Confessions of a Cyborg Poet: Gnoetry, eRoGK7, and Human-Computer Poetry Generation

by Eric Goddard-Scovel, Guest Contributor

A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.
—Gertrude Stein

I am sometimes eRoGK7 and sometimes Eric Goddard-Scovel in my writing. eRoGK7 is the identity I take on when I interact with Gnoetry 0.2 and other interactive poetry programs; it is an androidgenous© entity who can be a Trickster—mischievous, troublesome, wild and political to excess—or something mysterious, witty, spiritual or sensual. It is a mask I put on, and it’s never clear what exactly each new writing project will bring out of it/me.

Figure 1: The Gnoetry 0.2 interface. The program’s output is presented for the user/writer to shape into a poem draft.

Figure 1: The Gnoetry 0.2 interface. The program’s output is presented for the user/writer to shape into a poem draft.

Gnoetry 0.2 works like this:

  1. You select a form (haiku, tanka, renga, blank verse or syllabic free verse).
  2. Next, source texts are selected.
  3. The program cuts these up and files them away in a statistical database.
  4. The interface comes up (Figure 1) that presents you with output from the database to keep or regenerate as you like. In the output, each word and punctuation mark has its own box, so you can highlight and regenerate individual words, phrases, lines, or all of the output from the database as you feel the need to.
  5. You keep highlighting, regenerating, and moving through the output until you are satisfied or otherwise done with it.

Writing with Gnoetry is like playing a game called “What is the best poem you can sculpt from this language?” Since I approach it as though it was a game or puzzle, it makes me feel less like the author of the poems I create through it—less an owner and more a participant—so I feel much freer to experiment and less anxious about writing about sensitive or possibly offensive subjects.

Projects with Gnoetry always begin as experiments, and I rarely know what will work or not until I try several variations out. Like a DJ, I remix and sample from source texts of my choosing. I have used literary, philosophical, and historical texts as input for various projects, as well as collections of blog posts, journal or news articles, erotica, etc. I work on the right mix of input texts while I create test poems, continuing until something coherent begins to emerge that has integrity and a life-world of its own, and which seems capable of developing into a series. Some of the most important work in putting a series together this way is preparation: conceptualizing what kinds of sources and language I would like to work with in the program and considering how the poems I write with Gnoetry might be read and understood intertextually with the source texts. After that is sketched out, the rest of it comes down to honing and trusting my intuition, and there are unavoidably mistakes that I make along the way. It is often slow, deliberate, and messy work, but it has become the process I am most comfortable with—for the time being at least.

When I first started to work with Gnoetry, I found I could write in ways that had been blocked to me before. I could be multiple or multitudes, as I wished. Over several years, writing with Gnoetry and other programs became a very normal process, and now it feels more natural than writing in other ways.

I originally moved to writing with computer-mediated processes because, simply enough, I found the output of text generators fascinating, and still do. To put a more intellectual spin on it, I also decided that, since I had grown uncomfortable with the idea of developing my own voice, and writing poetry with text-generating programs seriously disrupted the flow of my own ego (in the Buddhist sense of a mistakenly real and permanent self), these methods made my writing a less self-concerned activity. Being a Buddhist and an admirer of Leslie Scalapino, Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, I decided that it was be a noble path to take. I don’t cling anymore to illusions of the ego being removed from my writing—pretty much a futile pursuit, as Mac Low discusses in “Poetry and Pleasure.” One of the underlying actions to almost all writing—choosing what language to keep and what language to exclude—is also one of the ego’s central processes. I like to think now that I am constantly constructing new ego-identities in my writing, picking which voices rising out of the digital noise are to be performed in the poems. I have chosen to focus on developing new styles to fit new textual circumstances instead of developing a personal poetic voice.

I’ve been writing with Gnoetry since 2007, and it’s fair to say that since then it has almost completely replaced the way I used to write. Probably 95% of what I’ve written with it, good and bad, has been posted to Gnoetry Daily, a group blog of computer-poets and poet-programmers. Most of my writing is written in series, each adhering to a shared form and source lexicon. Gnoetry makes serial writing a practical choice, not just in the sense that the act of repeating one’s process comes naturally out of the generative and form-based set up of Gnoetry, but also that the game-like interface seems to beg the user to ask, “Could I make another poem as good or better than this one?” Discovery, surprise and reinvention are what drive my writing, the startling juxtapositions and conjunctions of ideas that come out of this activity regularly making me wonder what else I could do with it and how far I could go with a single source text or source grouping.

My current project (filed under “Stein Poems” on Gnoetry Daily) is a series of poems written in collaboration with Gnoetry 0.2 and jGnoetry, a web-based javascript implementation of Gnoetry 0.2 (no installation required!), which uses a broad selection of Gertrude Stein’s compositions as their central source texts. Composed one sentence at a time and pieced together in a plain text editor, I use the act of writing from her texts as a means to engage with them beyond the reading and contemplation which I already do. The intellectual intensity of Stein’s writing and the deep insights she makes into loving-being and the basic internal experiences of feeling can be explored in new and personal ways through the repeated act of reading/writing (a form of what Charles Bernstein calls “wreading”). I am particularly fixated on the statement that each being has an inner-world which is all its own, while it simultaneously depends upon so many other beings, events and circumstances for its identity. I explore this and other ideas and imaginings through Gnoetry/jGnoetry while also allowing for unexpected, startling and delightful statements to find their way into the poems as well. It is a form of play that I work at quite seriously, and ideally it will result in a manifestation of loving-being which would not exist but for such programs and my creative efforts.

Note: If you are curious about the programs I have discussed or are interested in installing Gnoetry 0.2 on your own computer, you should contact me at escovel@gmail.com. The installation is not simple, but I will gladly guide you through it. You might try using jGnoetry first to get a feel for it, although it differs slightly from Gnoetry 0.2. Anyone writing poetry in conjunction with any text generators, digitally automated processes, translation programs, chatbots, etc., is welcome to joinGnoetry Daily and share their computer poetry with everyone there. Just contact me at the e-mail address above to become a member.