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


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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 political aims. "Show, don't tell," New Criticism, the very makeup of the writing workshop as a space where participants react to a piece of writing rather than talk to the author; writing becomes a noun rather than a verb, an object rather than process! I feel like that's why exercises like Reeves's and Diaz's are so exciting to experience, because they bring us into a more collaborative, process-driven space, where we think of how others write, or even co-create the performance of a poem.


Given the way it makes space for the act of writing, what workshops traditionally ignore, do you see Midst as a political project—not in terms of partisan electoral politics, of course, but as something that challenges the status quo by offering a vision of an alternative value set?


AG: Yes! This! And I want Midst to be driven by writers and readers, not by editors or curators, and certainly not by the aesthetic preferences of a white girl from the suburbs; I see myself more as a director than an “editor” per se, especially in the long term. Allowing anyone to upload their poems directly to Midst is an important milestone—though one I don’t think we’ll reach for a while, because we’re not institutionally funded. But it’s this very independence that I think will allow us to uphold these more democratic, collective, international, anti-hierarchical ideals. One goal I have, for example, is to bring in guest editors who specialize in literary cultures and/or languages other than my own. Folks familiar with the poetry scene in Spain or Iran, for example, who could curate writer-translator duos, so you’d see the entire process of writing in a given native language, followed by the entire process of translation into English. That might be pretty difficult in a world driven by strictly-limited funding structures. I also want to continue to make sure every commissioned poet is paid, to compensate folks for their creative and intellectual labor and their time (we’ve paid every poet, from the very beginning of the project).


Money aside, I’m excited for Midst to hopefully shift the way we think about (and even make) poems into a more collaborative, process-oriented space; I’m also excited to continue to erode the barriers between literature and other art forms, between writers and readers, and between the individual Lone Genius™ creator and their audience. We live in a built world; we are sharing it and co-creating it; the work we do should reflect that. Poetry can suffer from being pretty low-stakes—people just don’t read poems, for the most part, and don’t really care about them. But poetry can also benefit from this isolation, because it’s cheap, portable, and malleable—and therefore a really fruitful proving ground for different social, economic, and political approaches. We can model new modes of relating to each other and to our work, or of imagining what is possible, and then transport those discoveries to other domains.


JM: While you're the founder and editor of Midst, you're not the only person involved; you work with Jason Gillis-Grier, who—correct me if I'm wrong—is the programmer behind Midst word processor itself. You and Jason also collaborated together to make the EP About Repulsion, which mixes field recordings, samples, poems, and music in a really eclectic, kaleidoscopic experience. Like the poetry timelines in Midst, working with collaborators is so process-driven—making time for meetings, productive conversations, arguments, compromises, shared work, etc. Hell, I often think about reading itself as a collaborative process. After all, poems are just words on a page or screen, and it is the act of reading itself—from translating pixels or ink to words to phrases to sentences to poems—that elevates the raw material of language into 'poems', those weird mashes of emotions, objects, ideas, and meanings that are generated by the meeting of the author, the reader, and all the intermediaries between them! Can you talk a bit about your notion of collaboration, and how it influences your process, both in artistic creation and consumption?


AG: If love is—and I think it is—the closest a person can get to experiencing the world through someone else’s body, then collaboration is a mutual act of love. This is a little selfish, but: in a collaborative relationship, you suddenly have access to ideas, concerns, skill sets, social connections, etc. that are not your own. And you become a steward of this shared thing, and you get so many opportunities to practice care, both with your collaborator(s) and with the work you’re making together, navigating responsibilities and control and compromise. With About Repulsion, our EP, we each had loosely defined roles (I was more of a songwriter; Jason was more of a producer) which slowly merged over time: I became more familiar with DAWs, mixing techniques, etc. and started to have ideas there, and Jason might suggest an approach that would fundamentally change a song’s arrangement or feel. Midst is really satisfying because Jason and I are each able to apply our knowledge, expertise, and creativity to the project in almost entirely separate domains: I find bugs, he fixes them; I prioritize features, he builds them; I design, he implements that design; and we’re creating something that, at least so far, people seem to really love and connect to.


Given the constraints we’re working with—especially that neither of us is paid, including Jason, who already works a full-time job in tech—I tend to be more of the leader, the visionary, the slow-and-steady planner, making the most of what we’ve accomplished already; then we work together intensively on reaching technical milestones. I tend to be very picky and very opinionated, which can sometimes make collaboration sticky—for example, early on, Jason had to essentially rebuild the software from scratch because I insisted that we fix a relatively minor glitch. But I think that’s part of why the collaboration works. We hold each other accountable, and we motivate and cheerlead each other through the less-sexy parts of the project—those high-effort, low-reward tasks that ultimately make a huge difference but can be hard to accomplish alone. Jason also doesn’t write poems and isn’t very involved with the literary community, so it doesn’t feel like I’m stepping on his toes when I kind of invoke some authority and say, “I need X to work like Y because poets do Z.” His commitment to Midst has felt, and still feels, like such a huge gift—it’s so generous, to build this thing that you might not even really use, to contribute to this field you don’t “belong to” in a legible way. And working together on it feels like a natural extension of our friendship and trust and shared political commitments.


