June 12, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Novelist Sean Michaels builds a Marianne ‘Moorebot’ to explore the life of the artist

12 min read
Sean Michaels: I do think we can make choices for ourselves, and my book ends with this character understanding the power of a certain kind of solidarity, that we're actually stronger if we put ourselves in connection with other people, rather than live in our own little fortresses of the mind, or our own little manors with gates up, fences up, protecting us from everyone.

With ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence software now successfully mimicking human conversation, KEPW’s Rick Gold reached out to novelist Sean Michaels.

Sean’s 2023 book, Do You Remember Being Born, imagines a poet much like Marianne Moore being approached by a high-tech company. She is asked to collaborate with their new product, Charlotte, to write a poem.

[00:00:22] For the novel, Charlotte’s poems were generated by ‘Moorebot,’ a large language model trained on a corpus of great poems, including the complete works of Marianne Moore. Sean spoke with us from his home in Montreal.

[00:00:34] Sean Michaels: I knew of Marianne Moore’s poetry broadly, but about five years ago, I read an essay about her life and was introduced to this kind of strange biographical arc of this artist. You know, she was an esteemed and talented modernist poet, a contemporary of T. S. Eliot. She became famous when she was older, she was in her 60s and 70s, but then truly became famous, famous in a way that poets never become famous during my lifetime, like, famous in the way that you go on a late-night talk show, famous in the way that she was invited to write the liner notes for a vinyl album by Muhammad Ali, you know, famous enough that she threw the first pitch at a major league baseball game. And I was so tickled by this, but also by the notion that she sort of pried herself into the forefront of American culture from that position.

[00:01:31] And then I was struck by, you know, though, on the one hand, she has this regal power, and on the other hand, she lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that was her mother’s apartment, an apartment she shared with her mother until her mother died; a bed she shared with her mother throughout her and her mother’s life. And so in some ways, you have this kind of impoverished life, even though she was swishing across New York in a tricorn hat and a cape.

[00:01:59] And then I was particularly struck by this incident in 1955 when Marianne Moore was approached by Ford Motorcar Company, who asked her to help name their new car. And she could have just sneered at them or demanded a huge paycheck or said, ‘I’m too good or too artsy for this.’ But instead she was, like, immediately tantalized by the invitation and started sending them all these incredible ideas:

[00:02:25] The Ford Fabergé, the Ford Silver Sword, the Ford Thundercrester, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop—I mean, ridiculous, poetic things, amazing little morsels of lyricism. And they rejected them all and made it the Ford Edsel. That was that.

[00:02:44] But I was interested as an artist, as a writer: We go through our lives resisting industry, capitalism, companies, corporate, this whole other side of modern life, and also surrendering to it and having dalliances with it. And I think there’s something interesting in that interplay. And so I found myself at the same time as all this was happening, I was having my first encounters with contemporary artificial intelligence technology on the internet.

[00:03:13] And I was being unsettled by what these gigantic tech corporations were building and what it might mean for art. And I found myself wondering: What would have happened if a poet, not unlike Marianne Moore, had been approached by a company not unlike one of these who asked her to collaborate with them, might she not also be tantalized by the possibilities of that? Particularly if they were offering her some money. And I decided that’s what I wanted to write a book about.

[00:03:43] I was kind of chewing on the riddle of the way that I and everyone, really, in our culture, we have this common conception of creative work and of artistry and of some version of artistic genius that is put in opposition to worldliness and the social and the annoying, unasked-for interruptions of the ‘real world.’

Whereas art happens in this kind of hallowed room in the attic or at the top of a tower—some space that is tranquil and inspired, where finally, when you found the right serenity, the muse drops down from the heavens and drops an idea into the artist’s mind, and then they type a line of a poem. And we have this idea that that’s where art comes from.

[00:04:39] And as a result of that, a lot of artists, myself included, feel this impulse to cultivate a life where one can separate oneself from the world, where one has time away from those interruptions; this idea that family or students or co-workers or neighbors or all of these things are threats to art-making.

[00:05:02] And I thought of this character, of Marian (Ffarmer), as being someone who really has this understanding that she must guard herself from the world, and that’s what she’s done through her whole life, in order to protect the flame of her genius.

