Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Profile on Aaron Tucker, with a few questions

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Aaron Tucker

by rob mclennan

Toronto poet Aaron Tucker?s first full collection of poetry, Punchlines (Mansfield Press, 2015), explores ?the poetic tensions in the everyday languages of computer-user collaboration.? A selection of the book appeared as the chapbook punchlines 1.0 (2013) through above/ground press, a chapbook Ottawa poet and blogger michael dennis described as containing ?short, crisp and highly entertaining poems.? Around the same time, Tucker wrote a short essay around the project for The Puritan, in which he explained:

?Hate pools, love the ocean. The poem I began punchlines (above/ground 2013) with was a sad sort of letter to a trip down the West Coast to San Francisco. There is a lot of Highway 1 that drags along the water, populated by towns built just above the high water marks, landmarked by clam fishers and the best chowders I?ve ever had. The poems after that first one, the ones in Issue XXI: Spring 2013 of The Puritan, came with the same sense of looping rhythm, the same sort of absurdity and humour borne of a long horizon of water.

And from the ocean came fish with legs until they weren?t fish anymore until they weren?t monkeys anymore until they weren?t human anymore. I can imagine a Commodore 64 crawling out of the deep on unsteady, unevolved legs only, until it wasn?t a Commodore anymore until it wasn?t a laptop anymore until it wasn?t an iPhone anymore. I?m thinking of these poems as a communal beach someplace, far from the primordial muck, where humans and iPhones can tan together, a great view of the ocean, giant and quiet and still and too much surface.?

More recently, on his website, he includes this description for the new Mansfield title:

?Punchlines is a poetic exploration aimed at distorting the relationship between mass audience and individual performer by highlighting the hyper individual experiences and thought processes of understanding and telling jokes.

I am particularly interested in exploring the nature of the call and response ? performing some of these works in Toronto I?ve tried to take on a very different reading persona than I?m used to and encourage more conversation between reader and audience (especially heckling). The titles of the poems then become especially important: they alternate between simple grade school joke-punchline structure and more probing therapist-style questions. Ideally the reader answers the question/title first then reads further to see the narrator?s response.?

Tucker isn?t the first to play with computer-generated or computer-responded text (whether Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler, or Sachiko Murakami and a rawlings), but his exploration into the collaborative aspect of poetry intrigues, and the addition of play as another element into the process provides yet another variable into the process. His poems result from a series of interplays, it would seem, between the author, the reader, the game and the computer, falling down a perpetual rabbit-hole of call-and-response. In an interview posted at The Toronto Quarterly, he discusses some of that interplay: ?I?m trying to do my best to draw attention to the languages we use every day, to pull out the markup language of a webpage or the code that?s putting it together and to expose it as a conversation (user-user, user-computer) rather than a mechanical task. Talking on a computer or with a computer or reading an interview on a computer is personal and it requires a personal language. I?m hoping that by making the titles questions, obvious hacky jokes that morph into Freudian nonsense, that the nature of the conversations around us become more transparent and that I can foreground the relationship I have, as a writer, with you, the person reading. I wanted that direct address. I?m asking you, yes you there, reading.? One of his more recent projects includes being one of the co-creators of the ChessBard, an app that translates chess games into poems. In an interview forthcoming at Touch the Donkey, he discusses the ChessBard project:

?I have been taking chess lessons for the past two and a half years after not playing the game much since high school. When I came back to it and started reading some of the beautiful chess books of Capablanca, started immersing myself in the unique language of chess notation and variation, my brain started to overlap that with the aspects of poetry that send my brain buzzing (full poetics statement can be found here). So it began as a thought experiment ? how might I translate a bunch of chess movements into relatively stable poems. After I put the call out to Craigslist and found my co-creator Jody Miller, we worked for a number of months through various iterations of the machine until we finally, at the end of September 2014 had a translator we were happy with and a playable version.

The three poems included are games I played on then translated through the ChessBard. Even after all the time and energy I?ve put into learning chess, I?m not very good at it (I lost two of the three games) but I appreciated how I was writing with the other players in a strange hyper collaborative virtual space, not against or separate from those players. Too, there is a certain silliness or whimsy built into the project that starts getting reflected, I think, in the poems themselves (?the fortune-teller, fork upon beef/tensely beaches move and human?) that I really enjoy.?

His collection of essays Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in July of 2014. By day, he is a professor in the English department at Ryerson University where he is currently teaching essay writing and digital literacy to first year students; by night, he is working on learning chess in between watching his beloved Raptors lose games.

rob mclennan:

After a couple of chapbooks produced through The Emergency Response Unit and above/ground press, punchlines is your first published trade poetry collection. How did the project begin, and how long did it take to manifest?

