Poets take up a new muse – modern technology

‘The poet’s muse is traditionally a goddess with long flowing hair, emblem in hand – but for a new generation of poets the muse is a digital native with WiFi access and an iPod. Tom Chivers is a 26-year-old poet living in East London who in recent years has found he wants to let technological advances in society influence his writing. His witty contributions to the poetic world are fresh, laugh-out-loud constructions about how technology affects our day-to-day lives.’

Article about poetry (mainly mine weirdly!) and digital technology by Hannah Waldram from The Telegraph. Check it out.

Advertisements

Go, litel book!

Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

And for ther is so greet diversitee
In English and in wryting of our tonge,
So preye I god that noon miswryte thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thou be, or elles songe,
That thou be understonde I god beseche!
But yet to purpos of my rather speche.

At the end of his long poem Troilus & Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer commends his work to readers with these two verses and, particularly, the famous line ‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie’. This is a classic example of what I identify elsewhere as authorial anxiety in late medieval texts, both literary and non-literary. On the one hand, Chaucer hopes that his poem will be worthy of his Classical heroes (‘subgit be to alle poesye’); in other words, that Troilus will join a perceived ‘canon’ of literature. On the other hand, he expresses concern that his work might be misunderstood, misread or mistranslated by contemporary readers. Like many pre-print writers, whose works were distributed in manuscript form only and would have to be copied out by hand, Chaucer is anxious to maintain some form of authorial intention, to normalise potentially diverse and divergent readings of his work. To create a stable, guaranteed text.

[I might, with more time and space, argue that this particular authorial statement is in fact heavily laced with Chaucer’s distinctive brand of irony. In particular, the rollcall of Classical poets characterises the narrator as pompous rather than genuinely anxious; another one of Chaucer’s authorial personas perhaps. But whether this passage is satirical or not, it certainly reflects a universal concern, one which affects all writers and artists.]

I’m interested in the shift from manuscript to print and how that period might inform the current transition from print to digital. I always thought ‘Go, litel book’ was a great statement for the internet age. It expresses the anxious excitement of distributing material to a potential audience of millions in the click of a button. Posting a blog. Uploading a website. Sending a mass email. That sense of your work entering the digital ether, an anonymous space over which you have no control, and from which you cannot withdraw. You can pulp a paperback, but you can never guarantee that a blog post or email or webpage is not still cached somewhere deep inside a server thousands of miles away. Now, the logical extension of the open-field nature of online communication is the collaborative text, the Wiki novel. The simple one-to-many process of traditional publishing is being exploded by digital technology and, it seems, the natural compulsion of readers to ‘get stuck in’.

*

A recent experience of online social networking made me think of this. I uploaded a new poem, ‘I, Citizen’, to Facebook – something I’d seen other writers in my ‘Friends’ Network’ do. I posted the poem as a note and ‘tagged’ a number of my friends as an encouragement for them to read it. I had no grand expectations of feedback beyond, perhaps, a handful of brief positive comments. But within a few hours I already had two or three extended comments suggesting minor edits, including one from a small press publisher. Soon after, another contributor – this time, more forceful – suggested I rewrite the poem’s conclusion, partly on the basis that I could not ‘get away with’ a particular turn of phrase whilst another poet (who also commented, later) ‘*could* get away with using it’. As another friend came to the defence of the last verse, I suddenly found my poem being deconstructed in some detail. It was, I noted, a ‘feedback frenzy’ (as I write, there are 27 comments in total, including my own).

Now, I should say now that I’m not precious about my writing. Well, no more precious than any writer, at least. I enjoy receiving feedback and try to use constructive criticism to inform the editing/rewriting process. On the whole, the comments on ‘I, Citizen’ identified areas of the poem I was already anxious about, or brought up new and interesting interpretations. But I was a bit surprised by how readily people would offer detailed criticisms of my work in an essentially public forum such as Facebook. You might say I was asking for it, but when I posted the poem I only expected a few short comments. And as an editor myself, I’m aware of the sensitivity with which you should approach critical feedback. I have never contributed in-depth analysis of poems posted on MySpace or Facebook, although I am often engaged in doing just that in more private channels.

