On Reading

Sunday 1 April 2012, 9:00 pm   ////  

I was asked to discuss reading (and reading education) from my perspective recently. Here’s the reply I gave…

The students I teach now, like other university students I have taught, have the ability to read. They are perfectly able to move their eyes over a page, or a screen, and recognize the typographical symbols as letters that make up words that make up sentences or lines.

The problems they face usually relate to a narrow concept of reading, which includes an unwillingness to read a wider variety of texts. These are not problems that are restricted to well-qualified, well-educated university students who are expert readers. As the networked computer provides tremendous access to writing and transforms our experience of language, all of are asked to rethink and enlarge our reading ability.

One problem with reading too narrowly is the view that reading is only instrumental. People who spend a significant portion of their lives speaking to their friends and family members about nothing – simply because they enjoy company and conversation – will sometimes refuse to believe that reading can a pleasure in and of itself. Reading is too often seen only as a tool, to allow one to follow instructions, determine the ingredients in packaged food, or to learn about some news event or underlying argument.

To try to enlarge a student’s idea of reading, I might present a text that, whether said aloud or imagined to one’s self, communicates almost nothing and is simply beautiful. To take a very conservative example:

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
  Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,—
      Emerald twilights,—
      Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
  Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
    Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
      The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;—

This is from an American poem, Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn, published in 1878. It shows that it is not necessary to turn to some almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem to see how sound can overflow meaning, providing a pleasure that has almost nothing to do with communication. Lanier had a very musical view of poetry, but this poem does not need to be sung or played by an expert musician. Anyone who can read English can bring it alive.

Another problem with a narrow concept of reading is not understanding the full range of what can be read. Students are comfortable reading pages and feeds, and reading emails and IMs, but it is not always as clear how they might read around in the library to explore as researchers, how they might read an unusual Web site or other complex digital object, or how they might read their daily urban environment. Those of us familiar with art and literature will habitually “view” something in the former category, perhaps not even noticing that it may be legible.

To address this issue, I do turn to an almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem, Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, the first panel. This Canadian concrete poem, typed in a red and black in an amazing configuration of characters, seems to many to be an artwork but was created by a poet and published as poetry. Unlike the most famous Brazilian concrete poems, this is an example of “dirty concrete” that many do not even see, initially, as legible. Students who are able to assume the attitude of readers find that it can be read, however, and that it has an amazing ability to disclose things about reading: Our assumptions in how to trace words and letters in space, our ability to fill in partly-missing and entirely missing letters, the question of how to sound fragments of words and patterns of punctuation marks.


The first page of Carnival, panel one, is from the Coach House online edition.

When people learn how to speak a language – whether as an infant or later in life – they sometimes simply babble or chat. Everyone would agree that a learner should be allowed to enjoy speaking and listening, to enjoy making and hearing the sounds of a language, in addition to caring about the purposeful uses of that language. I believe it’s the same for reading. Reading is more than just a process of decipherment that provides an information payload. It gives us special access to the pleasures of language and to its complexities. Any sighted person, with or without any English, can look at the first panel of Carnival. But only a reader can both view it and read it, comprehending it as a visual design and as language. If a reader is unwilling to hear The Marshes of Glynn, it could be understood simply as a botanical catalog with some lovers traipsing about here and there. To hear, instead, the play of sound and sense, is to encounter something new, to understand another aspect of words and how they work.

Palindrome “Sagas”

Saturday 24 March 2012, 12:12 pm   ///////  

Marty Markowitz, borough president of Brooklyn, said his borough was “the heart of America” in welcoming the 35th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. My heart was certainly in Brooklyn last weekend, both literally and figuratively. I was there to participate in the First Annual World Palindrome Championship on Friday and, on Saturday, to visit Big Reality, a wonderful, scruffy art show that included some of my work. More on Big Reality soon; here’s a belated note about the WPC.

I made into New York in time to meet at Jon Agee’s sister’s house in Brooklyn with him and several other palindromists who would be competing that evening. (Agee is a cartoonist whose books include Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! and Palindromania!) The other competitors included a fellow academic, John Connett, who is professor of Biostatistics at the University of Minnesota and an extremely prolific producer of sentence-length palindromes. Martin Clear, another author of many, many sentence-length palindromes, came from Australia. Barry Duncan, a Somerville resident and thus practically my neighbor, also joined us. Another competitor was Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist and a stand-up comedian. And Douglas Fink, who won a celebrity palindrome contest with his now-famous entry “Lisa Bonet ate no basil,” was the audience contestant selected to join us.

