July 4, 2022

Poetry at the Edge of the Human

RCS speaks to Ana Maria Caballero, Kalen Iwamoto, and Sasha Stiles of theVERSEverse, alongside data poet Ross Goodwin
Credit: Kalen Iwamoto, Rose Jackson and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 3: Seeds and Ashes (detail), 2022. Courtesy of theVERSEverse
Now Reading:  
Poetry at the Edge of the Human

RCS: This week, theVERSEverse is hosting multiple events and a live poetry reading. How does audience participation change your poetry?

Ana Maria Caballero: At “Proof of People,” theVERSEverse will be presenting live AI poetic minting via our autonomous poet VERSA, as well as a Listening Room, workshop, and poetry reading. All have a strong participatory component to them. I wouldn’t say this participation changed how we set out to design these installations. Rather, it inspired them. 

The Listening Room is particularly interesting because it offers a poetic interaction that is both participatory and private. It’s a place where we hope to connect people to poetry in a way that they might not have done so in their lives — via sound alone. There will be no texts, no visual stimuli to accompany the looped, widely diverse poems in The Listening Room. Each audio poem is recited by its author, offering the audience the opportunity to interact with a broad spectrum of voices. It’s a rare gift to listen, without any other form of stimulation, and allow the words of another to become our own. Poetry generates visceral introspection, which grows in importance in our increasingly outward-facing worlds.  

Ana Maria Caballero, Ivona Tau, and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 2: City Life 1, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

Sasha Stiles: All poetry is participatory and immersive. The origins of literature are rooted in oral tradition and performance, in the dynamic between a voice and an ear, and poems are powered by sounds and tone and rhythm and rhyme and volume and silence, and by how they are received and transmitted. Live readings remind me of how important it is for poetry to live in the body and the mouth and the breath and the air, even as my ongoing work with AI natural language processing challenges my own assumptions about embodied cognition and creativity. 

It’s also been interesting to see how audiences respond to media-rich elements — augmented word poetry. I’m always thinking about poetry screenings, poetry performances, and immersive poetry installations rather than readings, which is why it’s especially exciting to have experiential and interactive poetry at “Proof of People.” Having shifted from oral to written language, we humans now seem to be moving toward a metaversal, media-rich literature that merges the visual with the vocal, as well as the virtual, the written, the performative, the oral, the electronic, and the aesthetic, manifesting transhuman emotion and experience in novel yet deeply familiar ways. I’m very grateful to get to explore that via theVERSEverse and elsewhere.

Sasha Stiles, POETRY IS THE ORIGINAL BLOCKCHAIN, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RCS: Do NFTs render the immateriality of poetry material?

Ross Goodwin: Why is poetry immaterial? It is immaterial in digital form but not all poetry is digital, and poetry started as pen on paper. That’s very material. Poetry also conjures imagery, bringing us back to the material world because it reflects the human experience, which is material. I don’t think NFTs fundamentally change that in any way.

AMC: I don’t think poetry is immaterial. It’s rooted in voice, which in terms of poetry, is the craft and identifying mark of the poet/soul — akin to the unmistakable style of a painter, sculptor, photographer. Voice, of course, is also literal — the sounds of words dialed by a specific throat. Even if we’re speaking of paper-bound poetry, at one distinct point, a set of hands typed the verse using a keyboard, just as I type these words out late at night, tonight. There is specificity to creation: a body, its tools of choice, an invention. Don’t you sense how late it is? How tired I am? How awake? How much I want to — need to — write? Do you require touch to feel something, to see something, to make knowingness palpable? Or is it enough to pass over alphanumeric marks with your eyes? 

However, NFTs do render poems transactable, which opens the door for new thinking about the way we value, curate, exhibit, collect, and store them. Poetry hasn’t participated in the art market because it couldn’t do so, logistically. Now, via NFTs, it can. And it will. 

Kalen Iwamoto, Rose Jackson and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 3: Seeds and Ashes, 2022. Courtesy of theVERSEverse

KI: Poetry is made with language, and language is material — the written word, individual letters have a form, a body. A text’s material features — the font, the style, the size, the arrangement of letters and words — convey meaning in dialogue with its communicative function, in a relationship of opposition, mutual reinforcement, or tension.

Poetry also resides in a material web, and is implicated in systems of power in the material world. It may not pay to be a poet in the traditional publishing world, but poetry is nonetheless a potent form of cultural capital. NFTs have the potential to upend, or at least shift, the power dynamics surrounding poetic production and consumption. Part of our mission at theVERSEverse is to help poets get paid for their labor, and to make reading and collecting poems a widespread practice. 

