May 23, 2006

Text–

by Nick Montfort · , 2:29 pm

Poetry publisher Wave Books proffers an online system, Erasures, for creating subtractive poems. The project celebrates Wave’s recent publication of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, which was composed in this manner. A page links to that book and illustrious predecessors produced by deletion: Jen Bervin’s Nets, produced by removing letters from Shakespeare’s sonnets; Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, based on the first four books of Paradise Lost, and Tom Phillips’s A Humument. My favorite digital tool for creating texts in this way, presented in performance at A Night at the Cybertexts at DAC 2001, is John Cayley’s Instrumental, which allows the user to multi-select runs of text and then delete everything except what is highlighted. It’s nice, of course, to also have a flexible Web system like this to allow people to share what they’ve shored against ruin.

5 Responses to “Text–”


  1. josh g. Says:

    tr uer a r t sure. project Waves of White, in this manner. age ink that lusts by deletion, produce moving from spears; the first of lips My favorite for creating.

  2. mark Says:

    I’m not sure why, but I’ve run across this in the past, and it initially intrigued me, but after some consideration I’ve grown to find this sort of thing walks a fine line between “interesting” and “trivial”. The problem with using really large sources (like Paradise Lost) is that it’s not clear anything besides the usual sort of poetry-writing is being done: Your “constraints” are so loose that you can write whatever you were going to write anyway, and the fact that your poem can be created by deletions from Paradise Lost becomes boring, because it has so many words in it that most relatively short poems can be created by deletions from Paradise Lost, with the exception of those that use modern words like “internet”.

    Not sure how good an analogy it is, but I felt slightly cheated by the Venetian Snares / Hecate album “Nymphomatriarch”. It’s an electronica/industrial/IDM album created entirely from recorded sounds of the authorial couple having sex, which sounds intriguing, but it turns out that’s not that interesting (IMO). It turns out that you can reproduce the usual range of electronica/industrial/IDM source samples from any starting source. Instead of the usual snare-drum sample, you have a recording of some sex sounds that you’ve manipulated to be bit-identical to a snare-drum sample, but it’s still just a snare-drum sample.

    (In fact, I may or may not have written this post entirely by concatenating webpages and deleting words from them until only my post was left.)

    That’s not to say it’s not necessarily interesting, but I think it’s very difficult to find an interesting middle ground between “the fact that this was your source material is irrelevant and boring” and “this is a cut-up/remix/sample of the source material” (the latter is interesting, but is a separate sort of thing).

  3. josh g. Says:

    Even just writing the few lines in my comment above, it was easy to think of what I wanted to say first and then find the right letters to create it. I could definitely see how using a large sample of text as your source could make the whole process trivial, if you let it.

    On the other hand, it was an interesting experience to skim over the words of the source and look for ‘sub-words’ or unusual phrases that would remain if bits were taken out.

    So, I think it depends on how the author approaches it, and certainly using a huge source makes it easier to fall back on trivializing the process.

  4. mark Says:

    As a public service, I hacked up a perl script to take two textfiles as arguments and determine whether the second can be produced solely by deleting words from the first (ignoring punctuation and capitalization, and treating all whitespace as equivalent). Not a particularly efficient algorithm, but even on book-length text it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds on any modern machine.

    http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~mnelson/temp/deletions.pl

    Now one may go about the job ex post facto: write a poem, test it against a variety of sources, and finally concoct a suitable backstory explaining the process by which the source inspired and shaped the poem as the latter was allegedly whittled from the former.

  5. nick Says:

    “[Artaud's] name was even described by one admirer, knows as ‘The Alchemist,’ as Arthur Rimbaud without the HUR in Arthur and without the RIMB in Rimbaud.” -Carl Solomon

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