I met Barry and Doug later that day, and had a great time sitting around and discussing palindromes with the others over lunch. We had plenty to talk about. It was interesting to see that we also had different perspectives, interests, and terms associated with the art. Jon thought “Er, eh – where?” was a good palindrome, probably in part because he was imagining how to illustrate it or frame it in a cartoon in a funny way. The others generally thought this one was bogus. A sentence was the desired outcome for most of us, while I was a fan (and writer) of longer palindromes. And, as we found out that night, the audience had their own tropisms and aesthetics when it comes to palindromes.

We had 75 minutes to write up to three palindromes that we’d read to the crowd, which was to vote for their two favorite. There were three possible constraints given: Use X and Z; Refer to events in the news in the past year; or refer to the crossword tournament itself. Here’s what I came up with, using the first constraint:

The Millennium Falcon Rescue

by Nick Montfort

Wow, sagas … Solo’s deed, civic deed.

Eye dewed, a doom-mood.

A pop.

Sis sees redder rotator.

Radar sees racecar X.

Oho! Ore-zero level sees reviver!

Solo’s deified!

Solo’s reviver sees level: ore-zero.

Oho: X, racecar, sees radar.

Rotator, redder, sees sis.

Pop a doom-mood!

A dewed eye.

Deed, civic deed.

Solo’s sagas: wow.

All of the results (and the text of the palindromes) are up on The Palindromist site – take a look!

Mark Saltveit became champ with a short palindrome about acrobatic Yak sex. John Connett got 2nd, Jon Agee 3rd, and yours truly 4th.

Which is the longest?

In mine, I count 54 words, 237 letters, and 327 characters. If “doom-mood” and the like are single words, we’d have 50 words. Mark says on The Palindromist site that it’s 57 words long; I’m not sure how the counting was done there.

In Barry’s, the only other possible contender, I count 70 words (as does Mark), 184 letters, and 311 characters. Some of those words are “7” and have no letters in them, as you’ll note if you check out the results page.

So, they’re both the longest: Barry’s has the most words, while mine has the most letters and characters.

It’s a sort of odd comparison, because the constraint I used (employ only palindromic words, counting things like “ore-zero” as words) let me reframe the problem as that of constructing a word palindrome with a restricted vocabulary. Of course, you should be very very impressed anyway, with my general cleverness and so on, but I think Barry chose a more difficult feat at the level of letter-by-letter construction.

Does length matter?

Yes. A palindrome should be the right length. 2002 words is a good length if you’re trying to write a palindromic postmodern novel. For a snappy statement, a short sentence is a good length. I think some of the best palindromes are longer than a sentence and much shorter than 2002. My last edits to “The Millennium Falcon Rescue” were to cut several words (an even number, of course), and maybe I should have cut more? And, should I revise this one, I might cut the word that was included for the sake of the Z.

What about those palindromists?

The most interesting thing about this event, for me, was a gathering focused on palindrome-writing. Kids know what palindromes are, the form of writing has been around for more than a thousand years, many people have palindromes memorized, and there are a handful of famous books … but as I see it there hasn’t even been a community of palindrome-writers, discussing writing methods, coming up with common terms and concepts, sharing poetic and aesthetic ideas.

Well, perhaps there has been, in the Bletchley Park codebreakers. But I only learned about them because I met Mark, who is one of the people researching the origins of famous palindromes. And that was, due to wartime security, a very secretive group.

It was great having the Championship hosted by Will Shortz at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, with many puzzle-solver and -constructors who are interested in formal engagements with language. Of course, palindrome events would fit will at other sorts of gatherings that are focused on poetry and writing, too.

Whether or not we have another championship (which would be great), it would be nice to have another summit of some sort and to build a community of practice around this longstanding practice. Particularly if we can get someone named Tim to join us: Tim must summit!

The Purpling

Sunday 18 March 2012, 2:29 pm   //////  

I was recently notified that “The Purpling” was no longer online at its original published location, on a host named “research-intermedia.art.uiowa.edu” which held The Iowa Review Web site. In fact, it seems that The Iowa Review Web is missing entirely from that host.

My first reaction was put my 2008 hypertext poem online now on my site, nickm.com, at:

http://nickm.com/poems/the_purpling/

Fortunately, TIWR has not vanished from the Web. I found that things are still in place at:

http://iowareview.uiowa.edu/TIRW/

And “The Purpling” is also up there. Maybe I was using a non-canonical link to begin with? Or maybe things moved around?

