Computer code gets literary with code poetry slam

Stanford University has hosted its first high-tech poetry competition, exploring how computer code can be read and deployed as a poetic language.

Leslie Wu reading "Say 23".(Credit: Stanford University)

Stanford University has hosted its first high-tech poetry competition, exploring how computer code can be read and deployed as a poetic language.

When one thinks of poetry, perhaps Neruda, or Eliot, or Shane Koyczan comes to mind. What one doesn't usually think of is Boolean strings or close tags, but Stanford University is looking to change that. It has hosted its first annual Code Poetry Slam, a competition to turn computer code into poetry.

It was won by doctoral student in computer science Leslie Wu, one of eight finalists, with her poem "Say 23". Wearing Google Glass, she wrote her code — projected onto a screen — while speaking each word out loud. When she was finished, she ran the script she had written, prompting the program to read out a selection of words from Psalm 23 three times, each time in a different voice.

The Code Poetry Slam was developed by German studies graduate student Melissa Kagen and computer-based music theories and acoustics graduate student Kurt James Werner as a means of exploring the creative potential of coding.

"Code poetry has been around a while, at least in programming circles, but the conjunction of oral presentation and performance sounded really interesting to us," Werner said.

Kagen described code poetry as:

A lot of different things depending on whom you ask. It can be a piece of text that can be read as code and run as program, but also read as poetry. It can mean a human language poetry that has mathematical elements and codes in it, or even code that aims for elegant expression within severe constraints, like a haiku or a sonnet, or code that generates automatic poetry. Poems that are readable to humans and readable to computers perform a kind of cyborg double coding.

Wu's poem, she said, was particularly elegant, incorporating Ruby, Japanese and English, accomplishing a lot for relatively little code.

Academic technology specialist for the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages Michael Widner, who advised Kagen and Werner on the judging process, said, "When we realise that coding is a creative act, we not only value that part of the coder's labour, but we also realize that the technologies in which we swim have assumptions and ideologies behind them that, perhaps, we should challenge."

Code Poetry Slam is now accepting submissions for its second competition, due by 12 February.


About the author

Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.


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