A look at futurist poetry
We don’t just use technology; we live with it. Much more deeply than ever before, we engage with technology on an emotional level; the phone is an extension of our hands. A tension exists between the fascination with technology and the anxiety it provokes; however we tend to disregard the latter – I do, at least. I have a fully felt and absorbing relationship with anything technological. It was through this fascination with the automaton that I stumbled across Italian Futurism as an MA student at Royal Holloway a few years back. Needless to say, that I was immediately taken by its dynamism and eccentricity, particularly in poetry.
Italian Futurism was officially unleashed in a manifesto Le Futurismo, on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, by F.T. Marinetti in 1909. The manifesto advocated technological innovation as the answer for cultural rejuvenation, and declared its establishment as a new aesthetic symbol of beauty. This is what I admire about Italian Futurism; it was bold and was beaming with ambition. What set Futurism apart from other movements was Marinetti’s objective to project it, from its inception, not only as an artistic movement, but also as a social and political force that would revolutionise the modern world. Keep in mind, however, that the Futurists were also associated with terrible things – many supported fascism, explicit misogyny, and glorification of war, all of which constituted a basis for this new age, which are highly politically and socially problematic, leading some to discount completely the grouping’s validity as an artistic movement. As we know, most things have a dark side, and Italian Futurism is no exception – it had a side of complete and bitter darkness. While there are continuing issues around the relationship of technology with politics in Italian Futurism and potentially Neo-futurism, these issues require more in-depth critical and academic analysis than can be covered in an article of this length, and are better addressed in detail in a longer, more thorough study. My emphasis in this piece is to focus on the positive aspect of a potential poetic Neo-futurism.
When looking into the writing strategies of the Italian Futurists, I discovered that this fascination they had with violence, speed, youth and technology was often expressed ruthlessly through the materialism of words that glorified these themes. The Futurists also utilised onomatopoieia (the sound of what is being described) that emerged from technological systems, thus creating new ways of engaging with language. Marinetti’s ‘Zang Tumb Tuuumb’ (1912) is a prime example of Futurist onomatopoeia, using the sounds of a train to produce meaning:
train train train train tren tron
tron tron (iron bridge: tatluuuuntlin)
ssssssssiii ssiissii ssiissssssiiii
train train fever of my
Other ways in which the Italian Futurists reconstructed language were through the destruction of syntax, the use of condensed metaphors, dynamic language and typography. This approach disrupted the flows of conventional poetic language, whilst rejecting the past and celebrating new technologies. Since then, another sense of futurism has developed – a ‘new’ kind of Futurism.
Neo-futurism, the futuristic re-thinking of the functionality and aesthetic of fast-paced urban environments, has been expanding into architecture, theatre, art and fashion since the late 20th century. In contrast to the practitioners and followers of Italian Futurism that rapidly grew in numbers as well as breadth across the world, Neo-futurism has not had the same international impact yet. Interestingly, it has been said that the movement has been launched several times throughout the late 20th century; the first Neo-futuristic appearance in the 1950s prompted a practical critique of the institution of art, whereas in the 1960s, the movement expanded in the parameters of minimalism and pop-art prominence, in order to exploit Modernism and mass-cultural formations alike. These new parameters were attempts with dim prospects, perhaps due to the struggles of Neo-futurism to live up to the success of Futurism. During the following decades, Neo-futurism signaled a need to periodise the modern rapport with the technological, and was officially re-launched in 2007 after the dissemination of The Neo-Futuristic City Manifesto written by Italian architect, Vito Di Bari. The definition of Neo-futurism in each of its disciplines is a complex task, foregrounding the use of new materials with the machinic processes and perspectives of a technological and urban world. Unlike Italian or even Russian Futurism, Contemporary Neo-futurism is not tied to specific political views, but rather approaches the world from an ecological perspective that is simultaneously global. Architectural Neo-futurism is one of the manifestations of the movement that strictly stems from ecological mindfulness. Neo-futuristic buildings achieve this by using nature as inspiration to create new realities of better living, as well as utilising eco-sustainable resources and technological systems to eliminate ecological damage. From the time it emerged in the late 1960s, Neo-futuristic architecture embodied fluid motion and elliptic curves in the megastructures of Henning Larsen, Charles Luckman and Eero Saarinen. Neo-futurism as a movement has re-emerged, over the last decade or so, in a range of disciplines. Interestingly, there are strong traces of it, particularly in architecture and fashion, but the movement has yet to make a solid appearance in poetry. I always wondered why.
With this context in mind, I attempted to translate the elements that define Neo-futuristic architecture and fashion into a new launch of Neo-futurism in poetry that visualises eco-sensibility and technology at the core of our urban lifestyle. I explored this idea in a series of creative texts including the Neo-futurist Manifesto (commissioned by Sidekick Books in 2018) and my poetry pamphlet Astropolis (Haverthorn, 2018) that endorse the continuous invention of new forms and word-innovation through a constantly experimental handling of poetic form. My manifesto, with its humorous undertones, is set in the future and is narrated by a group of Astronoid robots in 2092. It projects the dynamism of the Neo-futurists and the confidence of robots in themselves, and the future:
We are ambling down the highway with glowing
arms swinging like metronomes. A parade of fierce
space-monarchs moving uneven due to our dragon-wielding demeanour. You may be wary about making contact
with us but we are Earthians at heart. We are a significantly
improved version of the human function.
Some of my suggested poetic techniques that emerged from a close look at the various disciplines that have embraced Neo-futurism are listed in a dedicated page in the Manifesto, titled “Become Astronoid Today”. Amongst these instructions, and as part of my definition of poetic Neo-futurism, I corporate the use of minimalism and economy of words, the abolition of the subjective-I, word innovation through the creation of new languages, and use of the textual abundance of online resources.
