Context Collapse: A Conversation with Ryan Ruby

by Andrea Scrima

Ryan Ruby is a novelist, translator, critic, and poet who lives, as I do, in Berlin. Back in the summer of 2018, I attended an event at TOP, an art space in Neukölln, where along with journalist Ben Mauk and translator Anne Posten, his colleagues at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop, he was reading from work in progress. Ryan read from a project he called Context Collapse, which, if I remember correctly, he described as a “poem containing the history of poetry.” But to my ears, it sounded more like an academic paper than a poem, with jargon imported from disciplines such as media theory, economics, and literary criticism. It even contained statistics, citations from previous scholarship, and explanatory footnotes, written in blank verse, which were printed out, shuffled up, and distributed to the audience. Throughout the reading, Ryan would hold up a number on a sheet of paper corresponding to the footnote in the text, and a voice from the audience would read it aloud, creating a spatialized, polyvocal sonic environment as well as, to be perfectly honest, a feeling of information overload. Later, I asked him to send me the excerpt, so I could delve deeper into what he had written at a slower pace than readings typically afford—and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the finished project ever since. And now that it is, I am publishing the first suite of excerpts from Context Collapse at Statorec, where I am editor-in-chief.

Andrea Scrima: Ryan, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with a little context. Tell us about the overall sweep of your poem, and how, since you mainly work in prose, you began writing it.

Ryan Ruby: Thank you for this very kind introduction, Andrea! That was a particularly memorable evening for me too, as my partner was nine months pregnant at the time, and I was worried that we’d have to rush to the hospital in the middle of the reading. But you remember quite well: a poem containing the history of poetry, with a tip of the hat to Ezra Pound, of course, who described The Cantos as “a poem containing history.”

Perhaps more specifically, I’d say that Context Collapse tells the story of the relationship between poets and their audiences—I should probably qualify that by saying Western poets and their audiences—as mediated by developments in communications technologies and changes in the economics of publishing, from Homer to the present. The section you’re excerpting at Statorec is concerned with the second half of the twentieth century. So, broadly speaking, in terms of poetry: New Criticism and Language Poetry. In terms of communications technologies: television, cybernetics, and the mimeograph. In terms of the economics of publishing: the births of the MFA system, neoliberalism, and automation.

You’re right to note that poetry is a bit of a departure for me. The medium-sized answer to your question is that when one of my students at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop asked me if she could submit poetry to be workshopped, I had to admit that I didn’t have the requisite knowledge of contemporary poetry necessary to give her meaningful feedback on her work, let alone to lead a class discussion on the topic. And that disappointed me, because, like many fiction writers I know, poetry played such a crucial role in the early stage of my development as a writer, and also, like many fiction writers, I suppose, it had been years, over a decade actually, since I’d seriously read new poetry. I decided to get myself caught up, to get in touch with that part of myself again, but quickly discovered that the landscape of contemporary poetry was almost entirely opaque to me. I found it extremely difficult to find poets whose work I could connect with as a reader.

It is certainly a personal quirk of mine, and by no means the most efficient way to go about things, but I thought that the only way I’d be able to make sense of what was going on today was to go back and retrace the entire Western poetic tradition, starting with Homer, and to see if, when I arrived at the present, the landscape would be a little clearer. Context Collapse is basically the record of two years of research into this nearly three millennia pre-history of contemporary poetry.

A.S.: You really think that studying Homer helps us make sense of the poetry that’s being written today?

R.R.: Absolutely. The essential thing to remember about Homeric Greece is that it is a society entirely without writing. In such a society poetry is a medium and not a genre, which is how we are used to thinking about it, because we’re used to thinking of poetry as something that is almost exclusively written and read. And when we are considering the features of a medium the things to focus on are the conditions of the production, storage, and transmission of information, and not form and content, which are secondary, as we will see. These features comprise what I’m calling context, because they establish the parameters of the relationship between the poet and the audience.

