Critical Introduction

This project was first presented at a Contemporary Canadian Poetry and Poetics course taught by Dr. Allison Calder at the University of Manitoba in 2010.  I’ve published it here with its accompanying bibliography as a more in-depth examination and explanation of what I am doing with the Tweets of Wang Wei.


The Tweets of Wang Wei:  Critical Introduction by Daria Patrie

Pain Not Bread, in their afterword to Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, explain that their book has been written collaboratively and that the poems are derived, and/or sparked off by, and/or entering a dialogue with, other texts the authors have encountered in their explorations of poetry from the late Tang dynasty of China (618-906 AD). While I found their poetry exquisitely beautiful, what fascinated me most was their artistic approach: “All the poems collected here were written collaboratively, and are derived (for the most part) in varying degrees, from other texts” (121). Pain Not Bread further clarified how the poetry in Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei grew out of their reading of the Tang Dynasty poets and “may be thought of, in some sense, as free variations — sometimes on the original poems and translations, sometimes on a combination of sources” (122). In placing themselves as not so much translators or adapters, but instead writing out of a community of poets stretching back two centuries, Pain Not Bread has taken a creative stance that is closer to ideas of remixing and rewriting than the Western poetic generative tradition.

While I was reading Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, I found myself drawn to small phrases, brief images, and the sounds of words in sequence more strongly than I was drawn to theme, structure or meaning. This type of attraction sounds similar to how Pain Not Bread was inspired by “a random selection of words and phrases, i.e., a set of elements scattered throughout the original with no apparent connection, in the sense of the logic and needs of the original piece” (122). It was these little bits and pieces, which stayed with me long after I had moved on to other books of poetry, that called me back to Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei and I began to think about how I might recombine and contribute to this poetic continuum in a way that was similar, but different.

In pondering how I could be so entranced by such tiny pieces of beauty, out of context and sometimes without what we could consider to be the traditional definition of “meaning,” I began to consider other areas where one turn of phrase or a handful of images had entranced me, specifically microfiction as found in forms such as drabbles or mini-stories on Twitter. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how powerful a social networking engine could be for exploring communal poetry, and how Twitter specifically, because of its character limitations, focused attention on the aesthetic minutia of individual words and images. This attention to detail and focus on the compactness of the transmission of information is not unlike many techniques used in poetry, particularly that of the Imagists and others who were influenced by Eastern poetics.

The immediateness of Twitter heightens the already strong sense of community and collaboration that exists among denizens of the Internet. With just a click of the mouse, someone on my list of Twitter followers can re-tweet (RT) one of my tweets to everyone on their list of followers. Faster than email, websites or forum posts, Information travels on Twitter in a matter of seconds. People alter and reply to the words of others from cellphones, computer keyboards and other technologies around the world. These tiny bursts of writing are sometimes inane (for example what someone had for breakfast, or pictures of their cat) and sometimes powerful (protesters during the Iran election sending out information being suppressed by their government through most other channels, journalists reporting in volatile political climates, eyewitness updates on earthquakes). They have also been used for some fascinating intersections between art and social behavior, for example musicians tweeting surprise free concerts at random locations for their fans, flash mobs (doing everything from reenacting movie scenes to freezing in place for one minute at a pre-specified time in Grand Central Station), twit-hiking (using twitter to request rides from random strangers to move across a country) and tweet-based literary magazines.

Because Twitter is so immediate, and because anything posted there becomes both instantly public and can be transmitted virally in moments, it enables the rapid spread of ideas and art, but only at the fickle whims of what the network of twitter users deem “interesting” enough to share. Once a one hundred and forty character tweet is written, it might reach millions, or it may only be viewed by a handful who do not send it anywhere else. While Twitter provides both instantaneous feedback, repeating, rewording and rewriting, it is not something the author can control. Once a tweet is sent out, it becomes a part of the twitterverse and is released to the world. The effect of this reflexive mass-readership potential, frequently referred to as crowdsourcing, is that some information disappears and never resurfaces, whereas other writing literally goes global in seconds. Artists are still exploring the potential of this sometimes amazing and other times ridiculous phenomenon that is Twitter, but to my knowledge, no one has yet combined Twitter with the artistic concepts at play in Pain Not Bread’s work, namely the collaborative poetic impulse and the writing and rewriting of old voices in new ways as a form of poetic discipline.

Pain Not Bread has also indicated that the Oulipo, and the ideas of writing with constraints have influenced their work in Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. Because Twitter has a one hundred and forty character limit, it provides an interesting way of constraining writing that is not linked to specific types of words, sounds, or letters, and also requires a mathematical attention to detail that meshes well with the Oulipo’s techniques of using restraint to develop creativity. In addition, the nature of Twitter as a medium where discernment in repeating or rewording the words of others is given equal weight to coming up with original phrases of your own, is particularly suited to Pain Not Bread’s methods of rewriting and remixing elements of poetry from the High Tang:

In some sense the poems of this book are no different from any others: they are sparked off by something. In another, however, they are different because, at least in some cases, more evidently than is the case for most poetry, they are alloys — that is, they contain certain metals which are clearly not of our own invention. (123)

