Poems Inspired by Untranslatable Words

I really enjoyed reading through Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders, in which she explores through text and art many words from across different cultures that don’t translate into other cultures. These are words that touch on tangled emotions, or focused insights, or specific cultural reference points. It’s all a beautiful reminder of how language is often elusive.

A few words really spoke to me, so I started to write some small poems inspired by them.

You’ll bury me,

I hope, long before
I, you.
Long before
days slip
to nights,
long before
lost comes
into view
 inspired by the Arabic word — Ya ‘Aburnee

How much water

will your hand hold
when the rain falls
this Monday morning,
with the whole world asleep,
but you?
— inspired by the Arabic word — Gurfa
When she asks what you’re thinking …
when the words break your gaze …
when you find yourself sitting where you didn’t know …
when the trail of poems runs suddenly cold …
when the soft vacant hue of the distance disappears …
when … when … when … whe …. wh … w ….
 inspired by the Japanese word — Boketto
To see sunlight
bend its way
through the green leaves
of the trees is to wonder
what else remains
out of sight until our eyes
suddenly open
 inspired by the Japanese word — Komorebi
Peace (poems),



#RevolutionaryPoets: Exploring Six (or Seven) Words in a Networked Space

Six Word Memoir

When someone invites me in, I often jump. So it is with Ian, who is running a university course called Revolutionary Poets Society, and the name caught my attention when he began sharing it out via Twitter. I’m going to poke around, from out here in the open (Ian will have students in his classroom, I believe).

His first post is a call to create six word memoirs, which I have done more than a few times but always enjoy it (and my sixth graders are working on their own right now as part of a getting-to-know-you activity). Then, Ian asks folks to take it a step further by sharing it with others, and sparking conversations about the word choices and ideas. Maybe inspire others to write their own.

I decided to bring my new six (or seven) word memoir into a relatively new online space — Yap.Net (join in if you want — it’s a closed network for sharing works in progress, etc)– and ask folks for feedback.

First, my words:

I am no longer who I was

Actually, my original six were:

I’m no longer who I was

but the contraction seemed to be cheating, somehow, in my head when I read it to myself and so I broke it out. Which leaves me with seven instead of six.

What does it mean? I was going for the concept of each day brings a different you/me/us — with new experiences and insights — with echoes of the past but a step forward towards the future. Or something like that.

I shared my words out in Yap.Net and posed the technical question: Who or whom? (I wasn’t quite sure, because I thought Whom was technically correct with I as the subject, but it sounded terrible on my lips, while Who seemed wrong grammatically but sounded right on the tongue.)

Well, the grammar query sparked a conversation, with mixed signals, as one friend thought it was Whom but Who was better used, and another friend, self-described grammar queen, stated that Who is right, not Whom. Others jumped in with their own words, including one in the form of a poem and another that reads like a painting on a canvas, and the thread of discussion was neat.

Interestingly, I don’t think anyone called me out for the Seven versus Six.

I’m sticking with Who, by the way.

Peace (in the share),


Poem: The Piano Keys

My friend, Sheri, wrote about public art sculptures in city blocks, and referenced a piano for playing on the sidewalk. I’ve been seeing more and more of these (although not yet in my city, which is interesting, since it is so heavily tilted to the arts). She shared a few images, and something stirred about a memory of my great-grandmother whistling a song as she made us tea in her home.

Sheri gave me permission to use her photo and I composed a few lines on piano. This song is not the melody of my grandmother, necessarily, but there are faint echoes of memory.

Notice, now, the keys,
the colors of the box, the way your eyes get drawn
to sound

You sit down,
curious – a muse of the streets –
a single note played,
speaks volumes

time rewinded,
your grandmother’s room,
the tune she whistled while making you tea,
you see

the piano
on the street corner

Peace (in the poem),


A Poem of the Margins, from the Margins

Magic Margin flickr photo by Theen … shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I am the ink-made marks
in the margins of the
text, the voice you’ve not
said out loud — not yet —
my comments and doodles
left like candy to the side,
all colored and sweet,
for my future self to complete;
I won’t hide them, these thoughts
tumbling from an active read,
and if the author ever notices
my presence on their page,
I’ll shout from this space:
I am here, I am here –
I build upon the idea
you left for me in there

This poem is part of my regular poetry writing, inspired by reading and interactions with others. This poem sprouted from other ideas about the margins of texts. You can read more poetry at the site where I gather my poems before they get lost. At least there, I know where they are.

