G I N G E R K O
COMP: Power On (The Operating System, 2021) is a remarkable, innovative book. We’re so thrilled to discuss it with you. Power On is a hybrid book—a sequence of poems, a postscript of critical prose, and a downloadable app for reader/user collaboration. How did this project arise and evolve? How did your techno-pessimism lead to the writing of poems?
Ginger Ko: Thank you for your kind words! I think the seed of this project was planted when I was thinking about Western empiricism in the areas of research and tech development. I was doing my PhD coursework in Gender & Women’s Studies around the 2016 election results, and watched the activism of the Women’s March and the March for Science with some degree of interest. I was especially interested in the activism discussions that were happening in the March for Science Facebook group, especially the backlash over a post made by Shay Akil McLean, who is a sociologist and biological anthropologist. It was during the upswing of group excitement and anti-Trump activist sentiment that McLean posted a link to their own writing on www.decolonizeallthethings.com. McLean’s essay was entitled “We Need Decolonial Scientists,” and since McLean studies bioethics, medical ethics, and the philosophy of biology, their essay stressed the feminist understanding of the history of science as constructed through politics. McLean’s piece urged scientists to identify and examine their own complicity in colonizing actions:
“…[w]hat many see as apolitical ‘objective’ science is out of context, ahistorical, dangerous, and incorrect. Science as an institution developed alongside the logic and interests of the nation state. The vision of designing better products is never outside of the political program of designing better citizens.”
The backlash to the posting of this essay was immediate and lengthy. The moderators of the March for Science Facebook group eventually disabled comments on the post, but wading through the comments makes clear that the conversation was immediately taken up by apologists for science, mostly white commenters who worked hard to uphold the common cultural narrative that scientists are busy solving the world’s problems and expanding the human race’s knowledge base, the scientists being selfless worker ants who cannot spare time away from their work to worry about other things. This kind of capitalistic, imperialist, and androcentric focus on the individual actors is a way to circumvent criticism of great institutions that diminish or destroy lives at the same time they may be protecting others.
One of the platforms for the March for Science was the fear that Trump would cut science funding. I want to point out that in May of 2017, Congress announced it had reached a deal on the 2017 spending bills, with budgetary increases awarded to most science and medicine agencies, with the notable exceptions of the EPA and the DOE. The March for Science put out an official response to the proposed budget on their website, stating that they “were heartened to see that Congress has listened to advocates for science—like those who participated in the March—and protected many of the important programs that have recently come under fire.” The statement did not address the $15 billion increase in defense spending, nor the fact that the $155.8 billion increase in Research & Development budgeting comprises of $72.9 billion for civilian activities and $82.9 billion for military programs.
This answer has gotten very lengthy, but I was tracking and thinking about all of this when writing my poems because I wanted to take on the project of projecting an outcome in which the ethics of technoscience development—often serving the greater interests of surveillance capitalism, warfare, and resource extraction—are allowed to proliferate without ceasing or critique. I remember that a few years ago, one of the bigger topics of discussion was the fear of singularity, but I see machines and technology as already having shades of singularity—they aren’t just objective tools, but programmed with the maker’s ethics and imperatives. I think technology can be great and useful and provide a lot of good, but I don’t think that technoscience developers should be free of having their motives and mechanisms questioned.
COMP: We absolutely love the postscript. To our minds, “FIELD NOTES: Tech Pending Revolution” evokes books like M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz—books whose postscripts refuse to clarify or explain their poem(s), but rather expand their books’ overall emotional and intellectual ranges. When did you realize that an essay would be a meaningful contribution to the book? How did this occur?
Ginger Ko: It's heartening to know that you love the postscript, because I had labored so much over it! It initially began as the critical component of my PhD dissertation, and my thesis committee really pushed me and held me to exacting standards. By the time I had defended, I felt that my critical apologia for the creative component of my dissertation was integral to the complete work—I couldn’t think of them separately. I also really like the ability to explain myself, to talk about the behind-the-scenes action that is taking place behind the creation of a book or artwork, because I so enjoy that from other writers and artists. I would love for the underlying echoes, resonances, and waveforms to be brought to the surface in all books, because I often love the author as much as I love the book. I think I’m talking myself into a corner in which I proclaim that art doesn’t stand alone from the artist, but maybe I’ll let it happen because art doesn’t stand alone from the audience either. My publisher, Elæ Moss at The Operating System, also really encouraged me to include a critical addendum, and their encouragement came in the same vein of promoting transparency, resisting myths of meritocracy in publishing, and literary community-building that is The Operating System’s overall project.
