The Poems of Others

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—a poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt based on an observation about the poem.

Douglas Luman on bpNichol’s First Screening

I encountered bpNichol’s First Screening in the unsystematic way that many of us happen across the most profoundly life-altering works: in a moment of the least expectation and, simultaneously, intense desperation. A writer having come back to craft after a nearly decade-long career in “tech,” my practice consequentially understood technology to be a key constituent of my process, but—to paraphrase Enrico Fermi’s essential paradox about extraterrestrial life in the universe—where was everybody else?

Of course, computational poets and processes existed long before the advent of the modern computer in forms like cryptographic forms, the volvelle and, to some degree, formalism itself. As early as the mid-’60s, poets understood the promise of the computer itself via works such as Alison Knowles’ “The House of Dust,” though I wouldn’t discover this or the vibrant community behind computational poetics until after I stumbled on bpNichol’s First Screening thanks to poet Geof Huth’s use of YouTube to generously archive the work. When I saw it, I immediately understood what it meant: there were others.

The first computer poetry predated bpNichol’s effort by a couple decades, but the arrival of the personal computer (PC), and especially the “user-friendly” PC—the Apple II, began the radical move toward communications and publishing systems that we still appreciate today. Featuring an on-board version of the BASIC programming language (Apple BASIC) that implemented a natural language-like “noun” and “verb” code structure, programming became a pursuit one could take up at home. And, given the development of removable storage, one could distribute the results of their experiments.

Against this historical backdrop, bpNichol produced the 13 poems of First Screening during 1983-4, circulating it on 5.25” disks with accompanying printed material. The poems are active; they literally reveal themselves. Even on what must be my hundredth viewing, the works are clever and moving solutions of poetic and technical “problems.” Letters flutter, travel, disappear. Linguistic invention gives way to parallel, co-present visual-spatial metaphor. A romance occurs off screen in the code even if the viewer/user doesn’t execute the author-provided code to see it happen (“Off-Screen Romance”). If a reader looks further into the source code, they find a poem hidden in the “comments” (REM statements) of the program at instruction label 3900 (labels are located on the left margin).

As a writer who understood multiple media via their promises and opportunities, it’s no surprise that the predominate impressions the work imparts are wonder and delight (lest we forget, bpNichol was a writer on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock). Just like bpNichol’s acknowledgements describe, when “there were far fewer people out there who seemed to share the excitements and concerns these poems grow out of,” I found this work at a crucial time, seeking similar encouragements. Just as he writes, “[i]n a real sense, they kept me writing,” the memory of my personal discovery of First Screening kept (and keeps) me writing, too.

Writing Prompt

To get a sense of the process, visit Apple ][js and run through a sample poem (using bpNichol’s “Island” as an example). This site simulates an Apple II computer, complete with the experience of what human-computer interaction once was.

  • Press the RESET button on the upper right of the virtual keyboard to access the BASIC interactive mode
  • Type each of the following instructions on a their own new line (unfortunately, copy and paste didn’t quite exist yet!):

10 FOR H = 1 TO 120
20 PRINT ” WAVE WAVE WAVE”,”ROCK WAVE WAVE WAVE”,” “,”ROCK”
30 NEXT H

  • Type LIST and press enter to verify the instructions
  • Type RUN and press enter to run
  • To start over from scratch at any point, type NEW and press enter
  • To interrupt a running program, press CTRL + C

 
If you make a mistake, use the arrow keys to move the cursor to the spot to correct and type over the error. Keep in mind that your mouse won’t help you!

— Douglas Luman

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Douglas Luman

Douglas Luman is a co-founder of Container, art director at Stillhouse Press, head researcher at appliedpoetics.org, a book designer, and digital human. They are an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Allegheny College, and the author of two books: The F Text (Inside the Castle, 2017), and Rationalism (Sublunary Editions, 2021).