amazing poet & proceduralist.
by Travis Macdonald
To have descended from common parents,
of the ideas involved in it to objects
is, on my theory, of equal
Of these ideas among themselves? It is not
of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
feel constrained to call the propositions of geometry “true,”
and of their hybrid offspring it is impossible.
Objects in nature, and these last
“And” (the evening and the morning) were the
ideas. Geometry ought
God said, Let the
waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature, that
and fowl that may fly.
About a year ago, the founders/editors of Fact-Simile Editions Magazine & Press, Travis Macdonald & JenMarie Davis, moved to Philadelphia, much to the delight of the community here. Travis & JenMarie contribute much to poetry through their endeavors, both with the press/magazine, & with their poems. Look for a Starlight, Philadelphia feature on JenMarie Davis soon -- & while you’re waiting for that, I hope you enjoy this interview with Travis Macdonald. We are lucky to have him among the many talented poets here in Philadelphia.
Debrah: Travis, I am very excited to engage with you about your poem 06286208998628034825. I suppose for me it's important, before really engaging the text, to ask if this is a conceptual piece, or a mathematical piece, or a piece in which you engage experiments with appropriation. If so, what was your method, & which texts did you use in the creation of this poem? What moved you to use these texts, & to use this type of experimentation? Is there anything akin to alchemy or magic in this process?
Travis: Thanks for inviting me to participate in Starlight Philadelphia. You've gathered a really wonderful and inspiring group of writers so far and I am honored to be in such company. The short answer to this first round of questions is: yes! 3... is a conceptual mathematical experiment in appropriation.
The long answer goes more like this: I tend to think of my own work in terms of procedure rather than concept. I see conceptual art and literature as existing alongside, if not independent from, its actual enactment or execution. Conceptual writing, it has been said, is in search of a thinkership rather than a readership. The procedural work, on the other hand, is characterized by and entirely dependent on the process of creation that it sets forth. While, like any good literature, it should arise from and engender thought, poetry has the ability to contain so much more than just ideas. Logopoeia, after all, is only one third of the poetic elemental equation. In fact, I would venture to say that the other two thirds, music (melopoeia) and form (phanopoeia) are more important for my particular poetic tendencies and proceduralism at large.
As an avid reader, I guess it comes down to the fact that I have little to no interest in a book that can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be “read.” For instance, while I can appreciate the literary and artistic conceptual gestures of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing”, in my own work, I labor under the assumption that the words I write, compose and compile will somehow find their way (today, tomorrow or someday in the distant future) into one or more human eyes, ears and/or mouths. If only for the fact that I very much enjoy holding the words of others in this way.
But back to the piece at hand: 3... is composed solely of language borrowed in direct numerical sequence from The Book of Genesis, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Chapter 8 - Hybridism) and Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity. Each poem is comprised of individual lines whose word count corresponds precisely with the relative decimal point of pi (3.14159265 etc.) to its first one thousand places. When drawing from each source, I made a point of never exceeding 3 consecutive lines from any given text and, even then, only in cases where the process of natural selection demanded. While the original language of each line is preserved, each selection was re-punctuated for the purposes of the new narrative I was working to create.
I think there is most definitely an alchemical, transformative process at play in this piece. As is the case with much of my work, the form/procedure came first or, at least it was the seed from which the idea grew. I had an idea that I would like to write a poetic series structured around the decimal places of pi. At first, I tried composing using these numerals as syllabic counts but soon abandoned this method as overly restrictive. I began working, instead, using the numerals as a line-by-line word count restraint, composing my own “original” poetry into the vessel that pi provided. However, this process too soon felt hollow and unfulfilling. It wasn’t until I read a poetic play of Elizabeth Guthrie’s called Dub - Notes - to Refrain (from Condition) written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that the form I was after began to take a more definite shape. [Ms. Guthrie’s text was later published in Requited though you can’t necessarily tell that it was written in Excel by looking at the final version.]
This piece got me thinking about the possibilities of the spreadsheet as poetic vessel. The mechanical organizing structure presented by the spreadsheet seemed to beg to be filled with something pre-existing. Looking back to the “3” that precedes the decimals I was dealing with, I felt the need to braid or merge three disparate or conflicting texts into a single document. After this basic form had coalesced, it was almost as if the necessary texts chose themselves...After all, what could be more seemingly disparate or conflicting than the oppositional creation myths of Darwin and Genesis? As for Einstein, I felt that there needed to be a textual referee of sorts mediating between these two fiery polemics. And what better connective/disruptive tissue than the cold hard math of The Special and General Theory of Relativity? Of course, as disparate as these three texts may seem at the surface, at their core they are each actually approaching the same task of explaining creation...just from very different angles.
