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Poetry Operations, Black Noise and Versions of Hiatus

By Tan Lin


I wanted to look at a few mostly online publishing platforms that I’ve been following for the past couple of years. I’ll be doing interviews with J. Gordon Faylor at Gauss PDF, and Holly Melgard, Chris Sylvester, and Joseph Yearous-Algozin at Troll Thread. An interview with Lanny Jordan Jackson at bas books was not completed in time for inclusion. These publishers share some but not all of the following: crossing between digital platforms and printed matter, sizeable data sets or long form compositions, multiple file types, emphasis on the temporal contours of writing practices or content production as they erode conventional genre distinctions, attention to managing or cataloging formats for aggregated content, distribution linked to print-on-demand services, erratic publishing time frames that resist institutionalization, and what Milead Douehi terms “anthological” modes of composition that involve discrete fragments or modularity as part of their working landscape. Part of the purpose of these remarks will simply be to test some underlying assumptions about the nature of digital production, as recently outlined in reference works such as The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, and in terms related to what Milead Doueihi describes as an emergent digital literacy. Or in other words, I hope some of the queries might help ascertain what digital literature looks like, how it is distributed, and how it’s consumed.

It used to be that poetry was highly structured language that took as its subject its own pleasurable forms of compression and parsing: syllable counting, rhyming properties yielding predictable “outcomes” (rhymes have high predictive capacity), programmed word-for-word substitutions or troping, and timed i.e. prepared transitions between underlying audible (accented vs. unaccented) and tonal (stress) levels. So Sir Fulke Greville is an immaculate human metronome, when scanned. Helen Gardner focused on metrical inconsistences between the underlying iambic rhythms of English and spoken speech forms in the scansion or graphing of Donne’s ostensibly “rough” verse. In Donne’s era, spelling was not fully standardized and language was in a greater state of unrest. Nabokov focused on precisely the alternation in the mathematical quantities between Russian and English in his translation of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Comparing English iambic tetrameters and Pushkin’s iambs yields, partly a mistake, and partly a recognition: what Nabokov termed the scud, or an unaccented stress. Or to put this more bluntly, where a poem is, a diagram of its operations is sure to follow. A poem thus, an arrangement of the mostly metrical, and a compressed diagram of alterior operations, aural and otherwise, spatial and temporal. If a poem responds to conditions of unrest, what are those conditions of unrest today?

Much of the compression, condensation, and abridgement associated with poetry had to do with the underlying transmission channel. It was narrow, which made transmission expensive. As long as paper, ink and book production were costly, then poetry, as a subset of knowledge production more generally, would be no less dear, and, as a species of the transmissible, groomed, edited, abridged, and condensed before it saw print. C.S Lewis noted, "[i]f the scansion of a line meant all the phonetic facts, no two lines would scan the same way." Meter, on the other hand, is another matter, as Wikipedia also notes: “an ordering of language by means of an extremely limited subset of its characteristics.”

Up until fairly recently, poetry has been narrow channel and metrical. Much of this has changed recently in the world of information production. As noted in the interviews, the cost of producing and disseminating long and very long works has tumbled. The channel is wide. This has resulted in an expanded set of time frames associated with production and access, both of which are commensurately altered to accommodate/mirror both sluggish durational lazy aggregation, what Troll Thread refers to as work across a hiatus, and ironically swift dissemination of found data, which I associate with various and mostly standardized platforms: lulu’s POD templates, PDF uploading; as well as specific blogging and micro-blogging platforms in the case of Troll Thread, and the play on the PDF format in the case of Gauss. Such swift dissemination of data is also evident in SNSs, and is particularly evident in the developers’ notes on the 2012 roll out of Facebook’s vanilla-flavored, non-customizable Timeline feature.

Where a diagram is, or a bit of Google analytics is, a poem is sure to follow. Or in other words, almost everything can be and is called poetry. Poetry is the background of other visualization operations, particularly large-scale operations of data visualization. As the cost of data transmission has eased and new models of data analysis have evolved in relation to big data sets, the shape of some recent poetry has altered. Poetry sometimes looks like things I don’t associate with poetry but with masked or camouflaged operations on data. Here is an excerpt from Tom Trudgeon’s “Fourteen Pieces for Charles Curtis”:

14 pieces

Charles Curtis was a cellist and composer associated with La Monte Young. As a data operation, or short-form history, this piece drifts through, even as it combines elements of analytic philosophy, note taking in college, Fluxus-like scores, and the diagrammatic language of hierarchically rendered taxonomies and syllogistic proposition rendering. Or in other words, data crunching is broken down as two-handed (a/b) virtuoso playing. In short, data as topographically modeled landscape, whose spatial boundaries are cued to a stringent temporal working through of a problem set. The problem: selecting a chair being sat on. And it looks like some milk has spilled during the Bach toccata (grid), alerting us to less than dexterous handling. i.e. broken data scales.

