Presentation: Nick Montfort

41st Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art"
March 25, 2010

© 2010 Nick Montfort and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this presentation is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Crystal Alberts parking spaces in the lot across from the parking ramp. There's a sign that says UND Writers Conference, so, free parking. Also, there are still spaces available in the workshops on Saturday, so if you're interested in poetry, or fiction, or a children's workshop, just show up at noon on Saturday here with copies of your work and you can workshop with our visiting authors, or with volunteers actually. Let's see... We are also, of course, doing a raffle for an iPod touch 8GB; we have a silent auction for a piece of artwork, t-shirts, all of which will go toward the John Little Memorial Fund so that we can continue to have a conference every year. And, last this, I swear, I'd like to thank the Office of the President, the Department of Music, and the English department. And now: Nick Gowan.

Nick Gowan: One of the earliest memories I have is playing Outlaw on my family's Atari 2600 in the late 1980's. The cactus, wagons, two desperados, destructible terrains, square bullets... the game had it all. It was a very immersive experience at the time. As the technology advanced, I was fortunate enough to get a Packard Bell 486dx which led to Doom, of course. The player character here is shallow offering little more than grunts for dialogue; the non-player characters are similar, just sprites with a focus on your destruction.

After a childhood of gaming, being able to introduce someone who helps critically legitimize an ever growing form of entertainment today is quite an honor. Nick Montfort is associate professor of digital media in the program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his Ph.D. in computer and information science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. Recalling back to the panel earlier today, Nick had said something along the lines of, "Forcing the user to create their own maps." In Winchester's Nightmare, which was written by Montfort and had premiered 1999, is the first game let alone piece of interactive fiction, I've sat down and made a map of. An experience with some Zelda-playing map-makers many years ago left a bitter taste in my mouth until just a few months ago.

Two of his other acclaimed pieces of interactive fiction include: Book and Volume and Mystery House Kracked by the Flippy Disk. In the more traditional form of books, 2003's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction lays out a groundwork for traversing interactive fiction. In it, terminology is defined to critically discuss interactive fiction, and, as a result, a critical way to look at other contemporary types of gaming. And co-written with Ian Bogost, 2009's Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System details the constraints of the platform and the creative work that had gone into producing games for the platform. Montfort is also an interviewee the documentary Get Lamp a documentary about adventures in texts which premiers tomorrow at the Penny Arcade Expo East in Boston, Massachusetts. And without further adieu, I'd like to introduce Nick Montfort.

Nick Montfort: [To Nick Gowan] Thanks very much. [To Audience] Good afternoon everyone. Thanks to Crystal Alberts and everyone involved in putting together this year's UND Writers Conference, and thanks to all of you for coming. I'm going to introduce the six pieces that I'm presenting today with reference to these three themes in my own work: constraint (the use of formalisms, restrictions, and limitations to liberate oneself as a writer), collaboration (the co-creation of literary works in which collaborators work together at every stage beginning with the concept), and computation (the use of a computer's ability to manipulate symbols for literary generation, simulation, and transformation). And then I'm going to read from six pieces, some of which I'll present very briefly, and some of which I'll read from at a little bit greater length.

Writing under constraint is done in certain ways by all poets who use form, schematic rhyme, schematic alliteration, or meter of any sort. But the true champions of constrained writing, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, are the members of the Paris based Oulipo (the workshop for potential literature) who are, as co-founder Raymond Queneau said, "rats who construct the maze from which they are to escape." Or, as Oulipo member Italo Calvino said, "runners who run faster when there are hurtles on the track." You see here [On screen] the beginning of one of my constrained poems which is about a journey on the MTA, the New York subway, and uses only the seventeen letters of the alphabet which designate New York City subway trains. I'll read for you two other short examples. The first one is called: "The Exhaustion of Libraries"

Adenoidal Alexander
Barking brachiatic candor
Clinches dictionary deals.
Every epidermis feels.

Fiercely grinding gravitation,
Hopeless, heaving integration:
Inner jocularities
Jangle kabalistic keys.

Lockstep lexicography
Mutters more necrophagy,
Nibbling open older pain:
Prose's quiet queenly reign.

Rotting signifier's sign,
Tome to urn, up voided vine,
Withered with xerography:
X yields you zero's zealotry.

And that poem is doubly abecedarian and also in trochaic tetrameter and schematically arrived. Here's another one; the constraint underlying it I think may be evident. I should mention that when I read this last in Cambridge, a woman after the first stanza clamped her hands over her daughter's ears and... she was a poet who was reading with me also. [Chuckles] So, you may wish to do that with your own child, or if you are a child here unattended, to yourself. It's called: "i icing sing"

i icing sing

i icing sing

I icing sing — but butter her up
upright, right in. Enjoy joy.
Live livid id, drop dropsied seed,
on honor's nurse jizz jism him.

