30 August 2010

The Soon-to-Be Dead Poets' Society

So Pa threw a kind of poetry party for his brother Ra, who’s back home for a visit after more years than anybody can count, and the above is what he called it. Ra protests he isn’t a poet, though I suspect otherwise. In the grand scheme of things this may be important, but on the day it didn’t seem to matter because there was, if anything, a superfluity of poets foregathered to read their own stuff and listen to others’. I was there too, with a poem of my own, but we’ll come to that later.
       The setup was pretty close to that of the Open Mic sessions organized by Jehan, Indi and Tracy in 2008 and 2009: people told their friends, who told Facebook, and everyone who had a poem to read or just wanted to listen turned up at the venue. There were microphones and a voice PA and everyone took turns.
       Most of it was pretty bad, of course. This kind of amateur poetry is always bad in the same way, displaying the same faults no matter who has written it. I suppose you need talent to make even your blunders original. Real poets write about everything under the sun, but bad amateur poets always go for the same clumsy, ostentatiously high-minded cant. If it isn’t a meditation on life or love or mortality we're subjected to, then it's an intense disquisition on metaphysics or an account of the depthless, pathless gloom pervading the poet’s soul. Why do people, especially young people, feel obliged to come over all high-minded when they’re writing poetry? Homer didn’t, Virgil didn’t, Dante didn’t, at least not all the time, and as for Shakespeare, his mind was stuck in a holding pattern at crotch level. I suppose it was the Romantics who gave people the excuse, especially Wordsworth and that damned scoundrel Keats. Because it is an excuse, you know; it’s far easier to make rhythms and rhymes out of vague but emotive phrases and high-sounding but meaningless sentiments than it is to write a poem about a house, or a pair of knickers, or a visit to the dentist. I wish more people would write poems about verandas and dental cement and gussets. Especially gussets. I’d read it, especially if they put a scratch-'n'-sniff panel in the margin.
       The poems presented weren’t all bad, I’m happy to say. An elderly chap called Chris (I’ve known him for years but we’ve never yet gotten on last-name terms with each other) read, or rather performed, a couple of his poems. Apparently he was discovered years ago by Ra in Canada, rapping his stanzas to an audience of trade unionists. This sounds entirely in character; Chris is a performance poet. His lines, though reasonably well crafted and often good enough to make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t be particularly remarkable on the page; it’s the presentation that does it. Kudos to him, all the same; his two poems, half-sung, half-recited, earned the loudest applause of the day. He deserved it, too.
       There was some other goodish stuff. Brandi offered us a piece, Byronesque in conception if not in craft, about a young woman being deflowered by a viper. I had to suppress a few involuntary giggles during the torrid bits, and as usual he ruined line after potentially first-rate line with grammatical crappiness, loutish word choice or just plain bad taste, but at least the topic was welcome for being unexpected, if not exactly original. It’s a pity Brandi’s craft and taste aren’t up to the quality of his imagination – but those are curable faults. Only I wish he’d hurry up and cure them. Of course, good taste isn’t exactly the point of Brandi’s stuff. I was disappointed, though, when the snake ended up using his tail to do the dirty deed. Surely any self-respecting reptile ravisher goes in head-first?
       Then there was Indi, everybody’s favourite enfant terrible, who read out a typically thoughtful and well-crafted piece of prose. Sadly, I don’t remember any of it, or even what it was about, which is rather unfair to him. My mind may have been elsewhere at the time, probably on my own poem, which I was preparing to read as soon as he stepped down.
       Before I could do so, however, I found myself barged aside by an earnest young fellow who had read twice already, and would end up reading more than anyone else that day – a series of deep meditations and soulful laments for his own sorry life and hapless condition. I have never met anyone so keen to share his pain with others as this chap was; the gloom was absolutely unremitting. At one point he even had the cheek to read us a poem explaining why all his other poems were so full of misery. His antics were so tedious and exhausting they amounted to an imposition upon us, which is why I feel justified in offering him the following unsolicited criticism: remember the boy who cried wolf, kid. And if you can’t write about anything but your miserable self, quit writing, because you aren’t very interesting.
       About my own offering, it's worth mentioning only that it was one-time affair. It will never be published, nor even read again if I can help it. Not because I think it’s bad – though it didn't go down especially well at the reading – but because in it I poke fun at matters deep and sacred to the heart of a very close, very large and very heavily muscled friend of mine. Out of respect for his feelings, and my skin, I shall say no more.
       Even though I wasn’t feeling very well that Saturday, I must say I enjoyed myself at the STBDPS. It’s good to know there are so many people out there who are serious about writing poetry; and if they don’t all end up becoming real poets, well, them’s the breaks. By their very presence they raise the game for others, and that, too, is a service to the Muse. Besides, 'tis better to have rhymed and wrecked than never to have rhymed at all.

