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Quest Giver Dead



Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us for our summer reading series. We're joined by guest host Candice Mayhill, who we last heard in episode 19 of season two. For this series we've asked members of the AACC community to read excerpts from their original writings, specifically texts and stories that enlighten and inspire. Our readers will also share what led them to write their selection, what they learned, and of course, how they redefined themselves. We hope you enjoy the series and return for season three beginning this fall.

My name is Garrett Brown. I'm a professor in the English and Creative Writing program at AACC. Today I'll be reading a collection of poems.

So, the poems I'm going to read today are from a sequence of poems that focus on technology and how technology intersects with art, culture, politics, relationships, you name it. There are a lot of pop culture references in the poems too. Music and video games seem to be something that I've been continually coming back to.

This first one is about how technology seems so cutting edge when we first take it out of the box, becomes really quickly dated in the matter of a few years. The poem ends with the dogs, because for hunter gather society, dogs were technology. So this is called "19 Lines to The Stone Age."

Feel the thin space age thicken
to bulk relic: compact
disks to cassette, 8-track; Captain

Kirk phones flip back into spiral-
cords & clattering rotary;
64-bit pixie Princesses pixelate

to 8-bit blocks slaying duck
dragons with an arrow; the razor
baton leading a wysiwyg parade

of text squares into a cursor’s
sly wink as broken promises
of paperless universes collate

into recycled reams. The Blackout,
rises a few feet each year, & sleep
mode lights on laptops too

will dim into bioluminescence,
fireflies suspended over deer-
skins drying by campfire while

the ears of hunting dogs twitch.

I think this next poem is kind of an updated version of Proust's madeleine cookie. For those unfamiliar with the idea, in "Remembrance of Things Past" Marcel Proust talks about eating a madeleine cookie and how he tastes it and it conjures up these images and sensations from childhood of, I think it's his aunt who would give him madeleine cookies dipped in her tea and things like that. And so it's become this sort of idea of like a thing that sparks a stimulus, it sparks a memory. And this poem's kinda similar to that, except the stimulus is an old Atari game and the memory is sort of the pattern that you have to use to beat the game so this is called "Manual Recall."

On your 39th birthday you discover the 2600
in a museum, wood-grain trim on the black plastic

console locked behind a glass display, plugged into
a cathode ray television for authenticity. But the joy-

stick was loose, inviting young digital natives to toy
with 8-bit blips after spraying handprints on sheets

of block paper to learn how the artists of Lascaux
coded created by. You spy Adventure & send

your cursor avatar spelunking into the invisible
maze. As a kid you loathed the gray screen

that surrendered just glimpses of the path ahead,
spent hours bumping walls, chasing bats, ending

in the hollow of Yorgle’s belly until the level finally
was mastered, so that now, here, in our 21st century,

though deleted from your conscious mind, your hands
recall the routine: down, left, down, right, up until

you stand again before the castle gates, pleased
a part of you never released the grip.

This next one's about computer glitches and it sort of spans from kind of the first computer bug, which was like a literal moth that got inside the wiring of like one of those big room-sized computers, to glitches that can come up in like story-based video games, when you accidentally kill off a character that you need to complete a quest. The poem is also a villanelle, so it has a lot of, which is just a form that has a lot of repeated lines and rhymes in it. And I kinda of liked the idea of writing a poem called "Glitch" without using the word glitch. Like the title is "Glitch" but the word glitch doesn't appear in the poem. But I've tried to include that itch I-T-C-H sound is one of the repeated rhymes and so that the kind of ghost of the glitch is sort of kinda lingering throughout the poem. Anyway, this is called "Glitch."

Narrative comes unstitched
I return to find the quest giver dead
Plot in knots instead of a twist

Back to the load screen to sift
Past saves & recover the thread
Before narrative comes (un)stitched

Cyber-moshers nose the rift
Between image & code, bend
Data to bits the original twist

Was an ordinary moth adrift
Coiled in wires wings spread
Among circuits looped & stitched

Inside gears & tape it slipped
Cursorial legs treading
Punched manila stock & twists

Language & mutations (in)(per)sist
Metamorphic viruses shred
Artifice stitched (un) [404] [Syn-
tax Error]
               [Fail Whale]
Again?     Sonavabitch

This next one's pretty simple. It's called "Mixed." And it's about sort of the act of making a mixtape. And there's a lot of band and album references from the 80's crammed into this one so fun little Easter eggs if you're an 80's music fan. "Mixed."

