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"you are making a scene. you are scared to stand up for your beliefs. you are not a prince, nor were meant to be! you are a minor character, one that will do to make a nice catch, start a rally or two, assist the manager; no doubt, an easy tool, deferential, glad to be of use. you are a member of the Republican party. you are just dying to believe something is not hard evidence, except about your state of mind. you are really a friend. you are very quite right about the fact that he is a prick and a very bad one at it too. you are well. you are on to them. you are so wise, like a miniature Buddha. you are such a fan! you are not too offended. you are no Jack Kennedy. you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."
"(a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more)"
from Apostrophe
by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry
ECW Press, 2006
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Apostrophe is a strange, sublime book that grows out of a very smart, very funny poem (originally written by Bill Kennedy in 1993)—a poem that consists of a few hundred non sequiturs, all of which begin with the phrase "You are…." The poem catalogues a series of utterances addressed in the second-person, doing so, as if to enumerate the potential responses of a witty deity, forever obliged to answer the existential questioning of some poet who keeps asking: "What am I?" The poem almost suggests that the trope of the "apostrophe" has become synonymous with the lyric voice, addressing the reader in a manner that both speaks to and speaks for such a second-person addressee, claiming the pronoun "You" as a poetic cipher for all the potential dialogues of a self speaking to itself….
"Apostrophe" (the poem by Bill Kennedy) has in turn inspired the creation of a digital program called "The Apostrophe Engine"—a piece of homespun, oracular software that, first, converts each line of the poem into a hyperlink and then hijacks Google, retrieving resultant webpages in order to scan them for any online clause that also begins with the phrase "You are…," after which the software processes these clauses, gathering them and collating them into another poem, whose lines in turn become hyperlinks for further surveys. Anyone who writes online might become an inadvertent contributor to such a poem—and the poem might, in theory, expand without limits, linking together all of our disparate discourse, juxtaposing it through the infinite metonymy of a single, common utterance.
Apostrophe, the book, records the first layer of these procedures, doing so for each line of the original poem—and the results prove fascinating because of their uncanniness. For example, a phrase like "you are not using the force, Luke" does not return geekish reviews of Star Wars (as expected); instead, the line returns rules for playing drinking-games while watching the sci-fi film. A phrase like "you are so beautiful" returns a long list of incantatory heartbreaks, while the phrase "you are entirely happy with your poem" returns an uncanny, musical afterword about the experience of perusing the book itself. A reader of the work begins to appreciate that, everyday, people in chatrooms and blogdexes write lines of unintended, but noteworthy, poetry in the course of saying something else.
Apostrophe ultimately fulfills the surreal command of a poet like Steve Venright, who writes: "Build an engine with words. Let it make you speak." The word "apostrophe" in fact derives its etymology from the Greek verb, meaning "to turn aside"—and indeed the device does wander through the language, performing a détournement upon a phrase in order to follow this randomized trajectory to a newer point of deflection. Not only has the project gone on to herald the kind of experimentation currently performed by Flarf, but the project has automated this activity, freeing the poet from the task of the search itself. We can already begin to see here the embryonic inception of a robotic culture—one where writing does not necessarily emanate from the lyric voice of a human agent, so much as it might arise on its own from the uncanny actions of a machine, working on our behalf….
Poets who might wish to confer with such a poetic oracle can do so by experimenting with the engine at this link.

Originally Published: November 12th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...