Fond fondu, you can cancel
sell all alarm's arms or orbit's bits.
Ought auto tow?

Jar jargon — gone since —
censor her mutt, mutter her text
texture your rapt rapture, your cult
culture your script scripture, your fig
figure your suit, suture
your self, selfish fish

see seething thing
hear hearing ring
ring ringtone — tone down
downbeat beat, hum humdrum drum

in incense sense
bull's bullseye
I am ambush
bush on honied need

die diehard, hard ground, grounded dead

mold molded dead past pastimes' times
by bypassed past, through throughways' ways

stand standstill still

pause pausing


By 'collaboration,' I do not refer just to several people being involved in the making of a literary work (by this standard every poem, play, or novel is collaborative to some extent), but to two or more people conceiving executing a project from start to finish as equal contributors, as a team. The interesting thing about literary collaboration is that there is hardly any of it... which is not, at all, the case in the visual arts, for instance. It is often the case that the new-fiction shelves of major bookstores have no collaboratively written novels on them at all.

Constraint facilitates collaboration because it gives collaborators common ground, and a common challenge. Instead of one writer's style fighting against the other, two or more writers strive together with language. Publishing digitally facilitates collaboration. Bookstores and libraries can put a particular copy of "The Difference Engine" next to the William Gibson books or next to the Bruce Sterling books but not both. But a link to a website can be easily placed by both authors' links. Plus, those of us who are already transgressively offering our work online do not have the same hang-ups about transgressing genre, established formats, or the single author standard.

Our computers are so powerful as multimedia devices, as telecommunication machines, as devices for creating and sharing media, that we're sometimes tempted to forget their core capability for which they are named: they compute. The computational power of the spreadsheet, without any fancy media manipulation, without being hooked up to a network, has let us plan and start businesses, and do things in entirely new ways in that realm. More complex forms on symbol manipulation are seen in the advances of artificial intelligence and machine learning. What if this core power of the computer were turned to literary and aesthetic use? Use to help us explore language in ways that resonate personally and culturally? Constrained writing is particularly amenable to computational generation and transformation, and computers can also be used to assist in constrained writing.

Now, I want to give you an example of one of my pieces of interactive fiction. And what I'm going to present is Ad Verbum, a piece that I wrote and that was released in 2000. I'll read from it and explain a little bit about how to interact with a piece of interactive fiction. This like everything I'm presenting today is available for free download or access at and other places online.

With the cantankerous Wizard of Wordplay evicted from his mansion, the worthless plot can now be redeveloped. The city regulations declare, however, that the rip-down job can't proceed until all the items within have been removed.

That's what the demolition contractor explains to you, anyway, as you stand eagerly on the adventurer's day labor corner. Once he learns of your penchant for puzzle-solving and your kleptomaniacal tendencies, he hires you for the job. You hop into the bed of his truck, type a few Zs (that's the abbreviation for wait in interactive fiction), and arrive at the site, eager ...

Ad Verbum

(And, as is the case very often, a description of the space that you're in and the situation that you're in is what you're given and you're asked to type something in response.)

The Foyer

This is the mansion's spacious ground-floor antechamber. The wallpaper is peeling and bits of plaster have fallen from the ceiling here and there. There is a stairway, stable enough to ascend. The big area to the west must have once been a separate room, but the demolition crew seems to have already taken out a wall. A living room is east. On the south side is the front door. A Dumpster has been dumped here.

The contractor clears his throat and points at the big Dumpster. "Forget the fixtures, but pick up everything that's not bolted down, including the stuff out back. Then, drop off all the debris – er, I mean, um, treasures – right here..." He scrawls something on the Dumpster with a marker. "Good luck!" The contractor hurries out the front door, which slams closed, leaving you alone.

You spot a door to the north, leading out back. It is shut quite tight.

(So if I want to look at the Dumpster, I type "look at the Dumpster" [Types: look at the Dumpster], and I get a response.)

It's made of steel, and almost entirely open on one end for easy deposition of debris. Scrawled across it is the phrase "ATROPHY CASE." Perhaps the contractor left out a space when labeling it.

(And now, I noticed earlier on that there is a living room to the east. So I can say, "Go east" and I'll get to the living room.)

[Types: go east]

This huge, bare living room occupies about half the mansion's ground floor. Your object-sensitive eyes notice: ... verbosifier.

[Types: Examine the verbosifier]

This device is about the size of a Walkman, with a long antenna extending from it and a rectangular button labeled "VERBOSIFY."