Peace (left for you here),

Help the Next Person Through the Dark (via poet Joy Harjo)

Espaces Vides (#03) flickr photo by lepoSs shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I love this final line from a poem by Joy Harjo, entitled For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet:

Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way
through the dark.

which completes this poem I discovered via Teach that Poem project (poems emailed every Monday), which shared the poem out as a suggestion to teach on the last days of a school year:

Peace (as school days end),

A Poem for a Friend: I am Witness

My friend, Rob, who plays bass in my band, shared a story of 9/11 with me. He was in New York City at the time of the attack, watching it from a rooftop and then going to try to help amid the confusion. He moved away from the city afterwards, unable to remain in the space where the disaster unfolded.

After our talk over a band dinner, he sent me some writing he had done, as a way to continue to process and remember. He said I could use his writing as I wanted, so I made a found poem as a way to honor his sharing of his story with me.

This video version of the found poem — I Am Witness — uses Keynote for some simple text animation … and the music is something I composed and created in an app called Thumbjam as a soundtrack for the poem. I shared versions of this project at the new yap.net site, as I was working on finalizing a few things, and I appreciate the feedback from there.

Peace (may it come),

Wrestling with Algorithms: Submission to the Machine

from Lumen5

Our AI handpicked sentences for you! Does the story flow well? — this was the message I received on Lumen5 after I put a poem into motion in the digital story platform

You decide. I said, yes, to let the experiment happen. This is the result:

What is this? It’s a poem that I wrote in response to something Terry Elliott created, in response to something I wrote to him, about a poem I saw. Looping, everywhere. I took my response poem and put it into Lumen5, which is a cool site for making digital stories, and let the algorithm choose the images, and set the pacing (I did have to choose the music, which is too bad.)

The poem, as original text:

Replace me, writer,
with a machine,
algorithm, software,
and our fields
may go fallow

the genetically
modified organism
of words may be
planted, watered
and sown

but it is only in
the unique experience
of being human
that we nurture

a poem

Lumen5 chose images that I probably would not have, such as a typewriter instead of a computer, and the human body model is just kinda strange, I think, but I see it probably hooked its search on the word ‘genetic’. It also bundled words together that I might not have (which is the first message I had received, about AI picking my sentences). There’s something further off about the digital version but I can’t quite place my finger on it. Maybe it’s just me, the writer, losing my agency. Perhaps a casual viewer with no back-story would not even blink at the digital rendering of words.

Somewhat related (perhaps only in my head), a DS 106 Daily Create that I had submitted weeks ago went live yesterday, asking folks to try out the machine-learning Talk to Transformer site. (I explored the platform a bit here and then extended my work here) You type a phrase and the algorithm continues it, tapping into a vast and growing database of texts.

Yesterday, in Talk to Transformer, I typed the first line: This machine writes poems …

And this is what it kicked out and the response is rather intriguing:

From Talk to Transformer site

What’s it all mean? I don’t rightly know. But it is increasingly intriguing to wrestle on the screen with algorithms and writing, to suss out the elements that make us human and what makes us programmers of words. Or not.

What is writing anymore, anyway?

Peace (mining it),



One Step Further: Collaborating with AI Open

Over the weekend, I wrote about using Text to Transformer to start a poem and see where the AI Open-infused text generator — Talk to Transformer — might take my words.

Then, I started to think about how to find a poem inside the text generated by another poem. Could I surface something from inside of something else, inspired by something else altogether? Another nested poem? I’d find out.

Here’s what I did (in case you want to ever do your own):

  • I went into Google Slides (but any slideshow program would work because when you move across slides, it looks like animation) and began to cross out words (blackout poem style).
  • Then I removed the excess words (I cheated, by turning the font color the same color as background, so white text against white background is no longer visible; otherwise, it would have a long formatting exercise of adding spaces where words had been).
  • Finally, I pulled the remaining, revealed text into another poem. I used transitions and animations to make the process more visible in the slides (the whole thing is as visual hoax, really, using different slides layered on each other to seem like the text is being animated).

