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EXPLORING COMPUTATIONAL POETRY: AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK MONTFORT

At the intersection of language, art and technology lies computational poetry. A realm in which poet and programmer meet, it is an art form born for the digital age. Dating as far back as the 1950s when Christopher Strachey developed one of the first instances of digital poetry, a love letter generator, the movement still lives on strong through countless artists today. Computational poetry challenges the traditional notions of verse and reimagines language by employing algorithms and programming to create and transform poetry.


This lesser-known form of poetry plays with both the immense capabilities and the restrictions of a computer to manipulate language and create original works of art. There is a wide net of works that can be categorized as computational poetry, and it becomes tough to define it as just one thing. Some works play with language as form and create visual poetry. Some works destroy language all together and force the viewer to make meaning in seas of algorithmically choreographed letters. Other pieces create more traditional poems by utilizing programs to fill in poetic templates and create works that go on forever.


"Diagrams Series 6": Source Jim Rosenberg


There is hypertext poetry, kinetic poetry, computer generated animation, digital visual poetry, interactive poetry, code poetry, experimental video poetry; the list goes on. It is art that can span through all types of media, making use of computing via text, images, sounds, and interactivity.


To understand this confusing art form better, I had the privilege of sitting down with Nick Montfort, a prominent figure in computational poetry and art for several decades.



Before anything else, Montfort describes himself first as a poet and an artist.


“Sometimes I say I'm a poet and artist working with computation, but it's really more deeply involved in that. Computation, cognition, language, these are all central to my artistic practice.”


This self-definition is central to the way he works, it is important to distinguish the computational poet as an artist working with a unique medium, rather than a computer programmer that also uses their knowledge to be creative. Still, Montfort can wear both the artist and the programmer hat simultaneously and combine this combined background in a seamless way.


“There's some people who started as writers or poets, and then after a while, they got interested in computers, There's some people who were programmers. Their background is with computing. Then through interests and associations with people, they make a turn to the arts and to poetry, and they try to bring us together with what they know technically.” Montfort explained, “I'm not either of those people, really. There's also some of us who just were doing this stuff. As soon as I was writing things creatively, even very young, I was also programming a computer.”


Source: Taroko Gorge


While he considers himself an artist first, that does not mean he was conforming his knowledge of computers to fit that role. It is this blended background that allows Montfort to attribute deep meaning throughout his works. When discussing his computational poem “Taroko Gorge” in which he produced an algorithm to produce a poem that continues forever, Montfort explains a piece that has meaning in both the natural and computer language.


The original work was coded to be 80 characters wide and 66 lines long, exactly how much would fit on a printer page, giving the reader a subconscious understanding of the shape that the poem would take. Of course, the history goes deeper than that, all the way to the IBM punch card in 1928.

“IBM punch cards were a way you could tabulate and sort data before computing came about A language like Cobol was set up with there'd be specific things in each of those 80 spots on the punch card. Even today, when you pop open your terminal window, it's going to be 80 columns wide and your line printer is going to be 80 columns. All that history is part of the particular constraint at the textual material writing level.”


"At Hat" - Source: Nick Montfort


Montfort places these purposeful constraints on himself that add to the interest of his work. Such constraints led a recent work of his titled “At Hat”, in which he set out to create a piece of digital art that is as small as possible. The entire webpage is made with one line of code and only takes up 256 bytes, which is nearly 8000 times smaller than the average size of a website. This ability to know when one must let the computer itself shine as part of a piece of art is a skill on its own.

“I like to tickle the computer and see how it laughs in response instead of forcing the message that I bring to it come though” Montfort joked about the act.


Montfort is not only focused on creating, but in spreading and teaching computational poetry as well. Montfort currently is a professor of digital media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but this is not the only place he is spreading knowledge on the art form he knows so well.


In one of Montfort’s latest projects, he created a zine that teaches basic programming for Commodore 64 titled "Yours Basically" This work also has deeps roots in computer history, being inspired by a classic coding book called 101 basic computer games.


"Yours Basically" - Source: Nick Montfort

“[101 Basic Computer Games] was a book of all these creative programs, but not all of them were games” Montfort explained “They were all sorts of different things like, how to make a sign wave, or here's how to draw a picture of Snoopy. There were actually two poetry generators that are part of the book. One of the things that's fascinating is that this stuff circulated in print, not only in that book, but in magazines and other types of programming books.”


This fascination of print led Montfort to take a similar approach, and by creating a physical zine to teach the programs, he joins in on a tried method of teaching programming by forcing the learner to read and comprehend the code in the physical world before bringing it to the digital world.

"Yours Basically" relates back to one of Montfort’s larger works titled “101 Basic Poems”, a project he has been working on for several years. In 101 Basic Poems Montfort’s writes basic program to engage with some of his favorite works of art and poetry of the 20th and 21st century, like one that plays with works by poet N. H. Pritchard.


Ultimately what we can learn from Nick Montfort is the beauty that can come from the fusion of backgrounds. By combining artistic sensibilities with technical expertise, he demonstrates the profound impact that computational poetry can have on the evolution of language and artistic expression. Montfort's extensive catalog of work, of which we only scratched the surface of, demonstrates a range of artistic works that showcase intricate relationship between human expression and the digital world that only continues to become more intertwined.

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