[Types: Take it]


[Types: Go West]

(And now I'm back in the foyer, and since what I'm supposed to do is pick up everything in the place I can go ahead and put the verbosifier in the Dumpster. And now it'll be in there.)

[Types: put the verbosifier in the Dumpster]

(If I were to climb the stairs to the second floor, I would find that I'm in the initial lobby.)

[Types: climb stairs]

The lobby of the mansion's initial floor – the one above the ground floor – is an ordinary and fairly a well-maintained room. There are some things scrawled on the ground here, in the contractor's handwriting: '1 object' is written to the north, while toward the other three exits on this floor '2' is scrawled. The stairway that runs down to the foyer turns and continues up, to the next floor. The constrained passages to the north, east, west and south look as if they might spell trouble. Or perhaps the simply spell 'NEWS.'

(And now if I go south... um, actually I'm going to take the advice: Please type the words and read the preface, warning, and license. I'll read the warning at this point. That's something that people encouraged me to put in when they tested the game early on because this game misbehaves in certain ways. Now if I say, "Go South" I'll get this:

[Types: south]

"LISTEN WELL!" a sonorous voice booms out, in attempted hollowness. "Know ye that passage back through here is difficult for some, impossible for others! Should you wish to transport yourself – without your cherished possessions – out of these constrained confines, have your controlling consciousness type the magic command: START!"

Sloppy Salon

Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel, surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping, scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ...stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

(And there's a little epigraph from Walter Abish from his book Alphabetical Africa which is a wonderful book.)

So, what I'm going to do now is, for a little bit, invite some of you to try to get the things out of the sloppy salon. At least invite one of you to come up and type something. [HANDS KEYBOARD TO AUDIENCE MEMBER] And I want to invite everyone else also to... [INTERRUPTED BY AUDIENCE QUESTION]

Audience Member: Wait, so what would you recommend doing?

Montfort: I won't recommend doing anything [Audience laughter], but I will invite anyone here to yell out suggestions that you have as to... [Interrupted by audience question]

Audience Member: Wait, so basically [Inaudible]

Montfort: You can use it there if you want.

Audience Member: [Inaudible]

Montfort: Ask them [Indicates audience]

Audience Member: [Inaudible]

Montfort: Go ahead and type in what you like.

[Audience member types]

Montfort: Crrane. "Stop! Stop! Show some sense. Scribble suitable strings."

[Audience member types]

Montfort: Crane. "Stop! Stop! Sinful speech. Select superior symbols."

[Audience member types]

[From 16:00 to 19:00 there is continuous overlapping and/or inaudible dialogue]

Montfort: Let me mention... so, in the interest of time let me... [Interactor hands Montfort the keyboard] Thank you. [To audience] Thank our interactor. [To interactor] Thanks for volunteering.

There aren't a lot of possibilities for what you can do in this space. You do have to get back to the Dumpster in order to place something there, since you're in a different room of the mansion now. But, of course, if you try to see what you can, you'll notice that there's still the sofa there; you could sit. [Types: sit] Sit? Sure. Sofa seems suitable. Sitting ... seated.

And then you can stand. [Types: stand] "... sweet, simple sofa sojourn. So ... standing." And of course you could try to seize the sofa. [Types: seize sofa] If it were spelled correctly, it would be a little more satisfying but... it's very large. "Sizable sofa sits solidly, stubborn." Right, so in order to... but there are several things also you have to somehow figure out how to leave the room. Of the variety of ways to do that I'll just mention that you could skedaddle [Types: skedaddle] and arrive back in the initial lobby.

So, that's a little bit of interactive fiction. That game is available for free along with Book and Volume, Winchester's Nightmare... and you can play with it more yourself. It runs on smart phones; it runs on the web; it runs on computers.

I'm going to read just a little bit from this project I did that is constrained in a peculiar way and also a collaboration of work I did with William Gillespie called "2002: A Palindrome Story." And, specifically, I want to show you one interface to this text, one version of it. There's a nice book that Ingrid Ankerson designed which is available here. Shelly Jackson did the illustrations. It's about that big [Indiciates with hands]. And it may be, were you to purchase it, the shortest book you own that you don't ever read. The prose style is a little bit demanding here, but we did write a palindrome (that is a text that reads the same, letter by letter, forward and backward) that was 2002 words long and that was set in the year 2002. The main character's name is Bob. And I'll just read you from the beginning:

"2002 demands lore—aside Roman-era eye, non-idyl. Guerilla muse, we call, rig. Yo! Brag us an ode- tale. O readers, meet Bob. (Elapse, year! Be glass! Arc!)"

