About the Origins of No Blame

The impetus and original text for No Blame comes out of a set of 16-line poems that were constructed using an analog algorithm that I started to experiment with in graduate school. The first of these poems, “Evolution,” was originally a jumble of unconnected statements, single lines ending in a period all written at the same time. I first grouped the sets of lines into ‘traditional’ stanzas of meaning, but there was something about the density of these stanzas that wasn’t working, so from these stanzas of meaning, I regrouped them by syntax. This regrouping was a somewhat arbitrary designation in that some of the lines started with the first-person pronoun I; some of the lines were statements beginning with an ‘a’ or ‘the’; some of the lines started with a noun; and some started with a grammatical construction that didn’t fit in any of these categories. The lines were placed into these syntactic categories and then taken one by one out of each category and placed within the same order within a stanza until there were no lines left, like choosing teams on the playground or picking food off a plate until the plate is empty. The result was four stanzas of four lines, i.e. the initial 16-line poem, circa 2003:


      I’ve never seen a dinosaur though I’ve seen its skeleton.
      Horses and people used to be smaller.
      The shape of a life or the life itself?
      A meteorite hits the earth: I’ll give you something to cry about.

      I’ve seen a six-toed cat.
      Circles and squares exist, seashells exist.
      Some people are born with webbing between their toes.
      A slow and clumsy ape falls from a tree.

      I haven't seen her for years.
      Geese fly south in the winter.
      The thinning neck eventually pinches and the drop drips.
      A bird calls from the back of a rhinoceros.

      I’m going through one of those cycles.
      Grass grows where the sun shines.
      When I say small I mean the size of a television.
      A pact was made between the settlers and the natives.

Writing the poem as a series of choices limited the options such that by the time I got to the last stanza there was no choice as to what the lines could be. This ‘algorithm’ meant that the poem would write itself, patterned off my initial choice of sequence in the first stanza. If the first line of every stanza began with a first-person pronoun, then a line that began with a noun, then a line that began with an ‘A,’ and then a line that began with another kind of syntax, for example, then the stanzas would continue that pattern, repeating a particular kind of movement from line to line and stanza to stanza. Eventually the poem’s ‘meaning’ becomes something I could not have predicted or determined before starting in on the process of elimination. Part of the burden of making meaning, thus, is lifted; outsourced to a simple machine, one that did not have to explain how it was feeling or what’s its intentions were when stepping back and looking that the entirety of the poem. At that time I was in my first year of a graduate poetry program, sharing work every week with a group of folks I had only just met. For reasons only partially related to my new surroundings, I was also having significant anxiety issues. Meaning making, the process of connecting one thing to another, of interpreting signs and symbols and stories in service to a larger cosmic conspiracy became something that began to make my head race, and so I wanted to find a way to write that relieved the burden of making choices. Writing in a determinate system relieved that pressure.

In another sense those early 16-line poems were also a rebellion against the workshop format and what I felt was an elephant in the room, that we were talking about and giving feedback on our poems but not ourselves. We might talk about lines, or words, or associations with other texts, suggestions to cut or expand or rearrange, but we didn’t talk about our motivations to write the poems we were sharing. That there were poems about poetry, about literature or experimental processes, about space and time and being and becoming, but that the feelings of others, understanding them and their place in the poems, were not part of our discussions. On the one hand the 16-line poems were an attempt to write an intensely personal poem that I could disown or distance myself from, to align myself with what I understood as the way we did our workshops. On the other hand, because the logic of these poems was clear and coherent and yet difficult to put one’s finger on, that the lines themselves did not resemble poetry so much as plain statements, no line breaks, no spatial arrangements; that they were indisputably poems but it was unclear why; I also hoped that the others in that room would have no choice but to engage in the meanings of the lines themselves. That was not what happened, and when I got better I found other, healthier ways to use the workshop for the kind of collaboration I envisioned and support I needed, but that is another story.

The method itself outlasted its initial impetuous and I continued to experiment with the system. Fifteen years went by and when I moved to Indiana I met Eric and we started to work on what I had always envisioned for these poems, that is, finding another means to arrange the lines, another mind to make sense of the multiples of possibility inherent in a given arrangement. This particular impulse of rearrangement was largely inspired by Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, the lines in Berrigan’s poems changing and accumulating meaning as the text proceeds. What would happen if these 16-line poems began to talk to each other? I wondered. And if there were a way to rearrange them, how might their algorithmic intelligence be preserved? No Blame is an answer to these questions.