A. Introduction to my experiment
B. Reflection on Sunday 2/ 19, Day One
I like formal writing experiments. A few weeks ago, I was a guest poet at Wayne State University in Detroit and I talked to the creative writing class I was visiting about how I wrote my poem, “The Lake Ella Variations” from my book Steal it Back. I told the class that every day for a few weeks, I would walk around Lake Ella in Tallahassee and listen to people and observe them. I explained to the class that when I got back home, I would jot down the things I remembered from my walk. The things that I overheard eventually made their way into the poem. In my walks around Lake Ella, I certainly found some gems…. I mean I witnessed a mom asking her kid if he was going to feed the Chicken Nuggets he was holding to the ducks. You can’t make that shit up. In the creative writing class, I turned to Barrett Watten, the professor who invited me and said, “Poets have to be good at observing things, right? In that sense, we would probably make good spies, don’t you think?” I think he agreed.
I was going to blog for a week about political poetry and the protest movement, something I feel at this point I know a lot about, but honestly, I just need a break. I need time to think. Last week in DC for AWP, I stayed with my friend Chris. One night, talking to my friend, the poet Brian Blanchfield, who was also staying with Chris, Brian described the writing experiment that went into composing his incredible book Proxies. He said that to write the book (a collection of essays, not poems), he didn’t use the internet. He relied on memory and intuition. I found it intriguing that the absence of the internet, the negating of online information, could become freeing, a source of imaginative space. Another poet friend I was talking to a few months ago about trying to re-create the conditions of writing from over a decade ago for his Creative Writing students. I’m not sure what the rules were for his class, but I think that the students were not allowed to just immediately share what they wrote via social media. They had to wait. They had to be patient.
It seemed like my friends were converging on a common need and longing, not to go back in time, but maybe we were all a little nostalgic for the early conditions of the writing life. Until I was into my late twenties, I really didn’t know that many poets. I shared almost none of my work. My first experience with a writing community was definitely blogs on the internet. I remember in my MFA years at the University of Montana, my boyfriend, who was also a poet, coming home and saying “Hey Sand, I’m going to start a blog.” “What’s a blog?” I replied. That was 2002. Even when he explained it to me, it really didn’t make much sense. But soon, I understood. I started a blog and a world opened up: there were poet bloggers. I was suddenly connected to poets across the country, poets who were doing avant- guard, highly experimental things that were VERBOTEN in my MFA program.
Look, I’m not conservative and I’m not against technology. I don’t think that there was an earlier, better time in American history and honestly, I do like the internet. I like social media. Don’t worry….I don’t want to make poetry writing great again! Didn’t Trump say that the internet was bad for people? I would look it up, but I can’t (see my writing experiment rules below). But I do think it’s worth the experiment in trying to push back against the absolute limits of the working day when every single moment is exploded and then cannibalized by these processes of monetization. How do we even understand reality beyond a mechanism of use? How do we live when our bodies, fingers, skin, genitalia, eyes, lips, mouths are completely consumed in consuming? That every “like,” every “heart,” that every affirmation of our being is simply the trick of capital? That the terrible lie is always in the background that we can win this game—we can’t. I mean, deep down I know this, don’t you?
To walk away from it, though, is its own reckoning. What does it take? Self-control? To control one’s narcissism? I’m not sure. To somehow side-step the idea that one is the center of one’s world when this is so clearly untrue? Back to the limits of the working day. How does it relate to poetry, both its composition and its relation to the social sphere? How does this constant consumption and production inside the reality of the internet relate to the production, dissemination, reception of the poem? What happens to the poet’s imaginative space when it is radically altered for a number of days? Does the poet see or hear things differently? What happens when you can’t easily correct or look up information? Does reality become hazy? Does it shift?
