Who Touches This Touches….an Algorithm

by Arlene Weiner

Ray Kurzweil is an innovator and futurist. He developed a number of widely used innovations, notably the Kurzweil Reader, which uses pattern recognition to translate printed material into machine-readable text and the text into speech. In 1976! According to Wikipedia, the Kurzweil Reader project developed both the first flat-bed scanner and text-to-speech generation.

Kurzweil’s interested in art, and while still in his teens he developed a software program that analyzed music by classical composers and synthesized pieces in their style. Similarly, Kurzweil developed the Ray Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet (RKCP), which analyzes poems by one (or more) poets and generates poems in their styles. Haiku included. (You can download the software free, at http://www.kurzweilcyberart.com/poetry/rkcp_overview.php3, but sorry, not for Macintoshes.)

There’s a history in literature of interest in automatism in the generation of texts. The surrealists and Oulipo developed methods for making texts collectively or with elements of randomness. For example, in the surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse game, each participant writes a section without seeing what the preceding sections are, and in one of Oulipo’s exercises, each noun in a passage is replaced by the noun that occurs a certain number of entries after it in a dictionary. Still, there’s something disquieting about an automated poetry generator. Doesn’t it call the value of poetry into question? or of poets?

One of my philosophy instructors in college, Judith Jarvis (later Thomson), gave as a topic for a paper “Suppose you found out that your best friend was made in Detroit?” Suppose you came across a poem by RKCP, and found it moving? Would you feel defrauded when you found out later that it was generated by a software program? Is the product, the arrangement of words on the page (or striking the ear), the only thing that matters, or is its origin important? Do we want a guarantee of contact with a mind, a man, a camerado?

Arguably the RKCP poem does carry the faint fragrance of the authors of the poems that are its model, just as poems made from a magnetic poetry kit (one of those sets of individual words that can be stuck up on refrigerators and shuffled into poems, or messages) are imprinted with the choices of the people who selected the words.

If you care to, you can assemble an electronic poetry kit based on one of a number of authors (including Baudelaire, in English; Bukowski; Ginsberg; Plath) at http://www.languageisavirus.com/electronicpoetry/index.html As with the magnetic poetry kits, the words are supplied, but you’ll have to bring your own syntax.

[Much of the factual material in this article from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Kurzweil, downloaded March 16, 2010.]


The Mother of All Beauty

by Elizabeth Kirschner 

     I have the hands of a writer—a callous on my right ring finger, arthritis in that wrist from holding a pen for decades. If I could, I’d be buried pen in hand, or perhaps my ashes should be scattered upon the white page. Musicians, singers need to take great care of their hands and voices. Might writers need to do the same?


    I think yes. There have been too many times when I’ve needed to wear a splint because of my arthritis, but still I must write in long hand, use the perfect pen as I crave the beauty and silence of the white page. My pen is fat, like a black cigar, the fatter the barrel, the less the pain. The labor is long for me, always intense. Once a friend commented that I possessed a serene intensity. O how I wish I could say that about my work.


     Most writers compose on the computer, run the risk of carpal tunnel injuries, but there is a subtler and much harder thing to protect and that is voice. It takes years to develop one’s own voice, it can’t be taught, yet is critical to the work. How to explain what voice is—that fingerprint made manifest on the page—how it must run the scales all the way up, all the way down? Musicians practice their scales constantly and although it may not seem evident, writers do, too.


     I believe that I protect my voice. Singers drink tea and honey; I drink silence. It is the parenthesis I put around the start and the end of my writing time. I even use ear plugs to deepen the stillness. I write best when I’ve not spoken a word to anyone before I sit down to work. Every morning—early, early—I take a rigorous walk by the sea. This is not just physical exercise, it is my pre-writing time wherein I focus on both my interior and exterior landscapes. Words come while I walk, fetal words that I can then birth on the page.


     For the writer then, I suggest that silence, not death, is the mother of all beauty. Sometimes I can’t even read another’s work when I’m deeply engaged in a particular book because of the risk of influences, of letting other voices over-ride my own. I observe silence, practice it like a cloister nun. I don’t even own a television, rarely go to movies. Instead, when I surface out of my long silences, I listen to classical music and lots of it.


     One might ask why classical music? Because of its gorgeous architecture, because I love the sheer beauty of sound as it gives me a wordless but deep and direct expression of the human experience. Music and silence then are the best creators of what I hope is my singular voice.


