Black Automaton Poetics

POETICS: The Black Automaton Series
(Installment 1)

The Black Automaton poems started as an exercise in my journal.

Every now and then, when I’m feeling a bit stuck, I think up 30 titles for poems I may not write. “The Black Automaton” kept popping up. I logged it in the back of my mind somewhere.

Later on, I began to think of certain processes I was growing obsessed with; I was locked into a kind of repetition, an idea that if one repeats a phrase enough, the reader (and as writer, I’m the first reader) will stop thinking of the individual words in the phrase. They will become a unit. A sort of plastic complex of words. At some other point, I’ll talk about how this relates to my “theory” of sampling, but it’s 1:00 a.m. now, so this is all I can do. Through repetition, I wanted the reader to pay attention to the fact that on the page, repetition is as much visual as it is cognitive. The visuality of it gets at my desire for a “performative page.”

In the summer of 2005, I was staring at blank pages in my journal. I had just finished teaching clustering exercises to high school kids and I remembered how these processes looked—it was like a word exploded/flowered into new words, some clearly, others more idiosyncratically, associated with each other. I decided to try the exercise, but to somehow represent the process of the exercise in the poem’s final form.

The first draft (or, perhaps, “sketch”) looked a great deal like what you’ll find in the developed “Black Automaton” poems. These poems give me the opportunity to toy with visual poetics, a loose family of ideas I’ve been nursing about how to, say, represent rhyme visually–even when the words used don’t rhyme. Is there a “spatial” rhyme? How can one create simultaneity in a written document? That is to say, can I accompany myself in a poem, as a pianist might play and sing at the same time.

For me, the most exciting element of the Black Automaton poems is that I compose them directly in a design program, so the typographic procedures are not imposed on a “regular” poem, but elements such as layering, kerning, alignment, etc. play as important a role to the meaning of the poem as the diction—even as the poem is in its first draft. It’s a whole new kind of “poetic attention” (how I refer to the particular relationship between poets and language—not narrative or information) to experience.

So, the design becomes a kind of procedure. The “Black Automaton” or the poems’ elastic “it” (in small capitals) becomes at once a joke on the “black folks as monolithic” misperception and me as a poet following a particular set of constraints.

These poems are also my way of trying to synthesize hip hop production styles (sampling, chopping, layering) into a composition process and aesthetic. The approach to language is drawn from De La Soul’s Dave and Harryette Mullen. The overall texture of the texts seems to hover around Prince Paul covered by Madlib. Visually, the poems are like flowcharts or wildstyles (although to truly tap into the power of a wildstyle, they need to cover something up).

When she first saw one of the poems, my wife said they were like maps of a hip hop mind. Works for me.

The Black Automaton In De Despair Ub Existence #1

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