Even though it is a creative project, Midst is ultimately for other people in a way that something like an EP isn’t. With About Repulsion, I really just wanted to make the best, richest, and truest representation of these songs as I could, to make sure that it reflected both of us. If no label wanted to put it out, or if no one really listened to it, that wouldn’t matter so much—the important thing was making the music. I think Jason felt that way, too. With Midst, I’m constantly asking other people things I would never ask about my own poems or songs: Does this appeal to you? What do you want, what do you need? What could we do better? It’s collaboration as an act of service, collaboration in service of something bigger than us. I do have a vision for Midst, and my personal principles, and I am starting from that kind of leap of faith that undergirds any creative project—if I make this, and it excites me, I trust that it will excite other people, too. But it’s really not for me. Our commission process reflects this, too; we don’t have any guidelines, restrictions, or deadlines, and we don’t edit the work we publish. We say: Here’s this software; when you have something you want to share, we’ll share it. I still feel a sense of ownership and a sense of protectiveness—it would really suck for midst.press to become a right-wing platform, or for the Poetry Foundation to swoop in and just do the same project on a bigger scale because they can afford to. But I think Midst can have integrity while still being fundamentally collaborative, driven by an “us” (me, Jason, teachers, students, scholars, the literary community, etc.) and not a “me.” If no one ever read my poems again, I’d keep writing until I die. But if Midst didn’t have writers and readers, I’d stop. It’s a lot of work! It can be really draining. But if it gives someone else that same sense of awe and magic that it gives me, then it’s worth it. We need more of that in the world.


JM: I love what you said about about low-stakes poetry is—it sometimes sucks that nobody reads it, but it can be a sanctuary for imagining new ways of collaborating and existing together (or at least it gets enough people together to cyberbully the president of the Poetry Foundation into stepping down...). "Awe and magic," you say, and also, I think, joy. Watching the poems in Midst grow, change, metamorphose, and settle on a final shape is like briefly sharing a brain with someone, and it feels so good! Isn't that a big reason why we do this thing, art—for those little moments where we transcend the piece of art itself into that weird transcendent second of understanding? Midst is so good at making space for that, so I'm curious—are there other projects or pieces of art that you personally felt similarly about? Whether they were influential to Midst or your own personal practice, I love hearing about what gives inspiration to cool shit.


AG: Awe, magic, joy, surprise, mystery that doesn’t diminish with time or understanding, the feeling that someone has has expressed exactly that which was previously inexpressible—these things are a huge part of my devotion to art. Some things that have given me these feelings: a poem stowing away as municipal construction markings, seen out the window of a bus in Portland, OR probably a decade ago, that said USE PINK SKY TO IRON WATER. The sign my housemate in Oakland found on the sidewalk and brought home—an LED-studded oval advertising EYELASH WAXING, and the double-take one does when one reads it (eyelash waxing?!). Jen Bervin, Pauline Oliveros, Precious Okoyomon, James Turrell, Agnes Martin—it’s so true, it is like briefly sharing a brain with someone.


My answers are too long! But I want to share this: I worked briefly with the artist Cal Fish, who shared a musical instrument of his own making, the Dynamic Listening Instrument. It looks kind of like a series of hula hoops scattered on the ground, and you can pick up these empty buckets and dip them into the space above the hoops, and the buckets literally fill with sound, which gets louder or quieter depending on how “full” the bucket is in this invisible well. Of course, it’s all just physics—coils of wire, magnets, batteries, electrons getting pushed around—but it feels like magic. I’d never, ever experienced sound like that before. At one point he installed it in a public square, and I remember this little kid (maybe 2 or 3) wandered over and began playing with the buckets with considerable interest but absolutely zero surprise. That image has really stayed with me—like, wow, this kid is so young he just takes for granted that there are buckets you can fill with invisible music, just like you can fill a bucket at the beach with sand. He’s actually too young to appreciate how magical this is, how out of the ordinary. Usually it’s the opposite with the world, right, where kids are transfixed by something that bores us (a refrigerator box, a fifteenth viewing of Finding Nemo)? And I think that’s part of what art gives me that nothing else does—it opens my senses and my mind and reminds me that there’s already magic all around us. We shouldn’t take it for granted.


JM: I'm so excited to see what the future of Midst looks like, especially as you look towards new ways to expand its programming and access. We've got to get this thing big before the Poetry Elite™ swoop in and steal the concept... so, tell us what we can do to support the project!


AG: Thank you so much for asking! We’re always taking nominations at midst.press/nominate, and right now our Patreon (patreon.com/midstpoetry) is the central hub for donations. We don’t have any external funding right now, so individual support—even if it’s just a few bucks a month—is really helpful! Our patrons have paid the artist fee for every poem we’ve published this year, which is really exciting. Hi, patrons! Thank you! I’ll make you proud!


<3


Annelyse Gelman’s work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, the PEN Poetry Series, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere, and she is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone (2014, Write Bloody), the artist’s book POOL (2020, NECK Press), and the EP About Repulsion (2019, Fonograf Editions). She also directs Midst, an experimental platform for archiving and sharing the writing process. Her language-based projects often revolve around intimacy and vulnerability, incorporating aspects of publishing, installation, and performance. Gelman received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.


"Fully Automated Luxury Lucid Dreams" is part of our new interview series spotlighting the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects of indie lit. Read previous conversations in this series here.