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‘There is nothing more shared than language’: Carolyn DeCarlo Interviews Gregory Kan

1 November 2018

CD: While I was reading Under Glass, I recognised some of the text had been lifted from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Anyone who’s read that book will recall how circular it is in its preoccupations, and its own connections to manipulation of text and codes (and genetics.) I’ll admit, reading your poetry through the lens of Annihilation on the page and in my mind had my head spinning! I imagine those poems I’m talking about are also engaging with other texts I didn’t recognise as readily. How did you choose what to ‘sample’, so to speak, in those poems? What do you feel that language is able to do in your poems that it wasn’t doing in its original context?

GK: In terms of how I choose what to sample, it’s not something that’s easy for me to fully rationalise when in the moment. Often there’s an existing image, concept, narrative or tone that I’m obsessed with trying to splice into a new organism (speaking of genetics). Figuratively speaking, I am choosing and moving things around with my hands, more so than my mind. It’s a trial and error process, and it’s a kind of play, too. It’s akin to playing with Lego bricks when you’re not following any instructions. Writing is often perceived as an activity that’s conscious and deliberate, where you have a plan or intent and the writing is simply an execution of that. But for me, writing is what takes me on a process of discovery, beyond my conscious intent. When I write, it takes me outside of myself.

At the same time, I’m not saying that the writing process is mystical or ineffable. In the initial stages, I go a lot by feeling and taking random walks, playing with different arrangements and samples. Once shapes and structures begin to stabilise – once I feel I know where the writing ‘wants to go’ – I start to bring in a more conscious and critical approach. This is also a way in which writing is always ‘collaborative’, in the sense that it is not just about my individual desire or will. The materials / samples / texts I work with have their own limits and inclinations, and I try as much as possible to work with them. I do not believe that writing is an act of imposing your will onto some inert matter or surface.

When the work is complete, looking back and speculating on where I was led and how I was led there is a very rewarding process in and of itself.

CD: In 2016, you created a text manipulator app off the back of an intensive 18-week coding course at Dev Academy. This app has played a role in your own creative processes. Joining the ranks of a small (but growing) number of poets who code, what might you consider the fruits of your labor as a web developer both on your own work and for others who would use your app or similar devices in their own creative practices?

GK: In terms of tools, it’s funny. I think that the procedures that my app (glassleaves.herokuapp.com) automates were ways of working with text that me and Hera Lindsay Bird (and many others) had taken advantage of years before I started coding. The app does allow one to do those things much faster and at a different scale. I’ve internalised such procedures and these are simply different ways of seeing and reading text, for me now. Perhaps the innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning will provide more advancements, with regards to writing tools and prosthetics.

Perhaps the real fruits for me, from these kinds of tools, are actually the more philosophical ones, the ones that have changed the way I see and think about writing and text. I think the enjoyment from using an app like the one I made is the fresh sense of possibility that accompanies it. It invites one to think about the possibilities of different ways of writing. It is inherently generative and enabling. It also invites existential questions and anxieties that I think are important. A student in a workshop session I was leading bemoaned that if machines could write, then what would be special about being a writer? It made me ask myself why it’s so important for us to feel special as writers in particular, and as humans in general. I think writing is both incredibly special and incredibly mundane. I’d be very happy if machines could write as well as humans. I’d rather have machines that were good at writing than machines that were good at killing people and destroying the environment!

I also think there is a lot to be gained from examining programming languages and how they work. It is important to remember that they are languages, like the languages we use to speak to each other. Yet they are also very different, and I think these differences can be instructive in how we view writing. I wish I had more to say, but I’m still early in my exploration of this topic.

CD: Yet, some might find certain branches of philosophy at odds with scientific study. Your own frank comparison of your relationship with Robin Hyde in the creation of This Paper Boat to an ‘extended séance’ could be perceived in this way.

GK: It’s true that certain strands of philosophy from the twentieth-century continental European tradition were resolutely anti-enlightenment, anti-rationalist, anti-science etc., but one of the most celebrated postmodernist philosophers, Giles Deleuze, was heavily influenced by science, philosophy of science, and complex systems thinking. Contemporary philosophy is also increasingly looking across this ‘divide’. I believe the same may be happening in contemporary art. I’m not a rationalist, but I strongly believe in the importance (and limits) of reason. ‘Extended seance’ was a figurative expression for me, and stood in for one or more of the many ways in which we deal with traces of the past. It didn’t really matter to me whether it was ultimately considered ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’. The most seemingly irrational activities can be grounded in rationality, and the most seemingly rational activities can be grounded in irrationality.

CD: Where do you see science and the arts overlapping? And is there room for more of this in poetry?

GK: The question of a relationship between the arts and sciences is one I can only gesture towards answering. I’d like to say first of all that I do find their perceived enmity to be a false opposition of sorts, and is symptomatic of the kind of intellectual tribalism I referred to earlier. From my experience, these debates often revolve around strawmen or caricatures of each ‘side’: the sciences are reductive, deterministic, closed, mechanistic, linear, etc.; the arts are snobbish, opaque, even mystical, without utility, lacking rigor, etc.

While of course ‘the arts’ and ‘the sciences’ may have wildly different motivations, philosophies and goals, I find these differences to be productive. I believe that there’s a culture of what I call ‘monomania’, in which people assume that there’s only one ‘correct’ way to do things, and that alternatives need to be eliminated. But there’s no reason why we should not employ a diversity of strategies and tactics to improve the world and our knowledge of it. Given the catastrophic global socioeconomic, political and environmental conditions that face us today, we need all the help we can get, from everyone, on all sides, on all levels.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t give a shit about rhetoric that involves a group of people trying to show that they are better than another.

CD: Who do you see as contemporaries, in a world crossing over and traversing between poetics and the sciences? Who or what do you look to for inspiration and insight?

GK: Coming back to poetry, I look everywhere for inspiration! I love programming because it’s also driven by language and is also invested in employing language to create and organise worlds. I find the models created in the complex sciences fascinating. I also love architecture and infrastructure. I like thinking about a poem as a house with many rooms and passages. I like thinking about a poem as though it were a city with roads and traffic. I like thinking about a poem as a dish with various ingredients. Or as a drainage system. Or as an electronic circuit. Or as a fruiting plant. Or as a nervous system. I think you can look at anything in the world through any other thing in the world. I think learning about complex systems and the things that systems share has been very generative in helping me think about new structures and forms of writing.

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