Today, Fri. Feb. 20, I reserved a computer lab for my English 205 – Introduction to Creative Writing class–something that I am not sure that a 205 instructor has done before–in order to teach my students the art of Google sculpting, and it was the most exciting class I’ve led so far. Hopefully it will open them up to a larger world of language play and, as it turned out, political commentary that is almost an inevitable result of this process. I’ve encouraged them all to submit their newly composed Flarf poems (or one of the other types of “bad poems” I asked them to compose this week) to the SPD Bad Poem Contest by this evening, too.
I had never used Google in such a way before this class, so it was almost as new to me as it was to them. I’ve used the Google News archive before to generate a poem, and I’ve used other computer programs to provide cut-up output to be shaped into poems, so the process is not at all foreign to me; but I’ve never tried to replicate the process that, for example, K. Silem Mohammad used to compose Deer Head Nation.
We began the exercise by discussing two of Mohammad’s poems from that book ( “Halloween in Atlantis” and “Spooky World”), and then I showed them how search terms put into Google could have created a poem like that. The exercise itself, if I had written it out, would have been something like this:
Exercise: Google Sculpting
Open a new document in a word processor and then open a web browser. Using the two poems by K. Silem Mohammad in your course packet as examples, type a phrase (or phrases) or a list of several search terms* into the Google search bar. Now look at the excerpts from each search result (the text beneath each link), copy words or phrases from it, and paste them into the document open in your word processor. You will continue in this fashion until you have a fairly long list (a page or so at least) of selected phrases to work with.
Finally, sculpt a poem out of these phrases, changing whatever you wish so that it “fits together” (or make/leave it disjunct if it pleases you). Look for themes and multiple meanings of the search terms you used. Try to create strange, amusing, or serious narratives and statements. Try to find a tone or voice in the poem as you sculpt it, either coming from you or from voices present in the search results that you selected. Once you feel you have “finished” the poem, save your file. Return to it if you like, expand on different themes or ideas that come up, or do whatever else you feel you need to do to make it into something that you enjoy and want to share with others.
This process is very flexible, so feel free to open search result pages if you want more material, to change search terms as you are making your list of phrases, or even to abandon what you started with for something more interesting that comes up as you are working. The form of the resulting poem is entirely up to you and the needs of your poem’s style and content.
Have fun with this and enjoy the process of writing itself. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you get something meaningful out of it, chances are that somebody else will, too.
* Note: The more different the terms are from each other, the more varied the results should be)
I chose to structure the first 8 weeks of the semester–the poetry unit–around a set of exercises that are diverse in style and aesthetic approach. I think the Bad Poem exercise and the Google Sculpture exercise have connected with them more than any of the others that we have done. I got the idea from Chad last semester when he taught his Introductory Composition students how to Google sculpt, and I decided that I had to do with my own class. It takes a lot of work to show (most) students that poetry is not always boring, stuffy, self-reflective/obsessed or moping, and my hope was that this process would help some of them to discover what various things contemporary poetry is to writers today as well as a range of what it can be for them.
Jackson Mac Low, in his 1999 talk entitled “Pleasure and Poetry,” [Thank you, Al Filreis, for this fantastic set of articles and poems that you’ve put up for your UPenn course!] began by stating that “[t]he kinds of pleasure that poems may bring about are as various as the kinds of pleasure that poets may take in making them.” Later on in the talk, he elaborates on this idea:
Ultimately, artmaking, including the making of poems, seems to me to be primarily the making of “objects” that are valuable in themselves. One can expand this “in themselves” in many directions with various “becauses.” The most obvious one is what I started with: pleasure. Artworks are valuable because they cause pleasure–kinds of pleasure not usually available from other sources. And “otherwise” artworks are valuable because they bring about new kinds of pleasure.
Poetry, orthodox or “otherwise,” should be about pleasure–what brings pleasure to the poet and what can bring pleasure to the reader, and this is different for different poets and different readers. But what poetry isn’t is the most important thing I want my students to learn: It isn’t just stuffy academic posturing, and it can be relevant to their lives, in whatever way and by whatever means this may be achieved.