Isolation Inspiration: Online Poetry Exercises for Lockdown

Hello friends. You don’t need me to tell you that we’re living through a very unusual time at the moment; things are strange and scary and unpredictable, and everybody has been affected in one way or another. As a doctoral student, I’m lucky in that my research generally involves a lot of working alone, sitting at my laptop, so my studies have not been nearly as disrupted as they could’ve been. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for undergraduate students, especially those who were in the final year of their degree, whose university lives have been brought sharply and unceremoniously to an end. My new job at the university library has become a work-from-home position – again, I’m very fortunate that this is the case, and that I’m still getting paid when so many people’s finances are so uncertain. My partner’s hospitality job has closed its doors. A great deal of my friends are now without a source of income. I’m sure you have experienced some of these problems first-hand, and others will have faced far worse.

All of this is to say that it feels a bit silly to be talking about writing exercises at the minute. But the world keeps on spinning; even as we distance ourselves from others, quarantine ourselves in our homes, and wonder how much of what we are experiencing right now will become the New Normal after a few weeks or months or years, life carries on. As a writer, I want to be able to keep writing during the COVID-19 crisis. I also, of course, have to keep writing, if I don’t want to get dropped from my PhD and lose my main source of income. So many aspects of our lives have been placed on pause, but our lives keep going nonetheless – there are still things we all need to do, and for anybody who was trying to make a living through their art before the pandemic, it is more urgent now than ever to keep writing, keep drawing, keep editing, keep doing whatever it is you do. This isn’t just for the sake of keeping afloat financially, mind; isolation can be, well, isolating, and making art is something concrete that we can do with our time to help us connect and feel connected to the world around us. What I’m trying to say is that, while making art is obviously not the most important thing to think about during times of crisis, it’s still something we should be thinking about. So how do we go about writing poetry in a world on lockdown?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I find it way more difficult to synthesise ideas for new poetry when I’m stuck in the house for prolonged periods of time. The ebb and flow of real life provides boundless inspiration; overheard conversations at coffee shops, sunlight striking structures at unexpected angles, snapshots of streets glimpsed from bus windows. Without that regular input of new stimuli, I find my ability to turn a creative eye to things growing dull and dusty. Writing is a very solitary activity, of course, but solitude alone (excuse the pun) is a recipe for writer’s block if I ever heard one. With this in mind, I’ve tried to compile here a few of the techniques I’ve used in the past to jump-start my writing process when I was feeling stuck or uninspired. What all of these techniques have in common is that they use existing online text as a starting point for your work; when I struggle to write, I find that the initial step of putting down the first few words – the Terror of the White Sceen – is the most difficult obstacle to get past, and these exercises all take that first step for you, giving you raw material which you can shape and structure and make your own.

#1: Writing to be Found

I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned this particular technique on the site before, but it’s entirely possible, because I’m a huge fan of it and find it intensely interesting. I learned of it in 2018, when my supervisor at the time linked me to writer John Cayley’s website. Cayley’s work is, in general, fascinating, but it was this particular exercise my supervisor thought I’d appreciate, and he was correct. Writing to be found is a process which uses the largest single collection of written language in the world – Google search results – to shape and direct the lines of a poem.

Cayley describes the process on his site: ” write into the Google search field with text delimited by quote marks until the sequence of words is not found. Record this sequence. Delete words from the beginning of the sequence until the sequence is found. Then add more words to the end of the sequence until it is not found. Repeat.” This technique takes advantage of the useful search engine trick of putting your query in quotation marks to ensure you only recieve results which match your search exactly. This results in you, as a writer, procedurally building your poem up piece by piece, word by word, until you reach a point where the sequence of words you have produced is, as far as Google can tell, an ‘unfound’ sequence, never before recorded by human hands.

In his essay on the subject, Cayley articulates the questions that led him to pursue writing to be found as a technique for use and study – “how many words would I have to add, composing my syntagmatic sequences, before they were not found in the corpus of language to which the Google search engine gives me access, before they were, perhaps, original sequences? How difficult would I find it to produce unfound sequences? Would I be able to continue to write as I usually write once I was aware that, at some perhaps unanticipated moment, the words I write are suddenly penetrating and constituting the domain of sequences that are not yet found in our largest, most accessible corpus of written English?” As a visual aid, Cayley also provides the following example of phrases which were (at the time of writing in 2009) ‘unique’ within Google’s vast searchable body of work, strung together to create poetry:

 "If I write, quoting,"
"I write, quoting, "And"
"write, quoting, "And the"
"quoting, 'And the earth"
"'And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,' these words"
"upon the face of the deep,' these words will"
"deep,' these words will be found"
"these words will be found. Perhaps"
"will be found. Perhaps they will now"
"Perhaps they will now always"
"they will now always be found"
"will now always be found. I"
"always be found. I write"
"be found. I write, in part"
"I write, in part, in the hope that what"
"in the hope that what I write will be found."

There are, I think, a shedload of academic reasons to find this particular writing technique worthy of study; the ideas it explores around originality, procedure, and creativity are so darn interesting! This is the sort of thing I find very cool, because I am a loser. However, I also think that this is a technique with a lot of practical potential, and especially so in a lockdown situation. It encourages you to think about the way we use repetition for effect, to think about what the value of ‘unique’ writing might be, to think about how your own work diverts and/or converges from the apparent standards of the English language – and since a lot of the structural decisions are made for you by the restrictions of the technique, it frees up a lot of mental space to consider the other choices you might make in the course of writing poetry.