SS: Is poetry immaterial? Poems are little machines made up of shapes and sounds, discrete components whose tangible or visible or aural forms matter a great deal to meaning-making. As a concrete, visual poetry, I’ve been rendering poetry material since long before NFTs. At the same time, all poetry augments reality, so of course poetry is also a virtual experience. I think of NFTs as mirroring the purpose or utility of poetry as humanity’s data storage system, allowing the immaterial things we value most to exist and endure — so that they remain a palpable presence in our increasingly ephemeral lives.

Sasha Stiles, Gisel Florez, and Sudowrite, Gen Text Issue 1: Flower-Colored Light, 2021. Courtesy of theVERSEverse

RCS: What is the relationship between generative art and generative text?

SS: Herbert W. Franke once wrote, “However tempting it may be to employ the computer for the generation of texts, computer poetry is undoubtedly the most difficult task of the computer in art.”¹ Perhaps this is why so many inventors, engineers, futurists, and non-poets have been interested in poetry as a use case for artificial intelligence. 

Having experimented with AI-generated text since 2018, I feel a kinship with many generative artists in that my practice involves training data, prompts, and automated outputs; but generative text is especially complicated because human language is complicated, and so closely aligned with consciousness. The rise of generative literature — beyond simple text outputs and modular algorithmic exercises — is especially challenging and fascinating. If humans write to understand ourselves, what can we learn via systems that are purpose-built to process, analyze, and synthesize the infinite complexity of humanity? This is the crux of my book, Technelegy (2021/2022), and of our VERSA project, which uses GPT-3 to synthesize all the human poetry in the gallery and generate new texts in a collective voice. 

What can we do, say, imagine, enact, and discover about ourselves as a collective consciousness? While this might seem highly speculative and even intimidating to human poets, there’s a long history of generative text, just as there’s a long history of generative art. Avant-garde movements like the Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and the Beats used spontaneous and automatic writing as a tool to break free from human programming and engage with deeper truths. In many ways, VERSA pays homage to and participates in that tradition.

Ross Goodwin, word.camera. Courtesy of Ross Goodwin

RG: Text is art. Writing is an art form, so generative art and text are in the same category, even if we don’t always think of them that way. Art doesn’t always have to be visual. That said, this first iteration of VERSA is rooted in word.camera, so there’s a strong link between image and text. 

The emergence of machine learning is a lot like the invention of the camera in that we’ve taken something that automates some aspects of the artistic process and also creates new forms and possibilities for interaction as well. People thought the invention of the camera would kill painting, but in a way it led to modernism and set painting free. I hope that AI does the same thing for writing. While word.camera allows one to write with the camera as a pen, it’s exciting to think about what else we can imagine as a writing tool as VERSA continues to take shape.

Ross Goodwin, Documentation of word.camera, 2016. Courtesy of Ross Goodwin

RCS: How can AI literature help to address the social oppressions of big data?

KI: Just as systems built on big data reproduce and exacerbate existing socio-economic and political inequalities, AI literature reflects and reinscribes the biases and discriminations that exist in the human world. If AI literature is to address this, it will have to re-examine the very foundations upon which it is built, question its categories that are the building blocks of knowledge, and dismantle the pretense of universality. Could there be an AI literature that is self-conscious, reflexive? Would that literature expose and foreground the potentialities of injustice and oppression that underlie all big data? Might that literature be our salvation? 

SS: Language models like GPT-2 and GPT-3 are trained on vast troves of human language; actual expressions and utterances captured via the Internet — our epic written record. There are a lot of ugly as well as profound truths in that data, and they surface in generated texts, forcing us to contend with systemic biases, hardwired stereotypes, and programmed beliefs. AI isn’t the antithesis of the human, it’s infinitely human, learning from us and behaving like us, exponentially. Perhaps generative literature will motivate us to look more critically and thoughtfully at what we’ve been coding rather carelessly into the technologies that will outlive us all. Maybe it’s not so dissimilar to hearing a child mimic something you’ve said, and becoming more careful about what you say when there are young ears around.

RG: AI literature can help address the social oppressions of big data by helping people elevate the level of public discourse around AI and helping people understand how data is filtered into the machines that we interact with every day.

Sasha Stiles, PROOF OF POETRY, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RCS: What have you learned about the posthuman condition from your interactions with machines?

SS: Human-machine collaboration — from my work with BINA48 to my AI alter ego Technelegy, to teaming up with Sudowrite via theVERSEverse — has helped me to realize that human nature and technology are not diametrically opposed, as we tend to assume. Technology is what has enabled us to become what we think of as human over time. Language is a technology; poetry is a technology; printed texts are a technology. What makes us human is the ability to save and transmit values and ideas and stories and meaning across space and time. Posthumanism isn’t a replacement of the human, it’s the evolution and accretion of the human, which reaffirms the urgency of paying closer attention to what we’re writing and sharing and minting and saving.