I released the hair trigger pause, snag the acoustic cut
of "Boys Don't Cry" off the radio and I

forage older kids vinyl for "Strange Ways" &
Joy Division & I brew the mixture

churning hours of the double cassette, eyeing the spool
to see if "Love Will Tear us Apart" (again)

can share side A with "Somebody"
& when

the incantations are perfectly sequenced

the magazine cleverly titled in ballpoint,
I press play and indulge in smeared black lipstick

love fraught and yowling over
wind chimes & synthesizers, drums thumping

"Pornography" before I slipped the jewel box
into your backpack just knowing

you'll feel it too.

So this last poem's kind of a weird poem and I'm smashing together a lot of things, but mainly I'm thinking about, the Mechanical Turk, which is this, both there's like a current version of this that Amazon uses where it's crowdsourcing labor that machines currently can't do. So things like doing data entry from like handwritten text, and things like that. And they basically like crowdsource this out and they pay like 4 cents for every piece of data entry that you would do. Then they call them Mechanical Turk, which is based on this like 18th, 19th century automaton that played chess. And it was one of those things like you kinda crank it up and it like moves like a creepy mannequin but this was like a big thing that like it played against Napoleon, Edgar Allen Poe, so when it came to America and actually the epigraph of the poem is from Poe. And so what would happen was people were tryna figure out how it worked, right? Like was there a person inside or was this machine actually playing chess? And of course there was a person inside. And so Poe writes this essay about it and I'll give you the epigraph and then I'll get into the poem itself. "

It is quite certain that the operations of the automaton are regulated by mind and by nothing else. The only question then is on the manner in which human agency is brought to bear. Poe's “Maelzel's Chess Player."

But the Turkers

The only question is what they want us to see:
turbaned gypsy, his mahogany skin and goatee,

hooped earrings & his eyes’ uncanny pendulum
swing between imperial rooks of ivory to

paddock pawns his mannequin fingers tapping
alongside the claimed Queen. Maelzel would spin

the Turk around, display his music box innards:
pin barrel & power drive, a mainspring taut

with vitality. And we know illusion is business:
the kiosk Copperfield adjusts his half Windsor,

waves his hand and poof goes your nickel,
then another $24.99 to buy the trick

guaranteed to dazzle your nephews’
eyes into flying saucers. It's his business to hawk

vanish boxes, blue handkerchiefs that blush red
with a flap, Svengali decks flush with the Queen

of spades. His business to sell a magician's top hat
& deny it was a cut-purse's tool. But what remains

invisible: the human player under the cabinet paid
in coins a child magician could make disappear,

that's nobody's business.

CANDICE: Good morning Garrett and welcome. Thank you for joining us.

GARRETT: Thank you Candice.

CANDICE: What inspired you to write these poems as a group?

GARRETT: So as a writer, as a teacher of writing, I feel like we're living through this kind of amazing moment where what constitutes like a text is being challenged by technology. It's like this period of transition that many people have kind of compared it as paradigm changing as the development of like the printing press, right? And I think it's something that like my generation as a I'm a Gen X-er is kind of able to speak to in ways that maybe other generations can't, right? We kind of lived through that rapid transition, I learned to type in high school on a manual typewriter and four years after that, I was in college sending emails and doing research on the internet and things like that. So we kinda have, our generation sort of has this foot and sort of print culture and digital culture and the way that wraps up with texts, whether that's text that I would teach in a classroom as a teacher or approach as a writer. Yeah.

CANDICE: So I think that actually kind of leads really nicely into my next question that I have for you. Can you talk to us a little bit about your writing process in general, and then kind of what challenges you faced when writing these particular poems? I find it very interesting to think about process, especially how process comes in with technology and since that's kind of the focus of what you're doing here.

