Writing poetry in the age of Twitter and Facebook: 'there are no answers, only questions'
StAnza 2017: Digital Poet in Residence Christodoulos Makris on how he creates poetry from the contents of his browser history
Poet Christodoulos Makris did something very brave for his assignment at StAnza. With the best intentions in mind, he asked people to send him links to 'anything they found interesting on the internet'. The first question I ask him is the obvious one: did you get sent anything, well, dodgy? 'No,' he laughs. 'Just links to things I wouldn't normally have come across.'
His open request for clickable content was part of his job as the poetry festival's Digital Poet in Residence. Put simply, Makris' task was to search the internet, and create found poems from the material in his browser history. It's mostly news sites, social media and blogs sent in by the general public – so in other words, it's the gentler side of the internet.
'I'm essentially using very simply editing tools on the web pages that I visit to make pieces out of the text and the images that are there,' he explains. The residency takes place over five days, and is a strand of a wider project the Dublin-based writer is working on. 'I've been working for years on what I guess is a full-length thing,' he says. 'Again, I use only found material on the internet. It's about anonymous communication and where it's taking us. I'm making poetry out of that.'
Makris takes images from web pages and uses them as a visual base for the poetry. The text he sources is then used to create poetry of different lengths, tones and themes. Though his work is traditional in the sense that it's written, he argues that in some ways it's also performative. 'I'm doing it live as it actually happens,' he says. 'I don't know what the news is going to be today, but those articles are something everybody will be clicking on thinking "what's that?" I'm reading it thinking, "can i work with this" and "do I want to work with this". These decisions are intuitive as to how I put the text together.'
The boundless nature of poetry and the ever-changing digital landscape is what inspired this project in the first place. 'I started writing poetry in what I guess is the traditional sense, and after a while I thought it was a little bit restrictive. I was looking around me – particularly at the developments around digital technology and social media and the fact that we are all writing and reading more than ever – and this drew me to the idea. What does this mean? How does it impact social behaviour? What's the relationship between our online persona and our physical persona? What happens when you write anonymously? So I guess in some sense it's an exploration of all that.'
The project, Makris argues, is political without overtly engaging in politics. 'I guess it's asking certain questions,' he says. 'Where is this level of communication leading us? What's the result in our physical world? How do we go from one to the other? There are no answers, there are only questions. We won't know the impact of this digital age for a long time.'
Just as Makris cannot speculate on where this increase in digital communication is leading us, he also cannot say whether it is having a positive or a negative impact on society right now. 'I don't think I can generalise it. In some sense it's positive, and in some ways it brings out a lot of ugly, negative aspects of what we're capable of. It's a balance.'
One thing he is certain of, though, is that the digital revolution has changed poetry immeasurably. 'Poetry changed with the printing press,' he says, 'and I think something is happening now. It's a deep shift and I don't know where it's going to lead.' The digital revolution, he believes, is creating new ways for us to access poetry, such as the work he doing with his browsing history. 'It's poetry that makes me question things about language and structure,' he explains. 'I like writing poetry that has relationships with other art forms – poetry that brings down borders instead of erecting them.'
Maybe we won't know the impact the digital age will have on us in the long-run. But its immediate impact is best defined by Makris himself. 'Of course it's affecting poetry,' he says, 'because at its heart, poetry is communication.'
StAnza 2017 took place from Wed 1–Sun 5 Mar.