Thom Donovan / Machine Writing Questionnaire, Part 1

Thom Donovan

The following questionnaire was composed in hopes of surveying others for TCR. Since I didn’t get too many takers, I thought I’d take a crack at the questions myself. I hope the responses are interesting. If you would like to publish your answers to the questionnaire please contact me at

Machine Writing Questionnaire / Part 1:

1. To what extent do you consider your writing/aesthetic practice a collaboration with machines? Describe in detail.

2. Do you feel that your writing could be reduced (more or less) to a procedure or algorithm? Would a computing process (algorithm, program, or app) be able to successfully reproduce what you make/do?

Please backchannel with responses to the questionnaire at

1. To what extent do you consider your writing/aesthetic practice a collaboration with machines? Describe in detail.

Donovan: Since I still write in notebooks before using a word processor to ‘compose,’ I would say that my work/writing remains in the pre-digital era. That said, I think this statement is somewhat inaccurate inasmuch as the decision to continue writing with the ‘hand’ is always in relation to digital technology—the ways that computers and cybernetic cultural in general have reconditioned the ways that we think, write, behave, interact with others, and process information. How could we not be impacted by the existence of these machines, which many of us use on a more or less constant basis now? Whereas we might say modernist collage, montage, and assemblage practices (which many contemporary artists still practice obviously) conditioned avant-garde aesthetic production, bringing writing out of the Victorian age (as so many have argued since Pound), these techniques have become both accelerated and qualitatively altered by the evolution of digital media. While Google poetry, for instance, is essentially collagist, the databases and algorithms it draws upon did not exist before the early 2000’s, just as non-linear film/video editing has altered the way that films are produced and distributed.

Writing in a notebook, I recognize that there are technological conditions unfolding and being made visible from ‘within’ myself, and that writing (on or off screen) continues to mediate these conditions no matter what I do or what anti-technological attitudes I have recourse to. I also recognize that one may access different prosodies depending on whether they work on a keyboard, where the desire to proceed recursively is more or less constant, or in a notebook, which at least for me tends to both create a more ‘organic’ rhythm and to inspire accidents of the hand that often differ from the accidents of keyboard (where accident is made possible through all technological phenomena, as Paul Virilio constantly reminds/warns us).

Similarly, there can be a ‘heaviness’ about handwriting, which makes us aware of an inevitable delay between thought (conceived as Logos) and its inscription. It slows us down, paces us differently, creating lapses, ellipses, syllogisms. There is a writing that occurs later—in the ‘typing up’ of what is in the notebooks, the ‘laying out’ using word processors and online formats—that is more reliant on digital technology and obviously less linear, however also prone to accident, albeit of a different kind (typo being the most common).

Here, what was handwritten can be mined, selected, sorted, sculpted, and curated into something else. The ease of digital cut and paste makes possible any number of modifications to what may have been written in a single notebook over a two-year (or many more years) period of accretion. This is the way I have composed most of my poems to date. By using, as primary material, notebook entries and jottings. Sometimes the writing undergoes very little transformation; though often it is transformed radically in its migration from notebook to digital format (usually Word doc or PDF) or online site. I have often thought of writing in notebooks as a way of ‘exercising’ as much as a way of accreting, notating, and collating. I have also thought of writing by hand as a way of training a muscle memory of writing without the use of computers and other digital prosthetics, while fully realizing that writing itself of any sort is always prosthetic—for memory, for thought and discourse.

At the risk of mystification, I have also had the intuition sometimes that less technology can bring one closer to a process coextensive with (their) embodiment (and I write about this little in an essay I wrote regarding “Somatic Poetics,” for Jacket 2). Until very recently, it was always a drag to carry around a laptop with you. Now we obviously have smart phones and tablets that have changed the way we can use portable devices to notate and compose. Perhaps, I have wondered too, how writing with ones hands might bring me closer to what I call “idiolect,” a term Robert Kocik uses to describe the poems in my book The Hole. Could this actually be a more accurate term than “lyric” or “expressive,” which have often been used to distinguish poetic writing that is not reliant on collage, assemblage, constraint, procedure, algorithm, or appropriation? I associate idiolect too with language that is both radically particular and eccentric, originating with rhythms and cadences and peculiarities of a singular writing practice, while also touching something that partakes of a commonplace of contemporary language use (vernacular, idiom, dialect). In this way, it may be similar to a “nation language” (Kamau Braithwaite) or a “minor literature” (Deleuze/Guattari). Kocik also distinguishes idiolect by its evocation of the “first-person-plural”; the way one may invoke collective subjects through an “I” that is neither entirely an extension of the singular or the multiple, but an expression of their simultaneous and mutual articulation.