     The other great guardian of the written word is solitude. When I’m lonely, I don’t write well.  When I’m deep within the honey hive of solitude there comes sustenance and lyric grace. Solitude is food for the soul, a great maker of great heart, and voice the instrument through which poetry is played. I must create from that holy trinity of heart, soul and voice, that rich roux that makes, or at least has the capacity to make us whole.


     I once wanted to hang the mask of tragedy and comedy on either side of the door to my study as the true governors of my art. Now there is a third. I perceived it after seeing a local theater production called Love, which uses two poems from my fourth book, My Life as a Doll, and that is the word love. To write well one must love it all—the dark, the light and everything in between. Therefore another holy trinity—tragedy, comedy, love.


     I close with lines jotted in many of my notebooks: “The voice is a door to exquisite happenings. That’s why one must ring the doorbell many times.” May the writing always be an exquisite happening and may that door when it fully opens, be an opening into spring churches and sanctuaries wherein writers are protected like an endangered species, which we might very well be. As well, as I wrote in that self-same notebook, “let no one say they suffer from too much creation” and may all our utterances “be a brief summation of the supreme.”


Romeo, Juliet, and the Koreans

by Publius

The kids are reading Romeo and Juliet.   So my student teacher is fishing for the answer “dramatic irony”.   She asks, “What do you call this, when Juliet is speaking on the balcony, and she doesn’t know Romeo is down below listening?’

 To which Marshay responds, “Stalking.”

And then yesterday as I’m walking out of the building with my buddy, Jim Midlord, our vice-principal, a real dingbat given to truly incomprehensible statements — I really mean that — says, “Mr. Midlord, when they show-up, you’ll be in charge of the Koreans.”   No context.   No explanation.   No background.   Just “you’ll be in charge of the Koreans.” 

To which Midlord just responds, “OK” and walks on.

He thinks she’ll just forget this.   She forgets a lot of stuff.  

 But the story has a trick ending.   It turns out that there are real Koreans.   The Central Office is going to send six of them, all at the same hour, same class, to learn how to teach grammar next Wednesday.   Except the vice-principal forgot that Midlord is teaching Beowulf at that hour.   And for this they came half-way around the world.


Copyright Law and the English Teacher

by Michael Simms

(The director of our graduate writing program recently asked me to write an explication of “fair use” of copyrighted materials.)

                Much of the great literature that we want our students to read, for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Emerson, and Twain, is in the public domain — that is, not protected by copyright.  Any work that was published before 1923 can legally be copied and distributed to our students without restriction. However, most of us want our students to read modern and contemporary literature as well as the classics.  For work published after 1923, including new translations of traditional literature, copyright restrictions apply.

                The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to secure for “Authors… the exclusive Right to their respective Writings…” and authors may assign all or part of their rights to others, including publishers and agents.   The Federal statutes regarding copyright can be found in Circular 92:  Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws, contained in Tıtle 17 of The United States Code updated October 2007.  The entire 311 page document can be found online:  http://www.copyright.gov/title17/

                As English teachers interested in exposing our students to good writing, discussing literature in our classrooms, and quoting texts in our critical and creative writing, we should pay special attention to Section 107 — the “fair use” passage — which outlines what we are allowed to do:

 § 107 · Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use40 Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include— (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copy-righted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

 As you can see, we’re on safe ground if we’re quoting a short passage in a review or critical article, as well as using a quotation as an epigraph to a poem or story; and we are also within our rights when, as part of our classroom teaching, we photocopy or post on a website a short piece which is part of a copyrighted text, for example a single poem or page from a longer text.

                However, it is equally clear that there are limitations to fair use.  Notice that the limiting principles include (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copy-righted work as a whole.  In other words, if we were to reproduce without permission a significant portion of a copyrighted text, for example an entire short story in a book-length collection of ten stories, then we would be violating copyright.  Also notice (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.  In other words, if we are reproducing copyrighted material as a substitute for students buying the book, then we are in violation of copyright.  Also prohibited would be putting together an anthology of copyrighted material over the course of a semester — for example, handing out a poem each week to students over the course of a semester in lieu of assigning readings in a published  textbook.