In the case of Homer—or rather, the group of wandering singers, or aoidoi, whose performances are later compiled under that name—the fact that transmission is oral has a number of important consequences. To name just a few, it means, first of all, that the poem can only be actualized in the physical presence of a necessarily limited audience at a specific point in time. Second, your audience’s attention is limited, which is why it’s helpful to embed information in vivid narrative scenes, rather than as a series of, say, propositions. As you found out, I think, at my reading, Andrea, the oral transmission of unanchored abstract information can be taxing to follow for even short stretches of time.

Third, in the absence of writing, the poet has to train himself to memorize, that is, store, large quantities of information in his physical person and relay them in real time. The most efficient way to do this is not to reproduce the poem word for word, even if that were possible without a fixed text, but rather to have a number of small and large building blocks at your disposal that you can combine in an improvisatory way when you need to. These production constraints are what accounts for the two most recognizable features of the Homeric epics: dactylic hexameter and the formulae. In addition to regular meter, other oral traditions will add rhyme schemes to the Western tradition, and if you want to see what a difference that makes, I encourage you to try to memorize a sonnet and a free verse poem of comparable length, and see which one requires more effort. And until the nineteenth century, with Whitman in the U.S. and Baudelaire and Mallarmé in France, regular meter and rhyme will be the distinguishing characteristics of poetry as such.

Now the human technology of the aoidos and the context in which he operates, it probably goes without saying, is underwritten by a very particular socio-economic structure, basically an agrarian palace economy, which is supplemented, especially in terms of its informational needs, by maritime commerce. It’s worth noting that in this context, there is no author-concept and no concept of intellectual property, since the poet does not produce a stable object that can be attributed to him, his invention, or his creativity.

Book VIII of the Odyssey provides a pretty detailed picture of what this world looks like and the kinds of aesthetic debates—about what stories should get told, on what occasions these stories should be told, and how they should be told—the Homeric aoidoi would have found themselves engaged in. Needless to say, it’s a world that totally changes as soon as the alphabet is introduced sometime in the eighth century. This pattern repeats itself over and over throughout history: new media technologies, new socio-economic structures, and the particular relationship between poets and audiences all mutually influence one another, and more than any other these factors, the total poetic context, determine how poetry is produced and received in any given time and place. Poets themselves are very sensitive to these trends, if they’re not in every instance fully aware of them. In fact, poets are very frequently early adopters of and experimenters with new media technologies. You might even say that the transhistorical function of the poet in the West is to be the canary in the coalmine where technology and economics intersect with language.

A.S.: So what would happen if we started to think about contemporary poetry in terms of medium rather than of genre, as you suggest?

R.R.: The situation is obviously much more complex, but I think the salient fact about poetry today is superabundance. So by one metric, that of the sheer quantity, we are living in the most gilded golden age poetry has ever known. More poetry is being written than ever before, and the reason for that is pretty clear: there are zero barriers to entry. Not only is poetry, in the widest possible sense, the least labor-intensive of any literary form, and not only does the prevalent norm of lyric self-expression mean that it requires no training or occupational licensing to produce (although a debt-financed MFA is an almost mandatory credential for access to certain distribution networks), but transmitting writing is either extremely inexpensive or even free. In a country like the US there is, on principle, total and unlimited access to the means of production. Gatekeepers have lost their leverage, not just to regulate the quality of production, which is what everyone seems to want to focus on, but also to perform their traditional function as cartographers of the various regions of the production landscape, which becomes diffuse, fragmented, and nearly unintelligible.

The result is a kind of crisis of poetic overproduction, whereby poets outnumber their pool of potential readers by orders of magnitude. In Context Collapse, I quote a passage from an essay by Craig Dworkin, who puts it this way: “Poetry faces a Malthusian limit. Bound by discrepant rates of production and consumption, the readerly economy of poetry in the twenty-first century cannot avoid a catastrophic calculus: the rate of consumption quickly hits an arithmetic limit (any one person can only read so much), but the rate of production is increasing geometrically.” To read all the titles put out in a given year by the Small Press Distribution network, Dworkin notes, would mean reading around two books of poetry a day. And the number he cites excludes books of poetry published by commercial presses, independent presses, university presses, or vanity presses. It excludes chapbooks and little magazines and anthologies. It excludes poetry written in other countries. It excludes anything written last year, let alone ten years ago. And most of all. . .