Despite my initial gut reaction to criticism, I’m pleased that ‘I, Citizen’ attracted so much feedback. The criticism was useful and made in good faith, and frankly it’s great that people actually engaged with my work in some detail. The internet is not an endless ether; online audiences are no anonymous mass. In fact Web 2.0 offers opportunities for writers to establish quite intimate and worthwhile connections with readers. It also gives them the right to reply. There are risks and sometimes you will get burnt, but the benefits of engaging with a potential readership are worth it, I reckon. Publishing in the digital age is about opening a two-way conversation. I think Chaucer knew that all literature is about reciprocity, that one man’s story will be taken, tweaked, retuned and returned; that the stability of his ‘litel book’, his ‘litel tragedie’, could never be guaranteed, but would shift and slide with every reading. For there is ‘greet diversitee / … in wryting of our tonge’.

Landless space

 

In a discussion event I organised as part of London Word Festival, Melanie Challenger advocated a poetry that is intimately tied to landscape.

We need to anchor everything back to the real, to the physical world, to the landscape […] The urgent task of everybody is to tie together land and word and world […]

She also said…

It worries me that poetry is finding its home in a virtual realm, in a landless space, in a place that isn’t attached to anywhere where it’s trying to place information that will have direct action on those who are living real lives somewhere.

I was interested to hear what Melanie had to say, particularly as I strongly agree with her first point and strong disagree with her second.

An example, if I may.

The phenomenon of flashmobbing – however trite, crude or (sometimes) entirely absent its message – reconnects people with their environment, with their urban landscape. Flashmobbers, free-runners, skateboarders and other urban street game enthusiasts transform, if only for a few moments, the way we use space and the way we perceive place. These practices are conspicuously ‘real world’ but they rely on the internet (and to a lesser extend, mobile technology) as a means of communication. They simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

Without wanting to read too much into Melanie’s words, I think her views are based on a now-outdated conception of the internet as a socially-isolating force. Yes, that danger always exists, but so does the potential for the internet to bring people together in innovative, dynamic social contexts. If the internet in the ’90s was characterised by isolation and in the ’00s by interaction, it is now becoming a place of integration.

According to the blog Mobhappy

This combination of the virtual world and meat space is something we’re going to see a lot more of over the next 10 years. As the real world becomes highly networked (in urban areas anyway) it’s going to be completely integrated with the online world. Who knows what the consequences of that might be. But the future’s never going to be the same again.

This chimes in with the work of architect and cultural theorist William J. Mitchell in his excellent book Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City. Mitchell prophesises the increased use of technology in urban spaces, the embedding of interactive media and nanotechnology within architecture, what he calls ‘urban information overlay’. This might sound scary, almost Orwellian (actually more Matrix), but it’s already with us. Just think of the rapid spread of Wifi coverage (The City of London was entirely covered in 2006 courtesy of commercial operator The Cloud). This is all Mitchell.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, [digital technology] had become a ubiquitous, ghostly presence that flowed ceaselessly through global networks and lurked everywhere within the objects we encountered in our daily lives.

[…]

Physical spaces and the information space of the World Wide Web no longer occupy distinct domains – meatspace and cyberspace in the provocative trope of the cyberpunk nineties – but are increasingly closely woven together by millions of electronic devices distributed throughout buildings and cities. These devices add a dynamic layer of electronic information to the mise-en-scene established by an architectural setting and the meaningful objects and inscriptions that it contains.

[…]

Architecture no longer can (if it ever could) be understood as an autonomous medium of mass, space, and light, but now serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from cross-connected flows of aural, textual, and graphic, and digital information through global networks.

Whilst I share some of Melanie’s anxieties, it’s no good sticking your head in the sand and pretending the internet doesn’t exist.

For a start, there’s no reason why a literature that is tied to the land can’t be distributed in and through the ‘landless space’ of the internet. Secondly, what ‘land’ are we talking about here? I live (have always lived) in the city, in a largely built environment. Melanie talked of how man names his landscape, how he produces meaning from his surroundings. And this is what my poetry of place is concerned with, however irregularly it succeeds. The City is as much landscape as, say, the wilds of Dartmoor. I have written on the submerged river Effra, a tributary of the Thames which flows from Norwood to Vauxhall. But it is also a place that is peopled – if man names his landscape, the City is furious palimpsest not blank canvas. If the future City integrates the physical and the digital in its streets, skyscrapers, parks, shops, squares and public spaces, then I hope the poet, the artist, is there to record it.

Apologies to Melanie if I’ve misconstrued her words at all!

*** Please check comments for Melanie’s response ***