Syntax Error: Troubleshooting Failures in Coding and Language

By | 15 May 2023

Lately, I think of my work as mutations. They interest me because I’ve always seen my use of language as messy, and I’ve come to celebrate this in my poetry and digital work. I’m trying to hold onto myself by writing across languages and forms while also seeking a community in which I’m held. In an interview, poet Jennifer Tamayo says ‘there was a strong desire to fix and tame this thing that was part of me … this broken language that isn’t broken, this is English too. You know? As if English were ever stable.’ Language is always changing, we add new words to the dictionary every year, yet over a decade ago National Geographic said one language dies every fourteen days. Knowing this chaos, and seeing creatives play with what people call broken, motivates me to keep holding all my languages. I’m not the only creative working with languages, I’m not the only person stumbling their way through learning a new skill or accepting the pace at which they develop and the voice and context they bring to it. Tamayo continues: ‘instead of seeing it as a marker for my difference or a marker as the way my language was failing, it was the opposite. You rupture it.’ I’m trying to rupture my creative practice by emphasising all the areas I’m lacking in.

When I don’t know how to end a poem or when I know there is something missing I play into the motifs that appear naturally to find a solution. I’ve come to think of commonly recurring lines of code as motifs too, if this syntax worked with this function, maybe I can try it here again. I’ve errored myself into exciting discoveries, ridiculous syntax mistakes or placing lines of code in the wrong order have changed my piece visually and sometimes I prefer the results of these failures. Lately, I’ve taken screenshots of my page each time the poem changes visually. Most of these versions are stumbled upon as I work my way towards a solution – I’m trying to document all the things I wouldn’t have seen if I actually knew everything already. If I understood all the logic, if I never made mistakes, I wouldn’t have been as enchanted by the process or motivated to ask questions about my code.

Comparing my poetry before learning to code to the poetry written after, I see more references to the world outside myself and less adherence to form and preoccupation with prosody. I’m not saying I don’t care about structure, I think I’ve just decided that if I’m already failing languages then the way they look and sound on the page isn’t as important as the process of trying to communicate. What I value in my poems shifted because of the lessons I’ve learnt while coding – it’s okay to fail in several ways as long as you keep finding new ways to fail instead of abandoning your projects at the first sign of an error.

In his collection Love and Other Poems Alex Dimitrov writes ‘I love that we can fail at love and continue to live. I love writing this and not knowing what I’ll love next. I love looking at paintings and being reminded I am alive.’ Learning to code reminded me I am alive. I have visceral reactions to making words dance across my screen – I yell at my laptop, cry, laugh, and sweat. There are over fifty projects I’ve worked on with p5.js – most of which have never been seen by anyone aside from me and my cat. The fact that this amount of work exists is magic in itself. In the same way, the poems I wrote on my phone through the night while normal people slept beside me are magic. Or the urge to move to Bosnia after every conversation with my family there. These are ridiculous pursuits of being alive. They’re celebrations of learning, failing and trying to communicate and connect.

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