#2: Post-Flarf Poetry

If nothing else, I had to write a section about post-flarf poetry because it is called post-flarf poetry, and I will take any excuse to type the phrase post-flarf poetry repeatedly, because it’s post-flarf poetry. Come on. I first heard this term in an interview with poet Sam Riviere, where he used it as a descriptor for his own work, specifically his second collection, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage. As a fan of Riviere’s work, I thought it would be sensible to do a little research on his terminology. Flarf, in its delightfully named original conception, is a contemporary branch of poetry “in which poets prowl the Internet using random word searches, e-mail the bizarre results to one another, then distill the newly found phrases into poems that are often as disturbing as they are hilarious” (read more on the subject here). It is, in essence, poetry cut-and-pasted together from various online sources, often intended to provoke shock or disapproval more than actual enjoyment. The whole thing started, as the article I linked points out, with poet Gary Sullivan attempting to flood a fraudulent anthology’s submissions box with unpublishably terrible material. Already, this sounds like a promising source of inspiration for lockdown writing – if you’re scared that your work might not be ‘good enough’, why not go all out and try to write something truly, noteworthily awful?

But we aren’t talking about flarf poetry here – we’re talking about post-flarf, which again, just look at that as a phrase and tell me it doesn’t make you happy. As I understand it, post-flarf encompasses poetry which employs similar systems and methods to flarf, but which attempts to use those methods to construct something a little more traditionally lyrical – sparks of genuine beauty amongst the sea of internet junktext. Since it was Riviere who first introduced me to the term, though, let’s take a look at his work specifically and see what ‘post-flarf’ might mean in that context. This article from The Quietus provides a helpful overview of the process Riviere uses in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage – he “has taken the section headings from [his debut collection, 81 Austerities] – ‘Girlfriend Heaven’, ‘Spooky Dust’ etc. – and sequentially re-combined them to create 72 titles, excluding only the combinations used in 81A. The sense, even in the titles, is that the moment of creation has somehow already taken place. These titles are then used as search terms in Google and poems are created from text found amongst the results.” Like the last exercise we looked at, Google results are the initial body of text from which Riviere formulates his poetry. But this method tackles this from a different angle; rather than filling in your own phrases, and using Google’s data to shape and structure them, here Riviere takes his text itself from the search results that certain, pre-selected phrases return to him. In this sense, we might say this technique is closer to typical ‘found’ poetry than Cayley’s exercise.

Studying up on flarf and post-flarf has made me very happy – not least because the story of Sullivan’s journal takedown reminded me of perhaps my favourite ‘hoax’ poet, the ficticious Ern Malley, whose work you can read here. But beyond that, I think what we have here is an opportunity to discover poetry in the most unlikely places. Try putting together a set of arbitrary phrases, and using the search results from those phrases to construct your poetry. This technique does, of course, rather limit the input you’ll have into your own work – but isn’t that the spirit of all found poetry? And, more generally, of these sorts of creative exercises? Restrictions can often generate new and unexpected ideas, and I suspect that following in Riviere’s footsteps can help a poet do exactly that.

#3: Poetry Generators

Speaking of generating new ideas (funny), I’ve recently realised that online poetry generators can be surprisingly useful for sparking inspiration. Obviously this isn’t to suggest that we have, as a society, reached a point where the poets can finally down their pens and leave the task of creating new literature to our A.I. Overlords. Procedurally-generated poetry can be fascinating – there’s a neat introduction to the subject here – but what I’m talking about here, instead, is using the various online poetry generating tools as a way to leapfrog past the initial, difficult process of putting together a first draft. For example, in my last workshop post, I shared a draft poem that I had composed which used an algorithmically-written piece as a starting point. The generator I used was one of the many available through this site, specifically a generator which threw up selections of words and phrases from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and allowed me to arrange those selections in an order of my choice to create a ‘new’ piece of poetry. Using this as a base from which to edit, redraft and rewrite enabled me to escape the Terror of the White Screen I mentioned earlier – it provided me the raw material I was struggling to write.

The finished piece diverges significantly from the original draft, but I suspect there’s a certain energy present within it that resonates, still, with Poe’s style and subject matter. This, ultimately, is what I’ve found useful from my experiments with poetry generators – sources of influence which wouldn’t normally rise to the surface in my work suddenly being forced to the centre of a piece, and me having to find ways to realign that influence into something that feels like my own. This, as with the other techniques I’ve talked about in this post, is not a surefire way to produce good material, and certainly isn’t a replacement for the more traditional methods of creative inspiration. I’m not suggesting using these exercises as an endpoint, but as a diving board from which to spring. In these spooky times, more than ever, having that first step taken out of your hands can be the impetus you need to re-ignite your creative instincts.

I hope you’ve found something in this article that helps or inspires you – and, if you have further suggestions for internet-related poetry exercises, why not get in touch and let me know about them? Regardless of whether you decide to utilise any of these techniques, I hope you find a way to keep yourself feeling creative and, more importantly, happy, throughout the duration of the crisis, however long that may be.

Alex xo

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