The Immortal Life of Counterfactuals: A Conversation with Annelyse Gelman

Annelyse Gelman is a poet and artist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, the PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone (Write Bloody, 2014) and, with Jason Gillis-Grier, the EP About Repulsion (Fonograf Editions, 2019). Gelman received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers in 2020 and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Jason Gillis-Grier is a software developer, media producer, and sound designer. He releases sounds and sound-making tools as architectures for mass collaboration via Ableton and Human Ear Music (HEM), a label he founded in 2006 that now counts Ariel Pink, Julia Holter, Michael Pisaro, Lucrecia Dalt, and Ekkehard Ehlers among its artists. Gillis-Grier currently lives in Berlin, Germany

This winter, I chatted with Annelyse bi-coastally about interdisciplinary collaboration and Midst: a new, digital literary initiative publishing poems in the form of interactive timelapses—granting readers compelling, unprecedented views into the drafting process, from blank page to “final” product, and everything in between. The project launches in full on February 9th, but a pilot issue is available to view at Gelman and Gillis-Grier serve as Founder/Director and Lead Software Engineer, respectively.

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Rebekkah Leigh LaBlue: Humbled to talk about this project. Thanks so much for taking the time!

Because I’d like to believe that all ideas come out of some inextinguishable need to manifest something apparently and personally absent in the exterior world, I’m wondering—to start—what need did Midst rise out of, for you? I’m also curious as to whether Midst began as a personal writing project or a collaborative, journal-based idea: so, first for your own poems or for those of others.

Annelyse Gelman: What a beautiful way to talk about ideas. I remember noticing, really early on, when I was maybe 10 or 11, that I tended to write poems exclusively around a single theme, exhaust it, and then shift, pretty abruptly, to a different subject. It was only at each point of transition that I’d kind of look back and say, Huh, that’s weird, I’m not writing nature poems anymore. My practice has shifted a lot as I’ve grown older, of course, but that uncanny sense that it’s not entirely on purpose has always been there. Even now, any time I finish a poem, I have this immediate confusion: How did I write this? How will I ever do it again? The closest I can come to explaining this to myself is that when I’m writing well, I’m incredibly focused, and when I finish writing I kind of snap out of it and have this post-flow-state amnesia. It’s almost like waking up from a dream—I can’t quite remember it. All of this is to say that I think the need—the deep, obsessive, propulsive need—is just to confront this incredibly mysterious process and try to understand better what might be going on. 

I studied psychology in college, and first tried confronting these problems through empirical research—my senior thesis was with the brilliant scientist and piano player Allen Neuringer, and I was studying improvisation and creative problem-solving. I always assumed I’d go on to get a PhD in cognitive science. But I started to realize that this domain might be better explored through practice—embodying the research—than through lab work. How does a poem do what it does? It’s essentially an experiment: holding most variables steady (in a poem’s case, through patterning), and then varying one or a few (by breaking those patterns, thus violating the reader’s expectations). By “variables” I mean any of the stuff a poem’s made of: syntax, sonics, subject matter, form, etc. So every poet, every poem, is in a sense conducting these experiments of pattern, on themselves and (eventually) on the reader. And every poem you read changes you, including your own.

RLL: I’m a scientist, too, an ornithologist, and so equating poems to experiments—like you—is an avenue I return to a bit obsessively. When I’m in the field identifying, ageing, and sexing birds in-hand, the language we have to do this “definitively” from our central reference text is actually very subjective. Are those wing-bars white or lemony? (Or buff?) Sometimes it’s really hard to tell! It’s a joke among my colleagues: what happens when we elevate sensory language to the rule of jargon. It’s a pattern ripe for poems. All of that is to say that methodology in science—the trial and error, the do and redo, the categorization and quantification of those variables—are privileged in the final research document as much as results or conclusions—privileged above all else, I would argue!