Writing poems without the use of collage, assemblage, and/or appropriation/recontextualization (via Internet or another source) we start to settle into certain phrases, rhythmic patters, and prosodies that may reflect the influence of affects and sensations unbeknownst to ourselves, prosodies that naturally occur with an attention to a sustained practice of writing both with and beyond a set of recognizable discursive practices. (And to see a prosody evolve over the course of lifework or multiple books has always fascinated me.)

The discursive is always there channeling (through) us, however we might find a different way through it (to undergo it) by eschewing the use of found or collected language. I would consider notable exceptions to this idea, writers who only use found or collected language in the interest of mediating certain affects in the wider culture. I think this may start with Acker, though it continues in many contemporary writers’ work, in both positive and negative ways. For instance, I admire the criticality that a writer like Rachel Zolf brings to her use of appropriation—all of the text she uses is found.

The fact that found /collected language can overdetermine has always seemed the risk of working towards a recontextualized writing. Especially when the writer doesn’t have a basic attention to their own ‘ear’—the way they attend the prosodic and subtle values of language—or sensitivity to/awareness of their situation of address. Then again, I understand why many writers have wanted to use collage and appropriation techniques to ‘get beyond’ (which is to say, displace) established writing habits. Often I use collage, procedure, constraint, and appropriative writings assignments precisely for this purpose with my students. To prompt them to try on different masks, voices, methods, techniques. To alienate themselves.

Often through recontextualization, one may get at a linguistic realism that is hard to produce otherwise; one may also reproduce language that has become overcodified gesturally. Bruce Andrews’ collage practice strikes me in this way; as risking the reproduction of those codified gestures (very much like some of Yvonne Rainer’s choreography, which to me is always both reproductive and in excess of a certain range of culturally encoded gestures). At his most virtuosic, Bruce is wreaking havoc on language codes, beating them into a phonemic pulp. Another value of cut and paste/appropriation (and I guess this is what some people have been saying about conceptualist writing practices for some time now) is that one can ‘write to read’ (critically, analytically, tactically). Some of Martha Rosler’s video pieces offer great examples of this, especially where she uses the medium to perform a reading across media, in a manner that pre-dates various tactical media practices of the 90s and early 2000s. And so this may be conceptualism’s killer app—the ways it can pick apart discourses by reframing them, getting us to reread them and in some case ‘see’ them with fresh eyes. I guess my question is: when is recontextualization engaging a critical faculty—a means of rereading in radical ways—and when is it redoubling the objects of our despair (a problem with ‘ironic critique’ in general)?

In many ways, Josef Kaplan’s recent poem, “Kill List,” (if you’ll excuse the pun) capitalizes on this killer app, disclosing its effectiveness, if only within the ‘poetry community’; where the collision of two frames of discourse—Obama’s infamous “kill list” and a list generated by Kaplan categorizing poets by whether they are “rich,” “comfortable,” or “missing”—prompted confusion and outrage from many on Facebook. “Kill List” extends Kaplan’s idea that poetry can make visible certain political logics (such as the gross differences in scale between a discourse around national security that has devolved to a decision by the US government to assassinate undesirable citizens, and often closed door discussions in the poetry community of members’ wealth—both real capital and social currency).

By bringing discourses into collision one may sound their antagonisms, aporias, and lacunae. This is where I tend to locate the intentions of Kaplan. This is also where I locate Vanessa Place’s intentions, though I find her notion that conceptual writing has removed the subject preposterous. Who cannot read a certain catharsis—and a lot of trauma—in Statement of Facts? The fact that Place, as a subject, is trying to confront the many ‘demons’ of her legal briefs defending tried sex offenders. Statement of Facts, to me, reads as loaded with trauma; Place’s own specifically, but also with the trauma of her clients and the victims of her clients perhaps more importantly. It has been useful to read a couple pieces on conceptualism, by Matvei Yankelevich and Eileen Myles specifically, that have tried to steer discussions of conceptual writing towards a conversation about “affect,” and specifically how affect has become repressed or abjected within the general culture. Though this discussion often takes a simplistic and reductive turn, where “affect” can become a shibboleth for a kind of neo-Romanticism. Thinking about both idiolectic and conceptual writing of the past ten years could benefit from more rigorous uses of both Affective and Psychoanalytic theory, with regards to the role that affect plays in creating conditions of possibility for emancipatory subjectivities and discourses.