1st Annual World Palindrome Championship

Monday 12 March 2012, 11:24 am   //////  

It’s this Friday in Brooklyn, and I’ll be one of six competitors.

This Friday night I’ll be competing in the First Annual World Palindrome Championship. If you insist, you can call it the First or the Inaugural World Palindrome Championship, but that’s the name of the event.

Er, Eh – Where?

The event will take place in Brooklyn at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. The competition, with a 75-minute time for palindrome composition based on a prompt, will kick off the 35th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and will start at 8pm. (Those cruciverbalists like to stay up late.) It’s all run by Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times. The championship is the first thing on the tournament schedule.

Name no one man!

Actually, one man is almost sure to be named. The five competitors already selected are Jon Agee, Martin Clear, John Connett, humble narrator Nick Montfort, and Mark Saltveit. Jon Agee has authored books of cartoons illustrating palindromes, including Palindromania! Martin Clear penned “Trade life defiled art” and is making a trip from Australia for the event. John Connett is a fellow academic whose wonderful palindromic quips include “Epic Erma has a ham recipe.” Mark Saltveit is a stand-up comedian and found and editor of The Palindromist, the only magazine specific to this form that I know. And I suppose I got into this by writing the 2002-word palindrome 2002: A Palindrome Story with William Gillespie. The whole list, with pictures and further links, is up on Saltveit’s page for the event.

A competitor will be selected from the audience on Friday based on a palindrome written and submitted that day. If this is a woman or a pair of identical twin collaborators, there is some chance that no one man will be named. Unless one of these miraculously appears and is selected, though, we will unfortunately miss the company of my collaborator William, Mike Maguire (author of Drawn Inward and Other Poems), Demetri Martin, Harry Mathews, and many other top practitioners of the art. For a first gathering of palindrome-writers, though, who can complain?

Purple Blurb is Shaped Like Canada

We have an amazing Spring 2012 Purple Blurb lineup, thanks to this academic year’s organizer, Amaranth Borsuk, and featuring two special events and readings by two leading Canadian poets who work in sound, concrete, and conceptual poetry. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. All events are at MIT and are free and open to the public.

Monday, March 19
5:30 PM
6-120

Steve McCaffery

Author of Carnival, The Black Debt, Seven Pages Missing
Professor and David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters, SUNY Buffalo

A central figure in Canadian avant-garde writing, Steve McCaffery’s work spans sound poetry, generative and iterative text, experimental prose, performance art, literary criticism, and visual poetics. A member of the Four Horsemen sound poetry ensemble and a professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, he is the author of over a dozen influential books of poetry, twenty chapbooks and four volumes of critical writing. His works include CARNIVAL panels 1 and 2, Panopticon, The Black Debt, North of Intention and Rational Geomancy: Kids of the Book-Machine (with bpNichol). With Jed Rasula, McCaffery edited Imagining Language, an anthology for MIT Press.

Monday, April 9
5:30 PM
6-120

Open Mouse / Open Mic

Featuring Alexandra Chasin, Ari Kalinowski, and YOU

Please join us for an open mic featuring  D1G1T4L WR1T1NG for a variety of platforms, from immersive projections by Ari Kalinowski to generative fiction for the iPad by Alexandra Chasin.

Bring video art, interactive fiction, SMS poems, hypertext fiction and poetry, text generators, and any form of electronic literature you’ve got up your sleeve! This event is co-sponsored by the Electronic Literature Organization.

Alexandra Chasin is the author of Kissed By (FC2), and Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (St. Martin’s). She teaches Writing at Lang College, The New School. Ari Kalinowski runs the Intermedia Poetry Project.

Thursday, May 3
6:00 PM
6-120

Christian Bök

Professor of English, University of Calgary
Co-sponsored by the Visiting Artist Series and WHS
Author of Crystallography, Eunoia and The Xenotext.

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for Best Poetic Debut, and Eunoia, a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each chapter, which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and is the best-selling Canadian poetry book of all time. He is also author of Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2001). His latest project, The Xenotext, encodes a poetic text into bacterial DNA that will produce proteins in response—yielding another poetic text. Bök has created artificial languages for Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon.

1:00 PM – 7:00 PM
Bartos Theater
Friday, May 4

Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book

Co-sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, SHASS, WHS, the Arts at MIT Visiting Artist Program, and the MIT Communications Forum

An afternoon of discussion with theorists and practitioners from MIT and beyond who are concerned with the shape of books to come.

