My 1st born-digital poem: “Tournedo Gorge”

Posted by admin in Electronic Literature | 3 Comments

Reader –> Critic –> Tinkerer. Maker? Does it count as “making” if you steal the code?

I read e-lit for two years. Increasingly, I wanted to make it. Here’s my first digital poem, “Tournedo Gorge.”

Last Sunday, my first e-lit conference, “ELO12: Electrifying Literature,” came to a close. It was hugely exciting and inspiring. To hang out with artists I’ve read, and whose works have reinvigorated my love of literature, was heady. It was also sweaty: we tromped the hilly campus at West Virginia University at Morgantown in hot, humid air. Panels started at 8:30AM and ran all day until 7. Then we ate dinner and hung out at the local pub until 2. I saw a lot of amazing new work from Jason Nelson, Alan Bigelow, Erik Loyer, Fox Harrell, Bill Bly, Caitlin Fisher, Laura Zaylea, Jody Zellen. I played with some work in beta from Jason Lewis and Samantha Gorman. Maria Mencia debuted her new piece, Mimesis, on our panel. I presented my first e-lit interpretation, “Geolocative Storytelling Off the Map,” a reading of how audio elements in the fiction L.A. Flood implace the reader uniquely at a site, and operate differently from a map’s visual elements.

The immersion in art and the conversation with artists about how art gets made — so many conversations — recombined with everything I brought with me to the conference. All those lexia and desire. It nudged me into alignment. A week ago right now I was flying over the midwest from ELO12 back to my home in Portland, Oregon; today I’m publishing my 1st born-digital poem, “Tournedo Gorge.”

I copied Nick Montfort‘s code for his generative poem “Taroko Gorge” and filled the variables with my own words and context. Inspired by the panel featuring Nick and six others who’ve remixed “Taroko Gorge,” I came up with a concept and spent the last two days noodling around in javascript to see how it would render.

[I knew nothing of javascript, btw. I had to figure out how to run js in a browser, to give you a sense of how new this is to me. There are still some lines in the code I can’t quite parse. That’s OK. I raced through to find out what happens next, how it would look, whether I could get it to run, whether it made sense. Now I can go back and remove bits of code, run it in the browser to see what each logical operator does in the sequence Nick laid out. If I want to.]

Nick’s script is short, about 130 lines. It is concise and beautiful. Twitter pal Lee Skallerup asked me during ELO12: what is e-lit? What should I read? A close reading of Nick’s poem and the subsequent remixes could go a long way toward answering that question. It’s a pretty neat trick Nick’s done, to excise the “sole genius” from British romantic poetry and replace it with a perpetually generative algorithm that is itself so malleable that it can be appropriated into many different contexts. Scott Rettberg made Machinima-animated clown speaking a rocknroll Taroko. J.R. Carpenter made 3 remixes (“they’re addictive,” she admitted during the panel); my favorite is Along the Briny Beach, which braids pieces of Bishop, Carroll, Darwin and Conrad. Mark Sample did a funny and moving “Takei, George” (that was also Mark’s first work of e-lit, as “Tournedo” is mine.) Talan Memmott‘s “Toy Garbage” strips kid culture of the illusion of innocence.

I’m a code novice. (More on this here and here.) But I’m an intuitive cook because I’ve now been cooking so long and so experimentally that I understand the capacities of the different elements in any given meal preparation. When you know what you’re doing, you can monkey with procedure. I’m teaching my daughter to cook this summer and I hear myself issuing all kinds of commands with conditions: don’t stir the eggs too much because it will toughen the protein; but stir the eggs in this case to loosen the bacon bits from the metal pan; you couldn’t do this in Teflon because the bacon wouldn’t have stuck in the first place, and your spatula might tear the Teflon coating.

Which is not all that unlike:
function path() {
var p=rand_range(1);
var words=choose(above);
if ((words==’recipe’)&&(rand_range(3)==1)) {
words=’firstChild ‘+choose(trans);
} else {
words+=s[p]+’ ‘+choose(trans)+s[(p+1)%2];
words+=’ the ‘+choose(below)+choose(s)+’.’;
return words;

I wrote “Tournedo Gorge” because I wanted to mash the space of computation with the female, domestic, and tactile. Early on in ELO12, about six women found ourselves in the john by the sinks talking about code (Flourish, Maria, Claire, Amaranth?). I was interested by this. Even though there was nothing at all condemnatory about men or the environment of coding, etc., etc., nevertheless there we were: women standing in a lopsided circle in the only physical space expressly marked as female, talking about what we can and can’t do with code. A conversation that didn’t persist when we walked out the bathroom door.

I don’t know js. Working on this poem, I now know one pinky-fingernail-shaving’s worth of js. But I also don’t *not* know js.

I’ve decided for now that what I know and don’t know is irrelevant. The question is, do I have what I need in order to author? Turns out that if I don’t, I’ll acquire it.

I seized the chance to use js expressively. Nick’s code made it possible. I scribbled and scribbled in that primer. I doodled my experience as a mom and wife algorithmically.

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3 Responses to My 1st born-digital poem: “Tournedo Gorge”

  1. Jeff_TheLocationAware_guy says:

    I should point out that the first programmer was Lady Ada Lovelace , Lord Byron’s daughter.

    During the early years of computing, aka, the vacuum tube era, designing and building the computers was considered desirable, insert manly. So the programming was left to women. Literally all the early programmers were female mathematicians. Brilliant ladies all.

    And Grace Hopper? The boys club owes her a debt it can never repay.

    So you and Flourish, Maria, Claire, Amaranth, you should be talking outside the ladies room, down the corridor and into the lecture hall.

  2. A beautiful meditation on — and foray into — the art of code-cooking.

  3. Pingback: Post Position » Taroko Gorge: The Vandalism Continues!

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