                Violation of copyright is a serious offense carrying severe civil and criminal penalties, including fines and up to 10 years imprisonment (see Appendix G of Title 18).  Although it is hard to imagine the FBI rounding up English teachers en masse for over-use of their department copiers, similar infringements, such as trafficking in bootleg CDs, counterfeiting brand-name merchandise, and illegally downloading music and films from the internet – all of which are covered under Title 17 — have been successfully prosecuted in recent years.  Thousands of parents of Napster-using teenagers were shocked a few years ago to discover they were being sued for tens of thousands of dollars by a consortium of music publishers; Microsoft and Disney have lobbied the Federal government to include enforcement of intellectual property issues in trade negotiations with China. Copyright infringement on the internet has become so common that many companies and universities have set up websites to streamline the processing of claims against them.  The pattern is clear:  corporate America and the Federal government take intellectual property issues very seriously. 

                Significantly, the owner of the copy machine can be held liable in addition to the person using it.  So, not only is the individual teacher subject to civil suits and criminal prosecution, but the university (or the local Kinko’s) is liable as well.

                Fearing lawsuits from publishers and damage to their reputations, many universities, including Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, strictly limit instructors’ use of copyrighted material.  If the instructor wishes to use text taken from a published source, he or she must submit a “course packet” to the officially recognized printer (usually the campus bookstore or a local copy shop) who applies for permission to the copyright holder, negotiates a fee, reproduces the text, and sells copies of the course packet to students.  The advantage of this system is that the instructor can customize the course materials while protecting the copyright holders’ intellectual property.  The disadvantage, of course, is that students are required to pay for shoddily printed, sometimes unreadable, texts which cost as much or more than a published book.

                Besides the course packet strategy, what legally sanctioned options do English teachers have to bring poems, stories, and essays to students?

  •  We can order books through the campus bookstore and require or suggest that the students buy them;
  • We can place books or magazines on reserve in the university library — not only paper texts but also legal digital versions of texts sent from publishers;
  • We can use email, Blackboard and Facebook to provide students with hyperlinks to whole articles, either on public sites like the NY Times or via the many full text databases that our academic libraries now provide;
  • We can read the literature out loud to the students;
  • We can reproduce short passages and distribute them to our students via the internet or printed copies;
  • We can request permission from publishers to reproduce longer passages.

                 Copyright laws exist to protect authors from unfair use of their work, and authors and publishers are entitled to compensation for their efforts.  As writers and teachers, we have an interest in respecting those legal rights while setting a good example for our students.

 Michael Simms is the founder and editor-in-chief of Autumn House Press, as well as a lecturer in the Creative Writing MFA program at Chatham University.  The article above is for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.  Peter Oresick contributed to this article.


DIY Frustration

by Songyi Zhang

The United States is a nation of freedom. Indeed. As I landed in Chicago O’Hare International Airport after a long distance flight from Tokyo, I learnt that from this moment on I had to depend on myself completely. There was no friendly airport staff like in China who could help me lift my heavy luggage on and off the security inspection machine. In fact, after I politely asked for help from a robust security guard who stood indifferently next to an X-ray inspection machine, he flung my luggage unwillingly on the belt. As a result, the handle of my luggage was broken.

In many public locations in America, such as airports, supermarkets, subway stations and even student lounges, you’ll find self-service facilities. Americans are independent. They like Do-It-Yourself—they do self check-in at the airport with their printed boarding pass instead of using counter service; they do self check-out at the supermarket instead of waiting in lines for assistance. Vending machines, ATM machines, newspaper boxes and subway ticket machines are everywhere in the U.S. It’s more likely for a tourist in America to communicate with a machine than with a person when he requests a service in public.

For example, I’d insert some coins in a newspaper box for the newspaper instead of giving my money to a vendor. As long as you have a credit card, you just swipe it through a machine before you check out in the store or at the gas station.

I miss the people contact service in my homeland.

DIY may bring convenience to most of us but it also puzzles the first-time users, especially foreign visitors. In my opinion, it’s tourist-unfriendly. My recent experience in the subway service of Washington D.C. was unpleasant. Unlike in Guangzhou, China where helpful conductors are at the entrance and on the platform in every subway station, I had to learn step by step how to purchase a ticket from the vending machine. What would happen if I did not understand English? There was no assistant at the station. It was difficult to find my fare on the machine in a dim light. But I made it eventually.

