“Algorithmic Poems” by Chris Funkhouser

screen capture from "Algorithmic Poems" by Chris Funkhouser.
Open “Algorithmic Poems” by Chris Funkhouser

This suite of four poems based on W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” was written using GTR Language Workbench— a kind of textual Photoshop that allows users to algorithmically select and transform a text. This free and downloadable Mac & Windows software tool created by Andrew Klobucar and David Ayre can be used to analyze and transform texts, generating new ones using new and historical algorithmic methods, such as the Oulipian N+7. It also allows writers to create new algorithms or sequences of transformations to act upon texts, as seen in its tutorial videos (see the Processors and Mixed Processors tutorials in the program’s Help section).

Scholar, poet, and musician Chris Funkhouser is well versed in the use of this software, listing 5 creative works produced with it in his website. These three poems were selected from his month-long participation in the WordXWord 30/30 Poetry Challenge starting on April 1, 2011. For 30 days, he used this software to (in his words) “canniballize” the lyrics to Handy’s song to generate daily poems, perhaps also inspired by the prompts offered. Funkhouser’s algorithmic interventions can be understood as a series of jam sessions or musical remixes that act upon the original the textual recording (that is, the poem)

Funkhouser’s prefaces his four poems with Handy’s lyrics, which allow us to appreciate the connection and distance from the original. This is enhanced by the repetitive structure of blues lyrics, as can be seen in the first stanza:

Original “St. Louis Blues:”

I hate to see that evening sun go down
I hate to see that evening sun go down
‘Cause, my baby, he’s gone left this town.

“St. Louis Blues 2011:”

screen capture from "Algorithmic Poems" by Chris Funkhouser. White backgorund with black font text. Text: "I dislike to literalize that electronic Roman deity visible light shelter down / I hate to spectate that visitor darkness influential person sign down / mortal, my tubing somone, he's a sound woman this metal round".

“Removal Us:”

screen capture from "Algorithmic Poems" by Chris Funkhouser. White background with black font text. Text: Hauled to seegin that eventide sun-parlor goaded, / browse to sow that guest night room spurred / Caution my low-caliber donned babysitter legalized".

Note how instead of repeating the line he chose to transform the lines individually, perhaps with different algorithms, yet keeping the last word intact or rhyming to retain some of the original structure. Some of the versions are quite different from the “seed” language, yet the variations are remarkably coherent because they’re guided by Handy and Funkhouser’s creative visions and to a certain extent Klobucar and Ayre’s vision for the software tool. Keep this in mind when reading the poems, especially in the context of the possible transformations one can put language through with this software.

This tool becomes a writing instrument in Funkhouser’s expert hands, who without typing is able create conceptual poems in a compositional process one could call language jazz.

Note: The software currently works only in Macintosh and 32-bit Windows operating systems.

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