Poet K. Silem Mohammad and poet and scholar Jeff Dolven consider how to rearrange the Renaissance tradition with an anagram engine, a click, and a drag. Their conversation is followed by a number of Mohammad’s sonnagrams, compositions anagramatically derived from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Jeff DolvenI’d like to start by asking about your sonnagrams, and so maybe I should try to describe them, mostly just following what you have said in print, with a few inferences and annotations of my own. You can tell me if I’ve got it right. You begin with a Shakespeare sonnet and the project is to write another sonnet that is a perfect anagram of the first, i.e. that uses the same number of A’s, the same number of B’s, and so on. No letters added to the original set and none subtracted. The new sonnet is an English sonnet, like Shakespeare’s, rhymed in quatrains, ABAB CDCD EFEF, with a final couplet, GG. The rhythm is Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and any letters left over, when those requirements have been met, go into the title. The process of writing the sonnagram begins with feeding the lines one by one into an Internet anagram engine, which produces fourteen new strings of words. Taken together, that new word hoard—unrhymed, unmetered, overlapping perfectly with Shakespeare’s letters but barely at all with his vocabulary—becomes your raw material. So far, pure, mechanical method. From there, you push the words around, take most of them apart, recompose them into new words, moving the elements—often single letters—only by cut-and-paste. At this stage you are engaged in a sonnet-making techne or craft that is very like Shakespeare’s, bound to his rhythmic and rhyming commitments. The results sound pretty different from their originals—they’re much funnier—and I hope we can talk about how and why. But first I’d like to ask you to put the whole process in the context of the question of copying or, more specifically, imitation. Imitation is a crucial term for Shakespeare’s culture: A lot of the best poetry of the period departs specifically from earlier models, like Thomas Wyatt’s near-translations of Petrarch’s sonnets earlier in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s sonnets lack such specific models, but they still borrow freely, from Sir Philip Sidney among others. Do you consider yourself an imitator in this Renaissance tradition?
K. Silem MohammadYes, all that is right, except for the “cut and paste” part; just insert “click and drag” and it will be completely accurate.
I hope this doesn’t derail the thematic focus of this occasion, but I don’t see what I’m doing with Shakespeare’s sonnets as imitation in the tradition you invoke, except at the most trivial structural level, that of making an English sonnet. This isn’t to say that I’m not interested in that tradition, or that I haven’t thought about it a lot. And it just occurs to me that one of the sonnagrams, “After Shakespeare,” is a kind of deliberate imitation, but even there I don’t lay claim to any kind of verisimilitude: it’s just generic fake early modern English. Also, there are lots of near-quotes and allusions throughout to various poets (like in the Frank O’Hara sonnagram), but, again, this isn’t really the same thing as Wyatt and Surrey faithfully following Petrarch or whatever. If I’m imitating anyone, it would be Christian Bök or Gregory Betts, whose anagrammatic experiments are probably my chief influences for this project.
On the other hand, maybe there’s an imitative element that I’m not acknowledging enough here. I did spend [insert embarrassingly big number] years studying Renaissance poetry in a grad program, so some of that certainly rubbed off on my phrasing. But as far as my conscious disposition goes, I see it more as ludic disruption than imitation.
DolvenI want to grab onto that “on the other hand.” Let’s say that we can put acts of imitation on a spectrum. On one side is a purely methodical operation: You derive an algorithm for the object and implement it with some variant to produce a second object that’s like, but not identical to, the first. On the other side is something that feels more instinctive or somatic, the way you can pick up an accent or a catchy turn of phrase and find yourself sounding like somebody else without knowing how you’re doing it (or maybe even that you’re doing it). Could we say that the Renaissance rhetorical practice of imitatio is somewhere between the two? That is: Erasmus would have you study the formal properties of a poem, its schemes and tropes, and use the rules to make something new; but there is supposed to be an ethical dimension as well. We are imitative animals, like Aristotle says. We can’t help becoming what we read and write and say and make. Imitatio as a creative and pedagogical practice mediates between the detachment of method and our susceptibility to charismatic example.
None of that really describes what your procedure does: The line-by-line anagrammatization is a tactic for banishing Shakespeare’s words and defining a freedom of resources. But still, as you say, it may feel like something has rubbed off. (“Rubbed off”: a great phrase.) The formal structure accounts for some of that: For example, you and Shakespeare both isolate that final couplet, so it has a weird detachment, half summary and half throwaway. But there are other common devices that feel more on-the-fly, like starting each quatrain with “if” (in your take on Sonnet 42); the general feel of stepwise argument; or the tortured, self-inspecting “I” that probably didn’t come from Kenneth Goldsmith, or not straight from him. You see what I’m asking: How much did Shakespeare get to you, despite the ludic disruption? And a parallel question: How about Bök or Betts? Their constraints are a model, I know; their methods. But what about their sound?
