I wrote this sonnet in 2014 as part of a Year 9 class assignment. 7 years onwards, I still enjoy what I wrote – and in a way, this connects our February and March themes! I think it's healthy to let yourself be moved by your own work, and to appreciate the unique and personal memories of the process... I remember how I was inspired by the rhythm of Alexander Pope's Eloisa to Abelard, after watching the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Lovesong for Spring
For season that gives bless’ed days in light, Your comely looks will ever leave the shore; For you a snowdrop land out for delight, I wait and yearn for honeyed sound: amour. Oh budding youth and binding honest smells, No bird nor figure did evoke my mind; Your sweet, your caprice tale in spring we tell, Your dream of slumber wrote for me designed. For you bloom lily, iris, rose with charm, That dance, that laugh and soothe red eyes so sore; So arrows cushion frays within your arms! Complete devotion of my heart to yours. By you my lonely heart shall be adored, Go onwards, so our journey upwards soars.
The internet is a wondrous thing. When I’m writing an article and trying to steer clear of labelling something as ‘interesting’ – a term that teachers incessantly asked us to avoid – I may sift through the abundant world of the online thesaurus. I tend to struggle to find something appropriate for the sentiment I am aiming to express, because of all the choices available.
But on the other side of these digital choices and endless resources lies another issue: what are you really choosing from? In November, Google announced a ‘human-AI collaboration for writing poetry’ called Verse by Verse, which allows you to choose poet inspirations and make your own poem with a mixture of human input and artificial intelligence.
So I had a go at making my own Google poem. I was presented with twenty-two poets, three to choose as inspirations. Thirteen of these poets were white men (shock horror), eight of these were women and four of them were Black poets (one man and three women). I was asked to write my own title and first line, and given suggestions for further lines, style, and content. Putting aside the fact that it’s impossible to summarise a wealth of varied poets in twenty-two bite-size case studies, the race and gender breakdown is also an uncanny mirror to real-life hierarchies. A Creative Industries Federation report shows how much work the creative market needs to do to improve gendered and racialized discriminations.
However, another problem is precisely the inclusion of a tokenistic diversity where race and gender are made visible through AI technology. In this way, recognition becomes a tool for categorising groups according to identity. Researchers Clementine Collett and Sara Dillon put forward strategies for mediating AI discrimination with the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. They articulate that the notion of classifying faces using AI technology reinforces socially constructed categories through repetitive processes, stating that “The concept of ‘classification’ and ‘recognition’ in general ought to be questioned as a legitimate and acceptable exercise.” In fact, a Harvard study emphasized that AI techniques employed by law enforcement for identifying potential ‘suspects’ echoed the techniques used historically to segregate and separate Black people from white people in the United States. Enforcing practices of recognition risks grouping identity with criminality.
I am a huge fan of digital landscapes as spaces for creativity and really dislike the rhetoric that implies technology is ‘killing creativity’. In fact, digital art can provide us with different modes of creativity, like graphic design or digital publication (or like me writing this article on Google Docs right now!). However, the specific insertion of AI technology into the production of poetry means that rather than the individual freely cutting up and piecing together digital space, the ‘answers’ are easily generated and ready. They don’t even really make any sense: I typed in ‘four corners’ and instantly was given some numerically themed lines based on my chosen poets – not exactly a liberal interpretation. Whilst the poem was fun to make and provided suggestions that sparked my imagination, the AI generator replaced a space for critical discussion and research with an existing world full of bias that you must mould yourself into.
Google is one of the giants that make up the term ‘Big Tech’, a phrase often repeated to the point of redundancy. Google owns and controls much of our digital creative and educational space, and it is really talented at distracting you from the bigger picture that it lives in. As journalist and theorist Rebecca Solnit writes in my well worn favourite essay of hers, ‘The Garden of Merging Paths’, Silicon Valley is a symbolic maze: “And the maze’s image is echoed in the circuit boards and silicon chips […] of centerless towns that melt into each other”, the landscape is “wholly interior” and works at “eliminating the world”. Verse by Verse stands as one path to this maze, where limited choice and outlined fun obstructs the inequalities of privatized and mass-produced education.
On the one hand, I think that there is much to be gained from understanding our identities as made up of digital and physical qualities. As esteemed theorist Donna Haraway argues in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, we should be wary of separating the notion of human from machine or animal for fear of implying anthropocentric authority or instating a kind of ‘human knows best’ rule. In fact, the mixture of human and AI technology in Verse by Verse could be a perfect instance of Haraway’s characterisation of human and machine intertwining.
Yet the Google generator is not an instance of merging, but a direct result of humans inserting preconceived notions of poetry and creativity into technology. Sure, Google can create some jovial lines and teach me about different poetic structures and styles, which can make up for the lack of creative access in lockdown. Yet, doesn’t it truly deny the essence of a poem, which is often based on the confusion of experience or imagination, not on the flow of superficially matching lines? It seems to encourage enforcing rules instead of breaking new ground.
In the end, it comes down to how we approach teaching and learning. As Feminist theorist Carolyn M Shewsbury states in her classic essay ‘What is feminist pedagogy?’, one of the foundations of learning horizontally and avoiding power imbalances is creating community, merging the listener and the talker. When I construct my Google poem, I am met with no response, no workshopping, no challenges. Creating genuine rather than tokenistic equality in creative or educational spaces is about creating communities that support and challenge each other. Otherwise, instead of collective creation, we are just one individual led around a garden maze.