Do we need all this convenience? Is this complete self-service really helpful to everyone? What if the parking ticket machine swallowed your credit card and you couldn’t find any staff to help? We’re so dependent on automatic facilities but what if these machines betray us? Thanks to the DIY system, human contact has been reduced to the point we’ve become more like automatons ourselves.  


On Love

by Elizabeth Kirschner

      Today I was deposed by my husband’s lawyer as part of what has been a very painful and abusive divorce. The questioning was rigorous, required as much concentration as does writing. For once I felt that my long training in Flannery O’Connor’s notion of “the habit of art” was actually useful under totally different circumstances.

      Everything was scrutinized, including my books, piled as exhibit three. How much money did I make from each one? My reply: “nothing,” except for the twenty-four dollars and one cent garnered from royalties on my fourth book, My Life as a Doll, published by Autumn House Press in 2008, one month after I left the marriage.

   Understand this much: that lawyer was out to break me as I have a major mental illness and he knows it. I was determined to maintain my integrity, a scrap of human decency. This was not a battle, but a test by God or whoever might be out there orchestrating the universe.

      I maintained  my composure by doing three things, none of which was planned: I kept eye contact with my interrogator, recited the Serenity Prayer again and again in my head and sat pulled up like the dancer I was trained to be.

      It worked. By noontime there was a proposal on the table. It will be thoroughly examined by my lawyers, but the intent to settle is quite clear. If not, my deposition will be resumed in a week, but nothing will be gained by further examination. My husband’s lawyer actually said to mine that I should be paid for what I do.

      Integral to all of this is a question I had to answer as my bio for a theatre production that is using two sequences of My Life as a Doll, soon to open in Portsmouth, NH. The question was: “what is love?” My immediate answer was, “love is the catastrophic miracle that makes us who we are.”

      An oxymoron perhaps, but one with a crucible of truth. My marriage of eighteen years was a catastrophic miracle, one that produced my son, now seventeen, and living in a different state. Although I detest my husband’s actions since our separation nearly two years ago, I still can’t say I don’t love him. He is the father of my only child. He cared for me more in sickness than in health and that the marriage failed is neither his fault nor mine.

      It just died. And just like funerals take us out of life to mourn and celebrate the lost one, so does a deposition. I was in a very dark office on—how perfect!—Battery March Street in downtown Boston and that battery march was also a funereal one. Just as the deposition was suspended, I was suspended in time and space.

     Still am. Words on paper are my footprints in the softly falling snow that will lead me back to my real home, that of heart and soul, in Kittery Point, ME. My long lost parents were my abusers, but I could feel them cheering me on from the grave today. I once wrote that I love them better now that they are dead, but God knows how truly I loved them as a child and how truly I mourned their deaths. They, too, were catastrophic miracles that made me who I am.

     In the end, my means to an end is forgiveness. I can forgive my parents for their atrocities as well of those of my husband, but can I forgive myself? Isn’t that the hardest part of love: self-forgiveness? I was the one who left the marriage and I did so to save my son from witnessing my madness and from the very real possibility of suicide.

      Eye contact, the Serenity prayer, the dancer’s pose. What more can we do when under such duress? A friend advised me to “lean on infinite sustenance” and I leaned hard, like a sailboat in a great storm. Someday I may even be able to tell my son that the divorce helped me grow stronger while trying to destroy me.

      I’m home. I’m writing and what is writing but one more catastrophic miracle? I bless it, it blesses me back. I bless my husband and in doing so, bless myself. Just the weight of the pen in my hand feels glorious and my little word etching are my geography, the map by which I live. Today my husband’s lawyer saw me in my most human dimension and isn’t that exactly what we try to capture when writing? The going may be rough, but it is also good.

Data Dysentery

by Publius

I recently went to a lecture on “data dysentery”, the countless reams of data we educators collect for, well, for what?

             To this data, I would like to add the following, a record of the sheer number of observations I’ve had in one semester only, this last semester.   These observations were done by three administrators and a consultant.  