Participants include:

Christian Bök (University of Calgary)
Katherine Hayles (Duke University)
Bonnie Mak (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Rita Raley (UC Santa Barbara)
James Reid-Cunningham (Boston Athenaeum)
Bob Stein (Institute for the Future of the Book)

Taroko Gorge … Makoto, Guile

Monday 5 March 2012, 9:28 pm   //////  

Take the natural splendor of Taiwan’s beautiful canyon and add side fighting action. Or, just see how Damian Esteves has already done it in yet another Taroko Gorge remix.

Codings

Sunday 26 February 2012, 7:24 pm   ////////  

Codings shows the computer as an aesthetic, programmed device that computes on characters. The works in the show continue and divert the traditions of concrete poetry and short-form recreational programming; they eschew elaborate multimedia combinations and the use of network resources and instead operate on encoded letters, numbers, punctuation, and other symbols that are on the computer itself.

////////////////////////// Giselle Biguelman
///////////////////////// Commodore Business Machines, Inc.
//////////////////////// Adam Parrish
/////////////////////// Jörg Piringer
////////////////////// Casey Reas
///////////////////// Páll Thayer

Curated by Nick Montfort
Pace Digital Gallery

Feb 28th – March 30th, 2012 (with regular gallery hours Mon-Thu 12-5pm).

Panel with artists Adam Parrish and Páll Thayer and the curator, and opening reception, Feb 28th, 5-7pm.

The Codings catalog is available as a PDF for download (6MB).

The Pace Digital Gallery is directed by Frank T. Marchese and Jillian Mcdonald and is located at 163 William St, New York, NY. More information on the works exhibited, and directions to the gallery, can be found at the Pace Digital Gallery site.

Snyder Winder

Thursday 23 February 2012, 1:22 pm   /////  

Leonardo Flores presents his “Taroko Gary,” a mash-up remix of Gary Snyder’s “Endless Streams and Mountains” and my “Taroko Gorge.” (Update: I changed the URL on February 28, 2012.)

A Panel on Digital Sound, Poems, and Art

Thursday 23 February 2012, 10:47 am   //////  

We talked about digital sound as well as some poetic and visual art matters on a panel on Feb 15 here at MIT with David Cossin, Ben Hogue, yours truly (Nick Montfort), Evan Ziporyn, and Joe Paradiso … backed for a while by ppg256-3:

Word Palindomes Dog Me. Dawg, Palindromes! Word!

Thursday 16 February 2012, 6:43 pm   ////  

Mark J. Nelson has posted a very nice note about word-unit palindromes, mentioning that I have been tweeting palindromes-by-word as “@nickmofo” recently.

Nelson points out the paucity of such palindromes in the printed (and digital) record, and the lack of discussion about these. There are a few famous palindromes of this sort, including one that he mentions, “You can cage a swallow, can’t you, but you can’t swallow a cage, can you?” Another fairly well-known one is “King, are you glad you are king?” and another is “So patient a doctor to doctor a patient so.”

Without trying to add too much to this helpful discussion, I’ll note here that some of my tweets are meant to be amusing references to and reworkings of these more famous (for certain values of “famous”) word-unit palindromes:

You can mind a fashion, can’t you, but you can’t fashion a mind, can you?
(Oct 28, 2011)

You can touch my bear, can’t you, but you can’t bear my touch, can you?
(Oct 25, 2011)

Mister President, are you glad you are president, mister?
(Nov 28, 2011)

So stiff a doctor to doctor a stiff so.
(Nov 27, 2011)

In case some of my palindromes seem more inscrutable than others, I’ll also note that my output includes tweets that pertain to things I saw (a VCR chained to a fence near MIT) and events that I attended (a poetry reading by Doug Nufer).

Taroko Gorge Remixed & Installed

Tuesday 14 February 2012, 6:11 pm   ///////  

Designer Gulch by Brendan Howell is another remix of my oft-remixed poetry generator, Taroko Gorge. This one is installed in the lobby of the Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule.

Cut-up Codework Meow Mix

Wednesday 1 February 2012, 9:37 pm   ////  

“A 1700 line text generated using a string of unix commands to process a short text file describing an encounter with a cat.”

This is all thanks to James W. Morris. He is the author and artist – not the cat.