[00:05:17] And so I thought that Marian going to California and having these scenes that are her in a room with an AI making poetry, it almost, those became a way of giving a metaphor of that idea that you can just, like, in private, nurture your art. And it’s this anemic, antiseptic kind of place. And even there in this book, you know, there’s someone else suddenly at the computer with her. There’s this AI called Charlotte and it’s like: Is it good? Is it good for Marian that someone else is in the room with her? She’s trying to write poetry. Is it good that someone’s there or not?

[00:05:48] And then also then to contrast that with this boisterous, rowdy world around her. And as the story goes on, Marian is opening herself up more and more and more to the world, and in a way you can see how her creative life seems more alive, is more located in that cacophonous, multicolored, sincere, bawdily, tactile place—at a party with young people, with her family at dinner, at the zoo—than it is when she’s sitting at a desk trying to be brilliant. And to me it’s been an important thing for me to learn, and it was an important thing for Marian to discover.

[00:06:29] John Q: Rick Gold asked: What’s important to you when you start a project?

[00:06:34] Sean Michaels: I have lots of different favorite writers, but the kind of writer that I find myself most bewitched by are the writers where, when a new book comes out, or when you take another book off the shelf, you have no idea what kind of feeling and place and type of work you’re about to come into. Every one of the books has its own, I always say, ‘It has its own weather.’

[00:06:59] You know, some books are gloomy thunderstorms. Some books are still, cool mountain, breezy, alpine kind of books. And so for me, to start a book, I have to have a whole bunch of ideas, too many, that you can see how they fit together in interesting ways. And then the kind of the feeling, the vibe, you could say the weather of a book.

[00:07:20] And so for this, I came to understand that I wanted to write a book that was quite short. As much as there’s about as many pages in this book as my previous books, there’s a lot of chat dialogue, so, it actually has far fewer words. I want to write a shorter book. It was really like took place in a condensed time frame. It’s just seven days in San Francisco and I wanted it to feel full of kind of space and the sense of, I don’t know, of calm, even as there’s action and humor and whimsy. It was really that feel that I needed to understand. And then you have the Marianne Moore, you have the AI and you’re ready to begin taking the first step.

[00:07:59] John Q: For the poem written over those seven days in the novel, Sean and friends developed a poetry-writing chatbot. And this was several years ago, before most people ever heard about this technology.

[00:08:10] Sean Michaels: One of the things that’s been interesting to me is Moorebot, in particular—this bot that I built with Katie O’Nell to write Charlotte’s poetry, the AI character’s poetry in the book—it’s still sort of janky and weird, but it can still make some neat things. And even now, two or three years after we made it, the cutting-edge AI is still just as bad. The stuff out of the box, it’s just as bad at writing poetry.

[00:08:36] If you ask ChatGPT to help you write a poem and you don’t want it to sound like a bad limerick, it’s just terrible. And it has a real hard time writing these little nuggets of beautiful, weird lyricism that I was so interested in a computer’s ability to do.

[00:08:52] It’s still fruitful. I mean, in my mind, Moorebot is really the poetry of the character of Charlotte. And unless I have poetry to write as Charlotte, I’m not going to turn to it. But I did, I wrote some poems for some bookshops across America to thank them for supporting the book. And I wrote with Charlotte, with Moorebot, these custom poems, but really, I’ve been particularly struck at how bad the poetry writing still is.

[00:09:14] And then in terms of my own work, now that the book is coming out, it’s a weird time. You know, the conditions under which I wrote it were, AI seemed like this really curious, almost theoretical academic question. It’s now very much, you know, a question of the times and compensation and labor and licensing and writers’ unions and all of this stuff is suddenly a piece of it. And so, to me it would seem a bit too frivolous to just suddenly be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m using AI all the time now.’ The stakes and the conditions feel different than they did two and three years ago.

[00:09:47] John Q: In the novel, Marian promotes the poem on a talk show, and the host asks if we’re all going to be replaced by automation.

[00:09:55] Sean Michaels: You know, this technology of AI is this opportunity for massive wealth and transformation. But I think that in light of all that, and as society changes, we do have an opportunity to just really just decide, choose for ourselves that we want to make sure that everyone in America, or everywhere, in Canada, is okay. That instead of being worried that, you know, maybe AI takes your job.

[00:10:21] Well, the thing that is most concerning about AI taking your job is that you won’t be okay if they do.

[00:10:27] Sure, if you have a job that you like, and AI takes it, that’s sad. But a lot of people have jobs they don’t like, and there’s nothing sad about AI taking away a job you don’t like, unless you’re not okay.

[00:10:38] And I think given all the wealth we have in our society, there are ways that we can make a decision to just make sure everyone should be okay.