Reworking various elements of other poets and other cultures is not unique to Pain Not Bread, one of the more well known ways of re-using existing art is the cut-up technique and it is hard to find anyone nowadays who is unaware of the effect of sampling and remixing on modern music. However, Pain Not Bread’s work in Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei is more subtle and complex than merely throwing ancient Chinese poetry into a blender and seeing what interesting juxtapositions come out of it (although that could also be fun to try). There is a deliberateness about their selections and the way in which different tropes and images are woven, rewoven, worked and reworked throughout Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. While some of Twitter is indeed merely random bits of people’s lives thrown together as though they had been cut up and pulled randomly out of a hat, some tweets are definitely more powerful than others, and it is those powerful tweets, either through their meaning, their wit, the beauty of their language, or what they are alluding to, that most get retweeted and propagated around the world. It is this element inherent to effective articulation within the Twitter medium which most strongly resonates with the spirit of Pain Not Bread’s expressed intention for their work: “the result being, we hope, some analogue, appropriate to our time and culture, of the high degree of allusiveness of classical Chinese poetry, especially that of the High Tang” (122). Because of this, I think that altering, translating and rewriting aspects of Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei to the medium of Twitter is within the spirit of Pain Not Bread’s artistic vision as they have expressed it in their afterword.

This is why I wanted to do more in my creative project than just prepare bits of Pain Not Bread’s book to be sent out to the world. I wanted to carefully select, reword, splice and give my creative response to Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei in such a way that the beauty I found while reading would be given the best possible chance of being retweeted for its own inherent artistic value, and thus intentionally propagate the inspiration and awe I experienced when I encountered Pain Not Bread’s poetry.

The creative aspect of my project therefore ended up being divided into four types of tweets which I arranged in a Twitter feed on the page with the hope of eventually securing the permission of Pain Not Bread and their publishers to post live through Twitter at a later date. Due to the fact that two lines is roughly the size of most tweets, I have had to ignore line breaks when I’ve reproduced and rewritten parts of Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. And because proper MLA citation would overrun Twitter’s character limit, I created a legend to mark each type of tweet for the reader so that there is no confusion regarding who has written what. While I am very appreciative of the idea of working within a community of poets stretching back over a thousand years, I understand that not all readers of my tweets will investigate (or care about) the many layers of artistic allusion I am working with and I want to ensure that while I am honouring the masters I am not taking credit for their work.

In addition to this typographical short hand, I’ve included page numbers in the character limit for the direct quotes so that there is no confusion about what has been altered and what is being sampled directly from the source text. Direct quotes are marked by a prime symbol (`), chosen because of its use in translation and transliteration because I am altering the media of a phrase. For rewordings and rewritings, either to distill ideas or to make phrases fit the constraints of a tweet, I have used the tilde (~) because it is frequently used in mathematical notation over top of an equals sign to denote “approximately equal to.” I used the percent sign (%) to indicate tweets where I had liberally spliced words, phrases, images and ideas from multiple areas of the text because of its visual representation of a splice of two things. I used the double slash (//) to indicate tweets more strongly influenced by my research, reader reaction and dialogue with the text, because it is commonly used in computer science to indicate commentary on code, where the programmer is speaking freely in their own voice to whoever might be reading what they have done. While these symbols are not standard, my use of them should reflect due diligence in revealing my source material and how it has influenced my finished product. In addition to my use of compact symbols to reflect my source material, I have also provided page references below each individual tweet that is not a direct quote. These are to serve as indicators to the source material for each tweet when it is known. These non-quote page numbers are not included in the character count for each tweet, and are not intended to be posted when the feed goes live. They will be provided as secondary material available in a link off of the project website for anyone wanting to examine my influences in more detail.

In composing my tweets, I have attempted to capture some of the details and imagery that most inspired me from Pain Not Bread’s Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. This creative project is not intended to be exhaustive. It is, in fact, intended to give the audience a taste of the book in discrete and exquisite pieces that can be savored individually like an assortment of chocolates. It is my hope that this project will spark further readings, re-writings and remixes of poetry from Pain Not Bread’s excellent work, their sources, and the greater sphere of poetry in general. While I do not think that my project will create a class of Twitter-bureaucrats who will spend their lives refining and expressing poetic tweets, nor do I think that it will convince governments to once again make the poetic arts a requirement for administrative officials, it may inspire more people to create art in this new medium. It is my hope that as microliterature grows, more people will be exposed to, and enriched by, random acts of beauty appearing on their monitors and cellphones. At its essence, poetry is a form of communication from one human to another. The multiplicity of voices and the brevity of the constraints of a Twitter tweet do not need to impede the poetic act. They may even breathe new life into poetry as an art form and as something regular people might be interested in. In a world where multitasking and time management are paramount, it is very difficult for the average person to find the time to sit down with a book and contemplate poetry, but a short one hundred and forty character sliver of art may entice them to do so, and at the very least, will probably make a lot of people smile.

“Each grassblade is the grave of a vanished immortal, / sipped at by beetles.” (104)
“and you and I, / we are the only ones left alive.” (100)


Works Cited

Pain Not Bread (Association). Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. London, ON: Brick Books, 2000.

Works Consulted

Allen, Anita N. “Dredging up the past: Lifelogging, Memory, and Surveillance.” The University of Chicago Law Review. 75.1 (2008): 47-74.

Ben-Ari, Elia. “Twitter: What’s all the Chirping About?” BioScience. 59.7 (2009): 632.

Constant, Paul. “Paul Constant Reviews Twitter.” The Stranger. (Seattle) 30 June 2009: The Stranger. Viewed 13 April 2010 < reviews-twitter/Content?oid=1774875>.