My dad’s brother Mike is a mechanical genius. In his youth Mike was the kid who always had the radio or the microwave in pieces because he was trying to see how it worked. In my writing, I am working towards a poetics of cultural reverse engineering. I am no genuis, but I do want to understand phenomenon by taking it apart to figure out how it works. I am trying to study the real-time evolution of language and discourse by pulling it apart into smaller and smaller components, then using it to build hybrid objects. I want to see how culture develops, how it works and how it fails, and how its modes of transmission operate. I want to stress it to the point of failure. How is culture transmitted through television programming? What discourse develops between the lines of the online comment stream or the Twitter feed? What is psychoanalysis, and why are the academics in a tizzy over it? How does language? What is poems? Can I break it?
Digital culture is here to stay, and it continues to encroach on our abiltity to be cultural workers. As I type these words, my city’s independent news weekly has just been shuttered, and I can’t help but think that the online culture of free content bears partial responsibility. In 2007, I worked at the nation’s broadcaster during the rise of citizen journalism and the turn to the comment stream as an engagement tool. I was concerned with the transference of value that I witnessed. I wondered what it all meant. I asked myself: what do we do with language when it surrounds and overwhelms us? I began to experiment with taking apart the language that overwhelmed me. I copy-pasted lines overheard on the bus, read in the newspaper, found in comment number 328 in a vitriolic stream. I immersed myself in all of the words.
The specificities of my brand of anxiety makes me feel that I can’t speak on my own ‘til I’ve read all there is to say on the subject, which is problematic anyway, but particularly so in the digital age. You can’t actually get to the end of the internet. Believe me—I have tried. I copy-pasted interesting or rage inducing turns of phrases and used these findings as raw material. I weave, I cut, erase, reorder.
Some conceptual poets claim that, in the future, the “best” poet will be the poet who writes the best poetry-generating code that does all the writing sans authorial intervention, but I disagree. I want poetry to subvert machination. I want there to be room for human emotion, for calls to social justice. We might have a technically adept poet who writes the best line of code, and in fact the bots are already here, but I take umbrage with the value judgement of “best.” I see human nature as that which still wants to make choices and control its own destiny. The conceptual writers are still making choices about their methods and their subject matter; unconscious biases will surface. In my own poetics of reverse engineering and appropriation I’m still making choices about what interests or distresses me, from my own subject position, from my own sense of aesthetics, ethics, and values. I’m making choices about how to layer and order, and I’m editing the material that I find.
“I’m an animal,” sings my favourite neo-Americana singer-songwriter, Neko Case. “You’re an animal too.” As poet, deep though I may sink to the depths of the internet, I am still mammal, fallible, mortal, driven by hunger, anxiety, fear, love, sorrow. I try to unpack these things in language, playing with and then discarding narrative, lyric, appropriation, and style as it suits.
Lately I have been exploring Twitter as method of composition via mining my own feeds for language to (re)use, though I recognize the limitations and potentially short shelf life of this tactic, especially with the recent flash popularity of the Poetweet app (mad props to the developer). I catch myself writing what seems like a Nikki Reimer poem, and I stop short. How can I circumvent my own narrative drives? How is my tone and phraseology shaped by the medium I’ve chosen? When I tweet I use a lot of exclamation marks even though in person I’m usually not that excited about anything.
My poetics ultimately embrace failure, uncomfortable affect and ugly feelings. In [sic], I satirize and circumvent, seeking the intersection between subjectivity and place. In DOWNVERSE, I disambiguate, disagree, sow discord. In my current poetry manuscript-in-progress, I thread my methods of composition back into their own engine, a self-regurgitating tapeworm, and in my digital elegiac project, I feed my own sorrow and the remaindered phrases of my late brother’s notebooks into a grief-engine of beauty and loss. All is failure, but in failure, there is possibility, and great freedom.