And if you highlight that text here, you'll see the corresponding text at the end of the palindrome is highlighted. And so what that reverses to, I'll now read to you:

"Crass algebra. Eyes pale, Bob teems red, aero-elated on a sugar: "Boy ... girl lace!" We sum all: ire, ugly din. One year enamored is aero-LSD named 2002."

So, that project also is... the text of it is all available online; the book makes a wonderful gift for your enemies or friends.

And now I'm going to read some from another collaboration that I did, not constrained in the same way but with certain material constraints. "Implementation," I did with Scott Rettberg. We wrote a great deal of "Implementation" in bars using index cards, although we also used email to write and revise. And what we were creating was something that was eight installments of three sticker sheets each, like this [POINTS TO SCREEN], mailing labels, which we sent out. We also posted PDFs and sheets online on the project site. And we also there served up photos taken by participants of where they placed these stickers around the world.

I should mention that sometimes "Implementation" has been called a "Flickr" novel although it launched before "Flickr," actually so... It would have been easier to do it afterwards, but we asked participants to email photos to us, and we processed them using our own system and software. So we were sent photos from various places around the world, here, Cambridge, England. This one [On screen] from Berkeley... Paris... Although we don't know of any participants who were jailed or cited, some of the people who posted our text work were confronted by police as here [On screen] in Chicago. And some were, to say the least, very shaken by the experience of participating. This is from an anonymous letter about the project that we received [On screen].

We exhibited stickers, photos, and other materials from the projects in Philadelphia and Providence. These two people [On screen], by the way, happen to be the other two collaborators: William Gillespie and Roderick Coover, whose projects I'm showing. So with that said, I'm going to read from "Implementation." I'm just going to read eight texts, eight of the 240 stickers:

There are dozens—hundreds—of middle-American towns like Implementation: Springfield, Normal, Intercourse. But no others could claim leadership in cardboard box manufacturing; and even neglecting this, few others could boast as active and diverse a group of micro-industries, which ranged from desktop publishing software development to advanced mechanical poultry harvesting.

Samantha is asleep; reams of paper fill her dreams like an ocean or swamp. Then there is an interruption— a paper jam of the mind—and the landscape is suddenly full of clowns. They cavort and honk their spherical red noses; they pile into a Volkswagon. The honking of noses—or is it the Volkswagon?—grows louder. She wakes to her ringing alarm. Time for work.

"So have you killed anyone?"
"With my hands?"
"Or whatever. A gun, a knife, a smart bomb."
"We say 'precision guided munition.'"
"Let's not talk about it."
"Too horrible?"
"Most of the guys who I work with now have at least
one kill. I'm sort of sheepish about the issue."

A Chevrolet Capri pulled up to the main civic structure in Implementation, the library. You couldn't smell the fertilizer unless you were mere feet away. No one was that close; no one but the driver. It was Sunday, and on the summer schedule the library was closed. The blast pulverized the statue out front and sent a million pages into the air, language disjoint, fluttering in the wind like cherry blossoms.

Another dream about the library. Frank sits in an after school circle. An apple tree grows very quickly in the center. The story about the guy who went around planting seeds. Samantha beside Frank, her hair in lovely braids. Frank reaches up to pluck an apple for her. As he touches one, his hand grows numb, falls off of his wrist, dissolves into earth. He looks over at Samantha. She pretends not to notice, but she does.

Our planes and helicopters and tanks will swarm over you and overtake you before you are even alerted. Our swift and powerful weapons will end your lives. The bombs of the Unites States are accurate enough to strike right on your vehicle or hit you where you stand. They are awesome and massive in the destruction they bring, powerful enough to open the skies and the earth.

Through his field glasses Kilroy sees a man in a business suit who seems to be applying a small sticker to the Washington monument nervously, as if on a dare. Kilroy thinks the shape of the mans shoulders is somehow familiar, or perhaps there's something about his gate. Kilroy cannot see what the sticker says. He is curious but the guys in the Humvee are calling him. He's not that curious really. He would have read it, but he wasn't there.

The night before Ted's funeral, Frank felt a ache at his wrist, at the scar. His hand throbbed with a dull beating, and he knew that it would rain for the funeral the next day. Twist of fucking fate really, that Ted, most likely to succeed, the dream date of every girl at Imp High, had his pick, even if was statistically the second-best receiver, was killed in Iraq with a beer-belly and a command of truck drivers. Sniper's bullet in the neck. A noble way to go, sort of heroic.

Alright, I'm going to show, um... I promised... I promised at least one person a movie. So, I'm going to show actually a little bit of this project I did in collaboration with a video artist: Roderick Coover. This is a project called "Currency;" it consists of four one-minute films that are made to loop, although I'm just going to show this one once. This piece is called "Filip a Guinea: The Elephant & Castle."

