A Conversation with Nick Montfort

A Conversation with Nick Montfort

By Laura Liu

Nick Montfort's computer-generated books of poetry include #!, the collaboration 2×6, Autopia, The Truelist (first in the new Using Electricity series from Counterpath), and Hard West Turn. Among his more than fifty digital projects are the collaborations The Deletionist, Sea and Spar Between, and Renderings. He reads and has digital artwork shown internationally. He has six books out from the MIT Press, most recently The Future (in the Essential Knowledge series). He is professor of digital media at MIT, also teaches at the School for Poetic Computation, and lives in New York and Boston.

I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Nick some questions. Read on for the result!

Laura Liu, Interviewer: To kick things off, you live in both Boston and New York, but have also given presentations around the world. I’d venture to say that both of these places—and, more broadly, place in general—have had an influence on your work. Would you say that’s true, and—if so—what influence do you think place has on your work?

Nick Montfort, Writer: I’ll point to a particular project. I developed a digital poem and text generator called Autopia. It takes shape as a Web page, a gallery installation, and a book. It is a generator of simple headline-like sentences that are made entirely of the singular and plural names of cars — no other lexemes are used. Nevertheless, the sentences, mostly made of automobile names from the United States, recapitulate encounters between native people and Europeans (GRAND CHEROKEE SHADOWS EXPLORERS), comment on class (NEW YORKER GOLFS), offer mathematical results (OPTIMA FIT MATRIX AXIOM), and even describe immigration (AMIGOS FORD RIO). The text in the Web and gallery versions moves across different “lanes,” and those correspond to the point on Los Angeles freeways that is the widest. 

I started thinking about what became Autopia when I was in Los Angeles, where I also did the first reading of the project, when it was still in progress. In fact I was for some of that time in Anaheim, where there is the Disneyland attraction called Autopia. The project, though, is not about anything at Disneyland directly, but about a world in which cars go about driving themselves and creating whatever meaning there is … a utopia for cars, perhaps, but not for people. I suppose if I spent most of my adult life driving around in Los Angeles it wouldn’t have occurred to me to even start thinking about car names, because nothing unusual would have stood out, and I wouldn’t have written and programmed Autopia. Being carfree on the East Coast could have provided me with the perspective to develop this project.

LL: You have several degrees in two seemingly-unrelated fields: computer science and creative writing. What first drew you to each of these fields? Did you have a “moment” when you realized you wanted to combine them?

NM: These fields aren’t unrelated either to me personally or in the broader culture. When I was growing up as I was starting to select my own reading and to do writing when it wasn’t part of a school assignment, I was also doing my first programming in BASIC. Writing BASIC programs often involved language and sometimes even literary activities, such as implementing a computer character (a version of ELIZA) or generating random poetry. The first type of computer game I played at home was interactive fiction from Infocom. That was the dominant type of entertainment software at the time. These were in different popular literature genres, obviously fiction/literature of a sort. They were also clearly computer programs, written in many cases by people with computer science background, and they could be solved the way riddles can be. Anyway, I didn’t at all invent the combination of computing and literature. There’s not only this experience of mine, but a history of these two going together before I was born — see: http://nickm.com/memslam

LL: Speaking of bridging the gap, you have developed poem and text generators. Your recent book The Truelist (Counterpath Press, 2017) is a poem generated by a computer program that you wrote. How do you interpret the connection between code and poetry?

NM: One could say plenty of very general things about how poetry and code are related, or different, but I prefer to think about them very specifically, with reference to particular projects. My book #! consists of poems and programs, as I often explain. The complete code of several short programs is included, with sample output after it. But I leave it for others to think about where the poems are in this book. Are they the sample output, or the programs themselves, or both?

In The Truelist, you have a one-page computer program that, when run, produces as output 140 pages of poetic language 20 sections. It does so deterministically, that is, in exactly the same way each time. A person can read the result aloud, as with many other sorts of poetry, and indeed I’ve done a studio recording of the entire book which is available for free online. The program is also available for anyone to study and even for people to modify and play with, if they like.

As with #!, you have both code and its output presented in the book. The output here, I’m willing to say, is a long poem. But does that mean the program itself isn’t a poem? Maybe the question of what is a poem is less important than where a poetic process is happening. Is it only when I write the program, or only when the program runs, or only when someone (me or another reader) encounters the output and reads it silently or aloud?

The relationship between code and is not the same in every work — The Truelist is the sixth computer-generated literary book of mine, and I have many other projects that are not in printed book format. I find it’s best to be specific and see what relations are there in particular works. Without seeing the particular connections it is very hard to generalize.

LL: Recently, there have been concerns that artificial intelligence is taking away jobs. Do you think that concern applies to writers—do you think that writers could one day be replaced by lines of code?

NM: We develop different sorts of automation technology in order to make less work for people overall. Perhaps when it comes to jobs, the concern should not be AI reducing human labor but our overall social and economic organization. We could establish a basic income, for instance. As to whether computers can do some of the work that writers have historically been paid to do, they already do. They will do more of it.

All of this has nothing to do with my projects. The systems I develop are neither for utilitarian, commercial purposes nor do they emulate human writing. For that matter almost none of them are well-understood as artificial intelligence projects.

LL: Finally, what is a book you’ve read recently that you’ve enjoyed? What about it did you enjoy so much?

NM: Many of the books I read are manuscripts that I’m reviewing for different presses; or they are books being developed for the MIT Press series I co-edit, Platform Studies; or they are manuscripts for the series of computer-generated literary books I edit, Using Electricity, published by Counterpath in Denver.

I do read other books, though. Of the ones I read in finished form fairly recently, I was tremendously impressed with Jen Bervin’s book Silk Poems, which is the outcome of a six-year project entwined with biology and fabrication, deals with literary, linguistic and cultural histories, and is a beautiful book materially.

To mention one I’ve read that is coming out soon, Milton Läufer’s computer-generated novel A Noise Such as a Man Might Make (in my series Using Electricity) is an extraordinary book. The computational technique used is one I have seen applied again and again; it’s been used for decades. The results are usually only very locally any good, maybe for half a sentence here and there. But because of the incisive selection of source texts and the way that Milton cast this particular basic algorithm in the specific program he wrote, the result in this case is utterly compelling. Those who read experimental novels and who are interested in the themes of masculinity and struggle against nature will, I’m sure, love this one.

Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.

Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.

Header Image: Nick Montfort

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