Fully Automated Luxury Lucid Dreams: A Conversation with Annelyse Gelman

I first heard of Midst, an experimental digital journal founded by the poet Annelyse Gelman, after it published Peach contributor Aja Moore’s poem “TGIF.” Clicking on the link, you’ll find a resonant three-line poem: “i watch time lapse videos of strawberries / forming. leaves churn sunlight into red / juice.” Curiously, at the bottom of the page is a pink timeline with a play button. Click on it and you’ll see something amazing: a full time-lapse video of the poem being written (with time stamps!).

It’s September 30, 2019; the poem starts at nothing, then “thank god it’s fall” appears on screen. Eight minutes into writing, at 7:20 PM, the three lines that make up the finished poem are written and never changed again, but below them appear dozens more trains of thought, lines, and stanzas. Things are added, lineated, moved around, expanded on, deleted (for a single minute we see “what’s sexier than that / it’s libra season” before it’s quickly deleted forever), and the poem is finally left unfinished an hour later, at 8:23 PM. The next day, Moore changes a few lines and leaves it alone again, before coming back nearly a month later; on October 21, forty minutes after midnight, she deletes everything except the first three lines, and the poem is finished.

As I’m writing this, there are 32 poems on Midst you can watch unfold like “TGIF.” I’ve never experienced poems quite like this, and I’m wicked intrigued, so I decided to get in contact with Midst’s founder, Annelyse Gelman. She’s a poet and artist, with poems published in places like The New Yorker and BOMB Magazine and poetry-films screened in festivals worldwide. She is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone (Write Bloody, 2014), the artist's book POOL (NECK Press, 2020), and the EP About Repulsion (Fonograf Editions, 2019), which was a collaboration with programmer Jason Gillis-Grier, the lead software engineer for Midst.

I spoke with Annelyse over email, where we dove right into what inspired Midst, what it means to value how we write as much as what we write, how collaboration is a mutual act of love, the future of Midst as both a journal and a software, and more. –Jakob Maier


Jakob Maier: I first want to talk about poetry as movement, as language in a state of flux, shifting and changing both in the process of its being written (drafting, revision, shifting from paper to Notes app to Word document to PDF to email to web page) and its being read (who is reading it? where are they sitting? are they comfortable? are they reading on paper? desktop? mobile? landscape or portrait mode? what brightness is their phone? are the smudges in their glasses causing them to read word wrong? is there such a thing as a wrong word in poetry to begin with?). Midst is a project that approaches this idea of language as a process in a way I've never really seen before, especially in the world of publishing as compared to the revision-focused world of graduate workshops, writing classes, paid manuscript evaluations, etc. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Midst as project that champions the poem as a space of shifting language, and the space you see it filling in the broader online literary publishing scene?

Annelyse Gelman: I think you’re getting at something really important: A poem, like any work of art, is relational. It’s the product of many complex systems interacting on many different scales—not a single Literary Mind funneling its genius onto the page. I think the literary world, and educational institutions, are pretty great at acknowledging how a writer's personal biography shapes their poetry; we don’t talk about Sylvia Plath’s poems without talking about her suicide. And we’re pretty comfortable with the entanglement of aesthetics and ethics—especially since we know not all writers are saints. But I don’t think we pay enough attention to the writer’s actual physical body in time and space as they write, their particular circumstances. Are they hungry? Are they distracted? What tools are they using, and how? Are they working in a frenzy, super quickly, writing the whole poem almost stream-of-consciousness without stopping or changing much? Or are they chiseling out one word at a time over a period of months, working on a single sentence at a time until it’s polished to a sheen? If we can start to demystify this link between how we write and what we write, we can start to visualize the connections between how we write and who we are. It’s about education but it’s also about community, intimacy, and vulnerability.

It’s funny, poets talk a lot about “risk” and I’m sometimes not sure what they mean. There are different kinds of risks. But writing a poem in this format and sharing it—it’s unbelievably risky to me. You’re potentially humiliating yourself, or outing yourself—in this culture!—as an immoral person (aesthetics and ethics, right?), or a boring person…. If you say, “Here are all the choices I made,” you invite a reader to judge those choices, to disagree with them. I know I can’t totally control it, but I think making a space where people can be this vulnerable with each other and receive love, support, and admiration is invaluable. The more you expose yourself as an artist, the greater the risk—and the greater the potential reward, if that exposure is met with understanding, interest, etc.