I will tell you a little about how we put it together. This is not a case where Rod came and said, "Oh here are some moving images that I made, please write some text to go along with them." Nor was it a case where I said, "Here's a poem that I have, illustrate this with something that you do visually." We incrementally worked, bit by bit, building this piece together and shaping it through a collaboration in which I wrote a small amount of text. He did some video to cover that and continue, and I used, eh... We both had additional constraints that were logistical and formal in putting our own parts of this collaboration together.

So I'm going to show it to you. It's actually made for a very small screen. It was done first as an installation in Philadelphia at the Klein Gallery on about like a 2" screens with headphones stolen from airplanes attached to them. And it has been shown on big screens before, but I actually wanted to make it, at the risk of making it a little more precious, diminish the size a little bit. So, I'll ask for the lights down and then I'll start this up. [Plays footage on screen]:

The jacket completes the monkey suit,
Hidden through morning by cubes under plants.
Nuke the soup, it's lunch again.
Longing till elevators drop us out
From cage into dazzling cage.
Water gun days give to dragon dark
The night time sun and the snake of paint and fire.
Plane changes, the devil cutting, churning jumping in earth.
That woman is a sponge on dynamite.
Lightning in the mind scissors and strikes the alien tree.
Wolf with no moon in the bowl of air.
Blunt acts ringing, explaining as to a cockroach.
"Rock... rock..." the man said,
As if it would cover paper.

And now, I want to close with some poetry generators. This is one that I wrote in Taiwan at Taroko Gorge National Park. A poetry generator is a computer program whose output can be read, appreciated, confronted as poetic. It's a program that generates language. Some of them are very elaborate and very ornate. The ones that I write are very simple. So, this program started off as a one-page Python program, and I imported it to JavaScript so that people would actually look at it, so that it would run on the web. And I'll read from that.

Layer commands the basins.
Stones hold.
Rocks hum.
Height commands the cove.

enter the straight driven --

Layer frames the vein.
Stones hum.
Shapes pace the coves.

direct the fine clear driven --

Brow trails the coves.
The crags range the stones.

direct the straight -

Height ranges the shape.
Stones dream.
Shapes roam the ripplings.

stamp the rough clear dim -

Height frames the shapes.
Brows relax.
The crags command the flow.

direct in encompassing stream clear driven -

Stones range the shapes.
Shapes dream.
Heights linger.
Forests range the flows.

run the sinuous driven -

The crags exercise the coves.
Coves hold.
Coves relax.
Shape commands the stone.

shave the rough straight cool -

Brows trail the flows.
Flows linger.
Stone roams the shape.

translate the fine sinuous straight -

Forests frame the rocks.
Veins dream.
Height trails the flows.

run the clear dim driven -

Layers roam the coves.
Basins hum.
Ripplings hum.
Layer roams the stones.

direct the straight objective driven -

Just one more project I'm going to tell you about: ppg256--Perl Poetry Generators in 256 characters. ppg256 is a series of short, non-interactive computer programs, like the one you just saw output from, that produce poems as output. They are programs of 256 characters written in Perl, and these programs use no external data sources, offline or online. So, everything that this programs does is contained in the computational ability of the computer, the language Perl, and that code right there. That's the whole thing. This is the second one in the series.

And I created these as a contrasts to these giant, AI systems that have been developed to generate poems, and also as a contrast to web mash-ups and programs that transform large source texts. You can do these things and people are doing these things, but it was interesting to me to see what could be done in this very minimal form, just with the computational ability of the computer and a very limited small amount of text.

So, these programs investigate what is elemental about computation, poetry, and language, and they view those topics from that unusually constrained perspective. So, I invite others not only to take these and run them, but to respond to them and refashion them in any way that they like.

The 4th program in the series, which I won't read from today, was created for gallery installation and it was recently installed in the University of Florida for the futures of digital media conference. And it uses... it's further constrained in that it also has to have all the code needed to drive it's display in those 256 characters, and the display is very small. So it can't produce something very large, but it produces these statements that I think are interesting because of the way that they suggest gender and ethnicity, and also use invented words that are compounded in unusual ways. I'll read from the first three programs and also from this, the fifth program in the series, which was just premièred last month in Canada at Banff.