AG: By early 2018 I was in grad school getting my MFA. I’d been pretty much self-taught until then, so I was really surprised to find that in a workshop, the poet never talks, and I can’t remember the question of “How do we actually write poems? What are we doing when we write? How did you write this?” even coming up once in class. We talked about craft a lot—what a poem’s made of, its architecture—but we never talked about actually drawing the blueprints. All the stuff I do when I write a poem—especially on a computer—is, by the very nature of it, self-erasing. And the most exciting and dynamic parts of process, for me at least, weren’t happening between the “first draft” and the “final draft”—they were happening between the totally blank page and that very first draft, when I’m jumping all over the screen tweaking all those “variables” almost simultaneously, choreographing them, sculpting them. Was anyone else doing this stuff when they were writing? Were they doing other, different things, things I might learn from or even try myself? And there were other questions, too (other needs): Why did we pick this kind of arbitrary point along the immortal life-cycle of a poem and say, This is the poem? Wasn’t that kind of like taking a single snapshot of a leaping ballerina and saying, This is the dance? It was obvious to me that every time I sat down to write a poem, the process was an absolutely essential part of the text, and the fact that we didn’t treat it as such started to seem more and more like a matter of the writing technologies we use than an actual fact about literature. A computer is already capturing all this data. That “delete” key doesn’t have to actually delete.

RLL: Uh, inner lip tattoo: This is the dance? Yes please and thank you. 

To continue, Midst is such a striking and necessary project because of how it addresses and renames the supplementary as the essential: those poems that exist to the left and right, above and below the poem at hand; those embedded in thousands of pixels that occupy the field of the page, ghost in and out with something akin to ink. (What even is the smallest organizational element of a poem, anymore? I’m beginning to think for many of us, it’s the pixel.) Which reminds me of the other thing that struck me most upon viewing the pilot issue for the project… time stamps! I can’t get over the time stamps. Perhaps the only thing more satisfying than seeing drafts contextualized in larger space is in larger time. In Anis Mojgani’s “Cuesta,” the first poem in the pilot issue, we watch the draft begin on May 7 and then jump to October—before it is finished in November. Were time stamps part of the original plan for the project?

AG: I love what you said about pixel-space and I also find the time-stamps just as immensely satisfying and illuminating. As far as I can remember, this wasn’t part of the original plan—I sort of just realized it was yet another type of data that would be interesting to see and perhaps easy to capture, and I think I asked Jason to add it fairly late in the development process. I’d hypothesize that you can tell how quickly someone’s writing, their in-session and intra-session pace, just from the timeline alone: that you can tell from the language itself when someone’s on a roll, writing quickly, and when they’re being slower and thoughtful. But maybe not? I guess the timestamps are a way to test this hypothesis—to see how (if at all) leaps in form/style/content are correlated with leaps in time—and also just to give some additional context to the unfolding of the poem.

RLL: How on earth does Midst work on the back-end? Do poets draft into a specific program, or…? 

AG: Essentially, Jason and I built a custom word-processor. It’s like a minimalist Microsoft Word. You can type in it, delete, do some basic formatting, copy and paste, and so on. And you can save files (“.midst” files instead of “.doc”), then open them a week later, make edits, save them again. Each document creates and saves its own timeline. The Midst website is its own custom platform, which can take these .midst poems and display them along with their timelines.

Several of the commissions I have coming up involve poets working on “4D poems,” as one put it—essentially making the timeline not just a record of how they wrote the “finished poem” or an artifact of the process, but a coherent work of art in itself. If you want, you can treat Midst just like any other word processor. The default mode is that the timeline is a passive thing. But it’s there if you want it. And as for the conceptual fuzziness that allowing writers to use it adds—are we capturing a pre-existing process, or creating a new one?—I’m not super concerned about it. Like, it’s already incredibly artificial to sit someone down and tell them you’re recording everything they type and then ask them to just “write like they normally do.” Of course they can’t! There will always be surveillance chill, observer effects, no matter how beautiful and easy we make the software or how used to it a writer gets. I suppose this idea, that every aspect of a writing technology actively shapes what gets written, is one of the central theses of Midst in the first place. You’ll write differently with a pen and notebook than with a computer. Hell, you’ll probably write differently with a pen than with a pencil! 

