Meet the digital pioneers of 'code poetry' - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Jul. 31, 2014 12:25 pm

Meet the digital pioneers of ‘code poetry’

Using programming languages, a handful of Brooklynites are pushing poetry forward. “There's a lot to be tried out.”

Todd Anderson performing his code poetry.

(Photo courtesy of Todd Anderson)

One Friday night in April a group of about 30 people descended into the basement of Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village for the first annual NYC Code Poetry Performance Festival. The poems, projected onto a white screen at the back of the room, were made of, generated by, or written in the source code of programming languages. This allowed the poems to do things poems written on paper or published in text online can’t do: move on the page, evolve, swap out words, decay on the screen, be set to music, etc., etc. Each of the five presenters that night presented completely different pieces, tied together only by the fact that they were on the vanguard of pushing poetry into the digital age.

small talk by Jonah Galeota-Sprung

A poem by Jonah Galeota-Sprung, titled “small talk.”

One of the presenters at the event was Todd Anderson, who has developed a style all his own called “Hotwriting.” His poems are written in AutoHotkey, a language that basically enables keyboard shortcuts. When Anderson performs his poems, he wears a wireless USB keyboard around his neck and hits the keys that correspond to words or phrases, which appear on the projector.

“On a piano, you press a key and it hits a hammer and plays the note,” Anderson told Technical.ly Brooklyn. “With this, you hit a key and it makes a sentence or a phrase or a line of a poem show up. On a piano, you can arrange the notes into a song. With this, you can arrange it into a poem, or add stuff on the fly, or add music.”

Anderson says the multimedia aspect of his performance, both seeing and hearing the words on the screen, allows the audience to immerse themselves more fully in the experience, and improves retention because they can still look back at previous lines, as in traditional poetry.

“I think it’s part of a larger movement about expression,” he said of code poetry. “Because the way we take in information now and interact with out environment has drastically changed in the last five years. How we express ourselves is going to change. I’m not a huge techno-utopian, and history and tradition are still really important, but being able to have more control over how words are read and interacted with is part of a larger thing.”

Anderson, tall and thin with hair permanently tousled, likes music and poetry and computers, and recently co-founded a startup, Medi.ci, which attempts to pair artists with financial donors.

After graduating from Carleton College in 2011, Anderson moved to Crown Heights. He got involved in poetry during college and began attending readings and slam events when he moved to New York. He learned AutoHotkey in the summer after high school.

“I had this crazy job writing ads for online casinos,” he recalled. “The ads were like two sentences of text with a link, like, ‘Come play blackjack at [name of casino],’ that went to all these dark corners of the internet and I was using the same phrases over and over again.

“I saw an article on AutoHotkey and downloaded it,” Anderson said. “I customized a couple hotkeys for like four phrases I was using in these ads and it just sped up everything. Since I was getting paid per ad I was doing four in the time it used to take to do one, and making four times as much money.”

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If you’ve never heard of code poetry, you’re not alone.

“Like a lot of people here, I thought I invented code poetry when I started doing it,” said Brooklyn-based Jonah Galeota-Sprung. “A few Google searches later, it turns out that was not the case.”

His poem, “Particulars,” was written in the language Processing, which was developed by two guys from the MIT Media Lab in 2001. The poem has several words or phrases where the words randomly switch to other words every few seconds, changing the meaning of the poem each time. As time passes, the words switch faster and faster, culminating in a frenzy of changes and creating the feeling of anxious chaos.

Code poetry exists, of course, outside of the First Annual Code Poetry Performance Festival. Stanford University has held two Code Poetry slams in the last year, which have received submissions from all over the world. The events were organized by a German Studies graduate student, Melissa Kagen, and awarded cash prizes and pizza to those who entered and attended. In 2012, Ishac Bertran, a New York-based artist who presented at the Code Poetry Performance Festival, compiled a book of code poetry after asking for submissions from his coder friends and their networks. The book is called code {poems}.

“Digital media does open up a lot of possibilities,” Galeota-Sprung said in an interview. “There’s a lot to be tried out.”

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