It seems to me that narcissism is ineluctably at the heart of poetry, maybe of every human enterprise. One-third of people will think I’m an idiot for bothering to state this. Two-thirds will think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic. But, however magical your soul, doesn’t its unveiling imply a touch of egotism? In lyric poetry, especially, some degree of narcissism seems unavoidable. Even Dickinson and Hopkins sought readers at some point. Now let us observe a moment’s silence for the Unknown Poets, who have defeated narcissism and won oblivion. Then, since there’s nothing to build on there, let us quickly turn in gratitude to their egotistical fellow poets, who reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight.
In June 2010, the government was expressing real interest in social
networks. The Air Force issued a public request for “persona
management software,” which might sound boring until you realize that
the government essentially wanted the ability to have one agent run
multiple social media accounts at once.
It wanted 50 software licenses, each of which could support 10
personas, “replete with background, history, supporting details, and
cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically
The software would allow these 50 cyberwarriors to peer at their
monitors all day and manipulate these 10 accounts easily, all “without
fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries.” The personas
would appear to come from all over the world, the better to infiltrate
jihadist websites and social networks, or perhaps to show up on
Facebook groups and influence public opinion in pro-US directions.
As the cyberwarriors worked away controlling their 10 personas, their
computers would helpfully provide “real-time local information” so
that they could play their roles convincingly.
While hackers get most of the attention for their rootkits and botnets
and malware, state actors use the same tools to play a different
game—the Great Game—and it could be coming soon to a computer near
On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.
I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:
“In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
“We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)
You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
“Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
“Are you hungry to speak?”
Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”
When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
“I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”
Editing and Revision
She read her poem The Other Shoe:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
“A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
“In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
“I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
“This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?” Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”
She keeps her own counsel.
Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”
Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
“We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
“Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
“Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
“Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”
Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.
Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points. Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.
Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don’t all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices — Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue — with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio. The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day. CereProc is mining Ebert’s TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won’t sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight — he’s a night owl; she prefers mornings — when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.
Ebert, describing what his journal means to him:
When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.
On ephemeral reactions:
Anger isn’t as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.
On crime, and joy:
I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Roger Ebert is a great example of what the so-called New Atheists have never understood: that living well is a far better way to ‘evangelize’ freethinking than pedantic and vitriolic argument, however rational it may be.
To the extent that humanists might imagine having saints, Mr. Ebert is surely one of them.
The conversation around the digital divide, this gap between who can participate and who can’t, has shifted. In the ’90s, it was mainly about access to hardware and network connections. Right? Not everybody has a computer. But as computers have gotten cheaper and spread, as they started showing up in specific places like libraries, and as phones increasingly have, even just through SMS, these kind of functions, the conversation’s really shifted from the question of access to a hardware to the sense of permission and to the sense of interest. And that’s a much squishier, more social question.
So part of the digital divide question, the new digital divide question is, how do we go to people who don’t sense they have permission to speak in public and offer them that permission? And then the other, as you say, is the interest. If there are people who are just uninterested in this stuff, how can you make an experience that’s still satisfying for them as, you know, traditional consumers of media, without making them feel bad for not being the people posting the Flickr pictures of potholes or, you know, adding a comment to an NPR story?
There can be a tendency amongst the tech-savvy to assume that if it’s important, if it matters, it is already bouncing around Twitter and Facebook and MySpace.
“If people aren’t comfortable and inclined to jump in, who cares?”
We risk missing far too much of the world’s experience with an attitude like that.
Later in the segment, Shirky touched on the dimensions of our online conversational patterns:
The closest most of us get to this is our wedding day, when you gather, you know, as many of the people you most love and would want to talk to in the world that you can get in one room. And then you suddenly realize I got three hours. And so, there is a constant width versus depth tradeoff, where you can either talk to a few people for a long time, or you could talk to a lot of people for a short time. But you can’t actually do what you want to do.
“I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn’t really
care: Businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people. And I
had been doing that for the better part of 10 years when it finally
dawned on me that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things for
the wrong people…”