Pale Fire: A Poem in four Cantos by John Shade

Wednesday 25 January 2012, 1:00 pm   /////  

Radical Books of 2011, 9/10

Vladimir Nabokov's poem Pale Fire

Pale Fire: A Poem in four Cantos by John Shade, Vladimir Nabokov, Ginkgo Press, 9781584234319

Extracting the poem (which only exists as a sort of in-joke in the radical novel Pale Fire) from what is perhaps (according, e.g., to Larry McCaffrey) the major English-language novel of the 20th Century? It’s at least a very extreme move. This edition drops the prose like a bad habit, makes like a banana and splits it off, makes like a tree and abandons House of Leaves prose for Leaves of Grass verse. Does it work in the sense of presenting a beautiful poem freed from its chrysalis? No. Much of it is still most notable for building up, and then comically deflating, the explicitly implied author, John Shade. It’s better as part of a narrative than as language trembling between sound and sense. But John Shade’s “Pale Fire” is not too bad of a poem qua poem, and reading it alone can certainly enhance one’s appreciation of the truly incredible novel that has been shucked off here. I haven’t read the included commentary, but must note that including commentary is an absolutely hilarious idea.

You Can’t Have Everything… Where Would You Put It!

Tuesday 24 January 2012, 10:57 pm   /////  

Radical Books of 2011, 8/10

Bruce Andrews, You Can't Have Everything...

You Can’t Have Everything… Where Would You Put It!, Bruce Andrews, Veer Books

There is no way this book will get past your spam filter:

facework cootie itsier-off
we are the dream sequences in your conventional cultural life –

Indeed we are. Here’s verbal salad (French dressing? Russian dressing?) shot through at times with lines of split and reassembled words:

zy^rit
sect^in
sing^franchi
cres^offi

It’s a delight to apprehend such text, passing words beneath one’s eyes, thinking about what it all might mean and sound like. Looking back now, I wonder if I should have flipped this open and read at random when I encountered it originally. Instead of plodding through, I might have thought for days about a line such as “tractor the Real.” But, as it happens, I can still do that. Although I have everything, I had nowhere to put it. I have to delve in again for specific examples of juxtapositions that Bruce Andrews fashions. The book is no doubt worth reading, scanning, or hashing into – however you want to have it all.

E-Lit Platforms at the MLA

Saturday 7 January 2012, 5:19 pm   ///////  

Dene Grigar, vice president of the Electronic Literature Organization and one of the organizers of the excellent e-lit gallery and reading here at the MLA Convention, just gave a great presentation about the importance of platform in the development and reception of electronic literature. I was pleased initially to see that there was not only this presentation with “Platform” in the title, then very interested to hear about her work in a lab with original older computer hardware and her discussion of platform differences and changes through the years.

Even more surprising is that Ian Bogost and I have managed to advance part of our diabolical plan to have people use five long, colored rectangles stacked on top of each other:

Holocaust Museum

Thursday 5 January 2012, 3:36 pm   //////  

Radical Books of 2011, 5/10

Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum

Holocaust Museum, Robert Fitterman, Veer Books, 9781907088346

Here is an extraordinary list, a simple and straightforwardly organized book of metadata (in this case, photo captions) that gives a very detached view of the 20th Century’s most unthinkable occurrence. What is fascinating is that while the book comments on some of the tropes of memorials, Holocaust museums, and records of trauma in general – enumeration, detachment, clear identification and humanization of individuals – it nevertheless becomes an effective testimony of the Holocaust and of how it was inextricably involved with ordinary life and events and histories, beyond the horrors that were ordered and organized:

A German-Jewish family poses outdoors for a family portrait with their dog. [Photograph #69297]

The book is conceptual, but seems to be as far from a conceptual joke as is possible. Unlike much conceptual writing that begins with appropriation, it demands to be read entire. This is in many ways a simple book, and in many ways an extremely complex engagement with history, memory, and writing.

Found Poems

Wednesday 4 January 2012, 1:00 pm   //////  

Radical Books of 2011, 4/10

Bern Porter, Found Poems

Found Poems, Bern Porter, new edition of a 1972 Something Else Press book, 9780982264591

Perhaps this exquisite collection of punctuation, numbers, and occasional letters recalls to the modern reader the idea of “uncreative writing” as described by Kenneth Goldsmith. I see it more as an example of subtractive writing: Creating new texts by erasure, or by cutting out text from advertisements, tables of technical information, and other ordinary but rich veins that can be mined for fragments of language. Each page can also be seen as a degenerate collage, a single clipping of text juxtaposed with nothing else (except what’s on the facing page). Porter, who was a publisher of radical writing and hoarded paper, never owned a phone or a computer. The book is, one might say, a real find, worth re-reading by anyone who seriously turns to contemporary poetry and conceptual writing, or indeed anyone fascinated with ordinary words locked in ads, fliers, and other everyday texts. At least do check out the fine related resources on UbuWeb’s Bern Porter page.

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