User Menu

Poetry and cultures of feedback

Sampling huge swathes of text renders This Is No Longer Entertainment a documentary poem

Christodoulos Makris: My thinking takes shape within the permanently shifting ocean of language and image I enter daily. My navigation of it – my reading – creates meaning

My days are shaped around the digital material I consume. From the moment I check my tablet in the morning for the weather forecast, scroll through the news, look at the overnight sports results and whatever else I might choose to read first thing, shards of text and image have implanted themselves on my brain.

By stealth this has an effect on my thoughts and behaviour, online and offline, and my affiliations too. My outlook is increasingly wedded to what I read and how I read it, a response to digital gestures gathered and reflected back to me by monitoring programmes collecting data as I go.

This also occurs while I perform tasks I believe I have full agency over: sending emails, clicking on links, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, streaming playlists from YouTube and Spotify, bookmarking articles, checking cinema listings, performing travel searches.

However much or little I contribute to conversations or consciously take in the opinions emanating from persons I interact with, these are conversations I participate in simply through having come across them, and of these impressions having registered, both by myself and by others, including programmes harvesting data. My offline experiences, those physical events still considered more “real” than my digital transactions, are increasingly influenced by the cumulative effect of online behaviour. Such behaviour is articulated through clicking, tapping, swiping, typing.

My thinking takes shape within the permanently shifting ocean of language and image I enter daily. My navigation of it – my reading – creates meaning. What I read lives on sites I am naturally attracted to for reasons of existing ideology, reputation, interest, but also through a network connecting those sites to others in which they, and in extension I in my affiliation with them, have become enmeshed.

Conversations become cyclical, and they are formulated partly by predetermination, a little through happenstance, and quite a lot on external direction. The algorithms sending me to locations that reinforce my interaction with the world are ever more sophisticated and can crunch ever more mind-blowing amounts of data.

The advertisements that pop up in the margins of my email or alongside articles I have clicked on are increasingly better targeted. They present a familiar, unthreatening environment. The opinions I form and often articulate are consolidated by the words and images I ingest through reading, and which I am already likely to agree with. My gesture history, collected, parsed, analysed and fed back to me, makes sure of that.

This is a frightening amount of power to be held over individuals. And power typically imposes a narrative it presents as inescapable. Poetry has the capacity to scramble narrative, and enjoys a freedom to have its way with language. In my poetry I choose to respond to and not ignore, simply acknowledge, or seek an escape from, the technological forces I live under, applying to them a process of détournement.

I aim to manipulate fragments of digital communication in ways that do not correspond to received perceptions of quality, but which instinctively make poetic sense to me.

Perceptions of quality, like imposed narratives, are largely the consequences of habit and convention. For the past while I have been predominantly engaging in projects that combine appropriative writing processes with a form of immediate, impulsive, and trance-like application of the poetic instinct, activities integrating the opposites of spontaneity and order.

It is how I worked over four socially and politically tumultuous years to write my third full book, This Is No Longer Entertainment. Any conscious editing I have periodically applied to it has been on a macro scale. Even though collaging as a valid form of art practice has been around for a very long time, in the literary arts it is through our currently commonplace technological capabilities of copy/pasting that it has come of age. Extrapolations of public language into poetry are approaching maturity.

I’m far from alone in writing like this. Such modes of composition become an interrogation of power – economic, political and cultural. They signify a rejection of canonical systems arranging lives into sections, types or labels, and of ways of thinking that place people and behaviours into impermeable sets or identities that make no allowances for movement, change, messiness.

Arbitrary writing processes appropriating from rigid structures that encourage the production and regurgitation of often endlessly mundane, sometimes deeply awful, occasionally truly sublime material, result in poetic texts that don’t readily adhere to existing labels. They’re outliers necessarily; they subvert the intentions of their sources and upend poetry’s ossified function as an artform to be consumed as units of achievement. They are quite unlikely to fit into accepted ideas of what is a good or a successful poem. They amount to a poetic act that claims human agency in composition while accepting the contemporary condition of toggling between automated and human production of an ever expanding availability of material.

These poetries are often labelled experimental, but as they reflect our contemporary reality this seems an unnecessary categorisation. Ways of living and communicating tend to give rise to modes of writing. Perhaps their iconoclastic or revolutionary nature derives instead from the fact that the object is not to provoke wonder or admiration from an audience, to showcase skill, or to impose a point of view. There’s no intention to present an argument for the reader to agree or disagree with. The sought effect would rather be to elicit a response: emotional, critical, and intellectual.

There is no sense, political or poetical, in ignoring the noise made by disembodied voices comprising the authorless conversations we encounter daily, and the rage that has clouded everything. Making a plea for a multiplicity of view, equality and exchange means little without a practice that, at its core, actively applies those same elements of multiplicity of view, equality and exchange. It seems clear to me that poetry ignoring the fact that writing, text, language is everywhere, and that its proliferation, use and accessibility increases at an exponential rate and affects everything around us, is in some fundamental way inconsequential in the same way we can recognise that poetry exclusively occupied with orality would have been inconsequential following the invention of the printing press.

I do not wish to read, and therefore to write, manageable poetry. In my practice I make use of a combination of concept, structure and instinct to disrupt cultures of feedback enabling echo chambers that keep people separate according to imposed characteristics.

This Is No Longer Entertainment was composed through selecting and juxtaposing raw, uncorrected fragments of communication in roughly the same way that documentary filmmaking, in such formally radical examples as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson or Donal Foreman’s The Image You Missed, relies on capturing and manipulating already existing occurrences. Though the effect may not quite be to break through artificial barriers keeping societies teetering on the edge of division, this is a poetics that, writing right now, I feel I have an obligation to explore.

My sampling of these huge swathes of text in their unending multiplicity of source, opinion, register and fractured subjectivity, renders This Is No Longer Entertainment a documentary poem, and an unwitting mass collaboration of anonymous personas modulated by the poetic sensibility of the author, who becomes a selector and synthesiser of language. Which is what poets have always been.
Christodoulos Makris is currently writer-in-residence at Maynooth University. He has published several books, pamphlets, artists’ books and other poetry objects. this is no longer entertainment is out now from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.Versions of Poetry and Cultures of Feedback were presented at Gestures (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, February 15th) and Text / Sound / Performance (UCD, April 25th).