GARRETT: Yeah, that's a really interesting question especially since it's changed a lot. I used to write almost completely longhand in notebooks and I find myself doing that so, so rarely these days. While I certainly keep a notebook for notes and scraps of ideas, almost everything is sort of composed kind of on the screen these days.

Things that haven't changed too much is that, I think getting material involves kind of writing in the morning, and so kind of getting up before other thoughts kind of crowd into your head, just sitting down and doing anywhere from 20 minutes to 40 minutes of just free writing and a lot of that just gets tossed and it's not worth much, but you kind of dig through it and sift out some ideas or some lines or some things that are kind of the seeds of things that might become poems.

And for this particular series, I had this idea of a group of poems that would kind of serve as a liner notes, liner notes for an album that doesn't exist. And I even had sort of this idea of like, if it was published in a book, that was kind of a CD or a cassette kind of a jewel case that sort of lacked the, there wouldn't be a cassette or CD in it, but, you'd kinda have the liner notes, you would read the liner notes the way you would read them for an album. And I kind of think of that as sort of the idea of stressing the way in which, the materialism of the world seems to be vanishing in certain ways, like we, we don't buy albums anymore that you can hold and like look at the artwork and look at the liner notes. We often don't even buy books anymore that in a way that we can hold them and smell them and flip through them and make notes in them. And so that idea of sort of the physicality of text and music, the tangibility of it, kind of slipping away was sort of an inspiration for these poems. And the ones that I've read today they're kind of the beginnings of what I think might end up being a longer collection.

In terms of the challenges for this piece. I think that, it's really hard to not, when you're dealing with like writing about technology, it's really hard not to fall into simple nostalgia. There's like a really simplistic version of some of the ideas that I'm dealing with, right? Where it's like, Google is making us stupid, Twitter's making us mean blah, blah, blah. And like, you don't want to fall into those kind of typical tropes. And so I needed to be really careful about kind of keeping my own nostalgia in check and kind of pushing on feelings and trying to ask bigger questions.

It was part of the reason why I think like "But The Turkers" is kind of an important poem, because on one hand it's about technology, it's about essentially Amazon's use of the Mechanical Turk and crowdsourcing software. It's really kind of also about like the deception of capitalism and how, human labor that makes the internet possible is either compensated very slightly or often not compensated at all. And so trying to get to those sort of larger ideas, but keeping it in the trappings of images and feeling an emotion, personal experience is kind of a challenge.

CANDICE: Absolutely, I'm nodding along as if you can see me, but I absolutely am. What did you learn about yourself, about others or about the world through thinking these thoughts through this creative process and through putting this project together?

GARRETT: So Frost has a famous saying like "no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." Right? And I often, when I teach poetry, I often teach this idea that if you know what you're gonna write going into it, it's gonna fall flat on the page. And the poem should really feel like an act of discovery happening rather than sort of the speaker reporting back from having this amazing experience. So I think with any poem you kinda, or a sequence of poems, you kinda go into it, like looking for what do I not know about it?

And I think the Turker poem was one that I didn't, I didn't know what it was about when I began writing it, I was just sort of obsessed with this idea of, magicians and magic and deception. The other one that I think comes to mind is a mixtape. It's one that I really struggled with that poem for a long time and it didn't quite click because I didn't quite know what it was about, It was one of those that kind of did sink into nostalgia where it was just like, "Oh, I used to make mixtapes." Like, "isn't that great?" And then what clicked about it was discovering sort of the ending of the poem, which is that it wasn't really about the process of making the mixtape at all. It's really about the act of like giving the tape to somebody else and kind of hoping that you're recreating an experience, for another person to share. And in that way, it kind of transcends the nostalgia a little bit because that kind of core experience is something that we can kind of continue to do today and sort of like send playlists to friends and things like that. So I think trying to discover what each piece really wants to say, there's a lot that I've kind of learned through that process.

CANDICE: And we're all about redefinition. So how has writing these pieces redefined you?

GARRETT: Yeah, so that's a really good question. I like to think that each kind of manuscript that I've written is an attempt to redefine yourself and it is I mean, I think that's part of the reason to write and to keep on writing. My first collection of poems was very much about religion and philosophy and family and things of that nature. My dissertation work in graduate school was sort of obsessed with this idea of observation of representation both in science, thinking about things like astronomy and paleontology and in art, how art represents reality.

