#MYAGE: Poetry, Twitter and a New Way of Interacting With Text (with Bill Lessard and Clive Thompson)

Bill and Bill and Bill and Bill and Bill and Bill and Bill… (Courtesy of William Lessard)

On Dec 12 I went out to Mellow Pages in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to read some poetry with my friend Bill Lessard, at his event #MYAGE.

Here’s the explanation of the collaboration poem, from tech and culture journalist Clive Thompson, who introduced Bill at the event. Thompson explains:

“He’d printed up a bunch of tweet-length utterances and everyone in the room made a huge conga line, and we circled around each picking one randomly out of a bag and reading it out loud.”

In addition to me, as a warmer-upper, there were numerous readers there (Bud Smith, Alexandra Wuest, Emily Toder, John Deming, Theo Thimo, and Madeleine Alpert ) and they were great. As I was standing, listening, I began to feel dizzy… like I was drunk. It was just connecting… the words and the delivery… and the crowd… and the space… transcendent night…Once the readers got all of our minds pliable, Clive began to talk to us about technology and poetry… and introduced the poet, the main man, head honcho Bill Lessard, in a roundabout way. Roundabout is fine with me.

I got to talk with both of these guys over email about the reading, and their opinions on tech in poetry, and the New York Poetry scene.


Clive Thompson is a culture and tech writer who writes for magazines such as WIRED and The New York Times Magazine. He publishes the blog Collision Detection. Warning, younguns, he uses words such as floppy disk and DOS, so you might want to keep a dictionary handy.

Interview by Josh Medsker

Josh Medsker: How did Bill approach you about the reading, that is, how did the conversation go? And (for a little background) what experience have you had with the intersection of computers and poetry? smile emoticon

Clive Thompson: Bill initially pinged me on Facebook to see if I’d be into helping MC his poetry event, and since I read a crazy amount of poetry and heavily dig Bill’s work — I met him when I interviewed him about his “Netslaves” site back in 1999 — I immediately said yes. I’ve been to some of Bill’s previous poetry events and they’re always a blast.

As for my background in poetry and technology: I studied literature at the University of Toronto in the late 80s and early 90s, focusing heavily on poetry. I worked on the editorial staff of several campus literary journals, and since I was a long-computer computer and science nerd, I was always particularly interested in the intersection of those domains.

and Clive. (photo by Tom Igoe)

When I graduated in 1992, I worked for a year for the League of Canadian Poets, helping to do office work and organize funding for poetry readings. During lunch I used to wander around the computer stores on Queen Street in Toronto, and one day I found a shareware DOS “poetry generator” on a floppy disk. I bought it, installed it back at the League offices, and generated a few dozen poems. Even though you could see the repeated phrases (maybe *because* you could see the repeated phrases) the poems were shockingly good; I showed them to the head of the League and we agreed that if they’d actually been written by a live human, they’d have no problem becoming a member of the organization. So I got interested in various iterations of the famous Turing test: When can machines so well emulate human speech and composition that we believe they’re human.

This helped created a much larger interest in the ways that technology affects the way we think and communicate. I knew I wanted to be magazine journalist, so when I started freelancing I gravitated immediately to any story that let me study how new tools were tweaking everyday life — everything from email to IM to SMS to digital cameras to early blogging, social networking, and now wearables, geolocation tech, basically anything. I actually think my background in literature was incredibly useful in guiding what I find interesting. Often when a new technology comes along, people wonder how it’s going to make life more efficient, get more things done, create new industries, destroy old industries, etc. I’m more interested in how people are going to use it to horse around, hassle each other, write strange new forms of utterances and conduct odd new types of conversations — in other words, how they’re going to use it to be more *inefficient*.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that the compressed space of the writing box imposes an inadvertently poetic compression on how people write.

JM: What was would you say was the most memorable part of the evening?

CT: Hands down, [it] was during Bill’s poetic experiment. He’d printed up a bunch of tweet-length utterances and everyone in the room made a huge conga line, and we circled around each picking one randomly out of a bag and reading it out loud. About halfway through, a guy who seemed visibly irritated at the whole shebang got to the bag, pulled out a tweet, and said — loudly — something to the effect of “I am SO OVER THIS”, and then stormed out. Everyone was riveted and shocked for a second, whereupon most of us realized this was probably the highlight of the entire event: Someone *huffing* in the middle of a poetry reading. Bill assured us he hadn’t pre-arranged it.

JM: What will our new world of social media (and citizen journalism!) mean for the creative writers? What’s the new tenor of #myage?

CT: That’s a super interesting question — albeit one *very* hard to answer. That’s because these are tools for conversation and publishing — or, to use Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase, “tools for thought” — and people are awfully diverse: We’re all thinking and obsessing about different things, with different people, for different reasons. It’s as hard to answer as the question, “how will sequentially arranged words and text affect civilization?”, or “how will conversation change civilization?”

The difference now is that so much of our conversation takes place in public, in front of other people. This notably catalyzes some absolutely terrible behavior: Feeling protected by distance and pseudo-anonymity, far too many people feel free to uncork a ton of vicious behavior — epic racism, misogyny, and crazy pack behavior that pulls off both, like gamergate. But it also catalyzes some truly wonderful and remarkable behaviors: People working harder to say intelligent or memorable things, people discovering like-minded souls with similar passions, people using these weird new forms of communication to talk in odd new ways — as with nearly every form of instant messaging or chat or SMS, which is so strung between the poles of asynchronous writing and fully synchronous speech that I’ve yet to find any good literary theory (or cognitive or linguistic one, even) that fully explains how it works.

Movable type had the same destabilizing effect. It greatly increased the number of people who could speak, at great distance, to the public, and greatly increased the range of things they could talk *about* — but the ensuing decades in Europe had a ton of lunatic passions, hate speech and war that was ably assisted by Gutenbergian printing.

That last answer is a bit of a copout. It’s a hard one to answer briefly! I tackle it more in depth in my book, Smarter than You Think, so I will shamelessly pimp it here.


Mr. Lessard’s work has appeard in Be About It, Maintainance, WIRED, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Sensitive Skin, and Entropy, among other publications. He currently runs the firm PR with Brains. (www.prwithbrains.com)

Interview by Josh Medsker

Josh Medsker: How did the #MyAge night go in your opinion? Were there any moments that stood out to you? (And how did the #MyAge piece itself come across, do you think? I thought it was pretty epic. Were you pleased with its form, execution, and so on? AND once the video is posted, will we see a transcribed version of the poem somewhere?

WILLIAM LESSARD: It was a great performance. People dug what we were doing. Everyone participated. Some even got back on the line to read several times. Next time, I would love to take things to the next level and have the tweets coming out of thongs and lingerie.

I am having trouble with the video. I hope to have it posted in the next few days. There won’t be a transcript of the performance, but everything is pointing at getting a book out. In the meantime, the best place to see everything in black and white is by following me on Twitter at @YoDollaBill.

at Mellow Pages, with owners Jacob and Matt. (Courtesy of Mellow Pages)

Josh Medsker: Poetry Burlesque? Will the poets be in pasties in g-strings?  I am getting back down to my fighting weight.  I could rock a teddy like a boss.

I was thinking back to what you said at the reading about how–currently–New York is constantly pushing out its artists… and how the old, revered avant / alt scenes (as great as they were) should be left in the past (I’m paraphrasing).

WL: Mellow Pages is the greatest spot in NYC to see cutting-edge writing. They are the only ones who would allow such a wild, fun show. They are contemporary writing’s answer to the Knitting Factory and Max’s Kansas City. People need to show their support by becoming members. The alternative is letting this city turn into a shopping mall for rich people .

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