A.S.: . . . it excludes anything published online.

R.R.: Exactly. It excludes anything published online—compared to which print is a drop of water in the ocean. But before we delve any deeper into what this means for the economics of poetry, and what it means to be a poet in today’s economy, let’s consider for the moment the effects of the internet—free and unregulated production, temporally unlimited storage, and spatially unlimited transmission—on the relationship between the poet and the audience, and thus on the pressures exerted by the current context on the form and content of poetry being written today.

Let’s say you won a contest at one of the small presses Dworkin talks about, a pretty standard situation for entry-level poetry collections. You can expect your readership to top out, best-case scenario, at 100 people. The editorial process and the production costs were subsidized by the contest fees of the people who didn’t win, or by government grants, and hopefully there is enough money left over afterward to pay you a small stipend. But because the major way of paying authors at such presses is with author copies, that means that somewhere between a third to a quarter of your readers are people you sent the book to yourself (which means that they’re known to you personally), or the books are recycled into submissions for other book prizes, or are sitting in a stack of unopened envelopes of the more-famous poet whose attention you were hoping to catch. Aside from the component of physical presence, which written media long ago dispensed with, and whose effects I by no means intend to minimize, this situation—the audience is known to the poet—is not entirely dissimilar from the situation facing the Homeric aiodos, and indeed pretty much the same as the situation of the coterie-networks of most twentieth-century avant-gardes.

But, of course, some number of the poems in your collection were published online. And online publishing is the polar opposite of this situation in every conceivable way. The size of the potential audience can be numbered in the millions, true, but that makes it impossible to make any inferences about who they are, what their taste is like, how they’ve been educated, what set of experiences or assumptions you might or might not share with them, or with the people to whom your poem is nominally addressed. Compounding this problem, after the initial transmission, the publisher loses control of the distribution process, as readers share the linguistic information in totally unpredictable ways on various social media platforms, which reaches a wider and wider group of people as it moves further and further from the original context of its production. And, given that on the internet, everything is archived, and permanently stored, there is no temporal horizon for your poem: most poetry written today has the life-span of a fly, but even so, this fly is potentially resurrectable into any present, which is experienced as radically different from the present in which the poem, a fixed object after all, was originally written.

So what we have here is linguistic transmission that is at once hermetically sealed off from the vast majority of its potential recipients and entirely porous to any and all possible recipients, which, I might add, is a recipe for all the kinds of disasters and controversies and scandals we see, not just in contemporary American poetry, but in contemporary American life more generally. This situation is what social media theorists call (spoiler alert) context collapse. And in the penultimate section of the poem, I use the term not only to mean the ways in which, at present, thanks to the current state of media, contexts collapse on one another, but also to the ways in which, due to these same phenomena, context, considered as a mechanism for understanding the meaning and valence of simple statements, like tweets, and complex linguistic forms, like poems, has itself collapsed.

And this is ultimately where my research into the history of poetry led me. I don’t really understand the contemporary poetry landscape any better than when I started—though I’ve since found a number of poets whose work I really connect with—but at least I understand why I don’t understand.

A.S.: I want to push back on something you said a little earlier, about the economics of poetry. If I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying that an increase in the supply of poetry has caused a drop in demand and correspondingly a drop in the monetary value of the poem. And this, you’ve implied, is what’s made it impossible for people to make a living as poets. But hasn’t there been, over the course of the past few years, a number of poetry bestsellers, which would have been unheard of before the internet?

R.R.: You’re referring to instapoets like Rupi Kaur?

A.S.: Yes. Whatever one might think about the aesthetic value of their work, they seem to have adjusted to the internet as a medium and as an economy.

R.R.: I think that instapoets are the exception that proves the rule. They’re the poetic equivalent of the .01% in today’s hyper-stratified economy. Even a poet like John Ashbery, perhaps the most decorated poet of his generation, had to have a day job, in his case teaching, up to the end of his life, and that is true, and then some, for all the people who are in any way publishing in traditional outlets like print magazines or even online magazines.