MohammadMaybe one way to think of it is as “deimitation,” after the model of deconstruction/defamiliarization/delimitation. I’m setting up an imitative situation, performing operations that contain the mechanical features of imitation (same meter, rhyme scheme, couplet closure, etc.), but there’s also a marked imperative to produce a final object that is remarkable precisely for its aesthetic dissimilarity to the original in certain key ways (seriousness or lack thereof, thwarted rhetorical patterns that devolve into nonsense, and other breaches of decorum). On the other hand, it’s in no way anti-Shakespearean, whatever that would mean. And a case could be made that I’ve isolated the linguistically ludic element of his sonnets (the part that puns on “Will” obsessively, for instance, or I guess puns in general) and made that my imitative focus. There’s no denying that Shakespeare has “rubbed off” on me. It’s just that so much else has as well, and I’ve made no effort to exclude those other rubbings-off from the project.
Interesting question about Bök and Betts’s “sound.” I do think they have distinctive sounds, especially Bök. And I don’t think the sound can be accounted for entirely by pointing to the anagrammatic method, though it certainly contributes. But I’m pretty sure that I don’t sound like either one of them and, in fact, sometimes I think I sound more like myself in the sonnagrams than in any of my other work, including the Google-driven Flarf work, though I could make the same point about it to a lesser extent. What I’m getting at is that the procedural approach somehow results in a concentrated version of my own voice. Also let it be known that I’m aware of how horrifying this voice is sometimes. My only defense is that an author’s voice is not the same thing as a philosophy or an ethics. It’s a constructed, performative thing, with lots of room for irony and imitation.
DolvenThen would it make sense to say, as you go from sonnet to sonnet, that you are imitating yourself?
MohammadMaybe. I do find myself slipping into a formulaic approach from time to time. And that formula seems to follow an accretive, reflexive pattern. But another way of thinking about it that just occurs to me is that I also seem to be imitating a bot or some kind of algorithmically driven software program. The arbitrariness of subject matter, predictable rhythms, etc.
DolvenPart of why I ask is that I have been wondering how far the idea of imitating yourself might get us in thinking about style. I think we moderns are bound to be a little disconcerted by the idea, as we are by imitating others. But I have also had the experience of writing something better or different from what I usually write, and then asking, How do I do more of that? Where might that lead me, if I follow it? What exactly am I aspiring to imitate in that case? The text on the page, the mood, the circumstance, or the self in which I wrote it? All of them? I’m obdurately curious about an imitation that is not reducible to formula, that is neither method (the freedom of giving yourself the law) nor a dream of free, romantic originality. I love the idea of imitating a bot, or imitating an algorithm, in order to get outside yourself. There’s something beautifully perverse about it, because a bot doesn’t imitate, it just follows the rules. But you don’t exactly want just to follow those rules … you want to be like a bot, but not be a bot.
MohammadYes, and another way of saying that is: I want to be like a bot in some ways but not in others. I want to be like a bot in the sense of being harnessed to this potentially endless energy, like the Energizer Bunny, where I’m able to keep performing my task without flagging, in a type of perpetual-motion filibuster against death, I guess. I also want some of that bottish disregard for propriety, so that anything that can be said gets said (though there are filters in any context, for sure, and I’m not interested in just “breaking taboos” for the sake of being obnoxious). But on the other side, I want to be visible as the little guy “programming” the bot. The sonnet form is perfect for that classical authorship effect in which the “I” keeps pointing at itself, insisting on its genius. I like the way the impersonal bot behavior counteracts the narcissistic author behavior, and vice versa. So maybe that’s a way of bringing the conversation back to the focus on imitation: There’s something similar in Shakespeare’s sonnets and in others to the tension I’ve just imagined. Shakespeare’s sonnetistic “I” is always undercutting its claims to authority in tricky little recursive ways, partly by insisting on that authority in the first place, in terms that are rigged with problematic holes and contradictions. If I had it handy, I think I could find some passages from Joel Fineman’s Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets that would enhance this argument.