26 August 2010

Technology vs. Freedom

An article in the Calgary Herald reports that the city of Leon in Mexico has just embarked on a project that will use iris-scanning technology manufactured by Global Rainmakers, a US company, to identify citizens and make it possible to collect and store data about their activities. The data will be used by the local authorities for a variety of purposes, including, natch, policing and security. According to the company web site,
the partnership will utilize iris biometrics... as the base of the security for all aspects of day-to-day life for Leon’s 1.2 million citizens. Portoss will integrate iris capability across the city, install miles of fiber optic cable and construct the central iris database with power to enlarge the scale to include private sector corporations for a variety of applications.
The Herald article explains how it's done:
When the... residents of Leon go to the bank, get on a bus or walk into a medical clinic, their eyes will be scanned by machines that can handle up to 50 people per minute in motion, automatically entering the information (about where they've been and what they've done) into a central database monitored by the police.
 This sort of thing instantly evokes thoughts of Big Brother watching us. And of course, Big Brother, or someone with an internet link to him, is watching us already; consider the recent case of the British woman who got caught on a private security camera while stuffing a cat into a dustbin. The fact is, technology now makes it easy for those with an interest in keeping tabs on us to do so, and it's getting easier all the time. It's also getting cheaper, and the combination is going to make routine surveillance and data-gathering on members of the public more widespread.

I don't see how the trend can be halted. It isn't just biometric scanners and security cameras; the technologies of surveillance, data-gathering and data-mining are forging ahead on all fronts, and the infrastructure to support them is growing ever more pervasive. And most of it is happening with our explicit or tacit consent. We willingly give up the information in exchange for the goodies and conveniences we obtain thereby.

In all of this, the Great Enabler is, of course, the internet – to which, we are told, not only our computers and workplaces and mobile phones, but also our cars, homes, TVs, refrigerators, air conditioneers and even our clothes will soon be connected. Over five billion devices are already hooked up to the internet; by 2020, say the pundits, the internet of things will have over 22 billion active nodes, all busily uploading information about their owners.

And that's scary. It's bad enough in rich, sophisticated democraies, where concepts of civil society and civic freedom are embedded into the social fabric and governments (or corporations) have to get public approval before they can go ahead with things like this. But Mexico, where Global Rainmakers is wiring up a city with iris scanners, wasn't, last time I looked, a particularly rich country. If a city in Mexico can afford this kind of technology, a city in China probably can, too; and the Chinese authorities don't have to ask anyone's permission before introducing measures like this. Neither do the governments of places like Singapore, Syria, Myanmar and, of course, dear old Sri Lanka.

Of course, there are questions of capacity and competence that arise, too; the Burmese and the Sri Lankans may be able to instal the technology, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to use it effectively. Cerrtainly, the bungling efforts of the Sri Lankan authorities to 'regulate' mobile phones and the internet are no threat to anyone – not yet, anyway. But this is cold comfort for those of us who have seen at first hand how much damage incompetent but dictatorial governments can do by abusing the resources at their disposal.