Some notes on AI & poetry

I’m due to give three talks in the next month and I’d been particularly anxious about one of these, on GenAI and poetry a month tomorrow. Last night I had a long intense dream which featured me worrying about the three talks, as well as a mysterious fourth. But on waking up I felt inspired about the whole thing, and have been gathering my thoughts.

  • I’ve started reading Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, which looks at the form pre-world-wide-web, starting from 1959. It seems like an interesting complement to 50 Years of Text Adventures due to the digital archaeology involved and the overlapping time periods. Funkhouser places digital poetry in a wider framework – Oulippo, obviously, but he refers to examples of permutation poetry dating back to ancient times.
  • Obviously, much of poetry’s power comes from the link to human experience. Someone made the point that an AI-generated account of the Spanish Civil War could never work as well as Orwell’s first hand account. Would a computer-generated version of Howl ever work?
  • NaNoGenMo has been running since 2013, well before the emergence of LLMs. I found reading All the Minutes a genuinely moving experience, with its gestalt voice emerging from twitter posts. I think there are interesting ways we might use GenAI to generated such summarising texts.
  • I recently got hold of Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus, which imagines a word engine transforming text into new forms. It’s something that could easily be done using ChatGPT.
  • William Deresiewicz proposed that AI Will Never Rival Human Creativity through LLMs since these are designed to pick likely decisions. I know friends that preferred earlier text-to-image models since these were less accurate and produced more interesting outputs. But I can’t imagine it being too difficult to train/design an LLM to be more ‘creative’.
  • GenAI is an interesting tool for reappropriation of existing texts. I had an interesting session where I generated haiku from some of my favourite poems, with some interesting results.

A red wheelbarrow,
Glazed with rain beside white hens,
Much depends on this.

Monthnotes: April 2024

April was a weird month. I felt unsettled in work, and a little overwhelmed in the rest of my life. But I’ve also been happy to have a housemate for a large part of the time, with Rosy coming to stay. We also had a visit from Naomi Foyle, as well as a big group outing with my friends Dan and Jill to see Joelle Taylor reading from her new book. I also made a flying trip to London with work.

The Kickstarter for True Clown Stories hit its target, which is great news, meaning that the book will finally emerge after 14 years. Running a kickstarter was odd – after the initial launch it was hard to figure out what to do next, given how little reach social media now has. I’ve also continued writing the substack, which is going well. At times this month focus has been a struggle, but when I have settled down to actually write, it’s felt good. Sending the weekly emails is helping me to take writing more seriously.

After completing the 10-week step challenge, I dialled my daily target down to 10,000, which has felt a little tricky. Walking so much was easy in a sprawling city like Brighton, but it’s a little harder to find enough routes here to keep me interested. My daily average was 12,746, with a peak of merely 19,335. I’ve dropped my target to 8,000 steps for May.

It was another month where I struggled with reading, and only finished a couple of books. One of these was Scarlett Thomas’s excellent new novel The Sleepwalkers, which I read alongside my friend Jane. I started reading the Nadine Dorres book about the ‘plot’ against Boris Johnson. It wasn’t quite bad enough to be entertaining, but there’s an unsettling narrative here, with a dangerous conspiratorial view of politics. I can’t work out if this Dorres believes her own work, and she’s not quite a good enough writer to be able to tell if the spy novel flourishes are ironic.

I continue to struggle with backlogs, and it feels a little like trying to push down an air-bubble. For example, I catch up my email, but that sends more newsletters to the Kindle. Emails, text messages, RSS feeds, all constantly filling up. A few quiet weekends have helped me catch up properly, but I’m not sure how sustainable this is.

It’s the second month on my new project and work has been hard. Things are less structured than I am used to and I’ve not been enjoying the lack of clear goals. I have been enjoying working with typescript after almost 25 years of Java. Typescript feels less fussy and more responsive. I made a trip down to London to spend time with everyone on the project, which was lovely.

Another month where I watched a lot of movies. Ginger Snaps and Badlands were highlights, along with a rewatch of Bottoms. Monkey Man featured some impressive action sequences but relied on lazy, misogynistic tropes. I watched all of True Detective IV in about 24 hours, loving the acting and production values. The plot felt a little inconsequential but was redeemed by the last twenty minutes. I also watched the classic Dr Who story Pyramids of Mars, which was more entertaining than I expected.

I’ve had some quiet weekends, and one day, running errands in town on a Sunday, I realised that this is basically my personal paradise. I love living in the valley.

  • I left Facebook several years back, disgusted by their behaviour around Myanmar. But I’ve been forced to open an account there, as a lot of local tradespeople and events only appear there. I’m only adding people I know from up here.
  • My theory about my 25+ years of headaches being down to dehydration was proved correct as I forgot to drink one Friday afternoon and was knocked out with a massive headache the following day.