In more general terms, I like bragging, but I don’t really want to be seen as sincerely bragging. I like it when rappers brag, for instance, because it usually seems clear that it’s a game, and even a genuinely competitive one in some ways, but the point isn’t really to establish one’s credentials finally as “the best,” because that would end the game. Rather, bragging allows more bragging to happen, and the game goes on. I enjoy the structure of the brag, and I also enjoy the ways in which I can subvert the brag by being obviously ridiculous. If I’m imitating anyone, it’s Juicy J or 2 Chainz as much as Shakespeare. Again, not necessarily in stylistic ways, but in ways that have to do with broader stances and motives.
DolvenWe make a lot of machines that imitate us, not just what we do but the way we do it. Something interesting is going on when that imitation comes back around, and we imitate the machines. I suppose that has a long history too, at least to Futurism. But Futurism was force and speed. Your bot is an amoral imp, half Puck, half teletype, and his share of the work isn’t always obvious. There’s a lot of license there. If you rent him out, I’d be interested.
Hot Butt Hot Butt Hot Butt Diddy
Erotic reptiles sing sweet airs to me Amid synthetic England’s deathly stench; Lo, unto every teenaged thigh they flee, While friendly hamsters masturbate in French.
The rightward-slanted menacing elite, By eerie method echoing their breath, Refill their gaudy bathtubs in the street With grisly murder (“Dude, the cutting death”).
The fluffiest of scarecrows rusts within; The yellowest banana soon turns brown; Erasure of the phone book is a sin; A polar bear should never wear a gown.
My hungry kittens tremble at my shoes When made to eat the fat of ruddy ewes.
Sonnet 1 (“From fairest creatures we desire increase”)
STD’s? Thank Ms. DDT, Men, then Dash
I’m Grover Cleveland, homies, hear me roar: I eat thirteen fish tacos every night, And every morning I eat twenty more (Uh huh, uh huh, you feel me, son? that’s right).
I brush my teeth with contraceptive gel, Do weird stuff with a weird potato masher; I win most all the reindeer games in Hell, Besides the ones that Satan wins, or Dasher.
When dirty sons of bitches bob my hair, I write my manifesto with a crayon And throw my Star Wars bath toys down the stair, Then tidy up and get my DeMolay on.
A joke I dreamt of: how do dodos pee? Oh happy, happy birds! the joke’s on me.
Sonnet 50 (“How heavy do I journey on the way”)
www.hummus.web, www.feverflume.tv (TV? Shhhhhhh, TV)
I hate The Beatles, dude. The Beatles suck. They blow. They bite. They chew. They’re awesome—not! I’m also not so thrilled with Donald Duck. I mean, I guess he’s cool…. He’s sort of hot.
Darth Vader isn’t Harry Potter’s dad; There are not fifty femurs in your body; There’s no one named Baloo in Superbad; It’s haute couture, not hottie cootarati.
On psychoanalytic night at Hooters, Tostadas are a metaphor for bread, Odysseus is not unkind to suitors, And (elsewhere) Teddy Roosevelt is dead.
On sauteed summer eels we feed ourselves; We feed fresh elvish hummus to our elves.
Sonnet 54 (“O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem”)
This Butch Headphone Witch
Geometry potatoes whack the bush, Toyota’s hotness hatching Goethe’s wraith; Anthologies our congresswomen push Offended Khrushchev’s nonexistent faith.
Breathe in the unattractive Southwest beige Cheerleader fetish (hint, hint) housefly doom; Placental teeth assaulted dentists’ flesh Against forbidden Dutch koala’s womb.
Whichever wholesale newlywedded stooge Thus weakly burns my hot Miltonic hash (Othello hardware filthiest if huge): Oh beat it, healthy mummy, with your stash.
Somehow athletic vulture wavelength dies In wet Ohio sweethearts’ brainwashed eyes.
Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”)
MSN vs. CNN: Chhhhilllll! Celts vs. My Butt: Fffffetttttttttttttcchhhh! www.shaven.com: Sssshhhhhhh!
I wonder how much kittens suck at math. I wonder if Madonna uses Gmail. Does Willie Nelson ever take a bath? Is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi male or female?
You owe me forty dollars, by the way. You bet me that I couldn’t eat a towel. I ate it. Now you owe me, Rachael Ray. —Your loyal friend (and lawyer), Thurston Howell.
I’m getting high in Arkansas with Stryper. It’s no big deal, this happens all the time. In Idaho I donned a rubber diaper As Evanescence squirted me with slime.
So hotsy hotsy hotsy hot we got, So hotsy hotsy hotsy hotsy hot.