The path to creation always begins with an absence. A gap in the world appears, or is finally noticed, and it demands to be filled. In 2020, these blank spaces became even more apparent and even harder to ignore. With schedules wiped clean and the always longed for free time now painfully abundant, rifts in time could open freely. Once you have done every task you kept putting off, cleaned everything you always forget to clean and watched every show you have been meaning to watch, the beast of boredom finds a home in the newly torn hole in your carefully planned timetable. Soon your eyes, and your mind, wander. But being stuck within a finite space, no matter how roomy, means your creativity can only wander so far. Soon your view is all you have and you start to observe it at every opportunity like a comforting and well-watched film. In a way, it is simply to pass the time, to swallow half an hour or so.
This “mere pastime” of “creating”, whatever it may be, however, soon mutates into more. Once you open the door to creation, you begin to see the possibilities everywhere. The possibility of connection, of display, of being able to travel far beyond your government allotted space. You begin to realise that if you took even half an hour away from your schedule of binge-watching shows you have already seen and doom-scrolling, and instead put it towards creation, you might even build something – even if it is just a more varied day. The glimmering idea that you could even create something lasting, something to look back on one day and smile, is almost intoxicating in the current climate of total impermanence and uncertainty. The idea of being in total control of just one small thing in your day with no expectation or pressure is sort of thrilling. Suddenly the closed world you are trapped in abounds with possibility. The people you are stuck indoors with are now possible collaborators and the four walls you stared at every inch of tirelessly become your stage for creation.
Soon, however, like with many things in life, the act overtakes you. The tide begins to turn from happy distraction to all-consuming creation. You stand on the precipice between simply trying to fill your newly found extra hours to searching for further hours in the day to do your project justice. Creation becomes less of a simple salve for your boredom and begins to grow into something you almost, horror of horrors, take seriously. You feel you must justify the hours spent by making it “good” and through “committing” to it. Of course, this idea of having to justify hours spent in play is a hanger-on from the time before, the time when you had little time to play. When every hour and its progress had to be accounted for and had to have a quantifiable result. The barrage of banana bread, clay pots, photography projects and stunning landscapes that scroll past your eyes with increasing speed each day seem to be sending you a message- you must have a result- no matter how fleeting. Creation borne of boredom, however, does not always fit this rigid mould and the pressure of committing to your pastime can become overwhelming. You can see the edges of this not being fun anymore and, worst of all, it begins to feel almost like work.
It is then that the doubt begins. You look at what you have created, what you have spent your once valuable time upon and wonder if it was worth it. You allowed creation to gobble up time quickly and efficiently here and there in order to bypass the blankness. But now you worry you have been foolish, that it was reckless somehow to even try. As if you will emerge at the end of the year all wrong, all misaligned and out of sync somehow. You worry that that little half an hour here and there you were so eager to dispose of was secretly some vital element of your year you cannot quite fathom at present. Your eyes wander from your own work to the “achievements” of others – the online courses and unending zines and the quantifiable. Your work was just for you, it had no easily measured effect on the world outside your window. It is difficult now to see the true value in that when so many have worked so hard to keep the world afloat.
Finally, your creation finds its balance and begins to punctuate the seemingly featureless landscape of time rather than dominate it. You find the right mix of boredom, absorption, and sense of achievement without slipping into the bog of undue pressure. It becomes a good use of your time, a good way to pass the time, a method of self-soothing, an achievement of a difficult year, a testament to that thing you always used to wish you had time to do. The act of creation settles into a special role in your life and achieves that rare perfection of being whatever you need it to be.
This session we got to meet Kate Whitaker, founder and presenter of the ‘Navigating your Twenties’ podcast. Podcasting resonated with us as a collective because we are considering ways in which we can reach out to more young creatives and provide tools that will be useful to them. Assemblage was set up as a symbiotic group to share and create and a podcast would be an exciting way to extend our community. What’s more, Kate offered us some great advice and DIY optimism at a time when we all need some encouragement.
Most of the podcasts I watch are set up by already successful people with a guaranteed audience and plenty of funding so Kate’s decision and success in getting a podcast up and running by herself impressed me. I was not alone: another Assemblage member queried ‘how do you get over self doubt and believe what you have to say is interesting?’ Kate explained that most of us feel like we will be interesting at some point in the future but in reality many of us are brimming with experiences and ideas that connect with others and it’s down to us to find a way to share our voice. So she needs to look no further than her friends for interviews because they all have a story to tell that others want to hear. When she does want an unknown guest, she uses matchmaker.fm, an online platform for podcasters.
Of course, having something to say must then be backed by hard work, and Kate detailed how she solidified her ideas initially through creating a brand that would appeal to people. This involved finding her title, designing the visuals and producing a trailer that would give the flavour of the story she wanted to tell. The episodes themselves need structure and scripted questions for the interviewees before you consider what sound equipment to buy. This needn’t be extravagant (the free audio software Audacity works great and Kate got her mic for a tenner).
Once you have your brand, equipment, guests and of course, a platform to host your show, how to build up a following? Know your audience and market to them through consistent social media posts (use the hashtags) and get people to rate your show. This pushes you up the Podcast chart and gets you more visibility. Kate’s ambition is to be featured on the charts, interview some high profile guests and enter the British Podcast Awards. Fingers crossed!
While many of us tend to be quite single minded in our pursuit of success Kate’s story was a useful and prescient reminder (considering the uncertain circumstances right now) that there is not just one career route or destination and an idea that takes you off course can be more rewarding than a one-way road. Even apparent failures can be turned into successes: Kate’s Youth Music presenting gigs were cancelled due to the pandemic so she came up with new concepts that she could do from home. They liked them and this became her own series ‘Live in Lockdown’ in collaboration with Tiktok and Arts Council England.
What’s more, the failures of life at this early stage are a crucial part of the narrative of Kate’s podcast, so her final message was to ‘say yes’ to all opportunities- each one could carry the seeds of your ultimate success.