Miskatonic University Press

Paul Dutton, sound poetry, Emacs and Tavis Rudd

poetry emacs

This afternoon two things mixed and melded in an unexpected way: sound poetry and programming in Emacs.

It began when I listened to an episode of the Into the Field podcast series with Toronto poet Paul Dutton: it’s about 40 minutes long and you can download it from Into the Field: Paul Dutton. It’s a good interview, very interesting, and gets into many different aspects of Dutton’s work. Even if you don’t know of Dutton, I recommend listening, because it’s always worth it to hear a good poet talk about his work—and what he does with sound poetry (Dutton was one of the Four Horsemen) and vocal improvisations (he’s one of CCMC, with Michael Snow and John Oswald) is wild.

You can get a fine introduction to Dutton’s work for free on the web. His 1991 collection Aurealities is available online from Coach House Books, the excellent Toronto small press. (Coach House is on bpNichol Lane, a delightful little alley named after one of the other Horsemen.) It includes of my favourite poems, The Eighth Sea, which goes in part:

The St. Lawrence 110-gun warship
The Psyche 50-gun warship
The Princess Charlotte 40-gun warship
The Niagara 20-gun warship
The Charwell 14-gun warship
The Prince Regent 60-gun warship
The Oneida 16-gun warship
The Scourge 10-gun warship
The Fair American 2-gun warship
The Queen Charlotte 18-gun warship
The Sylph 16-gun warship
The Lady Gore 3-gun warship
The Tecumseth 4-gun warship
The Madison 20-gun warship
The Newash 4-gun warship
The Chippewa 74-gun warship - pewa shippewar

shippewa shippewar shippewa shippewarship a warship a warship a warship / a warship, yer worship / yer warship, yer worship / yer warship, yer worship / yer worship: yer warship / yer worship: yer warship / yuh worship a warship yuh worship a warship yuh worship a warship a warship a warship a warshippewa shi pawash e pawash e pawash e pawash e pawatchya pawatchya pawatchya pawatchya pawa ta pawa ta pawa ta pawa ta pawa ter pawa ter pawa ter pawa ter pawa ter pawa ther pawa ther pawa ther pawa ther pawa there is no more beautiful, enchanting and sublime portion of the American continent than the lake region of Canada. Commencing at the Thousand Islands and extending to the extreme western shores of Lake Superior is a continuous chain of beer cans and sewage unequalled anywhere in the world for their concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls and as a vast highway for fecal streptococci …

In the podcast, interviewer Stephen McLaughlin asks Dutton to read T’ Her, but Dutton turns the tables and asks McLaughlin to read it. He does a decent—if affected—job of it, then Dutton reads some of it his own way and it’s a hell of a contrast. Here’s a bit of what it looks like in print:

'roun' midnight
'n' you
'bout 12 'clock
'n' 'round, I guess, oh,
'bout midnight I w'z
12 'r so 'n' I w'z lookin' 'round 'n'
'bout midnight I s'z
'tsabout 12 I s'z
you 'n'
so I took 'n' s'z
'round here somewhere I think
'roun' midnight

Dutton performs (performed?) a lot and has recorded a number of albums, and the whole of Mouth Pieces (Solo Soundsinging) (2000) is on UbuWeb. In the podcast they discuss and play the recording of Snare, Kick, Rack, and Floor (MP3), which is Dutton doing a drum solo based, as he explains in the interview, on the words “compatible” and “combustible”, because he thinks “compatible combustibility” and “combustible compatibility” are both pretty good ways of describing a drum kit.

Here he is performing it in 2009:

This is not I wandered lonely as a cloud.

Later in the afternoon, thanks to a retweet from @ErgoEmacs, I saw Xah Lee’s post Using Voice to Code Faster than Keyboard, which is about a PyCon US 2013 talk given by Tavis Rudd (Github, @tavisrudd) called Using Python to Code by Voice. Here is a recording of the full talk:

This is a delightful presentation. I’d like to talk to my computers, but as advanced as Utter! for Android is, it’s still distinguishable from magic. But Rudd’s hack, getting voice dictation software to work for his very particular and finicky needs as a programmer, is a fantastic piece of work. And he did it so he could work in Emacs! And his talk is being run out of Org mode! Incredible. (His .emacs.d is on GitHub (as is mine, which is a lot simpler).)

In the talk Rudd speaks to Emacs in a fairly natural (for some values of “natural”) way, and uses it to program in Lisp and Python and run shell commands, all by voice. He’s not saying the names of the keys he would otherwise type (“left-bracket space”) or saying English words because it’s more efficient, and easier for the computer to understand, if he uses short forms and special sounds that mean particular things. “Slap” means ENTER, for example. When you program you hit ENTER a lot. Slap slap. He’s got sounds for individual letters, parentheses, and more.

All of this means that when you listen to him program … it’s a poem. Skip to 17:20, where he writes some Python to do a few lines from Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. This is Rudd writing a program:

wake up
two slap
hark chook
class dead parrot
studly mapping rule
y'all clap
mapping equal dict
slap slap
for line in enumerated lines
tab lape
say alex part
percent soy
percent numbers
lak ish right
bard mesp bleep
score say alex
xbuf slap
slap chook
grammar dot add rule
studly dead parrot
studly dead parrot
load this grammar
alex part zero

That’s poetry! Found poetry. Let’s call it “Studly Dead Parrot.” It’s not Karen Coyle’s nerd poetry, but it’s on the same shelf. Beautiful.

There are other examples Rudd demonstrates where what he’s saying is sound poetry. What if someone configured a system to use Duttonish sounds to suit their own coding-by-voice needs? What if you read in one of Dutton’s poems? Would it compile? Is it an obscure form of encryption to distribute software in verse form that needs to be read into a system like this to work?

Maybe Dada poems are computer programs that have been waiting one hundred years to be run.