Writer’s Notebook: Commissioning for Attention

The 2009 post Getting Attention was an interesting description of how the Internet was then changing from people visiting sites to receiving a stream of content.

Most people using the web, especially in younger age-​groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader.

Getting Attention was about new ways of storytelling designed for the stream – text that could be discovered as fragments and still produce an interesting experience. Content that might be discovered out-of-order or as fragments.

[you should] design content that plays nicely with streams – content that can be interesting and enticing as a one-line text result in a search query, and that doesn’t mind being broken up into small pieces…

In some ways it’s exciting – every piece is its own little launch.

launch the project early, and often. Put out lots of little bits of content over time, and reward people who stick with you. Take the time to listen and work out why people are coming to the project, and more importantly, why they’re not. Make it easy for newcomers to pick up the story at any point, and to view content in any order if they want to.

15 years later, we are very much in that world of streams. Where people once used to visit a large number of sites to look for changes (or follow them with RSS feeds), now they visit a handful of sites which choose what to show them.

I wish I’d done more with writing for the stream back in 2009 when I was first thinking about it. I should have attempted some experiments. But, whenever you think you’ve missed about, it’s important to remember there are other boats still docked that are currently waiting. What will web-native writing look like in 2025?

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

I read John Salvatier’s post Reality Has a Surprising Amount of Detail some years back, and then couldn’t find it afterwards. It’s an amazing piece, which starts out looking at the subtle complexity of a ‘simple’ task, building a set of stairs. I found it again when it turned up on metafilter:

At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences… But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.

It’s a thought-provoking piece of writing. Metafilter also linked to a good related post, Why everything might have taken so long

Writer’s Notebook: The Doc Web

Elan Kiderman Ullendorff’s essay The Doc Web is a wonderful piece about how people find spaces to publish on the Internet:

Axiom 4: If you build a tool with the ability to publish, so help them god, people will publish

They will publish often, zealously, and without regard for the intended purpose of the tool. Yelp reviews will be co-opted to publish blog posts; Venmo payments will be co-opted to publish poems; spreadsheets will be co-opted to publish personal websites; maps will be co-opted to publish magazines.

They go on to list some of the things that have been published on Google docs and it’s a beautiful list:

I love this article for suggesting an world of underground publishing, with documents hidden in these large application. Many of them won’t be be picked up by the archiving sites, but the documents have a simple route to being published and shared.

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

I read John Salvatier’s post Reality has a surprising amount of detail some years back, and then couldn’t find it afterwards. It’s an amazing piece, which starts out looking at the subtle complexity of a ‘simple’ task, building a set of stairs. I found it again when it turned up on metafilter:

At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences… But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.

It’s a thought-provoking piece. The metafilter post also linked to another interesting post, Why everything might have taken so long

Monthnotes: March 2024

The start of March found me glitchy and disorganised, a little overstimulated. I wasn’t burned out, but I was definitely singed from the Sweden trip and juggling two projects at work. On top of that, my sleeping patterns have been terrible, so that I was sometimes waking up at 4am, unable to get back to sleep. The month was basically a slog towards easter and the relief of a four-day break.

Dan and I launched the kickstarter for True Clown Stories. I should have published this back in 2011, but never got it off the launchpad. I looked into running a kickstarter back in June 2022, but it only got moving once Dan was involved. Running a crowd-funding campaign is a fun experiment, but it’s hard to make a continued impact. We’re currently at 60% with 18 days to go. I’m not sure if we will make the target or not, but let’s see. If you’ve not checked it out then please have a look.

I had a couple of trips this month. I visited Muffy in Blackpool and also went to Sheffield to see Rosy Carrick’s show Musclebound. It’s an incredible performance and I loved seeing it again. The show also brought together a few old friends, which was lovely. A great night out.

It’s been the last few weeks of the work steps competition. I walked 511,243 steps in March, for an average of 16,492 a day, with my highest total being 34,538 when I walked to Todmorden and back. Among all the other chaos of March, my diet has been a little unfocussed, and my weight increasing by 1/5 pound. Now that I feel a little less burned out, I can hopefully sort my eating out a little.

Work has been interesting, as I’ve been transitioning between projects. I left my previous project with some excellent feedback, which I feel very happy about. I’ve taken a little time to find my rhythm with the new one, although I’m enjoying working with a typescript stack. I’ve also been doing some interesting investigations into lambda cold starts.

At Rosy’s show I saw some people I’d not seen in years and, when they asked me about work, I found myself saying how much I love my job. And I truly do. I’m 16 months in, but I still feel excitement at the start of most days. I’m rarely bored, I’m challenged, and I am learning lots of new things. I’d never thought I would find so much meaning and satisfaction in a job.

I made some effort to focus more on reading books in March. The highlight was Booker prize winner Prophet Song, recommended by Jude. It took me a few attempts to get going with this, but once I did, I read it in a matter of days. Richard Norris’s biography Strange things are Happening was a great easter read. I’ve also been enjoying the graphic novel series Something is Killing the Children, rationing out an issue a night.

