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Interview with Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr

Authors of ./code --poetry

When did you write the book, and what was the inspiration behind it?

DH: ./code --poetry is a book me and Chris Kerr started in 2016. I'm a programmer, and Chris is a poet, and ./code --poetry was really just as a fun project to see what would happen if we collaborated on code poetry together. Most existing work in the genre was either technically impressive but felt like it was missing something on the poetic side - or impressively poetic but not that interesting from a technical standpoint. Together I thought that we could create something with real impact and depth that would appeal to poetry readers just as much as programmers.

CK: I started writing this book when I was living in Australia and Daniel Holden suggested we work together on a code poetry project, after he'd won a prize in the Source Code Poetry competition. The idea was to combine Daniel's coding and writing expertise with my poetry experience.

How would you summarise this book in 100 words or fewer?

DH: ./code --poetry is a love letter to computer programming - bursting with color, depth, and playfulness it combines visual art, wordplay, and hacker culture through the poetry of its authors.

CK: ./code --poetry consists of code poems written in many programming languages. Each code poem is a fully-functional computer program that produces a visual animation. The code poems are also have a literary aspect and are human-readable (to varying degrees). Each code poem is presented alongside a snapshot or snapshots of the visual animation it produces. The code poem (input) and animation (output) form a unified ekphrastic artwork that captures the character of the programming language the code poem is written in. Just like natural languages, programming languages have different personalities. Fear not: there's a help manual at the back!

How would you characterise the style of your book? For example, would you see it as lyrical, prose or experimental? (to name but a few!) Can you provide some commentary around why you feel it falls into these categories?

DH: Certainly experimental - a weird and wonderful sub-genre of constraint based poetry. As that is ultimately the challenge with code poetry - to create a poem which is also simultaneously a valid and interesting computer program!

CK: ./code --poetry is a highly experimental work of constrained digital literature. The book surfaces computer source code, which is often hidden from the reader in digital literature, remaining behind the scenes. Each code poem is linguistically constrained by the affordances of the programming language it's written in: for example, many programming languages have reserved keywords that have a special status in the language. At times, these keywords have both a functional and an aesthetic reason for being in the code poem. Each code poem is also technically and formally constrained by the need to make the program valid so that it can be compiled (or run) by the computer. Another level of constraint is the dual print/digital media of the project, which exists as a dynamic website at as well as in print form: therefore, many of the code poems had to be optimised for both print and web output, down to its syntax highlighting (coloured text).

./code --poetry is also a work of concrete or visual poetry and visual art. Snapshots of the animations are presented alongside the code poems, and the code poems themselves are often arranged like concrete poems. The code poetry has a shared heritage with typewritten concrete poetry: both of these art forms use monospaced font.

It is also lyrical, given that it contains love poetry and poems concerned with the present moment and the natural world. ./code --poetry breaks down the apparent divide between the emotional and human realms on the one hand, and the cold and technical world of computers on the other.

This is also a satirical and humorous book, which pokes fun at cultures that used to occupy bizarre corners of the internet, but that now have a firm foothold in the digital town square, such as conspiracy theories.

During the writing of this book, did you learn anything new? either about yourself as an author or about the crafting of the work itself?

DH: Each poem in this book is written in a different programming language - so in writing it I had to learn the basics of maybe 20 new programming languages! Given some of them were quite esoteric that was quite a challenge.

CK: I learned that poetry can and should be a team-effort: collaboration is the most fun and productive constraint there is. I learned that the world of programming was not as scary as it seems: in fact it's truly beautiful and exciting. I learned that the boundaries between art forms are much more porous than they might appear, and that writing can occupy multiple modes and styles at once. I learned how to program in Processing for the code poem code_violation.pde. Working on this book has been part of the inspiration for changing my career and doing a master's in computer science: it's helped me learn new types of creativity and work that I didn't know I would enjoy. Not bad for poetry! Daniel lives in Montreal, Canada, while I'm based in the UK, so I've also learned that working on a creative project across long distances is a great way to keep in touch!

Can you list some of your main influences? Feel free to include writers, literary movements, but also any influences outside of the literary sphere that have had an impact?

DH: Code poetry feels a bit like a modern re-invention of the traditions of typewriter and concrete poetry. Bob Cobbing was an entertaining favorite from the research we did.

CK: Movements: Oulipo, conceptual poetry, code poetry (both in its programming culture (for example the code poem 'Black Perl' and digital literature flavours), and concrete poetry. Influences: Ishac Bertran's code {poems} anthology, Francesco Aprile's Code Poems: 2010-2019, and Sy Brand's code::art journal. Beyond the literary sphere, influences include programming textbooks, my career as a technical writer at software companies, a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, tennis, and too many hours spent on the internet.

Please can you list some stylistic or technical elements contained within your work, and why you feel that these are important?

