IMPROMPTU #22: Nick Montfort

22 - napomo - 16 - montfort - site

nick_montfortI 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:

https://repl.it/languages/python

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:

while True:
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.

20 Comments

  • April 22, 2016

    Mark Staniforth

    Couldn’t get the exact prompt to work, but did this computer code piece instead: it’s called “Sonnet (Chuckie Egg)” https://staniforthmark.wordpress.com/impromptu/

  • April 22, 2016

    Nathalie Boisard-Beudin

    Getting this:
    Python 2.7.2 (default, Jul 20 2011, 02:32:18)
    [GCC 4.2.1 (LLVM, Emscripten 1.5, Empythoned)] on linux2

    Traceback (most recent call last):
    File “python”, line 2
    print “Hello, world”
    ^
    IndentationError: expected an indented block

    As poetry, it is a bit terse.

    • April 22, 2016

      Carol A. Stephen

      I am getting the same result as Nathalie. I even reformatted the text I input so it had no indents. Still same result.

      • April 22, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        I managed to get it to produce a string of Hello, worlds once, but when I tried to add anything else it crashed my browser. Now I can’t even replicate that. Here’s the error now:
        Traceback (most recent call last):
        File “python”, line 1
        while True: print “Hello, world”
        ^
        SyntaxError: unexpected EOF while parsing

        • April 22, 2016

          Carol A. Stephen

          Forgot to say that when it worked it was by putting it all on a single line. But now nothing is working.

    • April 22, 2016

      Jake Eakle

      Python requires that all lines in the “while” block be indented. I think Nick’s indentation got eaten by WordPress. Just hit tab (or if the browser is messing with that, type a space or two) before the “print” line and it should work.

      • April 23, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        So following Jake’s comment, I went back to try again. Indenting the SECOND line worked. I got a sequence of Hello world appearing in the input box BUT once again it froze my browser. I could not leave the tab, I could not close the tab, I could not even close my browser without going through Task Manager. Since I have a very low supply of both time and patience, I am afraid that is the end of my attempts to produce anything approaching a poetic gem.

    • April 22, 2016

      Stephanie Ellis

      Also had the same result.

    • April 22, 2016

      james w moore

      i found this quite lovely – the layout especially…

  • April 22, 2016

    Bill Waters

    Nathalie, Carol, your comments read like a found poem!

    If anyone would like to see what I made of them, please see my blog —-> https://billwatershaiku.wordpress.com/bill-waters-not-haiku/

    ;- )

  • […] Famous Person prompt” QuillsEdge Press’ “Mirror, Mirror prompt” Found Poetry’s “Computational Poetry prompt” Apparatus Mag’s “Element of Nature prompt” Imaginary Garden’s “So I […]

  • April 22, 2016

    Stephanie Ellis

    Back on board today but the program gave the same error messages as above; however I have written about my experience in terms of HTTP status messages and my poem, Gone, can be found at http://stephellis.weebly.com/.

  • […] from Nick Montfort’s prompt, which invites poets to party “like it’s 1979” by finding a phrase to repeat […]

  • April 22, 2016

    james w moore

    i managed to get the web python to work, but was unmoved by its result. so i played around and came up with this action: “PoemGames” – https://jameswmoore.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/poem-games-day-22/

  • April 22, 2016

    JM Scott

    Here is my daily creation, I hope it doesn’t make your eyes go to buggy (haha that’s funny) http://candlesticksandcadavers.blogspot.com/2016/04/21st-century-ant-bytes.html

  • April 23, 2016

    A. Garnett Weiss

    http://jcsulzenko.com/day-22-earth-day-poem-challenge/ : I found Nick Montfort’s prompt overwhelming since I admit I am not computer-literate. Wish that I could have followed his instructions in the direction he suggested. Sigh. So a day late, the link will take you to two poems, arising from a prompt at NaPoWriMo.net.

  • April 23, 2016

    Carol A. Stephen

    I never did come back to share what I ended up doing instead: Here is a link to my poem And the Schwa?, with a simple prompt of beginning with 3 words selected from a source of your choice: https://quillfyre.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/napowrimo-2016-psh-day-22-and-the-schwa/

  • […] Day 22: Nick Montfort […]