RLL: How did you and Jason meet? And know you were the right person to help each other? Collaboratory chemistry can make or break a project.

AG: I met Jason in Berlin in late 2016. I was there on a Fulbright grant, ostensibly to work on poetry-film, but my resources were really limited and I started getting kind of swallowed up by the music scene instead. We’re both American, but he’d been living in Germany for I think six years when we met by accident through a mutual friend. He had this immense openness towards “pop music”—he wasn’t an art snob—but also a huge wealth of knowledge and interest in experimental approaches to sound. He’d been running a music label for a long time, and when we met he was just finishing this absolutely bonkers digital MIDI instrument called Seurat. Each of us, in our own way, were already taking a really discipline-agnostic, rigorous approach to art; each of us already was invested in the way technology is changing how and why we work. We started making music together, and by the time we started on Midst a couple of years later, we were extremely close and already knew how to support each other in a collaborative relationship. I definitely agree that chemistry is everything—these projects only work because we both really trust each other and understand each other, we’re both equally invested in what we’re doing, and we’re both paying attention to power dynamics (around our skills and contribution, and how they’re valued and commodified around money, race, gender, age, etc.) and making sure things feel fair to both of us. Even with this interview, I was like, “How do you want to be talked about? I know Midst is ‘my’ project, but isn’t it weird if it’s mostly me talking about it, when it wouldn’t exist if we weren’t building it together?” It’s mine, but it’s ours. It’s a constant negotiation.

RLL: To backtrack a little, I’m invested in your argument about workshop pedagogy—the traditional Iowa model specifically—and how the literal silencing of authors in the room contributes to a silencing of process. I’m curious what a workshop space that tries to accommodate drafts would look like. Have you thought about this? Since working on Midst, how has your ideal workshop space changed?

AG: To be a little more generous to the “traditional workshop,” I think my teachers in grad school were really burnt out from the “this poem is a broken machine that needs to be repaired” model of critique they came up in, and so for the most part, workshops were just about describing a poem as it was. I was really lucky to work with amazing professors (Lisa Olstein, Roger Reeves, Joanna Klink, Jane Miller, etc.). A lot of craft, I think, can’t actually be taught—everyone has their own approach because we can’t communicate about approach, but also because they need to have their own approach. That’s part of the game. But I think potential approaches to revision, and to initial drafting, are things we can teach each other to an extent, in the same way that we can learn from each other’s use of enjambment or white space or the interrogative mode or whatever. I do think a “describe the poem” workshop model allows for some contextual discussion. I guess what Midst offers is a chance to really look at counterfactuals. Language is so big that it’s normally really pointless to say, Well, what else could the poet have tried here? What if their metaphor was about a bee and a flower, instead of the moon and the tide? That feels so arbitrary, so unproductive. I’d never do that in a workshop. But if we actually see the poet try a bee-flower metaphor and then switch to moon-tide—how fucking fascinating would that be? And then we could very explicitly, and very usefully, ask: why the switch? Which is more effective, and why? 

I’m not sure there’s any one ideal workshop, but I’m really looking forward to developing a curriculum around Midst: a set of writing and reading and discussion exercises. I’d love to teach a class where everyone works with .midst files and where we look at each other’s processes. This would be a really delicate thing—process is so vulnerable, and everyone needs to feel safe sharing, to feel they won’t be judged. Not just for embarrassing or silly things they wrote, but what if someone says something really fucked up and offensive in a poem, on their way to the “final text”? What do we make of that? How do we confront language that crosses the line, or is potentially harmful, when we’ve already accepted the idea that nothing can be deleted? And what will actually happen when we actively discuss, describe, or even critique how an artist works, and not just what they make? Will it help us write? Or might it make us too self-conscious, actually inhibiting that “flow state” that’s so necessary—to me, anyway—to the process? These are all important questions, and I imagine they’d vary from class to class, and I don’t think there’s one easy solution. But I think if everyone participating was on board, we could create a little community where we learn things from each other that we absolutely never would in a traditional workshop. That really excites me. 

