How Technology Is Transforming Poetry, Literature, And Activism
Author and attorney Deji Olukotun compares the growth and development of digital technology over the last decade to a spectrum, with highly-polished published work on one end, and tweeting and texting on the opposite.
“It’s making writing and communicating and expressing yourself more democratic, and that includes repressive countries,” Olukotun says. “At the same time, there’s still a value for quality and for craft.”
Olukotun works on digital freedom cases for the PEN American Center in New York.
“People who will tweet something, write something on Facebook, publish something on a blog or a website, and get put in jail or persecuted for that,” Olukotun says. “That’s a big growing part of our caseload as technologies are expanding all over the world.”
Authorities arrested Cameroonian writer, political activist, and unsuccessful presidential candidate Enoh Meyomesse in 2011 on charges of aggravated theft and plotting a coup.
PEN says no witnesses were presented during Meyomesse’s trial – where he wasn’t allowed to testify in his own defense. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on December 27, 2012.
“Cameroon is not a highly-studied country in terms of human rights,” Olukotun says. “PEN basically took up his case and said, ‘We don’t want this guy to be forgotten. He may not be high-profile; he may not be a superstar writer, but it’s an important case.”
Closer to home, artist, poet, and public radio host Lauren Camp says social media gives her a greater community to work with, and a chance to interact with people she would not otherwise meet.
“I can build [a] large community, and I can see trends,” Camp says. “Because I’m so connected with so many other poets, I get a chance to see…what they’re up against.”
But Camp also says technology, and texting in particular, has done what she calls a “great disservice” to poetry.
“We’re taking words and we’re finding the quickest possible way,” Camp says. “Some people would say, ‘Well yeah, poets don’t use punctuation,’ but that’s not really true. In poetry, I’m a strong advocate for spelling out words.”
Lauren Camp on how she teaches creative writing and poetry appreciation
I'm pulling them in and giving them poetry as an example of fine language. Of economical language. Of carefully-selected words and they come to me and say, "I don't know poetry. I don't like poetry." And then a couple of weeks later they come to me and say "I wrote a poem." And they begin with some awareness; with some chance at discussion they begin to care about poetry, and to think they can understand it. And I think if it's okay with you, I want to make a connection to jazz, because that's my other main form as an admirer more than as a musician. I'm not a musician, but I do a radio show, and I've done art portraits of jazz musicians, and that's another sophisticated form that people come to me and say, "I don't understand this." And yet, I think both of those, poetry and jazz, are things that just take some awareness of to begin to appreciate.
Deji Olukotun on his novel Nigerians in Space
The basic plot is that it's a Nigerian scientist who works for NASA and has kind-of hit a glass ceiling. And he wants to go up into space. It's always been his dream. And a Nigerian minister from the government in Nigeria says, "Hey, I can get you there. You just need to take something." And the thing he has to take is a piece of the moon. He works in the Lunar Sample Collection in Houston. So he says, "Okay, I'll do it." And if he does it, then he can go and start this space program in Nigeria. And as soon as he takes it, everything goes wrong. So it's more of a thriller across borders. It's sort-of talking about identity and exile and ambition and different barriers that get in people's way.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Lauren Camp and Deji Olukotun, welcome to World Views.
LAUREN CAMP: Thank you, Suzette.
DEJI OLUKOTUN: It's great to be here.
GRILLOT: So both of you are writers, and here for the Neustadt Prize at the University of Oklahoma, but Lauren, I wanted to begin with you and explore a little bit about the work that you do. You're a poet. You've been awarded prizes for poetry. Tell me about how poetry contributes today to society. Is it something that still people sit around and read poetry regularly, or is this seen as an old-fashioned thing to do? What can you tell us about poetry today?