I watched 20 movies over the month – too many maybe? Highlights included the The Third Men, which seemed wonderful, despite being almost 80 years old. The remake of Road House was entertaining AF, and Tom Cruise was impressive in Michael Mann’s Collateral. I went to the IMAX to watch Dune 2 which was looked incredible but was somehow empty. Under the Silver Lake was flawed but thought-provoking. About 20 years after seeing it at the cinema, I rewatched But I’m a Cheerleader and was, this time, blown away. I also wrote a blog post ranking the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Before the Kickstarter launched, I was seriously thinking about quitting writing. I’ve sold very few copies of Memetic Infection Hazards and, after months of writing the substack, my subscriptions had been flat. It struck me that the time I spent writing might be more effectively spent on my job. Then came a mention in John Higgs’ newsletter which lifted my spirits, as well as boosting my substack readership. And while the kickstarter has been slow, these are real people who have signed up.

Thinking about it, eight months of sending out a weekly story is far from nothing, and would have been unthinkable at most points in my past. Having an audience on the Substack also forces me to think more carefully about what stories are worth working on. I’ve deleted a lot of old notes, and what remains is very exciting.

I spent Easter clearing the decks a little. Throughout March, I felt overwhelmed by too much media, too many emails, and too much that I needed to do. It would have been good to do more with the break, but I feel better for having got things under control.

  • I realised recently that it’s a year since my last visit to Brighton, which seems odd. While I miss people there, I’ve not missed the place much. Although I am longing for a La Choza burrito, and Rosy has promised to bring one up when she next visits.
  • I had a couple of minor headaches in March, but nothing bad enough to force me into bed. So, it looks like increasing the amount of water I drink is working.
  • I blogged about the depressing state of Britain.

Look who I have visiting at the moment:

Britain is miserable

Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day email linked yesterday to a New Yorker piece, “What Have Fourteen Years of Conservative Rule Done to Britain?”. It’s grim reading, describing how post-financial crisis austerity has basically crashed the country. The article looks at the inequalities around austerity, how it affected poorer areas more than ones with Tory voters – and how the richest 20% have thrived while the less affluent suffered. It also talks about how many public services have collapsed.

This year’s election seems to offer a resounding Labour victory – my concerns about the Tories doing well look increasingly unlikely. But, unlike in 1997, Labour are not offering any change. Until now, they’ve been offering a caretaker government which won’t rock the boat. We seem to face a continuation of this grim period of stagnation.

It’s the 25th anniversary of The Matrix, which has meants a few nostalgia pieces in the papers. One noted Agent Smith’s explanation of why the simulation was set in 1999: because, he said, it was “the peak of your civilisation”. In 1999, Britain certainly felt a much more optimistic place than it is now. It’s going to take a long time to set the damage from austerity right.

Sam Knight’s article is a depressing read, but an important one. It sets out how miserable things are, but also how it came to be this bad. And, maybe, with the right policies, this could be turned around.

The True Clown Stories Kickstarter is now live!

On Thursday morning, Dan from Peakrill press kicked off the True Clown Stories kickstarter. We’re looking for pledges of £900 to support the publication of a book of my clown stories. It also features work from Chris Parkinson, Louise Halvardsson and Michael Somerset Ward.

These clown stories are not straightforward tales about evil clowns. Rather, they’re about talented people who’ve devoted themselves to an art yet struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes this causes them to be angry, other times they despair. Some of the pieces date back to the noughties and were read at spoken word nights. Others have been written over the last few years.

This is a book I’ve been meaning to publish for an embarrassingly long time – we’re talking over a decade. Dan has pushed this project towards being a reality. We just need £500 more in pledges and it will happen.

Book review: Biography of X

Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It features a widow investigating her wife, an avant-garde artist. Much of it is set in the 60s/70s New York art scene, with direct quotes from a number of real-life sources. The book also includes photographs which Lacey found in junk shops, repurposed for her story. Lacey even commissioned designers to make book jackets for the main character.

I love when novels mix reality and fiction. But Lacey does something incredibly strange. She sets the book in an alternate timeline where America fragmented after World War Two. One section is a dystopian theocracy, with the book set in a very liberal section of the country. Lacey used this change to allow her to write about the relationship she was interested in:

I didn’t want to get into the heterosexual dynamics of a man writing about a woman or a woman writing about a man; it had to be two women. At the same time, I wanted the novel to be set in the mid-20th century but I wasn’t interested in writing about the actual struggles a prominent lesbian couple would have gone through in that time. So my alternate history grew out of that problem. I thought, if I have an America where this female artist could exist and this couple could exist without having to justify themselves, I just need a totally different America.

I thought this level of ambition was incredible, with Lacey changing an entire world to produce a setting for the characters she wanted to write about. The result is strange and beautiful. Reading it, I longed for more novels like this one.