             I hasten to add that these reports all say the same thing — they all say I’m a good teacher — and are done largely because the administrators need the sheer poundage of data.   Since we have several administrators, I sometimes record various times I’ve been inspected on the same day.   That said, the dates and times that I have been observed are:

                         9/11, 10:20 AM, 11:10 AM, 1:30 PM;  9/12;  9/15, 9:30 AM,

                        10:20 AM, 11:10 AM, 1:30 PM, and one with no time recorded; 

                        9/16;  9/22;  9/28;  10/7;  10/8;  10/21;  10/27, 1:10 PM and

                        1:25 PM;  10/29;  11/5;  11/10;  11/13;  11/24;  12/3;  12/8 and


             It should be repeated that throughout the department, from one teacher to another, these observations differ little in content.   They are given in either an indifferent or occasionally complimentary manner.   There is no real expectation that they will be read or acted upon.

             Last year, one observer regularly fell asleep in my class.  

            One vice-principal used to observe us as she walked down the hall.   I mean she walked down the hall while she was writing the reports.   We used to call these “drive-bys”.   Once she did, in fact, look into my room, observe, and write a report.   I don’t think she was there thirty seconds.   The report was most satisfactory.   The whole time, I was tying my shoe.





My Beautiful Twodiful Wounds

by Elizabeth Kirschner

This spring, I’m gaining in altitude by humbling myself before brocades of seaweed, breathing in the glow echoed in broken seashells and by glorifying the tree rings inside me. I want to write sap. I want to write purple prose, embellish an altogether elegant alphabet. Pristine light stalks me. Clouds are full of rosy, soul stuffing.

Last weekend, a Biblical deluge. It lasted three days long. I waited for the dove to return with the olive sprig in its beak while the floodgates of heaven fully opened. I was mesmerized by the rain, listened to its rhythmic pounding on my red roof, watched it streak its pure juices down my dormer windows and best of all, I walked in it before a wildly, outrageously bewitching sea, leaned into the mean and wicked winds and I absolutely loved it.

Why does this spring seem so singular for me? The answer is simple. It is because all my other springs, so many floundering springs, false springs, stillborn springs always reminded me of Sexton’s killing rains in killing springs. A year ago, I attempted suicide,
downed med after med while drinking wine, woke up in the ICU. And the spring before that I landed, once again, in the psych ward because for hours the only word I could utter was die, die, die.

How did I shift from walking numbly in Sexton’s killing rains into dancing in a Biblical deluge? Why does every minute in this spring feel like a tiny triumph over darkness? For years I lived in icy isolation, voiced my nearly voiceless voice in a void, a vast vat of a void, traumatized by dramatic demons which were the only creatures in my field of vision. These demons erupted in moments of madness so excruciatingly painful, I would bite my own hand, really hard, in order to stop screaming, bang my head against the wall, go into a fetal ball and mirror, exactly so, the little girl I once was, a child who was tortured by demonic parents, tormented nearly to death, repeatedly so.

The demons are gone and right now the only creatures that are in the field of my vision are the song sparrows nesting in my ornate bird box. My demons have been demolished. I took them on and killed them, one by one, by re-living my horrific childhood, blow by blow and violation after extremely violent violation. I then became the only one who could heal that child by loving her lavishly so and letting me, not her, be crucified by her wounds.

Now comes the resurrection. Scars once pregnant with pain have become the achingly gorgeous wounds in trees so old they rustle with the spirits of ancient mystics. I venerate these wounds, they are grottos to which I pay homage and I honor their timeless beauty. Out of these wounds come poems. Out of these wounds comes a woman I can love because she loved that child christened only by pain till she could run out into the sun to play.

Which she does. She also weaves daisy chains, skips down by the sea, pulls the dog’s tail who, in return, licks her back. I treat her the way I treated my son when he was a child and she is alive and well as he is alive and well. This spring, our singular spring, I am getting her a kitty that we will name Twodiful because wonderful times two is Twodiful. Dog number one is wonderful as the kitty will also be wonderful, hence Twodiful.

In the end, I married my wounds. I was and am true to those beautiful, twodiful wounds. They are my wellspring, the genesis of whatever genius I might generate because I was re-created by them. I don’t stand by a man, I stand by a woman who stands by a child who was nearly killed more than once. She is what gets me out of bed in the morning. She is the one who puts my pen in my hand to write that sap, sweet, sweet sap and passionately purple prose while embellishing an altogether elegant alphabet.

I was made vulnerable, voluminously so, by her stellar wounds, sterling wounds, her very beautiful twodiful wounds. That very vulnerability is what makes me capable of championing words turned into verse and it is those words that truly resurrect us, connect us and binds us, not only to each other, but to life itself which is lengthening its luxurious minutes in radiant, lifelong light.