Tennley’s Looking Outwards-10-Allison Parrish: The Ephemerides

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In an August 2015 blog post Allison Parrish describes the bot called The Ephemerides that she created which pairs a computer-generated poem with a photo from NASA’s Opus database and posts them on Twitter. To make the program that creates the poems Parrish used text from two books: Astrology by Sepharial and The Ocean And Its Wonders by R. M. Ballantyne. Parrish broke each book into individual sentences, then broke down the sentences into clauses, then broke down the clauses into grammatical constituents. This process created a database of clauses and constituents from which the program selects. The constituents are organized based on their part of speech and/or grammatical role. Parrish explains that to make a poem, the program randomly selects a clause and then replaces each constituent in that clause by randomly selecting a constituent of the same part of speech or grammatical role. This means that although the poems are randomly generated, they do maintain some grammatical integrity. The Ephemerides also selects the NASA images randomly. The images come from space probes like Voyager, Cassini, and Galileo. Parrish explains that she did this project because she sees a link between space probes and generative poetry. She says that they both “venture into realms inhospitable to human survival and send back telemetry telling us what is found there.” To Parrish, the realm of the space probe is outer space and the realm of generative poetry is nonsense. I like how Parrish’s work draws a connection between the unknown and hard to understand universe outside of our planet and the similarly unknown and hard to comprehend nonsense created with generative poetry. Combining these two big ideas makes her work confusing, interesting, and that much more engaging. As Parrish points out, the poems and the photos are all randomly selected, so the meaning that a person ascribes to them is coming from inside that person. I find it inspiring how although this project is computer-generated, the meaning and impact of it on each viewer is self-generated from within. I like it when poetry doesn’t always make sense and it requires the reader to think deeply to discover its meaning because then the reader has the ability to interpret the meaning for themselves on a personal level. The reader then can almost ascribe their own meaning to the poetry. These generative poems have that quality.
Check out The Ephemerides on Twitter and visit Parrish’s blog to learn more.
And here is a video of Parrish’s 2015 Eyeo talk.