RLL: Combining these ideas about the potential pedagogical applications of Midst and capturing what writers “already normally do,” can you speak more broadly, now, to the journal as a commission-based project? This is hardly a common approach in the popular lit mag landscape (beyond, say, ekphrastic). How does this project, in your eyes, destabilize the rhythm of the submission process we’ve learned so familiarly?

AG: The commission-based nature of Midst is not really the end goal—it’s just where the project is at right now, for a lot of perhaps boring logistical reasons. I wanted to pay every poet, for example; I didn’t want to be in the position of “rejecting” people; the software is still in beta and I sometimes have to walk people through installing or troubleshooting it, which would be impossible on a larger scale, especially with Jason and I doing all this without compensation; I didn’t want to make a journal that was all about what I, Annelyse, think is a “strong” or “successful” or “interesting” poem. There are a lot of brilliant editors and journals already doing that well out there. I don’t think my taste is particularly special, noteworthy, or important, you know? I want Midst to be a more open space, more descriptive than prescriptive of what is happening in contemporary poetics. So while it’s in this early commission-based stage, I’m trying to reach a diverse multiplicity of poets—different styles, schools, regions, languages, races, genders, etc.; I also take public nominations for who to commission. 

As soon as possible, my goal is to get the software finished up and make it more public so that anyone who wants to can use it. We have a fair amount of work to do to make that happen. I just made a Patreon to hopefully help this happen sustainably, and I’m also looking for larger institutional or nonprofit grants (software development is expensive!). And then we will open for submissions, I think, probably with guest editors (again, I don’t want to be the gatekeeper, especially as a white woman in publishing!). 

RLL: What do you ultimately envision as the future of Midst?

AG: The bigger dream is to make Midst itself open-access. To build it out like Vimeo, so anyone who wants to can write in the software, make a profile at, and upload their own work. We could have a social element, too. Maybe even “fork” work off à la Github and revise it into new poems, or borrow each other’s “dead” language abandoned mid-timeline. At that point the Midst “journal” will still exist, but I think it’ll be more like a “spotlight” or a “staff pick”—hey, we think this is noteworthy!—with some special features and commissions, rather than the only way that Midst publishes. As Midst grows, the more accessory possibilities—developing pedagogy around it, solidifying it as a long-term archive for scholars, quantitative and qualitative analyses of process on a broader scale, etc.—can start to take shape. But, yeah, as you can imagine, doing this as a two-person volunteer team is a little tricky! Graduating directly into the pandemic definitely gave me extra time to get Midst launch-ready—thanks, COVID.

Side-thought: I’m really interested in the “dead” language that comprises a lot of the Midst timeline before the final poem. Even just from a copyright or authorship perspective—do discarded lines, killed darlings, “belong” to the person who wrote them? Are they just fair game somehow, returned to the pool of all-potential-language where poems come from, like fish tossed back into a pond? Catching them turned them into fish. We changed them, we put magic into these words by writing them, and then we let them go. What is that? 

RL: The open-access model is so exciting to me, coming from a STEM background, where there’s so much discussion to be had—as you know!—about accessibility: paywalls, jargon, etc.

When we first got connected, I mentioned having joined an NC-based computational poetics working group last year. Well, it formed initially in preparation for an event with poets Nick Montfort and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, so I read Travesty Generator (Noemi Press, 2019) recently—which uses open-source code that often appears on the page. Since, I’ve become preoccupied with how code and computers become authorized in poems—become their own speakers, in a sense? When you watch words appear and disappear on Midst, for example, you’re watching an artifact. Sure, it’s a writer’s process, but it’s not them, actively, any longer, doing the drafting; it’s the computer forevermore. How we only see the light of a star once it’s long dead and all that noise, yeah? 

