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The Poem Twitter Wrote

Francesco Levato is curating lines from an "exquisite corpse"-style collaborative poem on Twitter.

slow violence, a window now open, a dangerous harvest, a return before—
slow violence wafts from the social slow cooker, a reeking white-onion taint

Francesco Levato, a new media artist, poet, and director of The Chicago School of Poetics, wants to turn the Twitterverse into a creative experiment. So just last month, he launched #pxc001—a collaborative, long-form poem that turns Twitter into a writer's slate.

Lacking any principal author, the poem evolves anarchically, mutating with every interaction.

"The way in which the collaboration ultimately unfolds depends on each participant's actions," Levato told me. "At the moment the poem is essentially growing on its own [...] The initial idea was for people to tweet to the hashtag so that whenever you searched for it the lines would appear. But as the project has evolved, we've been tagging each other and using each other's lines."

Levato, who has experimented previously with creating poetry using video games, visual collages and a film, saw Twitter as the next logical step.

"Twitter was a platform that I hadn't used yet for poetry," Levato told me over the phone. "I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try and use it as a writing platform so that I could collaborate with writers from all over the world in real-time—without any real control on the content or the authorial intent."

The project currently has eight regular contributors, but Levato wants to broaden the range of participants, including people from non-literary backgrounds.

An experimental poem streams through the Twitterverse. Image: Screenshot from #pxc001

For as long as poetry has existed, poets have been prone to experimentation, either building on or breaking with old traditions as they evolve the poetic form. In the early twentieth century, French surrealists experimented with a creative technique dubbed the "exquisite corpse" (cadavre exquis)—when one line of poetry is written by one creator on a piece of paper, then folded up, and passed onto another writer to continue. According to Levato, Twitter can be used to recreate the conditions of this retro surrealist game. His hashtag is even a kind of ode to this technique, with "p" standing for poem, "xc" for exquisite corpse, and 001 referring to the first in a series of Twitter poems to come.

"Twitter lends itself to exquisite corpse-like compositions, and this project intends to extend that work to include appropriated language, chance operations, overwriting participant texts, defacements, collages, erasures, etc," said Levato.

Poets and poets-in-training, said Levato, usually have a pretty difficult time surrendering their sense of self in relation to the world and the words that they produce. So he even sprung the Twitter poem challenge on his own students as a way of developing their creative writing techniques.

"My students found it difficult when I first had them do it as a collaborative project," said Levato. "They're heavily invested in this idea of the charismatic creator—that when it comes to being a writer it's as if every word that comes to you in a creative piece is almost divine and should not be altered."

But the ever-rolling Twitter stream disrupts that kind of thinking, removing individualism by mashing up each person's contribution with every other contributor's tweets.

"It really challenges the notion that any one particular writer is expressing themselves in the most unique way. For me, Twitter was a way to explore these ideas on a very massive scale."

Levato said that, so far, the 140 character limit had posed the biggest challenge.

"I'll collect words and lines from other participants' tweets and string them together to make new lines, then have a look at the character count and realise that I have to cut it down by half," said Levato. "So it's been a challenge keeping the same images and feel when you have to constantly eliminate characters and words."

For the time being, Levato doesn't know how #pxc001 will develop, nor does he have much control over its direction or evolution. But that's kind of the point.

"For me [#pxc001] has been an experiment about releasing our control of words and language. I find it kind of exhilarating."