So, that's the first program. [On screen]

The Bunk

tobs on rags
mint to mong
buzz no cank

The hods

ding on coke
tods on tans
coms of bash

The dial

rad to cone
mabs no hole
pant at monk

The paws

male on dins
mash no toes
bubs to make
mabs on bore
main at pabs
cond on rans

The cows

buns no last
core at tops

The paws

raws at bugs

The cogs

digs of pole
make to dins

The cank

bast of cause
cost of tust
hare on raws

The bant

bams no diws
rare of maws
bund on tat
mows on pobs
bast at has
bands at mons

The baps

coms at cows
cane of bung

...and this is the second program ...and this is what it does:

the spans

the sill & skin
to fit
chit - the pat
the fin sills a chin
of twin & fit
the sill - a sin
to shill
kill & skin
to twin

the kins

bit kills the fit

shit sills ban

kit & shit

a sit

a skill


twit grits to bat


the sills

pan - to sin
the spat shits a skin
of fan
grin - a fit
a pan
a pall
the kin
a ban
to shill - a fall
of bat
grin - a fill
of sin

the chills

of shit twins a skin
the kill - a skit
to twin spalls a sit
a shin shills a bin
pan - of bin
the sill palls a bill
kill grins the twin
a kill spins a fin
the kit skits twill

the bills

grin - of skit
the twit - a twill
of span

Alright, and this is the third one:














And this is the last one. That's the program [On screen] and here is it running:

postflafism quiets the real

postflafism moderns the quiet

postpixilism conceptuals pixil

postdigitism digits maximal

digitism moderns maximal

postmaximalism maximals the maximal

modernism reals the pixil

postrailism digits the digit

postmodernism pixils maximal

postpixilism moderns the queet

postmodernism maximals modern

postflarfism flarfs the conceptual

maximalism rauls the raul

raulism queets conceptual

maximalism queets modern

modernism maximals the maximal

Alright, that's it. I'd be glad to take questions about these, and I want to encourage you, whether or not you look at any of this stuff again, to go and do things like: write stories using only words of one syllable, or all words that begin with the letter "S", and collaborate with people, and think about the things that your computer could do for literature and writing. Thanks. [Audience applause]

Audience Question: How do you typically present and perform the ppg256 series? Is it naturally performed live? Do you usually project as you do?

Montfort: I like to show... One of the things that I'm very interested in is that when people experience the piece, they have the program and they run it. So, there's no point in taking the output and collecting... I mean, I don't collect the output from this. If I want output from it, I run the program and I see what the output is. It would be like, you know, someone you a screen shot of Microsoft Word instead of the application for you to use. I mean, why bother? You've got a computer. You can look at it that way.

And so that's the one thing that I'm fairly insistent about. One way in which it's presented is just like this [On screen]. On the web, people can go and find the programs and you can just, for instance, copy the text. If you have a Mac or you run Linux, you can just paste it right into the command line and it'll run like that. So that's a fine way to experience a piece. In fact, it's much better that my standing up here because, if you wanted to, you could also go in there and start modifying that program. Or, you can write your own. Everything is right there for you to do it. If you use Windows, there are versions of the code that are available here...

This is turning out to be a tedious process to go through... Oh yes, we have a warning: careful, it's a computer program. Are you sure you want to run a computer program on your computer? [Laughter] Might be dangerous!

So, this is a actual... [Pointing to screen] It's the same code; I've just added comments to it and I've spaced it out. And it'll run if you have Activeperl installed. But when I do present it, I do pretty much what you saw.

[Inaudible question]

Montfort: Yeah. The question was relationship of this for instance to like... to the project of the Beat Poets or, I mean throughout the twentieth Century, to connect poetry to jazz. Right. So, I applaud that so of a transgression, and I just, I guess two weeks ago, got to hear my mentor, Robert Pinsky, reading his poetry to jazz in Cambridge, which I always think is sort of funny because his book's The Sounds of Poetry and his sort of attitude is that poetry isn't like music. It's its own art, but, you know, it's still interesting to make those connections and to transgress in that way. Some of the people... you know, some of the other things that come to mind are, for instance, Christian Bök's "Cyborg Opera." He is interested in making a connection between techno and video game music, and poetry. And finding sounds that imitate the way that, for instance, a Super Mario theme sounds, so that we might speak a poem and connect with that, right. So, I am interested, of course, in how these things sound and that's part of my concern. But it's a complex concern because I'm also thinking of how they're put together, really, at a lexical level. I don't have the ability, writing a program like this, to manipulate sound directly, and that's not my expertise as much as working on language, working on letters and words and figuring out the really unusual ways that a small amount of computations and simple procedures, that have been overlooked in a rush to more complex ones, can be put together.

Audience Question: I don't suppose you could show what is behind Ad Verbum or [Inaudible].

