K Silem Mohammad: Phoned-In #5 by Luke Degnan

In episode five of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, K. Silem Mohammad reads a selection of his work.

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Kurt Freyer, Little Death, 2010.

Luke Degnan Why did you decide to write these Shakespeare anagrams?

K. Silem Mohammad There was a very specific inspiration for them. I was at a conference about three years ago, and Christian Bök gave me a copy of a book by Gregory Betts called If Language. If Language takes a paragraph from a speech by Steve McCaffery, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, and creates 56 paragraph-long, perfect anagrams of that original paragraph. I thought it was fascinating and challenging. At some point that was sitting in my head, and I had to write a poem for something, and I thought, What can I do that I can just toss off really quickly? I thought I’d do something with a Shakespearean sonnet. Suddenly, I remembered the anagram process and thought, We’ll see how that goes, and about five or six hours later, I finished a poem. So, it didn’t go that quickly. I figured I can do this with all 154 sonnets. So far I think I’ve finished about 68 of them.

LD Can you talk about how your process has changed in terms of using technology to assist in the creation in your poems?

KSM There has been a lot of change. One of the big kick off points for me in finding my own approach to writing poetry happened earlier in the decade when I was in the group of Flarf poets, which I’m still in. Members of the Flarf collective used Google to use Internet derived search text results to create poems, which is basically just a process of pure collage. I got very into that for a while. My first book, Deer Head Nation, and a couple of books since then, Breathalyzer and The Front, use Google search text results exclusively to generate the poems, or I should say to use as raw material for the poems. This is an engaging process. It generated at least three books for me. After a while I started thinking, Where do I go from here? How can I find a method that involves a little bit more well defined constraint? My roots are in traditional, metrical verse. I did my doctoral work in Renaissance lyric and have always liked traditional meter and things like that. I’ve never found a way to make it relevant to contemporary writing. Most contemporary verse written in meter and rhyme tends to sound very archaic and arbitrary, anachronistic. Combining the traditional metrical approach with this post-Oulipian constraint of the anagram just hit a chord for me. I thought it was a way to use the technology of the Internet, an anagram generator, as a device to break down my text, to tenderize it, to make it ready for me to sculpt. But it left the composing up to me. It left it to me to make the decisions about measure and meter and rhyme and word choice. I would use some words that the Internet machine would throw up just because they wouldn’t occur to me otherwise, but all the syntax, all the shaping of it into a verse, was left for me.

LD There’s the Internet, there’s Google, there’s the anagram generator. What do you think is or could be the next step for poets who want to use technology in the creation of their poems? Almost like a wish list for technology…

KSM I don’t know. I’m not sure it works that way. I think the way it typically works is the technology is suddenly just there. It’s upon us and it imposes new constraints on us. Before we know it we find ourselves writing through those constraints. I think the idea of a wish list would almost be kind of backwards. It’s like, What kind of machine or new technology would help me write poems? I think that’s a reversal of how the creative process actually happens. We find ways to make do with what we have. What do we suddenly find that we have that we haven’t used yet? I think we end up using it almost as soon as it arrives. Everything from text messages to spam to everything else that technology has thrust on us in the past few years almost instantly goes into some kind of poetic activity. I think it comes out of that necessity rather than planning.


K. Silem Mohammad is the author of four poetry collections: The Front (Roof Books, 2009), Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2008), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), and Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003). He edits the literary journals West Wind Review and Abraham Lincoln, and is Associate Professor of English and Writing at Southern Oregon University.

Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.

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