Here are my rules for the next seven days which will function as my writing experiment:
1. I will not check the news. If I want, I can read the news in the newspaper at my university library where I work BECAUSE OMG THE NEWS IS KILLING US
2. I will not use social media at all except to post these posts each day for 7 days BECAUSE DO I REALLY NEED TO KNOW THE EVERY MOVEMENT OF THE PROM QUEENS AND JOCKS THAT BECAME RADICAL LEFTIST POETS LIVING IN THE BAY AREA WHEN WE ALL KNEW WHO YOU WERE IN HIGH SCHOOL YOU ARE NOT FOOLING ANYONE
3. I will not bring my cell phone with me when I leave the house (including when I go to work) BECAUSE IN THE SEVEN YEARS THAT MY KIDS HAVE COLLECTIVELY BEEN ALIVE NOT ONCE HAS ANYONE CALLED ME FROM SCHOOL BECAUSE THERE HAS BEEN AN EMERGENCY
4. I will not use the internet at all except for work-related things like grading papers or if I need to pay a bill BECAUSE THERE IS NO REASON I NEED TO READ IN-DEPTH ARTICLES POSTED ON MEDIUM ABOUT THE ‘DEEP STATE’ WRITTEN BY PEOPLE I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF
5. I will check my email twice a day (morning and night) BECAUSE THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO EMAIL ME ARE….. I DON’T THINK THEY ARE HUMAN? UNSUBSCRIBE 6. No texting (except my one friend who has a disability) BECAUSE IF YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH ME THEN YOU CAN CALL ME MAYBE?
Anyway, friends. This is an experiment about poetry, the imaginative space of poetry and the current material conditions of poetry. Remember, I can’t look up anything so I’m going to probably make a lot of mistakes. Feel free to follow me on my journey. I mean, it might be a complete failure but hopefully I learn something. And if Trump decides to drop a nuclear bomb on some country, hey, my fiancé, Alex, promises to let me know.
Day One. Sunday 2/18.
Today, the first thing I noticed were birds. In the morning I went on a walk in my neighborhood without my cell phone. Normally, I would take my phone with me on the walk “just in case” something happened, or in case someone texted me or just because I was bored. With those possibilities out the window, I just went on my walk. I was annoyed. Constantly thinking of the fact that I could be on my phone. I’m not exactly sure why I thought that there would be something important enough that couldn’t wait 45 minutes, but my brain was so trained to constantly check the phone that it felt like something was missing.
Then I noticed that they are out there….the birds. THERE ARE FUCKING BIRDS IN THE WORLD AND THEY LIVE IN TREES AND MAKE SONGS. It’s almost like the birds were trying to communicate something, not to each other, but to me. HERE WE ARE SANDRA WE ARE BIRDS they were saying. I suddenly wanted to know which kind of birds they were and what the hell they were singing about. I longed for this book that Chris’s son had—a bird book put out by Cornell University where there are pictures of hundreds of birds and you push this button and there are digitized recordings of each bird’s song. But I didn’t have the book and I didn’t have the internet and I didn’t have the internet to buy the book (which I might have, if I had had my phone with me done right there, buy the book I mean, but then I probably wouldn’t have noticed the birds in the first place if I had had my phone with me because I would have been probably reading another shitty news article about Kellyanne Conway).
So anyway, because I couldn’t use the internet and didn’t have my phone anyway, I just had to sort of enjoy the birds and stay curious about them. But what good are birds if you can’t share with everyone in your social network how awesome the birds are you are enjoying? That’s the train of thought that went through my head on my walk. Now, tell me that isn’t fucked, right? I mean I don’t want to use the dammed birds for the social media free labor project….I did amuse myself with this thought and then got back home. I rushed to my phone….certainly someone important has called me. Nothing. I decided to text the people closest to me about my writing experiment—my fiancé Alex, my sister Sylvie, my dad, my best friend Dyan and my friend Dan. I told them I won’t be texting for a week and if they wanted to talk to me that they would have to call.
My sister texted…”omg, I could never do that. I mean, I just had a baby. My phone is a portal to the world.”
My dad texted…some weird thumbs down emoji?
Alex texted… “I think that’s a great idea”
Okay, the day goes on….This thought actually goes through my head…Well since there is nothing to do, I might as well go to the gym and go swimming. So, I go to the gym and go swimming and leave my phone behind at home since this is one of my rules. What if someone calls me? What if something happens to the kids (they are at their dad’s house). In the pool, my mind wanders and it almost feels like I’m on a swim but from 1999. I think that this feeling of being in the past is because I’m not thinking of what I will be checking on my phone once get out of the pool, which I normally would be thinking about because my phone is at home and for the first time today, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know exactly how to explain it but I was using a kickboard and sort of floating on my back looking at the Floridian sky with its puffy white clouds and I realized that my sense of time is starting to morph. This thought echoed through my head repeatedly on my swim in a kind of ghostly way—there is nothing to do. Sandra, the ghost said, there is nothing to do.
