I’m currently in a Zoom poetry study run by the poets Hoa Nguyen and Kristin Prevallet on the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the San Francisco based Beat and Black Surrealist poet. The discussion over the last two weeks has been around how Kaufman’s poetry has a spiralling quality to it. A lot of repetitions, especially unusual phrases, in the poems we read were phrases like “blue crackling” or “ancient water” that are repeated, and how he sometimes turns away and comes back to a subject many times.
It got me thinking about about what poem to choose to do this week as well as how to construct the video. I choose the poem “while apple picking iv”. It is a partly manufactured poem that does spiral with plenty of repetitions, relatively few words that are repeated often and juxtaposed in different combinations while there are also moments of clear syntax.
Several years ago my friend Dick Capling had passed along this great site, Language is a Virus, which includes a tool for “mixing text” among other tools it has. I was interested in that tool, you feed it a lyric poem and it does something to it using something called a n-gram generator (which I freely admit to have no idea how it does what it does) and out comes a very disrupted poem, which I think if I understand the idea behind it will have this spiralling poetry effect with repetitions. Sometimes it is not useful at all. Sometimes it is surprising.
While I was at Saint Mary’s College of California for Brenda Hillman’s Forms class I took a lyric, and kind of flat, poem I wrote, While Apple Picking, specifically to see what the tool would do. It came up with something that I cycled through the tool a few more times. The fourth version of the poem is this one that I also moved around a bit myself to get the best effect. I was pretty happy with it. All the words are mine, some of the order is too, but some of the order and repetition is algorithm generated, which is then modified by me. A collaboration with a set of rules I suppose, an attempt at Coleridge’s quip about poetry as “the best words in the best order”.
This idea is not new of course. Procedural poetry has been around for at least sixty years. Of particular note is the France based group Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or roughly translated “workshop of potential literature.” Oulipo defines potential literature as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” Which I felt was true for me in this poem as new patterns evolved out of the algorithm’s constraints and also I did enjoy it.
I was thinking about all this as I went to develop the video which I’m hoping has that spiralling feeling to it. I also re-use video segments throughout, sometimes repeating them and sometimes reversing them. Like the poem there is a limited number of elements in the video and these are mixed into the flow, up against different elements, sometimes changing direction. And the photographs of the apples is used in many different ways. There is also the spiralling text which enacts this whole idea with the poem’s title propogating, moving, changing size and spinning in different directions.
Hope you appreciate the video. Here’s where you can see thebook that has the poem.
And this video gallery is being developed with funding from: