How to “Train” as a Writer

Wednesday 12 March 2014, 11:10 pm   ///  

After a pilot program (or perhaps that should be “engineer program”?) in which one writer was gifted with a round-trip train ride, Amtrak recently announced that they will begin a larger-scale residency program which “will allow for up to 24 writers to take long-distance trains to work on their projects.”

The Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, was all over this, but they soon posted about how problematic the official terms of the application are. This was originally pointed out at The Outlet.

For instance:

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

There is also a note that applications will not (actually, “NOT”) be kept confidential. This seems like pretty standard fare for a corporate contest, actually, which doesn’t mean that it’s right, that all writers should agree to it, or that any should agree to it without understanding the terms.

Since applications aren’t going to be kept confidential anyway, here’s mine, or at least my at-most-1000-character answers to the two main questions. They mention some other issues that I have with the “Official Terms,” although these do not keep me from being interested in the residency:

Why do you want an #AmtrakResidency?

My work is computational, has many layers of meaning, and is often collaborative, and so much of it is prohibited by the #AmtrakResidency Official Terms, which disallow submissions that “Contain executable programming of any kind,” “Contain … encoded messages,” and “Contain content not created by and original to Applicant.” If awarded a residency, I’ll continue to defy official concepts of writing. Since this opportunity exists to promote Amtrak on social media, I’m also interested in showing how social media isn’t limited to this moment’s corporate systems. I can do this well, as I have been a blogger for more than 10 years, have served as president of the Electronic Literature Organization, and am a professor of digital media at MIT. Finally, the sequential, systematic qualities of trains relate to aspects of my writing process. Although I am not personally inclined to record their arrival and departure times, trains do appeal to me in ways that aren’t just nostalgic or romantic.

How would this residency benefit your writing?

I would have the opportunity to focus on writing work and to do one or more trip-specific digital poetry projects which would be made available for free on the Web. Network access is not important to me for work of this sort, and there is even some advantage to not being online. I’ve already written a great deal on Northeast Corridor trains, did some of the editorial work for The New Media Reader on a train to Chicago, and generally find train travel conducive to many types of writing, including creative digital work. I’ve done one collaboration in which we used Amtrak trains as a meeting place and point of departure: Three Rails Live, a computational video installation documented (in English and in French translation) at I mention this here rather than submit it as a writing sample because it is one of my many collaborative projects. More digital poems of mine are at the “Supporting Link.”

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