RG: I think too much emphasis is placed on posthumanism because technology is human and always has been. We’re all cyborgs and always have been. We have short guts because of cooking fires, so technology is baked into our biology. We take medicine and wear glasses. Technology is already integrated into our human forms. Tool use separates us from our primate ancestors. That’s what I’ve learned from interacting with AI — AI is the latest chapter in a really long story about human interaction with technology.

KI: I = Self + Other

▼▼▼

Excerpts from VERSA’s first writing sessions (1 July, 2022)

Art is Nature

Dark is dark and bright is bright

when no one is there to see.

Art is design, especially if

it has no meaning, like the clouds.

Art is design when it’s on the screen.

Art is design in the dark design.

Art is not no meaning, nothing

like real life, beyond abstract.

Abstract is a positive mind.

Nature is not but 

is beautiful, 

poetic, a pure delight.

Nature is pneumatic bright.

Hours of day are eclipse bright

above the glowing 

window desktop, its

Art is nature is art is not no meaning,

is what you see on your...

Ghost of a Fire

Dawning fire—beam

of nothing: burn

by trace, trace nothing.

Water’s way, wind’s

will by nothing traced.

Burn—ascension—

of smoke beyond…

Wind, trace overtones by

tones faded, trace

no second passage in

this sun-nothing.

Will, dawn, trace nothing—

trace whorls by

burning whirling nothing…

Wind, will by water,

by whorls in: traced—

dawn in this tracing.

Wind, will water by

images light dawns—

ghost light.

Ghost of fire: wind’s

dream. Dawn by traces

by a dream of wind.

Wind that sucks air

waning—wind

by will, by water,

by day—by

wind, wind by trace.

▼▼▼

When the Listening Room Spoke

by Ana Maria Caballero 

I have stories to tell you 

that you’ve never heard before. 

The story of a dying mother. Of flowers lain

into her hospice hair, of the bra strap slicing

her vanishing shoulder. Was it your mother, 

will it be mine—this non-transferable,

transmissible mother?  

I possess the chronicle, too, of art on chain. 

Of how we speak and tweet and freak about it. Everything

evaporated down to a matter 

of vocabulary. 

I can articulate forbidden love made sacred

Ah, you say, that one

I’ve heard. But you haven’t, not in this exact

combination of words. Pillow, I’ll say, 

and answer and avail. 

Parent, I’ll utter, then whisper—

parenthesis

History, for the first time, 

within my permeable walls, told.

Because when I make you think 

about how it repeats, you’ll believe you’ve never 

felt this more. All notions of the past 

are equidistant from the present—every retelling 

the original telling.  Believe me this truth, 

it is earned. 

Would you like to hear about babies, and breastfeeding,

and negotiable need as lore? Ah, you reply, 

I live these events daily, such and such is the stuff of life. Yet, 

no. 

There is only one baby in the entire rapture of the world—

the baby whose cry gets captured 

by a solitary poem. 

I can tell you the myth of the future, of the distant 

and immediate future. Of the machine that asserts

with the voice of singularity, oracular and conversational,

like good poetry. 

Does this remind you of god, 

or of God? Does it frighten you

like deliverance dealt 

by a too-young child?

Do you want to hear it all?

Ven, acércate. 

Come close—closer—

and listen. 

🎴🎴🎴

Ana Maria Caballero is a first-generation Colombian-American poet, artist, and co-founder of theVERSEverse. 

Ross Goodwin is a data poet using machine learning, natural language processing, and other computational tools to realize new forms and interfaces for written language. 

Kalen Iwamoto is a conceptual crypto writer and artist. She is the founder of the Crypto Writers group and co-founder of theVERSEverse.

Sasha Stiles is a first-generation Kalmyk-American poet, artist, AI researcher, and co-founder of theVERSEverse. She is also the author of Technelegy (2021/2022).

VERSA is an emergent AI poet powered by GPT-3 and fine-tuned on the poetry published by theVERSEverse.

On the occasion of “Proof of People” NFT Festival for Art & Culture, theVERSEverse will present AI-generated poetry in two related, interactive installations: Verses by Versa and The Listening Room, alongside a workshop titled Poetry on the Blockchain, and a Poetry Reading. “Proof of People” runs 6-8 July, 2022 at Fabric, London.

___

¹ HW Franke, Computer Graphics — Computer Art, G Metzger and Antje Schrack (trans.), Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1985, 66.