DH: One thing that separates this work out from other code poetry is that each poem has custom formatting and colours provided by the "syntax highlighting". I think this really adds another unique visual element to each poem and gives them all a real sense of purpose.

CK: To look at one small example, code_violation.pde features palindromes, for example the names of the tennis players Seles and Kerek and sinnet/tennis. This reflects the symmetrical character of the tennis court, where the net can be seen as a type of mirror. It was important to me to include an additional literary constraint on the already heavily-constrained code poem, to demonstrate that code poetry can have a literary aesthetic dimension. In the future we hope to see rhyming and metrical code poems!

Can you give some commentary around the book’s central themes and why these are so important to you?

DH: Although we didn't intend it I think some themes naturally emerged as me and Chris worked on the book: technology and the environment, political extremes and conspiracies, and introspection on deep, unexpected personal experiences. Saying that, lots of poems are really just about concrete, normal things too: tennis, bats, undersea cables!

CK: A lot of the code poems in the book explore the dystopian consequences of life under capitalism and amidst environmental crisis. The importance of these issues is hopefully self-evident! The book challenges the false dichotomies between art and science, humanity and technology, rural and urban, human and non-human animal, among others. ./code --poetry makes the claim that source code can be literary, beautiful, cultured and ambiguous: the book attempts to bring the literary and computational spheres together. In a parallel way, the book shows some ways that technology can be intimate, natural, human, humane, friendly and romantic, as well as dangerous, obscure, cold, functional and impersonal.

For someone who enjoys your work, which other authors do you think would also be appealing to them?

DH: Mez Breeze and J. R. Carpenter both have wonderful canons of creative and interesting projects that I think anyone who liked this book will also enjoy.

CK: J.R. Carpenter, Jon Stone, Nick Montfort, Mez Breeze, Harry Man, Catherine Vidler, Christian Bök

Is there a personal story or inspiration relating to this book? If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share!

DH: When I was a PhD student traveling and working in Japan, in Kyoto I watched "Lost in Translation" for the first time as kind of a fun topical thing to do. But when I got to the three minute montage where she visits Kyoto, shot with all of this incredible natural light, it hit me like a ton of bricks, and uncovered a lot of deep feelings about my trip I was totally unprepared for. That was part of what inspired the poem "alone_in_kyoto.hs".

CK: Daniel and I went to secondary school together in Tooting in South West London, so we've known each other since we were 11. We sat together in English class. This book is a product of a common ground built up from countless silly and profound conversations over the years.

Is there a particular audience you had in mind when writing this book? How did this impact the writing process?

DH: For this edition of the book we wanted to make things accessible to both programmers and non-technical readers so we decided to add a so-called "manual page" at the back with some brief information on each of the poems explaining perhaps what was interesting or worth following up on for those which were curious.

CK: The first iteration of ./code --poetry was a self-published book in 2016. When Daniel and I returned to this project, which culminated in the expanded edition published by Broken Sleep in 2023, we wanted to give this project an existence beyond the world of programming. Programmers were a huge audience for the first iteration of the book, and they remain a core audience, but we also wanted to make this book accessible to people interested in experimental literature and artwork, who might have little or no knowledge of programming. A third audience is the academic audience: I was lucky enough to talk about this book at the University of Hamburg in 2022, and exploring the academic literature around code poetry provided an invaluable context for this project. Last but not least, we hope that other audiences will pick up this book and be intrigued by it! To make the book as accessible as possible to all audiences, we added two essays and a sometimes tongue-in cheek "help manual" at the end of the book, to prompt further reading and research, or simply answer a few questions readers might have.

Can Code Poetry be read aloud?

CK: Believe it or not, it can! In code poems where the functional code and the human-readable poetry are quite separate, the poetry can be read aloud in the traditional way. But it's more fun to engage with the alphanumeric symbols that make up code (a random example: £$%^&*/><'|48278). There are a number of strategies a reader can use to voice these symbols, for example by saying the name of the symbols aloud (e.g. "comma" or "ampersand") or assigning symbols to sounds.

For a much more detailed exploration of this question, Daniel and I have written an academic paper on this topic. See "Optimizing code for performance: reading `./code --poetry`". `Poetry and Contemporary Visual Culture` / `Lyrik und zeitgenössische Visuelle Kultur`. Ed. Magdalena Korecka and Wiebke Vorrath. Berlin/Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2023 [forthcoming].

Daniel Holden is a programmer and writer working in the video games industry in Montréal. He has a nostalgia for the old internet and growing up in London in the 2000s.

Chris Kerr is from London and lives in Bristol. He is the co-author of ./code --poetry with Daniel Holden, published by Broken Sleep Books in 2023. His chapbook, Extra Long Matches, was published by Penteract Press in 2022. His debut collection, Nam Gal Sips Clark, was published by Hesterglock Press in 2021. His first pamphlet, Citidyll, was also published by Broken Sleep Books in 2018.

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