Montfort: Yeah, I could actually. Let's see here... So, this is one of the files that's behind it. This is um, I say, "One of the files." It might be the only file. I might have put everything in one. But it's a computer program. It looks very similar, particularly when I open it in the same text editor. It's written in Inform, a language by Gram Nelson, which is specifically created for making interactive fiction. Perl is a little bit more general purpose, although text processing was one of the ideas behind Perl. And so, for instance, 'the Dumpster' is an object that is implemented right here [On screen]. I can make this larger so you can take a look at it. And, you know, you have to learn how to program, and you have to learn Inform specifically to do something like this, but it's not a wizardly, magical type of procedure. It's the type of thing that everyone who bought a home computer in the early 1980's, for instance, would, of course, learn BASIC and they type some BASIC programs and put things together. So you want to think of it, not as something that's a professionalized and industrialized programming process that takes years of training, but a lot of people who are leading I.F. authors don't know how to program, except they learned how to write code like this specifically to do I.F. You know. They're smart people, as we all are, but they're not people who had a lot of background.

So, this is the way... One of the points about this is that this is not a whole set of if/then statements. It's not a branching type of structure in the code itself. It's a simulation that has, for instance, a room that is adjacent to other rooms; a dumpster is an object, that's in there. It has the ability to... It's a container, so you can put things into it. It has rules for how to describe different things, depending upon contents... It has... If you try to move it around or pick it up there's a message telling you that that's not possible. So, that's the type of thing that defines one element of a piece of interactive fiction.

Audience Question: If I wanted to play this game at home, would I have to download a whole bunch of stuff?

Montfort: Well, it depends on what, "a whole bunch of stuff" is. So, just like you need a web browser before you can go on the web, you need the Flash player before you can play Flash files. You also need a player for interactive fiction; an interpreter for the Mac, Spatterlight; a good one for Windows would be Gargoyle. Zoom is another option. But, you go someplace such as... I can suggest a... let's see if this is... So, an organization I'm involved with, the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction, has some games that you can play online. Here [SHOWS WEBSITE]. And it's... you know, you can play these on the web, but you don't need to be online in order to play them. You could put them on a computer and, whether or not you have WiFi, you'd be able to play them. And so, there's some information. "A Beginner's Guide to Interactive Fiction" is linked here. And you find some suggestions here. So this is at (People's Republic of Interactive Fiction)... Other questions about "Implementation," "2002," and of the poetry generators?

Audience Question: What were the constraints on the ppg256...?

Montfort: There's action... So, there's only one constraint throughout the series which is that the programs are 256 characters in size exactly. Now, there were different things that I was interested in in each of those programs. So for instance, initially I wanted, with the first one in the series, I wanted to see if I could create a very large vocabulary. Much larger, you know... it's no trick to create a vocabulary of ten words because they would fit in 256 characters. But, I wanted to create a very large vocabulary. And, I was willing in that case to have words that were not dictionary words as long as most of the words were in the dictionary, and as long as the other words sounded English to my ear, you know. They wouldn't be... Most of the things that that program produces, you wouldn't think, "Oh that's Romanian," or you know "that's Swahili." They sound like they're English to some extent. So that's, that was my concern there and, because I concentrated on having a very, very large vocabulary it's, of course, very regular in terms of what passes for syntax, the shape of the line, and so on.

In the second program, I have a much smaller vocabulary. There's a total of only 89 words. It's still larger than could fit in the 256 characters, but a fairly small vocabulary there. But, I wanted to create all sorts of variation: the form of the line, the length of the line, the shape of the stanza, also the length of the word. The first version of the first program always produce four-letter words, and I introduced a modification where sometimes they be trimmed down to three. But the second program creates words of varying length.

And then, I was concerned in the third program with creating something that at least suggests a sort of situation or narrative, right. And working with compound words to do sort of unusual things so that there's also that... it's a very small number of sort of syllables or, you know, three-letter words that are combined but the combination themselves seemed to be very evocative. Even if it's like, you know for instance, if you get a word like "manman." You know? It's like, "Why so insistent?" [LAUGHS] Even the repeated ones seem to be interesting. They sort of provoke your curiosity right?

So, and then the fifth one is actually a riff on part of Tristan Tzara's February 1921 "Dada Manifesto" where he asks, "What does Dada do?" After sort of making fun at other literary movements.

Audience Question: I noticed we didn't get to the end of any of those poems. Do they end? And what does this kind of reading have to do with the whole notion that we experience beginning and ends. What does this have to do with that experience?

Montfort: Yeah, These programs, "Taroko Gorge," it has a beginning, and they all have beginnings, but they loop. And, only if you turn off the computer um... interrupt the program as I did, will the program stop. Now, that's something that computers just do, pretty much. In fact, almost all the programs that are running on your computer, you know, they don't, they're not going to... If you have, if you send a print job off to be printed, okay, that one is going to terminate. But most of the other stuff, like your user interface, is just looping and looping right? It's... You have a way to shut the computer down, but the default state of these programs is to continually loop. And so, that's something that, just as there's things that might be sort of, I'm using the word natural a little perversely here but, there might be some things that are, you know, in the essence of the cinema or that naturally come to cinema, or the book. I think looping is something that naturally comes to... the computer.

