many people and offices at MIT, with the main support for BIC’s trip coming from CAMIT, the Council for the Arts at MIT.

I recorded a video of Michel DeGraff explaining the piece (in Haitian Creole) and have posted that on YouTube with a CC license. He explains how to “view souce” and that the piece can be studied and modified. The piece itself, although very short, is released under an explicit all-permissive license to make it clear that it is available to everyone for any purpose. I hope people in Haiti and speakers of Haitian Creole elsewhere will enjoy it and develop many new ideas, stories, and poems.

The Gathering Cloud

The Gathering Cloud, J. R. Carpenter, 2017
The Gathering Cloud, J. R. Carpenter, 2017. (I was given a review copy of this book.)

J.R. Carpenter’s book is an accomplishment, not just in terms of the core project, but also by virtue of how the codex is put together. The introduction is by Jussi Parikka, the after-poem by Lisa Robertson. While social media and ethereal imaginations of the network keep us from being lonely as a cloud these days, they obscure the material nature of computing, the cost of linking us in terms of wire and heat. Carpenter’s computer-generated Generation[s] was concerned with the computational production of text; The Gathering Cloud also engages with the generation of power. This book and the corresponding digital performance, for instance at the recent ELO Festival in Porto, yields up the rich results of research, cast in accomplished verse. As with Carpenter’s other work that is rooted in zines and the handmade Web, it is personal rather than didactic. Deftly, despite the gravity of the topic, the book still affects the reader with a gesture, not a deluge of facts — more by waving than drowning.

C-Creativity, my talk at the KDD workshop on ML and Creativity

Update: I have posted 360 video of my talk with subtitles. If you rotate it, you don’t have to look at the large brown pillar that is in “front” the whole time. Previously: Here are my slides from “C-Creativity: Cultural Creativity or, Why is there no middle C?,” the talk I just gave in Halifax. There are no text notes, and they don’t represent what I said very closely, but if they remind people who were there of my comments, that’s great. And if they provoke any questions, feel free to get in touch on the blog or by email.

My @party Talk on Computer-Generated Books

I just gave a talk at the local demoparty, @party. While I haven’t written out notes and it wasn’t recorded, here are the slides. The talk was “Book Productions: The Latest in Computer-Generated Literary Art,” and included some discussion of how computer-generated literary books related to demoscene productions.