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David Tolkacz: A new kind of writer?

(Editor's Note — In a conversation with 1120 Press writer Benjamin Joe, Buffalo writer David Tolkacz examines his use of technolgy in his art. — Photo by Benjamin Joe.)


Amid the flurries of creative work and the collective bargaining as seen in Hollywood, the trenches are being dug. Either human-made — or get the hell out!

 

But where is the line really drawn?

 

For those who grew up in the 90s, one might remember grunge-enthusiast groups using feedback and distortion — sounds that had been heard before, but were now being thrown in as often, and as artfully, as possible.

 

“Is this what music has become?” the parents of the age may have said to their teenagers.

 

And into this fray comes a poet like David Tolkacz, a normal looking man who’s lived in Buffalo all his life, graduated from the University at Buffalo and has certain ideas about dogma and freedom of thought that seem not only almost timeless, but relevant within the context of using programmed algorithms to create art.

 

Tolkacz lives in a world of e-lit, layout and n-grams. Often “lumped into” the same grouping as AI users — ie: the people who use AI to spit out artwork, try to write novels or otherwise generate content with programs like ChatGPT — Tolkacz explained this is not the case in his own work. All his content is made by him.

 

“I get lumped into a category with such (ChatGPT),” he said. “And that’s made it harder for me, because no one likes AI.”

 

However, despite the risk, Tolkacz has used and continues to use technology, which he spoke about with 1120 Press recently in the Elmwood Village, hitting upon all the twists and turns of his writing career.

 

“I got started in college,” Tolkacz said. “I was a really big fan of Hunter S. Thompson and poetry in general. I wanted to be a writer, really bad, so I started writing poetry and a lot of this stuff was unique in so far as what I was doing with layout, that other poets weren’t doing at the time.”

 

Tolkacz pointed to a particular piece of work in which the same phrase is repeated again-and-again in the background, but something akin to a “text box” is in the foreground, onto which a poem is written out. He said this technique uses the entire page as a part of the piece of art, and not just merely the text in the middle.

 

This is a pretty simple difference, Tolkacz said, but it set him up for things he goes on to do that ruffle some feathers.

 

“Later I got into computer generated poetry. N-grams,” he said.

 

N-grams are not AI — there is no intelligence, just random generation and memory — that Tolkacz described as a, “statistical model of language as it appears in sequence.”

 

“They’re kind of hard to describe. You feed text into the n-gram generator, and it will spit text back out at you based on the sequence of the word,” he said.

 

Tolkacz has input thousands of words into the generator, including the entire Holy Bible, and after the process of randomly generating excerpts of text, he’s molded, cut-and-paste and further cultivated the new text to his liking, thereby making it more than what an AI program would be able to do with the same tools at its disposal.

 

According to the poet, there’s a lot of shady behavior that has pieced together what the world now has as AI, but that young and aspiring artist, like himself, have very little to fear.

 

“I think there’s a lot of justified concern with the way that the models were trained, because they did it without asking permission,” he said. “I mean, the image generators. They stole from deviant art, and they never asked permission. So, there’s a lot of justified concern about how they went about getting the data.

 

“(But) once you know it was generated — that there’s no attachment to another person — you develop a relationship with the writer and if there’s no writer, there’s no relationship.”

 

Tolkacz continues to split-the-hairs of the writing world, noting that freedom in writing brings the writer and the reader to poetry, “because poetry offers you the most freedom in writing.”

 

“There’s fewer constraints when it comes to poetry. It’s more the texture of language than it is in meaning. The way the language sounds. The way it tastes on your mouth when you speak it. And just in general. You do get more freedom of expression in a poetic form than you would an essay or a novel. I do a lot of religious (things). I’m very anti-religious.”

 

Raised Catholic, Tolkacz says he’s been responding to religion in an almost abuser/victim relationship for a very long time. He said that religion sets up a standard to which everyone is compared. And if someone doesn’t measure up? The fact is, religion is used as a weapon in society, he said, and while he’s been called a satanist, he is not a member of any church. Instead, he is a true skeptic.

 

“(Just look at) the amount of damage it causes to people who don’t conform to ‘normal’ gender roles. I do have a very anti-religious bent to my work,” he said. “(My work is to) undermine it. That’s why I use (n-grams). It’s a satire of religion a lot of the times.”

 

Tolkacz pointed out one poem called “Lilith” in which he put the King James Bible into the n-gram’s generator and watched the program spit out word-on-word, creating a slab of text that he was able to cut-and-paste around, “so that I would be inspired by the output, but not wholly dependent on it.”

 

“It’s an example, and at the end, I say something like, ‘I just took the words of the Bible and make them do whatever I wanted them to,’” he said. “The Lilith poem is about sex workers and the power they wield … I took the Bible and made this poem about Lilith that was very flattering towards Lilith … a procedural satire on what society does with religion. They pick and choose what morals they’re going to have. What morals they hold themselves to. What morals they hold others to.”

 

Other non-digital ways to create this kind of inspiration would be to write words on note cards and then mix them up, pick one at a time, and find a poem within those manually randomized sequences of verse. The final stage of seeing the poem within that sequence is the last job for this kind of poet.

 

“I do write poems without n-grams,” Tolkacz said. “I just enjoy doing it in that sculpting way.”

 

“Lilith” and other examples of n-grams can be found at http://antiliterature.blogspot.com. He can often be found at Caffe Aroma’s Wednesday poetry nights.

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