AG: What you’re saying about computers as authors really fascinates me. I suppose I think of authorship as somewhat of a three dimensional space, a spectrum, with individual “ownership” or “origination” of an idea sometimes being quite pronounced, and sometimes nearly invisible, and then with many, many interstitial spaces. When I write with a word processor, my process (and therefore my poem) is different than if I had written with a pen and paper—I think if I’d written “Pool” in a notebook, it absolutely would have turned into a completely different poem, and probably not even been centered on this man drowned in a swimming pool at all. The tools we use absolutely influence the work we do, in art as in every other domain of life—I think this is what Heidegger talks about with the ideas of “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand,” though these are terms I only encountered pretty recently. When I “notice” my pen—because it runs out of ink, or it slips out of my grasp—it exists for me as its own entity; I’m aware of it as a tool, of how it mediates my activity. But when my pen is working and I’m writing, the pen “disappears” from my awareness and becomes an extension of my body and mind, a conduit for my thoughts, pure utility. This disappearing is the “flow state.” What interests me is that even when the pen “disappears,” it’s still mediating. There’s this constant flow of “authorship,” always. Every encounter “contaminates,” as Anna Tsing puts it. And these contaminants enter into our work and, to varying extents, “author” it alongside us. Of course, a really sophisticated AI like GPT-3 starts to enter into the territory of the tool becoming more autonomous, authoring a text instead of us, which is really exciting to me. There’s a future application there for Midst, actually—instead of just feeding a machine a corpus of poetry and saying, “Produce something that looks like this,” could we use these records of human poets’ processes to train a machine how to write poems? But, uh, I’d like to get the software working well for humans first!

RLL: Speaking of POOL (2020), I’d like to end on it. Did this piece, conceptually, come about before or after Midst? How has working on a journal with such a specific editorial intention shaped your own writing in the short and long term?

AG: POOL came about after I’d already been working on Midst for a couple of years. I met Ryan Paradiso, who runs NECK Press, in Austin. I think I literally said to Ryan, “I’d really like to make an artist’s book, but I know I’m never going to do it on my own. Do you want to make one together?” I’m a pretty impatient artist—so I’d always assumed that bookmaking, which involves a lot of repetitive tasks, would also be difficult for me. But I actually found it very meditative and satisfying, perhaps because the repetitive work is actually with the materials that end up in the final product—every stitch in POOL’s binding is the binding, and is visible and tactile.

We started with a very open-ended idea: to somehow combine a book object with a Midst timeline. At one point I was set on having all the pages be these squishy, blue, gel-filled pouches—like those tube-shaped toys for children—filling the gel with glitter and little plastic floating figurines. The final form—the gradually deepening blue paper—was more a matter of pragmatism. Ryan had a risograph; I had InDesign; figuring out how to wrangle all these exotic paper stocks felt possible in the timeframe we’d set and with our tiny budget, but maybe buying a heat-sealer wasn’t. And of course there’s an environmental cost to these ideas that I think we were both very aware of.

I’m not sure whether, or how, Midst or POOL have influenced my own writing. To me they feel more like opportunities to explore the time-based nature of poetry, and a way to offer a gift to the world, something that’s made explicitly for other people to use. A huge part of the reason I’ve approached them that way is to allow people’s responses, reactions, confusions, and desires to shape the direction of the project. I started out with this “literary journal” because I figured the weird timelapse format might lead to some confusion (what the hell is this?), and I wanted it to still retain some friendliness, some familiarity. I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing! I just think there’s some value to a project being “explainable,” even (especially) if it’s entering into less familiar territory. I’m not so worried about being a “poet’s poet” or being too difficult or obscure in my own work—not every poem is for every reader, and that’s fine. But I really wanted Midst to be something that was easier to encounter, regardless of your experience with or knowledge of poetry.

Rebekkah Leigh LaBlue

Rebekkah Leigh LaBlue is a poet, ornithologist, and environmental educator pseudo-native to Asheville, North Carolina by way of Long Island. The recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, her work appears with Figure 1, Muzzle, Black Warrior Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. She reads poetry for The Adroit Journal and bands birds, presently, in Appalachia.

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