I develop computational art and poetry, often collaborating with others to do so. Two of my collaborations are Sea and Spar Between (with Stephanie Strickland) and The Deletionist (with Amaranth Borsuk and Jesper Juul); both are poetry-generating systems, the former assembling an immense lattice of stanzas that draws on the lexicons of Dickinson and Melville, the latter a general-purpose system for creating erasure poems, with a click, from any Web page. My educational background is in both computing and the literary arts. My other projects include several very small-scale poetry generators, such as those included in #!, a book that gathers programs and their output. #! includes the ppg256 series and Concrete Perl. My latest book, Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, is just out from the MIT Press and invites people to learn the essentials of programming by doing creative and humanistic work across media and in a few different programming languages.
Although my work is essentially with computing and language, there are several different contexts for it: the Web, book publication, and the literary reading but also the demoscene (I presented the collaboration Nanowatt at Récursion in Montréal) and gallery exhibition (From the Tables of My Memorie was exhibited in Boston and Singapore, and with Páll Thayer I developed the show Programs at an Exhibition). I translate computational art and writing and organize the translation project Renderings; my own work has been translated at times as well. For instance, my free-software computer-generated novel World Clock was translated to Polish and published in ha!art’s Liberatura series, which also includes Finnegans Wake. Many of my works have been modified and transformed by others to become the basis for new work. My short generator Taroko Gorge has been the basis for more than thirty published remixes, for instance.
One of the simplest computer programs, and not a very interesting one, is one to display “Hello, world” on the screen. It’s really not much more than a way to make sure one’s programming environment is working, but it is a classic way. We can make it a bit more interesting by providing an endless fountain of greetings. On a Mac or Linux system, open a terminal, type “python” followed by Enter, and then at the “>>>” prompt, type this line:
while True: print "Hello, world"
Press Enter twice and you should see a fountain of hellos. (Not entirely endless; CTRL-c will interrupt this process.) You’re now partying with your computer like it’s 1979. My writing prompt is that you supply your fountain with some different verbal outflow and let it run. Make the terminal window full-screen as it runs. The text that appears might end up looking static, just sitting there in a column, but you will have converted your computer, for a moment at least, not into a digital picture frame, but into a digital text frame. See what you can type that invites meditative contemplation or that provokes the reader into Utopian ideation or Luddite revolt.
If you only have access to Windows, it’s a bit more elaborate to get a Python “Hello, world” program running. You could install Python, but, without taking such a step, you can get the program running by using an online Python interpreter:
In this system, you’ll need to type the program in more properly, over two lines, and it may not respond visually in the same way:
print "Hello, world"
Thirty-five years ago, it was extremely simple to develop small programs combining computing and language — you could type one in within seconds of flipping the computer on. It’s a bit surprising to me, given such a starting point, that literary art hasn’t really extended itself into new, exciting, computational territory the way that architecture has. Over those past years, the power to program has been submerged in the Mac’s difficult-to-find, imposing Terminal window doesn’t help, and it’s pretty much been left out by default on Windows. Unless literary explorers of language are willing to dig in and use the computer’s capability, what started as a sterile military, scientific, and industrial device may never have its literary possibilities fully explored — or at least, the few of us who are working at this may be quite lonely.
Nick Montfort is a poet who lives in New York and Boston. He is on the faculty at MIT.