COMP: The layout of your lineated poems is very appealing: lines on the verso are left-aligned; lines on the recto are right-aligned. Other poems appear as prose blocks separated by bullet points. How do you make such decisions, and how are they (inter)related to the poems’ subjects?
Ginger Ko: The alignment of the poems is another thing I can’t take complete credit for—the book’s entire design and layout was a product of Elæ’s design, which is heavily influenced by their extensive background in UX. The prose blocks with bullet points were my own utilization, a way for me to inject some more machine-related typography because I realized that when I was writing in an automaton’s “voice,” that it is often impossible for machines to clearly indicate pauses or interruptions that don’t look like errors. Machine-speech is read as erroneous if it isn’t human-like enough, or unless humans are trained to read the particular lexicography and grammar of the machine. Humans, then, must program machines to indicate consistent signposts to train other humans to read the machine’s messages, so my book contains some signposts.
COMP: A process-oriented FAQ is: How do you know when a poem is finished? We try to avoid the go-to questions. Still, considering the nature of Power On—not only its hybridity, but also the fact that the effect of the poems, though each can indeed stand alone, is cumulative—the question intrigues us. So: How do you know when a poem is finished? When writing the book, did “finishing” one poem immediately activate the beginning of another?
Ginger Ko: As much as I wanted to channel the voice of machines, I don’t think I was aware enough to identify any consistent mechanisms or strategies for how I wrote these poems! In other words, I wrote them very intuitively, without a lot of logic—I was just channeling the enigmatic spirit of the machine, and poems came to an end when the spirit seemed to fade away. I tended to write the poems one or two at a time only, because each poem was an assemblage from a very scattered notebook that I kept. The notebook was where I wrote unrelated or discontinuous fragments towards my project, and every so often I would flip back through these notes to see if I could find some common threads that I could piece together into a poem.
I will say that now that I’ve taught more creative writing workshops since completing this book, I’ve been forced to realize how much I rely on this “do what I say, not what I do” type of advice to students, and together with them I do focus on common poem ending strategies—the epiphany, the turn, the gut-punch, the cinematic fadeout, etc. (Please don’t take these terms seriously, they’re my own terminology for frequent examples seen in all poems.) And I make my students try them out deliberately, but I assume their actual writing process outside of the classroom will be much like my own—an intuitive use of various poetic skills we’ve picked up along the way, not recognizing or noticing what we’ve done until afterwards in the editing process. I prefer to think of art that way, that what needs to come out is loaded into whatever tools are at the artist’s disposal, so it need not be a deliberate or even conscious act, but reading extensively can always provide more intuitive tools. I guess it’s a kind of reverse-engineering of poetic design that relies on trusting oneself and “trusting the process” (that is an adage that I give my students that I do follow!).
COMP: When you read for us at Piedmont University (March 2022), you collaborated with a machine: A Siri-inspired “male” voice read about half of your poems—yet another expansion or iteration of the book. How has the generative, experimental nature of Power On influenced your work since?
Ginger Ko: Yes, my friend George! I’ve been using George in some of my readings as a way to emphasize the different voices that are in my work, and that has definitely carried over into my current projects. I deeply believe in creating and publishing work with accessibility in mind, whether it’s enabling access to text-to-speech use or providing an audio recording of the work, but I am really sick of my own voice at this point. I wasn’t trained as a voice actor and fumbled along in learning sound editing, so I’m thinking through ways that I can collaborate with those who are really good at audio and sound, as well as musicians. I’m also still carrying on in my attempts to create a more complex media world with my writing, so I’ve been constructing “poems” that take the form of dashboards or home screens, with different types of media (like a photo album, email archive, text messages) embedded into them.
Thank you for these lovely questions, it’s been a pleasure to think through them!
Ginger Ko is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. She is the author of Motherlover (Bloof Books) and Inherit (Sidebrow), as well as several chapbooks. Her latest project is POWER ON, a book as interactive app, produced by The Operating System. Her poetry and essays can be found in The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, The Offing, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.gingerko.com