Aaron Tucker:

The book itself is built out of the scraps of a trip I took from British Columbia to San Francisco along Highway 1. I remember the very first poem in the book rising out of Astoria, a small town in Oregon along the Columbia River, just off the coast of the Pacific. I remember thinking about waves and shorelines and how living so close to an ocean must change everything, from the soil upwards. I also had the best lunch there I?ve ever eaten ? an amazing chowder. I?ve been chasing that chowder for years now.

That first poem was a standalone piece and I hadn?t planned on expanding it. But, slowly, I started to work towards the blending of code and markup that shows up in the text and found the narrative of a trip a sturdy framing device. As for the project, I?m relatively slow and base a lot of my process in editing and reading so this project has been about 4+ years in the making. It took me a while just to figure out what my goals were, what I wanted to actually talk about and how to go about doing it. Originally there was more of a chess element, but I found that the book was going in too many different directions and largely chopped that out. However, that gutting allowed me to dedicate some time to thinking through The ChessBard more thoroughly and let both projects breath a bit more.


What sparked your interest in composing poetry constructed from ?computer-driven collaboration,? and where do you see such projects going? Is this simply a variation on the more traditional call and response? Is it a matter of seeking meaning from a source not conscious of creating meaning?


I was finishing this project at the same time I was working with Jody Miller on the ChessBard and found the two projects dovetailing. I think you are 100% correct to focus in on the idea of call and response, input and output, joke and punch line. I like the simplicity and straightforward nature of conversations (calls/responses) had in code. The many different languages that drive our machines, specifically those networked together, are beautiful in their precision, especially elegant when written well. I?m not an expert but I do recognize when code is well written ? it has the same clean, uncluttered activity that I admire in the poets I enjoy. I really love how code and markup manifests through machine-translation with the computer language a bridge between those machines and humans, a common language, that is then enacted through other pieces of software (a web browser for example). This project was my attempt at bringing some of the languages, machine and ?naturalistic,? and interactions between those languages together in a more overt way. We collaborate constantly with the machine species around us and I wanted to surface that in such a way that we might begin to see how closely intertwined the reader is to their devices in really positive and healthy, and often deeply creative, ways. There are poems I?ve repurposed from computer viruses and spam bots, borne from my reading of Finn Bruton?s Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, that got me considering not just human-computer interactions but computer-computer interactions and how much time and bandwidth is spent with computers talking to each other (spam and spam filters for example). I think that is where you might see such projects going ? already Jody and I are working on trying to get the ChessBard to play against some of the bots spamming the comments section of the site, seeing if we can?t build a language and player profile from its patterns and repetition, strange voice and voices.


Who have been your influences so far? When composing the poems that made up punchlines, had you any poets or titles in mind to influence how pieces were triggered or shaped?


In terms of individual pieces, perhaps ironically, the one that stands out in my mind is from Phil Hall?s Killdeer, ?The Bad Sequence,? a poem that eviscerates the lazy version of the long poem and sequence form (as grant-baiting, as self-serious, as overtly formulaic). I suspect that punchlines is playing into many of his critiques, but I tried to re-read once a week as a way of steering away from the traps Hall sees.

Poetically, there?s a long list of the usual influences: the two editions of The Long Poem Anthology from the Coach House were indispensable (Robin Blaser and Phyllis Webb in particular); bpNichol?s The Martyrology (which I re-read as I finished and edited the work); The Men and Cinema of the Present by Lisa Robertson. I also started taking French, trying to update what I affectionately call my ?British Columbia French,? and found that the re-attention to syntax and language building blocks was really helpful in putting the second half of the book together and again when editing with Stuart Ross as the book got closer to completion.

And yes! The four camera sitcom! I grew up with a very specific type of joke and response, the absurdities of a show like Gilligan?s Island reified by its syndication and my after-school viewing, and I can see some of that within the set ups and titles in the work. There is something delicious about reading some of these poems out loud, or the jokes they mutated out from, and hearing the audience groan, maybe chuckle in spite of themselves.


The two sections that make up the collection, ?Departure/Set-Up? and ?Return/Punchline,? are deliberately structured as a call and response, and yet the collection suggests a project far larger than simply itself. Is punchlines the beginning of a far larger, ongoing exploration, or do you see it as a self-contained project? Where do you see your work headed?


While there are further spirals out to explore, I?m not sure I?m interested in going much further with these questions poetically. The last poem rounds out the text, deliberately closes the loop, and I?m fairly happy with how relatively contained it is. There are other things I want to consider in other forms, whether that?s in some of my film critique or through further expansion and collaboration with other programmers. In particular, I am going to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in June for a week long course on physical computing and I?m very interested in 3-D printers. And, of course, continuing on with the ChessBard.

Or! Maybe turning punchlines into a movie of sorts! Hey Hollywood: now is the time for a long adaption of a poetry book. Everyone?s waiting!

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He also curates the weekly ?Tuesday poem? series at the dusie blog, and the ?On Writing? series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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