Sort of odd. I like that kind of weird writing and weird writing processes.

Peace (in the poem),


Writing Collaboration with OpenAI: Context and Constraints

What happens when you hand off your poem to a “modern neural network”? Something strange, with a hint of interesting. I was using a site called Talk to Transformer, which is built on the back of some neural network mapping of OpenAI and which is designed to complete your text, using its signifiers and databases.

The site explains that it is:

… an easier way to play with OpenAI’s new machine learning model. In February, OpenAI unveiled a language model called GPT-2 that generates coherent paragraphs of text one word at a time … While GPT-2 was only trained to predict the next word in a text, it surprisingly learned basic competence in some tasks like translating between languages and answering questions.

So, of course, I could not resist feeding it some words to see what would happen, starting the lines of a poem about context and constraints, and in the image above, you can see what it spit out for me. There is something beautiful surfacing there, in the juxtaposition of my poem starter and its story extension, although I am at a loss to really understand how it made the leap from my words to its text.

For example, the point of view shifts from third person to first person, and suddenly, the narrator is talking of their mother’s love (or lack of) in a world fallen apart. But look at the last three lines it generated … it’s almost like the start of something else altogether, maybe a new poem generated by human hand … Maybe the game turns to me to continue onward with the AI’s idea ..

I am what I am when I’m no longer
something that mustn’t be forgotten…
a person so beautiful

So remember me; you must remember us,
as I remember this wasted Earth
when love was nearly lost

and all we had left to hold was each other,
in the days after fallen trees
and warming seas

I still carry the bones of my mother,
that which the soil would no longer hold:
I am young; I am old

The image is a layered gif that I made in Lunapic because I wanted to do something more with the writing. I purposely added non-digital writing tools to contrast the use of AI to make a piece of writing.

Peace (in texts, transformed),


Do Algorithms Dream of Improvisation?

Here is a convergence of two texts in a feldgang — first, a shared reading of The Art of Is with other CLMOOC friends and then, an article in this week’s The New Yorker by Hua Hsu entitled “Machine Yearning.” In The Art of Is, I am in a place in the text where writer Stephen Nachmanovitch is exploring improvisation and mistakes, and how one (mistakes) often lead to the other (improvisation) to make art. In The New Yorker piece, Hsu focuses in on artist Holly Herndon’s work to create music through a computer-generated voice program she calls Spawn, training it to sing to Herndon’s music on her new album, PROTO.

Hsu then connects Herndon’s work with computers and algorithms to some other movements on the music landscape, including rapper Lil Nas X’s successful maneuver to manipulate the algorithms of pop music charts to create “Old Town Road” (an analysis of top charted songs led the making of this song) and it, of course, has reached the top of the charts.

Further, Hsu notes that a company called Endel is now developing music created only by algorithms to “personalize” a space or environment that, according to Hsu, take ” … into account everything from their (listener) heart rate to the weather and thje time of day.” Endel got signed to Warner.

And Hsu notes that jazz pianist Dan Tepfer is releasing a new album soon called “Natural Machines” in which he plays duets with computer algorithms, in which the algorithms, according to Hsu, are “… designed to respond to his improvisations, producing a more dynamic range of sound than his two hands could make on their own.”

Huh. So, now connecting what I have been reading in the magazine piece to what I have been reading in The Art of Is, a question that keeps popping up into my head is this:

Can algorithms improvise? Will they be able to improvise? What will that mean?

Or is this one of those fault lines between human and machine, where improvisation is an art form that is truly and only human — something that draws from the heart, soul and mind? Or is that statement my own naive thinking, and machines will, if not now then soon enough, come to to learn how to be improvisational machines, creating art in the moment with no pre-programmed instructions? And if so, will we be able to tell the difference?

I’d like to think the first is true — that improvisation is a skill only humans have — and that we will be able to hear and recognize an improvisational solo by machine (Computer vs Coltrane? Saxophonist wins every time … right?) but I am less and less confident on that declaration as the years progress and I see projects like these unfolding.

What do you think?

Peace (I wrote that myself),