CAMP: Well, I think I want to address it as a poetry teacher, or a creative writing teacher. Because I think only poets sit around and read poetry to each other, but I think as a creative writing teacher, pulling people into writing through memoir - because they want to write their stories for their children, or their grandchildren, or some sort of historical record - beginning writers, I'm pulling them in and giving them poetry as an example of fine language. Of economical language. Of carefully-selected words and they come to me and say, "I don't know poetry. I don't like poetry." And then a couple of weeks later they come to me and say "I wrote a poem." And they begin with some awareness; with some chance at discussion they begin to care about poetry, and to think they can understand it. And I think if it's okay with you, I want to make a connection to jazz, because that's my other main form as an admirer more than as a musician. I'm not a musician, but I do a radio show, and I've done art portraits of jazz musicians, and that's another sophisticated form that people come to me and say, "I don't understand this." And yet, I think both of those, poetry and jazz, are things that just take some awareness of to begin to appreciate. Not necessarily to do either one, but to begin to appreciate either one.
GRILLOT: But just to follow up on that, I think what you've said is just beautiful in terms of carefully selecting words, and how you construct those and put those together to create something that represents something like music, or a form of music. Jazz. Would you say that there' something very universal about that? There's poetry in every culture. There's music in every culture. That these are things that you can be aware of across borders?
CAMP: There's poetry in political speeches. This is what I was teaching one of my...I teach adults. I teach mostly retired adults, and I was teaching them a form called anaphora, where you repeat the first line, and I took them back to Martin Luther King's speeches, Obama's speeches. There's poetry in so many ways. There's rhythm. There's meter. There's something in most language. If anybody says a couple of words together that have the same "S" sound over and over, you begin to hear poetry without even knowing you're hearing it. So I think it does sort-of ribbon through our culture. And probably every culture.
GRILLOT: And multiple cultures.
GRILLOT: Very interesting. So Deji, to connect that to your work, you have a novel that's coming out soon. Nigerians in Space. So you have a Nigerian background, but yet what are we doing with Nigerians in Space?
OLUKOTUN: Yeah, my father's Nigerian. He grew up in Nigeria. I grew up in the U.S. in the Nigerian diaspora. It's a fiction novel, and the basic plot is that it's a Nigerian scientist who works for NASA and has kind-of hit a glass ceiling. And he wants to go up into space. It's always been his dream. And a Nigerian minister from the government in Nigeria says, "Hey, I can get you there. You just need to take something." And the thing he has to take is a piece of the moon. He works in the Lunar Sample Collection in Houston. So he says, "Okay, I'll do it." And if he does it, then he can go and start this space program in Nigeria. And as soon as he takes it, everything goes wrong. So it's more of a thriller across borders. It's sort-of talking about identity and exile and ambition and different barriers that get in people's way.
GRILLOT: Wow. Sounds very interesting, I can't wait to read it. But something that strikes me from hearing both of you talk about your work, and that is that creative process. Deji, with your novel, and Lauren your poetry and other writings and essays. I think that's what's always astonishing to those of us who aren't creative writers is that creative process and what goes into that, and how you come up with this story about Nigerians in space and all of the intricacies involved in developing those characters. Tell us a little bit about that process. Where that comes from. What is your inspiration? What do you see in advance of planning out this very large project?
OLUKOTUN: Well, the original story just came out of being in the library and pulling out a book and thinking it was interesting. I'd never written a plot-based thriller, action-oriented story, so I just started from there. I think there are no secrets in terms of the creative process. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but there's a lot of discipline involved, and it helps to have smart, committed people working with you who will keep you on track and give you ideas, and reject things that aren't working. So for me, it's a combination of discipline and having great help and advice from friends and mentors.
GRILLOT: So a team effort for sure.
GRILLOT: And a global effort, even, it sounds like. Or multi-cultural effort. How about you, Lauren?
CAMP: I want to echo what Deji said about hard work. It's definitely hard work, and I think in poetry, at least the way I do it, it's also play. It's also being willing to experiment. I'm not writing the same scope of project as he is. I'm writing a single poem, or maybe a collection of poems, but at any given time I'm writing a page, maybe. And then later compiling them. So it's how to work with that material, and say it in a new way, in a new way, in a new way with different poems. How to come at it with different angles and different perspectives. A lot of that's play. How can I turn this upside down and do something different with it? And that kind of means letting go of what...like this is the creative process for me, and I think when I'm working with students and I'm trying to push them, it's "let go." Stop holding on so tight and see what happens, and then you can pull back and you can fix it.
