January 21, 2019

Programmed for poetry

Israeli poet and computer programmer Eran Hadas — who in January begins a six-month residency at the California Institute of Technology — has written an equation to help explain his work: “Algorithms + data = poetry.”

Some of that work included a 2014 project called “Mind Your Poem” that took measurements of a person’s brain waves and, using an algorithm Hadas created, turned the person’s moments of concentration, meditation and arousal into preselected sentences that became poems.

“Romanticist writers in the 19th century had nature as their backdrop; for early 20th-century ones, it was industrialization; for later ones, it was mass media; and for us, it is the internet,” Hadas told the Journal in an interview via email. “I am often attracted to writers in history who wrote things that were impossible to write about before their times, and in this sense, using software seems to me a must in our time.”

Hadas will be in Pasadena from Jan. 4 to June 20, teaching a course in Caltech’s Humanities Department called Computational Literature. The residency is supported by the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artists Program — an initiative of the Washington, D.C.-based Israel Institute — which brings Israeli filmmakers, choreographers, musicians, writers and visual artists to U.S. universities.

Hadas — who turned 41 on Jan. 1 and normally lives and teaches in his native Tel Aviv — describes himself as a poet, programmer and new media artist. In 2015, he created a program that scanned the Torah and extracted haiku poems hidden within the text. The output of that program was published in his book “Code.” He also has created robots, avatars and a sort of teenage “chatbot” that would rather sulk than chat. His work has been exhibited at venues such as the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria; the Text Festival in Manchester, England; the Paraflows Festival in Vienna; the Orpheus Institute in Belgium; and the Israel and Tel Aviv museums. He has hosted a weekly live radio show, “New Media Salon,” in Israel.

Hadas was introduced to computers by his uncle, a software developer, who taught him basic programming when he was 5 years old. When Hadas chose to pursue a degree in math and programming, his mother worried he wouldn’t be able to get a good job.

“When I graduated in 1997, she asked me if I had known all along that this would become the hottest trade,” Hadas said. “Of course I didn’t. I just fantasized I would get paid for getting a computer program to do something properly.”

Hadas’ passion for literature began at age 12, when he fell in love with a collection of short stories by the Polish Jew I.L. Peretz (a distant relative of, and role model for, the better known experimental writer Georges Perec). He then read the works of Israeli poet Dan Pagis, and was especially influenced by “In the Marble Block,” in which Pagis constantly rewrites — or, in software lingo, refactors — a single thought.

Though he calls himself as an atheist, several of Hadas’ projects have used Jewish texts. One early project was a poetry generator, co-built with poet Merhav Yeshoron, that used 39 key words from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed.”

“I feel that the Jewish tradition is embedded in me and influences me,” Hadas said. “I strive to become a link in a rich chain of Jewish traditions. My poetic practice involves both the use, appropriation and manipulation of existing texts and corpora of data.”

The residency at Caltech will be Hadas’ first visit to Los Angeles. He said he was bracing for culture shock, even though he has spent time in New York and London, and lately in Berlin. His connection to the Schusterman Visiting Artist program grew out of a talk he gave about algorithmic poetry at an international conference for Jewish artists hosted by Asylum Arts in Upstate New York.

It can be difficult to describe Hadas’ work. Press releases, press reports and even the Caltech course list each have a different name for the product of this work, including “non-expressive,” “augmented” or just plain “experimental” poetry. What poetry and computer programs have in common, of course, is they are constructed with language. 

Hadas said his concept of augmented poetry involves the interaction between human language and the language of the machines we now use every day.

Which takes us back to his equation. “On the algorithmic side,” he says on his website, “I deal with poetry generators, computer programs that output constraint-based, unoriginal, pseudo-random texts which I call poetry if the output or the process are mind-blowing. … On the data side, I deal with the network topography, the way in which data-flakes stick, cling, depart, fold and unfold in the vast data storm of the new Golem we call the internet.”