I feel as if this is an already long-winded answer and we’re just getting started so I will try to tie up with the question of magic with the following excerpt from the Author’s Note: π (pi or 3.141593) is a transcendental number, which suggests, among other things, that no finite sequence of algebraic operations on integers (powers, roots, sums, etc.) can be equal to its value. Consequently, its decimal representation never ends or repeats. It divides in endless variation.
That, to me, is just about as magic as it gets.
Debrah: Very interesting procedure. You are definitely using texts that have inspired & created avenues of debate regarding existence & human life for many. I notice the repetition of the term "geometry" in this poem. Does your mathematical procedure present a sort of poetic geometry? Also, I greatly enjoyed your discussion of how conceptual writing is "in search of a thinkership rather than a readership," & that you note that you hope that your work "will somehow find their way...into one or more human eyes, ears, &/or mouths." How do you anticipate that this poem might enter someone's mouth?
Travis: I work as a copywriter for a marketing agency just north of Philadelphia. A colleague of mine asked me recently about the best way to explain a 3-frame rotating website concept to a particularly difficult client with no appreciable sense of humor or creativity. This conversation inevitably turned to “the rule of 3,” a principle of pattern recognition commonly utilized by poets, politicians and comedians alike.
The rule of 3 essentially states that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying or more effective than any other number of things. There are examples of this basic geometry extending back throughout the history of western storytelling and literature (the holy trinity, three blind mice, three little pigs, etc.). I think it stems from the fact that our brains are somehow hardwired to more easily consume information written in groups of threes. If I were to examine this phenomenon further, I would venture the explanation that a series of 3 is the absolute minimum number of elements necessary to illustrate a narrative progression in which tension is created, a pattern is established and the reader/audience’s expectations are either reinforced or subverted.
In geometric terms, of course, a triangle is the most basic shape, containing the fewest number of lines necessary to enclose an area of any size. Is it a coincidence that it is also the sturdiest, most structurally sound two-dimensional object?
The word “geometry” in 3... is taken entirely from Einstein’s contribution to the project. It seems fitting to me that this organizing theme or concept should come from The Special and General Theory of Relativity since it was this text that, to my mind, was necessary for connecting the rather divergent angles of the other two and enclosing the resulting combinatorial narrative.
I think the rule of 3 can also be applied, albeit in a somewhat different manner, to the second part of your question. While I hesitate to make any generalized assumptions about the internal experience of others, for me the act of reading takes place entirely in the interaction between the those three primary sense-orifices listed above (eyes, ears and mouth). This interplay of the senses is most obvious, of course, when reading aloud: one takes information from the page through one’s eyes, translates that information internally and channels it out through the mouth in the form of speech.
On the surface, it may seem as if the act of hearing or listening takes place passively on the part of the audience and falls outside of the domain of the poet or speaker. But if you’ve ever heard a deaf person speak or read aloud then you know full well that our ears are responsible for controlling all sorts of modulations in tone and volume that result in the basic music of the human voice. (Side note: The poet Ilya Kaminsky is a beautiful living example of this phenomenon. I encourage anyone who has not heard him read his poetry aloud to seek out a recording or, better yet, a live performance!) For my own part, even when reading silently to myself, I am fully aware not only of the sound of the words in my mind’s ear but the taste or feel of every letter and phrase as it rolls around the echo chamber of my mouth. It is my goal as a writer and arranger of words to enter the sensory-corporeal forms of other human beings in this way. In fact, I can think of no greater honor or privilege.
Debrah: Travis, these are such marvelous lines of thought. To encounter "3" does seem like a sacred positioning. We say that so many things happen in threes -- deaths, births, marriages -- these rites of passage of lives & culture. There is the magical Three-fold Law, Gurdjieff's triune nature of Endlessness, & Newton's Three Laws of Motion. Plato said that the four elements were composed of triangles, & his triangles were akin to atoms. Such power in this numeral. Is this also why your poem has three stanzas?
In this poem, as the words are taken from your three source texts using mathematical experimentation, would you say that you, the poet, Travis Macdonald, find yourself in the actual synapses and/or ideas that a reader might garner from this poem? Or would you say that you, Travis Macdonald, the person & poet, exist only in the process? For instance, do you believe that we have descended from common parents?