Such an interest in mining a single, albeit multi-perspectival topographic (data) landscape is also apparent in Ed Steck’s The Garden, which combs through data assembled by a mechanical form of vision: military surveillance and object recognition hardware and software, targeted to and thus trained on and by two operants who constitute its subject heading. People as memorandums or log entries or scatter plots or histograms. This system is triple layered: hardware/software package, a presumed live operator, and a target, housed in a system collective known by an acronym: DGVP, or Dynamically Generated Virtual Perimeter. As is customary, borders or perimeters constitute end-runs or end-rhymes of this man-machine system of visualization. This military/recreational quasi FPS gaming space is well cultivated—i.e. heavily stocked in the same fashion as monarchical hunting grounds, royal forests and noblemen’s chases were once populated with live game—as a weaponized zone marked by seeing/targeting, logging, followed by elimination. In other words, a well-tended garden = an image of a “subject” created by data visualization or the tracking of “subjective” data off its grid. The mediating language of this particular text is twice-removed or filtered so that the scripting agent, what someone once referred to as an author, is transferred into a text (regarded as self-aware) that purportedly reads something like this as operational “output.”


This machinic notation is bracketed by or arrayed in a series of numbered propositions, which denote language used to denote articles of clothing used to denote camouflaging elements. In other words, words make things disappear, into a catalog or what is more likely, a logfile, presumably, of the recognizable:

2b. A catalog of recognizable objects, such as a suit, a parka, a camisole, a windbreaker, a caftan, a cardigan, a T-shirt, a jacket, a robe, a tracksuit, coat, a blouse, a pair of shoes, a hat, a tunic, a T-shirt, a shift, an anorak, a chemise, a sundress, a straw hat, a sweatshirt, a shawl, or a slipper, is an identity.

And so an image, metaphorically speaking, is reverse-engineered into its background camouflage, located “around” an individual participant. This might be known as PoetryOS, which also establishes identity, or it might be regarded as a black box recording system that leaves a trail that can be used to diagnose a problem i.e. an agent.

What would such a problem be in relation to reading today? Poetry is poetry only if it can or perhaps only if it cannot be recognized as such. Much recent experimental poetry production has centered around larger, even interminable or on-going data sets geared to real time analysis or its emulation, and unpredictable temporal sequences of release (i.e. deferral or deletion), and thus what I term background forms of reading, deferred reading and non-reading. Or else deletion and erasure, as Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis dramatizes with its two principle injunction of write this and cross this out. As Wikipedia notes, black noise is a “type of noise consisting mostly of silence.” Half or more of what I read today is transmitted instantly to LaterThis, where reading exists in a state of continuing deferral and non-deletion, or what librarians termed preservation. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost remarks: “In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it 'content' now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter. This condition doesn’t necessarily signal the degradation of reading; it also arises from the surplus of content we are invited and even expected to read.” Poetry is no longer what is metrically codified to stay the course of forgetfulness and linguistic unrest but what disappears constantly around us, or exists in a state, as Troll Thread notes, of hiatus.

But, on the other hand, almost everything today counts as poetry, keyed to specific platforms such as personal and filter blogs and micro-blogs alike. So how does Tumblr figure, poetically speaking, as a distributional practice that jumps the hiatus? In the following interviews, some issues having to do with systems of poetry generation, their distributional formats, and thus their longevity, will be examined.

Originally Published: May 4th, 2014

Tan Lin is the author of over 13 books, including Heath Course Pak (2012), Bib. Rev. Ed., Insomnia and the Aunt (2011), 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (2010), Plagiarism/Outsource (2009), Ambience is a Novel with a Logo (2007), BlipSoak01 (2003), and Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (2000). His work has appeared in numerous journals including Conjunctions,...

  1. May 4, 2014
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