Certainly I don’t think that the quality of instapoetry means that it ought to fall below the threshold of analysis, so I’m glad you brought it up, as I also do, at the end of Context Collapse. I entirely agree with a recent article that made the case that Kaur was the poet of the last decade: here is a person who, better than anyone, has understood the implications social media technology and the internet economy have for the art of poetry.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Kaur’s work is not meant to be read, as we typically understand that term. It is meant to be clicked on and scrolled through and shared and liked, preferably in great quantities and at great speeds. What Kaur is selling, at not initially, is not poetry to readers on a literary market, but your attention and data to Instagram, and to whichever advertisers they go on to sell that data to. In fact, what you’re looking at when you’re looking at one of her poems is a digital image of a poem, which is made out of code, and the aesthetic properties of that image-qua-image—the typeface, layout, drawings, and interpolated photos of the author—are vastly more important to the success of the poem than the words that seem to comprise it, words which are, of necessity, as anodyne and decontextualized as possible.

It is true that on the numerical strength and overall quality of her Instagram following, which included other influencers and pop stars, Kaur scored a contract with a real Big 5 publisher and produced—what is it, two books?—that have gone on to be bestsellers, and this, yes, is ultra-rare for books calling themselves collections of poetry. This is trickle-down economics as manifested in the current media hierarchy, with traditional publishers trying to skim off the profit margins of the tech industry. But again, I wonder if books like Kaur’s are intended to be read at all, or if buying one is like buying down-market paraphernalia, like a t-shirt or a tote bag or a mug, or for that matter a political memoir or bumper sticker, whose function is exhausted when it’s put on a shelf in your home, cover faced out. For what it’s worth, Kaur’s poems sort of die on the slow silence of the printed page, which is not their intended context.

A.S.: At the end of the first section of Context Collapse excerpted at Statorec, you raised the specter of the possibility of automating poetry. So I was wondering if we could end here with a discussion of what you think might be over the horizon for poetry. Do you think algorithms, machine learning, and A.I. will, as some programmers and even poets are predicting, take over the writing of poetry as they are doing in so many other sectors of human life and culture?

R.R.: Well, having confessed to finding it difficult to understand what’s going on at the present, I’d be hard-pressed to make any reliable predictions about what will happen in the future—especially, and I guess this is a prediction, as the future is looking pretty volatile at the moment.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not too worried about the machines taking over. Programming artificial intelligence to try to write poetry has been going on for over fifty years now, and from what I can tell the programmers haven’t made any significant strides in either reproducing poetry written by humans or generating anything aesthetically comparable to it. What’s interesting to me is that when you do a survey of the history of robopoetry or machine-generated verse, the more experimental or avant-garde a poem is, the easier it is for a machine to imitate, and conversely, the more formal and traditional it is, the harder it is for the machine to write. It’s pretty easy to automate the Oulipian n+7 rule and generate surrealist-sounding texts. And it’s even easier to generate some of the more out-there visual experiments of the Language Poets, like “PCOET” by David Melnik. But what’s hard, it turns out, is to program a machine how to write like Emily Dickinson. Maybe—since poets are always interested in distinguishing themselves from one another—what we’ll see in the future is a new embrace of the kinds of traditional forms that are insulated, at least for now, from mechanical simulation.

You could, come to think of it, use the processing power of a computer, like Jonathan Basile does in his Library of Babel project, to arrive at an Emily Dickinson-like poem out of trillions of combinations of different letters, but that’s much less efficient than actually just teaching a 13-year-old to imitate the stylistic conventions of her work. And, frankly, I don’t think the programmers are very interested in this. For programmers, poetry is just something to experiment with, and when they try to generate poems by algorithm, they’re really after other, bigger fish, unfortunately. After all, there’s no money in poetry! And perhaps that what will save it from the bots.

A.S.: Thank you, Ryan. In these dark times, it’s always nice to end on a hopeful note!

R.R.: Oh, I’m very happy to oblige. Thanks for talking with me about Context Collapse and, of course, for sending it out on its maiden voyage into the uncharted waters of the internet!


An excerpt from Context Collapse can be read in two installments at here and here.