Spotlight on Issue 120: Q&A with Benjamin Voigt

Owen Torrey

What do an iPhone and a lyric poem have in common? It’s a question that animates the work of writer and technologist Benjamin Voigt, whose poems forge nimble, unexpected connections between the poetic and the digital. In Voigt’s new poem, “Walden Two”—which appears in our Technology-themed Issue 120—we encounter a speaker sorting through layered circuitry of memory, thought, and language. “I’ve held onto that last line for a long time,” Voigt reflects, mid-poem, “and don’t know if I’ve used it right, / or if this is a glitch / in my programming I’m still debugging.”

We recently spoke with Voigt via email to discuss the literary and personal influences behind this poem, the act of teaching, and how his work makes unexpected allegiances between literature and technology.

ZYZZYVA: For readers who haven’t yet picked up a copy of Issue 120 The Technology Issue, how would you introduce “Walden Two”? What was its conception and drafting process like?

BENJAMIN VOIGT: The poem addresses a high school teacher I was close to and lost touch with. I thought of him one day a few years ago—I can’t remember why—and did what many of us do when an old acquaintance surfaces in memory: I looked him up on Facebook. I saw that he’d had a kid, which amused and fascinated me, because one of his intellectual idols, B. F. Skinner, was famously (and unfairly) pilloried for raising his daughter in a “Skinner box,” a contraption he thought improved on the traditional crib. This teacher really fed my intellect back then, and scrolling through his pictures, a lot flooded back: the computers he collected for using in class, the jokes we teased him with, his idiosyncratic but ultimately generous philosophical outlook.

Z: The poem also shares its title with a 1948 utopian novel by the behavioral psychologist that you mention, B.F. Skinner. How do you understand the relationship between your own work and the text it makes allusion to?

BV: Out of context, it’s an absurd name, right? That Walden, Thoreau’s grumpy paean to rugged individuality and originality, would have a sequel. So, the title started as something of a joke, perhaps partially at the expense of Skinner. But it’s also a genuine citation of Skinner’s ideas, which the poem engages with. In very broad strokes, Skinner’s big idea was that everything about human life—even our deepest thoughts and most heartfelt gestures—could be explained by conditioning. That which we think of as a self is little more than a series of responses to feedback from our environment. As a teenager, I was really fascinated by this strand of mechanistic, deterministic thought—early Wittgenstein might be another example—but I turned away from it in college. The poem is an attempt to reconcile my present self with that old thinking.

Z: Throughout the stanzas, the speaker references several dualities—positive and negative, true and false—in a way that seems to invoke the binary of computer languages. How do you think about the relationship between digital and poetic vocabularies in this poem, as well as your writing more broadly?

BV: Poetry—with its emphasis on sensation, evocation, multiplicity, tension—stands in stark opposition to the instrumental language of computers, especially the brittle language of code. But I’m interested in the ways these two vocabularies can also play off each other: can I make poems out of forms I find in computing? Can I turn the language of computing inside out? I’m endlessly fascinated by, for example, the physical, even pastoral metaphors—the cloud, server farms, a mouse—that are embedded in digital technologies.

Z: Much of “Walden Two” unfolds in a classroom setting. I know you’ve taught literature and creative writing at Macalester College. Has teaching affected your understanding of poetry, and the way you approach the act of writing?

BV: I’ve always loved the classroom as a space of intellectual ferment and even theater—there’s nothing better than a great, horizon-expanding lecture. That’s not my gift (if I have a gift) as a teacher. Which is not to say that my occasional attempts to embody that model, the “sage on the stage,” were a waste: I learned a lot from trying to be learnéd for my students and answer their unexpected, though-provoking questions. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve focused more and more on being as honest as I can, and simply offering them a model (one among many) for how I read and write and think. I obsess. I try things, then undo them. I ape and steal. But, most of all, I play: I write out of excitement, out of curiosity, horror, ache. Art is irrational, instinctual. I can’t provide a blueprint for A Good Poem, and I can’t answer the most important questions my students will ask—the ones they need to discover and wrestle with in their poems. I try to keep that in front of me when I’m teaching, but also when I’m writing.

Z: In addition to writing, you also work as a technologist. What does “technology” mean to you, and how do you conceive of the relationship between your work in the poetic and digital spheres?

BV: Working as a technologist helps me see the poetry in technology—but also the technology in poetry. After all, like a bicycle or an iPhone, a lyric poem is made of components (lines, rhymes, images) that work together to do something (make us think and feel a certain way) for a particular user (a reader or listener). So, poetry is, in a sense, another tool in my toolkit, one that I love working with, and I’ll never learn enough about. But that metaphor has its limits. Poems aren’t so instrumental. Talking about them as such misses the point. On one level, as I answer these interview questions, I’m thinking about the very meaning and experience of my art. But on another level, all I’m doing is sitting here on my couch, staring into a light, occasionally moving my fingers. When I write about computers, I try to keep both levels in view: the superstructure and the infrastructure. The spiritual and the material. Doing so seems necessary to understand why so much of our lives now plays out on small pieces of glass. It also keeps my pushing words around on a page in perspective.

Read Benjamin Voigt’s poem “Walden Two” in Issue 120.

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