[00:10:45] I think it’s perverse that there are people with nowhere to sleep at night while other people have so much wealth that they can afford, you know, a $10,000 bottle of wine. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right to me.

[00:10:57] But I do think we can make choices for ourselves, and my book ends with this character understanding the power of a certain kind of solidarity, that we’re actually stronger if we put ourselves in connection with other people, rather than live in our own little fortresses of the mind, or our own little manors with gates up, fences up, protecting us from everyone.

[00:11:15] And I think it’s an important call to action for us to, instead of protecting ourselves by separating each other from others, we should protect ourselves by connecting with the people around us and calling for the kind of changes that make sure that we’re all okay and that we’ll get through this together.

[00:11:32] John Q: We’re talking with Sean Michaels, author of Do You Remember Being Born, about a famous poet collaborating with a chatbot to write a poem. Readers can have the book read to them on the fly or performed in the audiobook.

[00:11:45] Sean Michaels: I haven’t listened to that audiobook. I helped cast the actresses and talked with them early on, but listening back to my work is always strange.

[00:11:53] I want to say though about that, I remember like initially, if you would ask me 10 years ago, which I preferred, I would have said, ‘Oh, well, please read it on the page. It’s essential.’ But I had a change of thinking. Some years ago, I was at an event with some other novelists and it was this peculiar event where we were going from town to town and doing these public literary events in each town.

[00:12:20] They would have local celebrities read from each of our books. So I wouldn’t read from my novel. A local news anchor or an actor or, I remember, an Olympic kayaker, would read the books and then we would stand backstage. And then later we’d come out, take questions. And I remember I was standing backstage talking beside another novelist as someone else read my book aloud to the room, and I said to them, you know, ‘This is so messed up,’ like, ‘The audience should be hearing my voice reading the book in their head, not some stranger’s voice.’

[00:12:53] And they turned to me with a amused expression and said, ‘Well, Sean, the only people who ever hear your voice when they read the book, if they hear your voice at all, are people who know you very well. Everyone else is hearing their own internal monologue. However you read it, the experience of Sean’s voice is extremely uncommon. It’s really not how writing works.’ And this was really like an astonishing revelation to me. This idea that in fact, yeah, I don’t have any kind of monopoly or even near-monopoly on people’s understanding of my work.

[00:13:27] And so once I realized that everyone who reads the book is, distorting it and misreading it and all these things that when you realize that, oh, an audiobook is just another version of that. And maybe a more deliberate, considered, patient version than what might be in some people’s heads.

[00:13:43] And furthermore, it might be more fun to listen to it than to read it for some people. And so I love it now.

[00:13:50] John Q: We asked about work in progress.

[00:13:53] Sean Michaels: I have the beginnings of a novel for children that I’ve kind of started twice. Once was a dark and mysterious fantasy adventure, and didn’t quite feel right. And so now I’m working on something that’s got a much more playful, kind of crooked version of the real world feeling. It takes place in a kind of imaginary Swiss Alps, sort of surreal. I’ve never been to the Swiss Alps, so my imagined surrealist version of the Swiss Alps that feel more like the landscape in a Super Mario video game, in some ways, than what the reality must be. And so my vibe is one of like playfulness and strangeness and red apples, green hills, and a bit of contemporary surrealism.

[00:14:38] John Q: Sean also writes about music.

[00:14:40] Sean Michaels: This week I’ve been listening to a couple of new albums. There’s this amazing jazz label out of Chicago called International Anthem that released all of this incredible contemporary jazz music that has all different weathers. All the different albums really have a different feel, but really all seem really smart and sensual.

[00:14:58] So there’s a record by the ensemble of a South African musician called Asher Gamedze. He had an album called Turbulence and Pulse that I love this year.

[00:15:08] There’s also an Australian singer-songwriter called Ben Howard, who kind of has this history of writing a bit of emotional, earnest acoustic stuff, a bit like Bon Iver maybe, and his new album, Is It? was produced by this more electronic producer, I think they’re British, and so the sound of it ends up having this weird, kind of bent feeling, like an set of earnest songs that are just a bit weird. I think maybe like the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, like they’re a bit infected, or they’ve drunk too much cough syrup or something. And I really liked that sort of in-between, where it’s both really sincere and honest and also kind of melting at the same time.

[00:15:58] John Q: Novelist Sean Michaels. His third novel, Do You Remember Being Born, was released in September.

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