More recently, it has been interesting to see how post-conceptual practices, but also radical autobiographical practices (like New York School writing and New Narrative), have been displaced through Facebook and other social media formats. Where we can not only constantly surveil and mine one another’s intimate addresses, but also (self)-appropriate status updates and comments threads within a vortex of metadiscourse. A lot of this writing, my own included (because more recently I have turned to Facebook and the Internet for both inspiration and content), negotiates authenticity and the urgencies of discourses with the constant specter of personal ‘content management’/spectacle—where one is (necessarily) hyper-aware of what they’re putting ‘out there,’ to their would be “friends” and “subscribers.” I find this tension between a desire for authenticity and a cynical self-reflexivity fascinating, and an aesthetic problem to continue working with and around.

It is also interesting to think of someone overidentifying with hashtags as a kind of index of social currency/capital, which is how I see a number of writers working in the aftermath of Facebook and Twitter and now Instagram. The hashtag qua proper name as a numinous signifier of certain essences and properties. Less a brand than a shorthand for one’s social substance/subsistence as it has become embodied by what one does (though aren’t we are all potential brands in the era of hashtags?; I would like to think not, and have tried to write about distinctions between poets’ uses of hashtags elsewhere). There are still other uses for the technology that I could mention: as an autobiographical constraint or aphoristic hypomnemata (e.g., Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me); as a device for creating communal discussions (too many to mention); as a way of soliciting and organizing/exploiting material (far too many to mention).

2. Do you feel that your writing could be reduced (more or less) to a procedure or algorithm? Would a computing process (algorithm, program, or app) be able to successfully reproduce what you make/do?

Donovan: I recall many years ago (actually about a decade), when I was in grad school, hearing about a prominent younger scholar of contemporary poetry identifying a grammatical constraint at work in a well-known book by a prominent elder contemporary poet. I recall, as well, that the elder poet was not pleased that the younger critic had treated her book this way (or at least that’s what was rumored). Why would this be so? Wouldn’t the poet be pleased that the scholar had located a device operative in the work, much like the Russian Formalists tried to do? I can only imagine that the writer was not pleased because in identifying a grammatical constraint (or an algorithm) one reduces a text that may have once seemed ‘inspired’ or simply ‘irreducible.’ Were I a more astute grammarian, I think that I would ideally like to read more poetry in particular through its uses of certain grammatical structures and devices. As a way not so much of ‘debunking’ the genius of the work—by demystifying its origins—so much as revealing the appropriateness of these devices for producing certain effects. Likewise, to examine more carefully how a set of techniques or devices has been deployed to achieve a particular intention close to the writer’s person, milieu, and cultural-historical context.

This said, I don’t doubt that much of what I have written (as poetry or otherwise) could be broken down into recurring grammatical and syntactical units and further distilled through a procedure, constraint, or algorithm. What I’m not sure the machine/app/algorithm could replicate as easily would be the many associations and contexts embedded in any particular poem, which are determined ultimately by a sensitivity to relation and context. It reminds me of that publication a few years back, ISSUE 1 (edited by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter), where the editors/programmers (?) had (or at least it sounded so to me) run poems by over 1000 poets through the same algorithm. The most problematic thing for me was that most of the poems sounded the same, with the exception of some word choices. It would have been more interesting—though also probably more disturbing—had they tried to invent unique algorithms to simulate the writing practices of their contemporaries. In the near future, I don’t doubt that we could all have apps that attempt to simulate the ways we write and speak, as for years programmers have been trying to simulate the prose techniques of canonized authors.

Who, I wonder, beyond the programmers themselves will want to read this literature? And will the programmers become as well known as the authors they have successfully simulated? I imagine an assignment for students that explores writing techniques/”authorship” through programmability. Where the student would create an app that attempts to successfully create new works by a writer they admire or find ‘difficult.’

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