> classes > experimental writing, spring 2013

21W.750, Spring 2013

Experimental Writing

Nick Montfort

The syllabus for this class is also online.

Student Work

Story of Hope by Abby Rice

The chapbook Story of Hope

Story of Hope is written using erasure to pull a story of hope from a story of disaster. I chose to write about Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in August, 2005. I cut out the words from the original text and overlay that on the second story. I showed the erasure by graying out the other parts of the text. The pictures are of the front cover of the book and the first page so that you can see how the cutting was done and the overall effect.

Story of Hope (full text) - Headlines - Author's Page

Waveform Poetry by Alex McCarthy



Choose a Sound: I chose sounds that were short, easy to recognize, and could be played in repetition.

Compress the Sound: An audio file is a waveform consisting of a series of voltage values. I used MatLab to compress the waveform into as few values as possible, while still preserving a recognizable sound.

Convert to Line Length Constraints: I scaled the magnitude of the waveform so that each voltage value could be a line length constraint for a poem.

Write Text to fit the Line Length Constraints: I choose a subject for each poem that befitted the sound that was to be encoded in the line lengths. For the rain drop poem, in which I encoded the sound og a drop hitting water, I wrote about waiting for the first rain drop at the end of a drought, with number of characters in each line corresponding to the waveform amplitude. For the Sputnik poem, I encoded the sound of Sputnik’s famous beeping transmission to earth, and wrote about the space-race that this sound sparked. For “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I encoded the sound of a beating heart. In this poem, I counted syllables in each line, rather than the number of characters, and instead of writing original text; I used the text of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous horror story, “The Tell Tale Heart”. I omitted and added text where needed to maintain the constraint, and the original plot of the story.

“Raindrop” - “The Tale Tell Heart” - “Sputnik” - Author's Page

Bugged by Cicada Swarm? Don't be the prophet in the wilderness by Deborah Chen

In my project, I wanted to explore the constraint and form of headlines, as well as the role they play incommunicating news. I also wanted to examine headline syntax and create larger narratives that arose out of combining them.

To this end, I used headlines from a variety of sources, including /r/nottheonion, the Onion, Boston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, The Tech (MIT’s student newspaper, of which I am a member) and a few small town newspapers. Some of the headlines are accompanied by excerpts from their articles, while some are not. Many of the headlines and stories may seem unbelievable (and some are “fake!”) or otherwise absurd, but the ultimate veracity is not revealed to the reader.

All the content is displayed on 11×17 tabloid paper. I chose this because the size was most reminiscent of an actual newspaper. The envelope on the second to last page contains additional headlines and captions that I created while working on this project.

My project is titled: Bugged by Cicada Swarm? Don’t be the prophet in the wilderness. The title combines two headlines I encountered during the making of my project: “Bugged by Cicada Swarm? Don’t be” and “The Prophet in the Wilderness.” There are multiple interpretations, but I was amused by the suggestion that the news media can be likened to a cicada swarm, and that to be the prophet in the wilderness is to completely detach yourself from the never ending news cycle.

Bugged by Cicada Swarm? Don’t be the prophet in the wilderness. (full text) - Author's Page

Addled Powers, Ale Powders by Jake Barnwell

In my writing class, 21W.750 (Experimental Writing), each student was assigned to create a final project. We got to decide almost everything about the project: how long it would be, what the topic would be, what sort of constraints we would use, how to present it, and so on. We were given several weeks to find, discover, or invent said constraints with which to create our projects.

I first experimented with half-false translations (Spanish to English) that showcased and parodied the common problems that Spanish-learning students have (such as false cognates, malapropisms, and incorrect tense switching). From there I moved to "complete" false translations, making a syllabic/phonetic translation as opposed to the standard content translation. My third idea was an erasure poem in which one could successively take out prime-th words (i.e. remove every other word, then every third word, then ever fifth word, ...) with the remaining text between each step still making sense syntactically and grammatically. This somewhat-failed idea led me to what became the basis of my project: a slenderization piece.

My original process on this slenderization work was as follows: write a poem in which the second line of each couplet was the same as the first, except with all occurences of a certain letter deleted--and which still made sense gramatically/contextually.

For example:
Loaded, with sea moist afoot,
Laded, with sea mist aft.

In my final project, I ended up splitting the line-pairs up so that they weren't consecutive. In fact, the first line of the first chapter in the piece corresponds to the first line of the second chapter; and so on. In order to write this, I had to follow two plot-lines simultaneously and write words that were constrained to be at least somewhat meaningful in both situations.

In the digital version (PDF) of my final project, only minor formatting changes were made from the original, which was printed on real paper—you know, like the pre-historic "book."

Addled Powers, Ale Powders (full text) - Author's Page

Diary by Oscar Sandoval

The project began with a desire to catalog every aspect of my life. Like a Quantified Self I wanted to know where my time was going. Toward the end of the semester I experienced trouble with my computer that ended in my losing most of my files including what work I had done thus far in keeping track of my life. This presented me with an opportunity to redefine the scope of my project. I toyed briefly with the idea of an invented reality but while looking over my notes I noticed something of interest, namely, that my last set of notes ends with the day of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Truth became more interesting than fiction and I worked back from kept information to try and recreate my life over the course of that week beginning with the bombing and ending with a two day manhunt. What I found was that, interestingly enough, I was able to recreate a fairly consistent timeline using digitally tracked information such as purchasing transactions, receipts, email, calanders of events, leaving very few gaps to be filled from memory. This is a work of fiction; drawn from memory of a historical event in my life and in yours.

Diary (full text) - Author's Page

Through Change by Jasmine Chan

“Through Change” is written in response to the bombings and manhunt the week of April 15th in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, Massachusetts. Originally I wrote a poem excluding all prepositions and pronouns. I decided to try a poem that includes prepositions and pronouns. Lucky for me, I found that the exclusion did not add anything significant to the style nor the meaning of my poem. So, how is this poem “experimental”? When I was on Spring Break, I was thinking about what I enjoy doing and what helps me de-stress. I came up with the idea of making my final project a puzzle. With that medium in my mind, I chose to write multiple poems out of one set of words. The first poem, and the first poem I have displayed here, sets the twenty-five words that are repeated in the next two iterations. These two poems are rearrangements of the originally used words. The puzzle pieces I made only fit with one another if the order of words is odd-even or even-odd. This added yet another constraint- that the even words from the poem above must be coupled with odd words.

Author's Page