GRILLOT: What an interesting description of that. So on that note, then, Deji, I'd like to ask you about the work that you do, and you were telling me earlier about defending writers, and being able to help writers do their work. But yet, so many writers around the world struggle in terms of they’re persecuted, or they're prevented from being able to share their stories. SO tell us about some of the work that you do to help writers accomplish their goals and survive these difficult times.
OLUKOTUN: So I work for an organization called PEN American Center, and we've been around for 91 years, and our mission is to promote literature and defend free expression wherever it's threatened. What I do at PEN is I work on digital freedom cases. People who will tweet something, write something on Facebook, publish something on a blog or a website, and get put in jail or persecuted for that. And that's a big growing part of our caseload as technologies are expanding all over the world. And then the second part is kind-of advocacy at international governmental bodies like the U.N. And that's getting an official record of the human rights violations, documenting these cases, and pressing officials at the highest levels that we can to try to get people out of jail.
GRILLOT: Can you give us an example of somebody that you've had to work with or on, or something specific that we can understand what kinds of cases are we talking about here?
OLUKOTUN: A good example is a writer named Enoh Meyomesse. He's based in Cameroon. He's a Cameroonian writer. He has written over 15 books, and he also writes poetry. He was arrested and is on trial right now, which has been postponed. He's been there for almost two years. Cameroon is not a highly-studied country in terms of human rights. Not a lot of people are there. But PEN basically took up his case and said, "We don't want this guy to be forgotten. He may not be a high-profile; he may not be a superstar writer, but it’s an important case." So our goal is to keep him from being forgotten. Keep him in good health and get him out of prison. So we work with other organizations, at a grassroots level, and then also at, like I said, at the U.N. to try to make sure that people remember who he is and put pressure on the government to get him out of prison.
GRILLOT: So I'm curious, you mentioned digital freedom cases and using, I'm presuming...social media, of course, is pervasive in all the things that we do today. So Twitter, Facebook, emailing, texting, those kinds of interactions. How does that affect your work at all? And maybe Lauren for you, the quality of writing. The quality of the written word. I mean, has this had an effect, the fact that we can easily and digitally communicate with one another? And it changes the way we speak to one another, does it? What can you tell us, perhaps from your experience, about that?
CAMP: What I like about social media is the fact that it gives me a greater community to work with. That I have a chance to interact with people I would not otherwise meet. And that I can build that large community, and I can see trends. I can see what's going on in the world. I think because I'm so connected with so many other poets - hundreds of other poets - that I get a chance to see where they are in their...I guess I want to say in their careers, but more in what they're up against. What they're facing. But on the other hand, I would say that texting has done a great disservice for poetry, because we're taking words and we're finding the quickest possible way. Okay, there's no punctuation. Some people would say, "Well yeah, poets don't use punctuation" but that's not really true. In poetry I'm a strong advocate for spelling out words.
GRILLOT: Well, it's interesting to compare...being able to do your work, Deji, I would imagine requires a lot of digital communication, and the awareness that you get, for example, the writer in Cameroon and elsewhere, that you're able to communicate about that, and learn about these things, but at the same time it has an impact on the quality of the writing that we might engage in. I know that as a college professor. It has an impact on the writing of young people today without a doubt.
CAMP: I think in a way it's really intriguing that the very thing that the writers that Deji is working with...the very vehicle they're using to get their message out is also the thing that is getting them in trouble.
OLUKOTUN: Yeah, I mean I started from...I'll go back and put the writer’s hat on. What I'm starting to see is these digital technologies as part of a spectrum. You have, at the far end, published work. Highly-polished. It's been through a lot of editors. And then on the beginning you have someone tweeting or texting, and in between you have things like self-publishing. What's great is it's making, in some ways, writing and communicating and expressing yourself more democratic, and that includes repressive countries. At the same time, there's still a value for quality and for craft. That's, as you push toward the published work, the hope is that perhaps someone who may have been tweeting or texting and enjoys the craft and the discipline of creative writing will eventually get to a place where they are a published writer. But for other people, it's just a personal thing. They're just communicating and they don't need it.
GRILLOT: Well, thank you both so much for being here and for sharing your interesting stories. Lauren, Deji, best of luck to you and your continued work, and thank you very much for being here on World Views.
OLUKOTUN: Thank you, Suzette.
CAMP: Thank you.
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