And, I also, you know, I'm also interested in these programs as... I don't want to think of them as things that give a particular product. I'm interested in how they might produce a voice and a voice is something that does continue, that doesn't need to particularly have an end... So, I think the experience of this is not really reading it to completion. If you wanted to read it to completion, the thing to do would be to go through the program, and go through the code, which is finite, which does have an end, which is only 256 characters long. And understand what is going on in connection to this and pillage whatever you like from that in doing a project of your own. Or, react to that by writing something different, maybe in a different programming language.

Audience Question: I have a question about your "Implementation" project. It seems less computer orientated than your other work. I'm curious about how you [Inaudible] where did they go, did someone actually go and sit behind the Washington Monument[Inaudible] it sounds almost like public art or guerilla theater in a way.

Montfort: Yes. Our direct inspiration was sticker art which we see around and I think Scott and I both find it very wonderful that people would just create things, a beauty of provocation, that aren't advertisements, that don't participate in the normal messages we see on the street, and just post them. And we thought, "Oh! We could do some writing that was like that too. You know, we could do a sticker writing project." We have 1,600 photos on the site from different participants on, not in Antarctica, but I think all the other continents. And, you're right that it's not... this is essentially not a, what I would call, a digital media project. It's something that involves... computers are involved in the making of this, but you know, so is the mail system, where we sent things out. And in fact, the essential elements of the project were more the streets and public spaces, right, in which people saw this. So what you see on the way, you see documentation of the project if you go on the web, or you can get sticker sheets to print out yourself. But, the project itself is when it's situated in public space by some participant who has put a sticker up. I don't think I answered everything you asked but...

Audience Question: I wondered how did you distributed these and who got them [Inaudible]? Did you know who was doing it or was it something that people found and [Inaudible]?

Montfort: Yeah, In some cases. So, it's available online for anyone who wants to... you know you have to get sticker paper if you want it to be adhesive. But, anyone could download these. You can just read them if you like, online or you can print them out. And so we do have... we did have participants who, you know, we didn't know who they were. They contacted us; they sent in photos. And then a lot of people who we did know. And we also sent out a few... we sent out the eight installments, you know, as mailings to a group of people who we thought would be likely to do this and participate in the project. So, but that wasn't the only channel for getting the project. It was, you know, online as well.

Audience Member: Very intriguing.

Audience Question: On this program, then, the only interaction that the user has is: turn it on, turn it off?

Montfort: That's right. It's a non-interactive program. But I would say that on a different level, the way to interact with it would be that you could look at how this program works and you can make modifications to it if you like. It's distributed as a very, very small amount of source code. So, it's something that can be played with in that way, but as a computer program it is a non-interactive computer program. And in fact that's one of the things that I think is interesting, in relation to computation, is that it is interesting to use computation in a literary work even if there's no interactivity. Right... it's interesting to me. So yes, the interactive nature of the computer is a wonderful thing. The multimedia nature of the computer is a wonderful thing. The network nature of the computer is a wonderful thing. But what if we strip all those things away and just say, "What can computer power do with these linguistic symbols, and putting them together in a poetic way?" I think there's a lot to be done in that dimension also, and I think some of these other aspects of interactivity, multimedia, networking... they're good, but people are doing that stuff. People are working on it, and I want to come down to this computational core.

Audience Question: Yesterday you were talking about people who were finding ancient texts; Everybody was trying to decipher it [Inaudible].

Montfort: Of course, this is a system that's for counting chickens to begin with. I mean, the computer is a system just like writing is a system that comes out of accounting, you know, and making marks and keeping tallies on things. Computing is a system that comes out of, let's admit, you know, military and industrial purposes and business and calculation.

Audience Question: [Inaudible] Is that totally random?

Montfort: I'm not sure what totally randomness is actually, but if you mean, "Is is chosen uniformly at random from a distribution?" It's not. It is chosen from a distribution but the distribution is not uniform.

[Inaudible audience comment]

Montfort: Yeah, I mean there's a question of how much sense it makes even without...

[Inaudible audience comment]

Montfort: Yeah, these do sample from a distribution which is something that...

[Inaudible audience comment]

Montfort: Yes, but also you know, that's something that comes out of finding... That second program is one that combines elements to make all dictionary words. So it doesn't have any of these invented words that you see in the other programs. So it turns out that when you pick word beginnings and word endings that are very plausible, that work very well together, then words like that are in there.

ALBERTS: I think we're going to say thank you to... [Audience applause]

[Transcription by Jed Shanley; reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, November 14, 2010]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202