One of my professors in grad school, Lisa Olstein, compared Midst to recording someone’s REM cycle in a sleep lab—I love that. It’s true in the sense of a kind of rigged study (sleeping in a lab with a bunch of wires on your head may change how you sleep, and knowing everything you’re writing is being recorded may change how you write). But it’s also true in the sense that when I watch Midst timelines, my own or others’, I really do feel like we’re recording and playing back dreams. The way I engage with language when I’m writing poems—it’s not that I’m unconscious, but I’m definitely in an altered state that necessarily limits my awareness of what I’m doing. Everyone knows this; that’s why we tell each other to “get the critic out of your head” when we sit down to write. I really believe that. To the extent that if I can’t kind of seduce or hypnotize myself into that altered state, I think I invariably write a shitty poem. It’s exciting to have a space where we can actually witness these altered states unfolding. Fully Automated Luxury Lucid Dreams!

Anyway—obviously it’s hard to capture a lot of these complex systems without violating a poet’s privacy (or creating such a strong observer effect that the results no longer feel typical). But it’s easy if people are already writing on computers, pouring all this information into them. Midst is just a matter of harnessing that flighty data, capturing it, pinning it to a cork board, making it available for examination. Like, maybe we can’t capture how the microorganisms in a particular poet’s gut influence their poem, but we can at least look at their interaction (collaboration, even) with their tools and ask: What’s really going on here?

If we accept that art is always both personal and political, and we acknowledge how important lived, embodied experience is in shaping who we are, what we do, and why, then I think Midst offers a way to get a much deeper glimpse into that experience than just… reading a finished poem. The changes that happen as a poem is written—the changes you can see in a Midst timeline—reflect movement, performance. We’re watching a writer think and feel, rehearsing and testing their ideas. I learn so much from seeing which ideas make it to the final show and which get discarded along the way.

It’s funny that you bring up “revision-focused” aspects of the literary world—I’ve said this elsewhere, I think, but to me it’s absolutely undeniable that the most important parts of process usually happen between blank page and draft 1, not between draft 3 and 8. I just finished an MFA program, and I don’t think I ever got an idea of how any of my classmates actually made their work. I mean… it’s pretty hard to do that when the poet literally is not allowed to speak, which is how many writing workshops are traditionally structured! In fact, most of the workshops I’ve seen are explicitly about neutrally describing what a poem is doing. You’re usually not supposed to suggest ways to change a poem; you’re not even really supposed to suggest that a poem is lacking or flawed. The longer I work with Midst, the more I realize how much these institutions could benefit from focusing more on process. Both so students can understand their own processes more deeply, and so that they can learn from each other’s. With Midst, we can start asking questions like: Hey, when you did X, did you consider Y? Or: I noticed you deleted A early on, but there’s an interesting connection to B—maybe it’s worth bringing that back? I loved an assignment Roger Reeves gave at the end of his workshop: each of us wrote our names on a slip of paper, scrambled them up, and then drew a classmate’s name. We had to write a poem in their style, in their voice. It was such a fun challenge, and I think it would be especially fun if we were to try to imitate another poet’s process. Writing stream-of-consciousness when you usually plod along, or writing on paper when you usually type, or writing at 3am when you normally write over lunch—these are all techniques we can (and should) steal from each other. They really are legitimate craft techniques, these circumstantial variables; they’re as worthy of examination as diction or form. We shouldn’t take them for granted, or treat them as quirks or preferences. They are methods. Some just come more easily or readily to us than others.

Before the pandemic, I saw Natalie Diaz give a reading in Marfa, Texas. She handed each person in the audience a unique mineral—crystals, gems, stones—and asked us to close our eyes and hold these objects as we listened. It was a profoundly beautiful experience. The gift of these minerals expanded the sensory modality of the poems, made them into performances, changed their voices and speakers. It made listening… tactile, haptic—actively embodied, not passive. And we were all together! And we all knew that each of us was simultaneously having a completely unique experience, because each of us had a different kind of mineral, with different properties. Natalie’s reading made our listening contingent. Or it made it clear that reading is always contingent—giving us access to this massive always-already thing that’s so easy to ignore. I am a body. We are bodies. Reading a poem as it’s written makes us exquisitely aware that everything that happens in a poem could be otherwise. It opens our imaginations.

JM: Maybe the distinction we're looking for is "writing-focused" vs. "revision-focused" pedagogy—the first as a system that values the act of writing itself (the labor, the conditions of writing, and all else that contributes to the drafting process) and the second as a system that more highly values the product (getting the first draft to a final, 'finished' piece). I don't think it'd be crazy to say this has some political import, since the establishment and spread of the American MFA program is pretty directly linked to Cold War anti-communist poli