The thing that I think I've been trying to redefine with these poems is getting a little bit more grounded in our current moment. I think I'm still striving for big ideas, but I hope that I'm closer to kind of where big ideas and daily life kind of come into contact, the paradigm shift, from text culture, into digital culture, and touches almost everything we do, how we shop, how we work, how we do politics, how we listen to music, how we interact with others. So instead of trying to be a writer dealing with, "timeless issues," I'm hoping that this work is kind of redefining me as a writer of a more specific moment. And hopefully I'm saying something interesting and helpful about it.

CANDICE: And how do you hope that these poems help others to redefine themselves, especially because you have been so grounded in what's going on currently with technology and right now our really technology dependent circumstances?

GARRETT: Yeah, I mean it's interesting. Because I mean, I'm really trying really hard to approach the material and as I try to approach all materials sort of in a real open-minded way, right? So like you, a good poem should raise questions rather than come to the complete answers, right? And so I think poetry is as maybe less about helping people define themselves and maybe more about helping them challenge and question existing paradigms. And I guess maybe in that way, you can't redefine yourself if you don't sort of undefine yourself or start to see maybe cracks or things that need to be improved or worked through in your current definition of yourself. And so I don't know, maybe it might be maybe a little more destructive than constructive. But I think destructive with an eye towards constructive, if that makes any sense.

CANDICE: Absolutely. Emily Dickinson said she knows a poem when it feels like the top of her head is coming off.

GARRETT: Exactly.

CANDICE: We let other stuff in. So now the English teacher type questions, what are you reading lately?

GARRETT: So I've been writing a lot this summer. And so when I'm writing poetry, I tend to need to read poetry for that to work. I just kind of finished Tracy K. Smith's "Life on Mars," and I'm just begun reading Sally Wen Mao's "Oculus." I mean both of those books are really interesting and the "Oculus" is really interesting when Mao seems to be touching on things that I've been thinking about, sort of both in my previous manuscript thinking about observation and science, but also she also thinks about it through the lens of technology as well. So the first of two title poems in that collection are, this young woman in Shanghai who committed suicide on, like live streamed her own death and so she's really kinda getting into both issues of observation but also like the way the technology lets us be sort of seen and not seen and invites us into these really personal spaces that sometimes can be really troubling and horrifying or spaces that we can feel like we have no business being in. So, yeah, I mean that's what, cheery stuff to go with a pandemic, but yeah, I mean, those are the things that I've been reading.

CANDICE: And then the very last question that we have for you, it's a two-parter. So what else have you worked on that you want to tell people to take a look at? So if you want to point us towards any of your other writings, or the dreaded question, what are you working on right now that you'd be willing to tell?

GARRETT: Well, luckily it's the summer, so I can answer that second question. So I guess things that I've written that I want people to check out. So I have a chat book of poems called Cubicles that I think is still available on Amazon, which is another sort of very thematic collection. And I also have some nonfiction pieces that are online that I think people might be interested in. In terms of what I'm doing now, I'm home a lot lately. I know that's weird, surprising to hear and we're in this weird time where it seems like things are so domestic and so sort of very political at the same time and simple things like going to the grocery store and whether you choose to go in or do curbside pickup, seems to not only be sort of a personal decision, but also a political decision, the whole business of wearing masks and blah, blah, blah. And I want to be open to letting that kind of filter into what I'm writing. So I don't know I'm bringing sort of these weird poems that are kind of about very domestic things, but also trying to find, in ways that don't hit the reader over the head sort of, the way that the kind of outside world is bringing kind of pressure on simple domestic decisions. I don't know, that's a very like abstract way of talking about poems that if you were to read them, probably wouldn't seem like that at all. but that's sort of the bigger ideas that are been kind of churning in my head.

CANDICE: Great. I look forward to reading some of those. Thank you, Garrett very much for being with us today.

GARRETT: Thanks for having me Candice.

Redefine U is production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our summer series guest host is Candice Mayhill. Executive producer is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Amanda Behrens. Our writer Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Jeremiah Prevatte, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan. Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website, I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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