But literary movements need followers to be formed, and so the real question is this: are there any other Neo-futurists out there, right now, or at least poets whose work could be identified as Neo-futurist? Let me turn on my retinal scanner (Black Mirror-style) and share my findings with you. There’s Christian Bök with his “living poem” The Xenotext which translates his short verse about language and genetics into a sequence of DNA, and there’s designer Yuxi Liu who created an AI-powered robot that rolls around the beach scribbling lines of poetic prose in the sand. There is lots of poetry innovation out there. However, the truth is that there aren’t many poets that identify as Neo-futurists (as of yet), with the exception of a fellow Greek poet Konstantinos Papacharalampos who is also based in London. A bit like me, Papacharalampos uses minimalism and conceptual techniques – his poems are highly visual, with condensed, and often scattered, text against blank page space that serves to portray the undiscovered territories that we are yet to explore. I’m hoping to connect with other Neo-futurists in the next few years embarking on building a network for like-minded creatives. For now, I have stumbled across a couple of UK-based avant-garde poets whose innovative practice is at the core of what poetic Neo-futurism could be today.
I’ll start with one of the most innovative poets that I have come across; Nick Murray. Murray’s ‘The Moon Is…’ is one of his many mind-blowing generative writing poems which is based on the intersection of technology and poetry. I could go on for days about Murray’s work, but thought I should focus on his moon poem for now. ‘The Moon Is…’ is a minimalist digital poem based on an exercise by Ross Sutherland, which features generative text underneath pixelated and video game-inspired photos of the moon. The text unfolds arrhythmically, without rhythm or regularity, in often-witty ways, while accompanying an ever-changing photo gallery: “The moon is a glitchy speaker / The moon is a glitchy airline / The moon is a vast airline / The moon is a vast discoverer / The moon is a cool discoverer”.
[See image 1 below]
Steven J Fowler has also produced a range of works that could be considered as Neo-futurist in some ways. Fowler’s work often examines the possible end of the Anthropocene as a moral intervention by an uncaring and non-personified universe. His engagement with animals in his The Guide To Being Bear Aware and The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner provides a critique of anthropocentrism by placing emphasis on self-identity. The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the reconstructions of self – an experiment that can help or hinder our selfhood. Fowler explores this in his poem ‘Looper’ from The Guide To Being Bear Aware in a dark and humorous way:
Maybe they look away
because I’m ugly,
like a lizard.
Or because I live in my underwear.
Or because of my fertility.
Or because I can regenerate limbs.
Or because I insist on tickling everyone.
I’m a good lover though.
Formally, Fowler has explored technological innovation through his series of groundbreaking collaborations with material engineer, Thomas Duggan. My favourite piece of theirs is a recent collaboration in which Thomas Duggan and Steven Fowler printed a poem in silk fibroin, an entirely new biodegradable material developed using the very latest design technology. It’s one of these ideas that you see and wish had thought of first. Fowler’s poem ‘Silk fibroin’ is 3D poetry at its best – innovative and sustainable. The most fascinating part about it, is that its production involved a robot – yes – it was Duggan’s KUKA Robot that printed Fowler’s poem onto silk.
[See image 2 below]
Another talented poet whose work could fall into this new wave of ‘neo-poets’ is Vilde Valerie Bjerke Torset. One of her latest Instagram projects in particular, uses location tags to source text that accompanies her Instagram posts. How cool is that? Bjerke Torset’s absurd and often apocalyptic geotags (locations based on a user’s GPS), taken out of context, become a version of found text and tech manipulation. Examples of these geotags include ‘make a great choice astrology consulting’, ‘moving beyond your past’, ‘the place where people go to die’, ‘self observer of the human condition’ amongst others, but they really have to be read in combination with Bjerke Torset’s witty Instagram images to be appreciated. The curation of the text alongside ‘instagrammable’ images makes Bjerke Torset’s work subversive and humorous, while also acting as commentary on how we disperse and distort information online, especially within social media.
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These days, many poetry colleagues agree that the last couple of years have seen an increased popularity in experimental and innovative poetry. There’s indeed an increased flow of young people interested in experimental poetry (I think that social media can take some credit for this) and more small presses willing to take risks. In London alone, there’s a solid number of regular performance events including the European Poetry Festival, Corrupted Poetry and Xing the Line that encourage experimentation and collaboration, many of which showcase original performances themed around technology, ecology & other significant areas.
Let’s re-consider Neo-futurism and its vertices. Perhaps this is a turning point for us and for poetry; a demand for change and so on. Maybe it is time for us to re-invent ourselves, and ultimately find new ways to approaching language, not only due to the continuous technological advancement that affects our lives, but also because of the major ecological changes ahead. Whether we decide to re-invent ourselves or not, Astronoids from my Neo-futurist Manifesto remind us that some things are inevitable, amongst them, the eventual transition of humans into robots:
Your fingers will start to experience a gradual tingling
sensation. Wires will pluck your brains, metal will replace
your muscles. You will transcend into an analogue condition
blast of white noise and minimal echo. Into the silence of
a billion stars.
Astra Papachristodoulou is an experimental poet and artist based in London. She is the author of several poetry pamphlets, including Stargazing (Guillemot Press, 2019) and Blockplay (Hesterglock Press, 2019). Her poetry has been translated in Spanish, Slovenian, Russian and Greek, and her visual work has been exhibited at the National Poetry Library and The Poetry Café.