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DigitaLit: Using music and technology to make poetry

Katie Haegele of LaLaTheory writes a bi-weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer titled DigitaLit. I like to republish her articles here because of their unique combination of writing, reading and digital art. Here’s this week’s article (I added the links.)

The words go round and round and they come out here

Have you ever seen voice-recognition software at work?

Once it’s running on your computer, you start talking, and your words appear on the screen as though a phantom stenographer were typing them, or like a player piano that makes text instead of music.

Kurt Newman is a person who makes music – an improvisational guitarist, actually – and one day he watched with fascination as one of his professors used a voice-recognition program to write a paper. He wondered: What would a program like that do with guitar music?

Maybe it would treat it as a voice, and attempt to make sense of the sounds as words of English.

He decided to find out, and the resulting experiment was just the kind of collaboration he and his wife, poet Michelle Detorie, had been trying to find.

Detorie, who lives with Newman in Goleta, Calif., is a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts literary fellow. Her big interest is in divination – the ancient practice of reading signs in nature to answer questions or predict the future.

“Divination is an attempt to learn or ‘figure out’ something by interpreting omens or some sort of data: tea leaves, ashes, entrails, the movements of animals, weather, and other things,” Detorie explained in an e-mail interview. Astrology is a kind of divination; so is feng shui.

Detorie was initially interested in divination practiced by women, and wrote a series of poems on the subject.

One form that particularly captured her imagination was daphnomancy, in which a diviner burns branches of a laurel tree and interprets the sounds made as they crackle on the fire.

For some time Detorie and Newman had wanted to bring their music and poetry together, but nothing they’d thought of seemed right. They didn’t want the music to be just a backdrop for the text, nor did they want poetry that interpreted the music in some obvious way.

Perhaps using this artificial-intelligence tool as a kind of divining rod was the answer.

So Newman found one of the less expensive programs on the market, ViaVoice, and bought it on eBay for about $20.

“Michelle and I figured that the cheaper the software, the more likely it was to produce weird, and thus artistically interesting, glitches,” Newman said, also in an e-mail.

Then they primed it by feeding it language.

“You read passages into the computer, you feed the software documents,” Detorie said. “For the dictation process, I tried reading in funny voices. Kurt tried playing his guitar into the machine, but it didn’t really work for whole passages. For documents, I fed it all sorts of stuff – glossaries from art and biology textbooks, poems, articles from Wikipedia. I wanted to sort of stuff it with interesting vocabulary and different types of grammatical structures.”

When the software was ready, Newman and Detorie sat in front of their computer, and Newman began playing his guitar. As he made music, the machine spat out “incomprehensible chunks of text,” Detorie said – real words of English that looked like word salad, rather than sentences with semantic meaning.

Then she stepped into the role of diviner. As the text was being generated she looked for patterns and meaning and altered, amended, and shaped it into lines of poetry.

Detorie and Newman even treated some of their sessions like real acts of fortune-telling, asking questions of the process and looking for answers in the text.

“Most were questions we found on the Internet, like, ‘My daughter is always crying; what is the problem?’ Mostly we just picked questions that we liked.”

The spontaneously constructed poems, perhaps unsurprisingly, are noteworthy for their language, which has a strong musical quality.

“Owl on a low howl in a catacombed cave,” goes the lilting first line of the poem “an alliance of grammar.”

So far, the daphnomancy project has been performed live in Austin, Texas. Detorie also collected a number of the poems and arranged them into a chapbook, which she sells on the online art marketplace etsy.com. That, incidentally, was how I discovered the project, plinking around on the site one day as I shopped for a birthday present.

You wouldn’t call that divination, I guess – just good luck, and an ear tuned to whatever in the universe I might be able to overhear.


Katie Haegele lives in Montgomery County. 
You can read some of her poems, essays, and other writing on her Web site, The La-La Theory (www.thelalatheory.com).