Travis: I really like Plato’s concept of triangular atoms! I had never heard that before. We’ve been raised on this idea that the universe is made up of spheres, (from the macro to the micro) but it’s not as if any of us has ever seen an atom up close...so why not triangles? In any case, yes, 3 does seem to be a powerful presence in the human consciousness experience. The alleged center of that consciousness is, of course, made up of three parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem...maybe that has something to do with it? However, I’m afraid the fact that this particular poem has 3 stanzas is merely a cosmic coincidence in the decimal places of pi as this selection of twenty places just so happened to contain 3 zeros.
Despite the constraint of the form and process of appropriation that created these poems, there is most certainly an authorial presence at work. The nature of that presence is a little bit more difficult to pinpoint within the binary you’ve presented: I’m not sure that I could make any definite distinction between whether it is contained in the poems or the process that gave rise to them. In fact, for me (and perhaps this is a tenet of proceduralism itself) the process and its results are co-creational forces.
However, in an effort to avoid being completely vague and evasive, let me say that I think your characterization of that presence as synaptic is particularly apt since the first level of authorial control or manipulation took place in the space between each individual line. At each of these intertextual junctures, I was presented with a choice between 3 predetermined outcomes. The challenge in composing these poems then became finding the new thought that wound through and between each text to formulate a narrative that was both composed of and completely separate from each individual thread.
The second level of authorial control came in the form of re-punctuating the resulting text to further draw out and claim ownership of that new narrative. The third and final level was in the curation of each individual poem in the series: In order to provide some much needed variance while honoring the 10 numeral nature of the decimal places themselves, each poem was arranged in a series of lines divisible by 10.
All procedure aside, by repeating it over and over again to myself, I’ve learned to believe in everything I’ve ever written. Especially the contradictions. If Travis Macdonald the person and poet can be said to exist anywhere, it’s probably there.
Debrah: Travis, thanks for this response. I believe in all you've written as well, & am happy that it's on the earth for us all to enjoy & learn from. I am also happy that you & JenMarie moved to Philadelphia roughly a year ago, & for all that both of you have contributed to the Philadelphia Poetry Community thus far. Which brings me to the final question. As this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, what are your thoughts & feelings about the Poetry Community here so far? What brought you to Philadelphia? Do you feel your poetry or thoughts on poetry have been influenced at all yet by the city's cultural influences?
Travis: Thank you! I’ve been putting together some notes toward a proceduralist manifesto of sorts and this dialogue has really helped me formulate some new and unexpected avenues of thought in that pursuit. As for Philadelphia, I know for a fact that I speak for both JenMarie and myself when I say we are incredibly happy to be here. Hard to believe it’s almost been a year already! Somewhere around July 4th of 2010 we were sitting in our little adobe home in Santa Fe...missing family, feeling poetically isolated and really fed up with our respective jobs. We decided it was time to make a change.
Philadelphia just seemed like the obvious choice. Jen’s family lives a little bit west of the city and mine is a short drive away (compared to NM) in upstate NY. More importantly, we’d been hearing a lot of really great things about the amazing poetry scene developing here and that was something we never really found in Santa Fe. It seems like the writers who go to the desert do so to be alone and we were craving contact and exchange. Not only have we discovered that thriving community we were searching for here in Philadelphia, we’ve also found really great jobs that we love and a cozy little twin up in Mt. Airy. All in all, it feels like home in ways that the west never did.
That said, I don’t know if the city has really found its way into my poetry just yet. I’m not really a “poet of place” in the tradition of Olson or WCW to begin with...but more than that, I almost don’t feel as if the city’s given me its permission just yet. I’ve encountered so many great writers here who do a truly superb job of speaking for, through and into her streets and secret spaces (CAConrad, Frank Sherlock, Ryan Eckes, Kevin Varrone and Jacob Russell to name just a few) that I don’t think I could ever really add to that communal body of work...at least not until I’ve lived here for another decade or more. Or maybe the right form just hasn’t found me yet. I’ll keep you posted…
Debrah: Thanks, Travis, for these insights & thoughts. We are lucky to have you in Philadelphia.
Recent books by Travis Macdonald include: BAR/koans (Erg Arts 2011), Hoop Cores (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Sight & Sigh (Beard of Bees 2011), N7ostradamus (BlazeVox Books 2010), Basho's Phonebook (E-ratio 2009) and The O Mission Repo [vol. 1] (Fact-Simile Editions 2008). Other poetry and prose has appeared in print, online and elsewhere. He works long hours in advertising and lives happily in the Mt. Airy area of Philadelphia with fellow Fact-Simile Editions co-founder JenMarie Davis.