And with each echo, my coordinates of time and reality began to slip away. I finished swimming my laps in a different mental space. On my way out of the gym, I asked the two people I saw working at the front counter how long it had been since they accidentally left their cell phone at home. “Four years,” one said, and followed up with, “but that was in high school and I think I went back home to get it.” “Never,” said the other. I walked out of the gym, hair still dripping with chlorinated water, got back into my car, and drove home. Only a few hours into my experiment, and things have gotten weird, like really weird. Like I am aware that the world has become more surreal than the world of the internet, that the world of social media and the internet has given me not only a sense of identity but also the coordinates to “reality”—I mean the reality of the world of trees, birds, swimming pools, gyms, i.e, not virtual space. Has the “real world” been abandoned and gutted? I’m not sure but it’s giving me some anxiety. I notice this as I am driving back from the gym when I’m not compulsively checking my phone. The world is FUCKING WEIRD and it’s WEIRDER than it is online. Time isn’t doing the things that it used to do, just hours ago. I’m in awe, but also radically more patient. Something’s different. Something is off. The world feels more gothic, lonely and strange. There’s nothing to situate it. There’s no frame to enclose it. There’s no continuous reference point on online reality that I’m used to make reality reality.
What the fuck is going on? I get home from the gym. The day continues. Around three in the afternoon, I see Bob. Bob is my across the street neighbor and he’s getting his certificate in teaching English as a foreign language. He’s having a party in the front yard with some ESL students because he’s getting that certificate thing you need to teach English abroad. I’m at the party eating some nachos. Normally, I wouldn’t have stopped by the party because I have a zillion papers to grade but, again and I’m busy. At the same time of course, the ghost is whispering in my ear….Might as well be at the party, Sandra, since there’s nothing to do.
By early evening, I drive to Panera. I call Panera “Panera jail” and only go there when I can’t get my grading done at home. I hate hate hate the music at Panera. Actually, I hate everything about this place. I come here to PUNISH myself. I don’t know how I’m going to grade papers not punctuated by Facebook and Twitter. I mean social media has been what has made grading papers a bearable task, right? “Sonny’s Blues is about a man who has a drug addiction,” punctuated with a “like” for someone who had a baby (I have no idea who you are!), punctuated by that facebook crying emoji when someone is sad because their poems got rejected again (I don’t know who you are either!)..etc.
At Panera, I notice a few things. 1. The music isn’t as I remembered. I have a theory for this: I think that the shift in consciousness in this regard is because normally, I would have my phone with me and the minute I didn’t like the song that came on, I would just listen to my own music. But because I didn’t have this sort of ability to knee jerk individualize my listening experience, I took what I could, musically. When the 10,000 Maniacs song came on, I found a way to enjoy it. The songs that I didn’t like, I sort of tuned out. It’s weird how much technology lets us control and individualize space—sound even, to our liking. With no ability to override my corporate overseer’s musical choices, Panera music suddenly became analogous to the music at the grocery store or TJMAXX, places where I wouldn’t normally tune out the music and might in fact hum along because I am too busy shopping to care.
The second thing I noticed, which is going to be pretty obvious, was that I was far more productive in terms of grading papers. I mean I couldn’t believe how quickly I worked through each paper. What would normally take me hours, took under an hour. I have mixed feelings about this. It brings up the idea of pleasure and who are we working for, anyway? It’s like earlier in the day, I fired a few of my virtual reality employers—Facebook and Twitter and CNN—and could devote all of my mental resources on the employer who actually deposits a paycheck into my account. I might reflect more on this over the week. We often think of the internet and social media as distracting and limiting our attention, and while that may be true, once eliminated, my attention was even more acute and focused than it had ever been. I mean it was scary the way I worked through each paper like a machine. I think that the internet is actually teaching us how to work for multiple employers with a frightening level of ease and facility.
The third thing that I noticed at Panera is that I was far, far more likely to talk to strangers. Remember the ghost like voice that haunted me all day-Sandra, there is nothingggggggg to dooooooooo. For example, there were three high school students sitting next to me who were reading out loud what seemed like poems to each other. I spontaneously asked them what they were up to. “We are adapting a Moliere play so that it takes place at McDonalds,” one of them said, “It’s called McMoliere’s.” “It sounds really fantastic,” I replied. I mean, it really did. These kids were so smart and their poetry play or whatever you want to call it was funny as hell. “Next customer,” one of the kids said. They kept reading their play out loud. The last line I heard as I gathered up my things to go back home was one of the kids saying, “I’m sick of my boss at McMoliere’s!” With all my papers graded, I went back home, listened to Rumours on my record player and fell asleep.