Clara B. Jones

A review of very small time values by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen
(published by ma press
available free for download at the Internet Archive)

“One signal accomplishment of electronic literature may have been to help locate narrativity not as a literary universal but as one of many literary qualities best realized in a particular medium: print.”
Joseph Tabbi (“Electronic literature as world literature or The universality of writing under constraint,” 2010)


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[Jukka-Pekka Kervinen (very small time values, 2021)]

I have a complex relationship with Experimental Poetry because, no matter the collection that I read, as a Formalist [at heart], there are certain traditional traits that I seek [or, perhaps, "assess," is a better word]. One of the characteristics that I value highly is "glue"—some conceit that unifies the text ["repetition" is the classic example, often as Gertrude Stein employed it]. I will point out, also, that I prefer for the "glue" to be overt/direct, rather than indirect or inexplicit—such as repetition of a word [Stein] or of a color [Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich]. I am simply pointing out that such unifying features are important to me—given my aesthetics & critical/theoretical orientation. Other Formalist features that I am attuned to are rhythm, color, image, and “interpretive value” [as per the poetry critic, Helen Vendler]. Although I am aesthetically a traditionalist, my writing practice usually focuses on Experimental Poetry—as a poet and a reviewer. The poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff, has spoken of the predictability of contemporary poetry, particularly, the modes characteristic of M.F.A. programs, and, with some exceptions, I find the poetry of The New Yorker and the major journals to be rather boring and banal. The promise of Experimental writing is its variegated, surprising, stimulating, and novel structures, forms, procedures, contents, and functions.

In short, Experimental writing engages the reader with creative art whose rules and designs and whole parts are greater than their sum—a true Gestalt of psychological, emotional, imaginary, and intellectual “happenings” whose compositions—sometimes “hybrid” forms employing multiple genres—are not bounded by traditional linguistic conventions. In this review of Jukka-Pekka Kervinen's new digitally-produced long poem, I am going to avoid, for the most part, commenting on the standard Postmodern traits characterizing Experimental writing—that the work fractures; disrupts; challenges the status quo; questions/opposes Modernism's Grand Narratives; uses elements that stand alone in a manner promoting egalitarianism between whole and part—rather than, or, some might say, in addition to—hierarchy; etc. While the artist's new text, very small time values, incorporates all of these characteristics, my brief essay will emphasize the relationship between this long poem and its mode of production as a vector of communication between writer as creator, craftsman, chooser of words, and programmer interacting with a reader in a manner that is, at the same time, direct and indirect, intimate and mechanistic, entropic, as well as, structured, randomly generated, as well as, “intentional,” functional, as well as, artistic.

Jukka-Pekka Kervinen and his wife moved from Helsinki to a small town in the countryside of Finland where they live surrounded by Nature near two lakes. As he stated in an email on 21 April, “People are happy; I can see many reasons: strong safety network, strong trust to government and police, authorities, and they have also deserved that trust...Also, people trust each other.” The artist spends most of his time generating texts and music electronically. A writing sample from the book under review is reproduced in the epigraph above, and its accompanying musical arrangement is linked here.

Describing his creative process, Kervinen states, in the same email, “The music and text are made in same day, not exactly related each other directly, but in spirit, yes. Music is constructed with my algorithmical processes as the text as well, it is kind of conversion process, where I generate sonic material whatever means I decide (digital synthesis in this case), and the material is analyzed and orchestrated to any set of instruments I decide. The source text for the book [very small time values] is collection of daily material, articles I have read, code fragments, error messages, algorithmic texts, whatever I have around me at the moment, everything is put in one text file, I write a program, which reads the file, manipulates it any way I want to do, and create a new collection of original one, kind of recycling, which I am doing constantly with all my art, music, texts.”

More than once, I have asked Jukka-Pekka how he would categorize his work. This time he replied [reproduced here in his unedited words and grammar], “Is it poetry or art, I don't really know, I call these writings, something snapshots, or poetry (when I must put it some category in publishing process). I also call these prose poems, which was my original 'model', when working first ones in early 2000, first manually writing cut-ups, which I later rewrite in form of computer programs. Still, everything is recycled, it is long process, has taken years, or more than decade, maybe 15 years. Some source texts follow every book I write, also some computer messages (code poetry), and writing the code itself, I almost always write the program from memory, from scratch, similar kind of algorithm's that has changed during years, and each one is more or less similar and different, invent something new when doing the program, and it might come along with the next program, and something might drop away, or combine something new. It is constant recycling, and I trust that age and life in general have its own process for all in this.”

Kervinen's creative dynamic is one of combination and re-combination of elements channeled—using a computer program of his own design—to generate text or sound via an intentional process which is the artist's [deep] choice of words and notes, as well as, their random or uncertain generation relative to the order and sequence of words or notes. Importantly, for the creative act as a whole, the program, itself, is a composition with its own characters [0, 1] lending themselves to rule-governed manipulation. The experimental procedure described by Jukka-Pekka is one combining imagination with technical skills and “clinical intervention” aided by technology, itself, producing non-representational digital [“algorithmic,” “processual”] compositions An obvious formal feature of the resulting product [poem or music, in the present case] is the ability of the artist to control “recurrence” [repetition] of the textual or musical product by controlling the number of programmed words or notes, combined with the length of the composition. In 2015*, David Ciccorico wrote, “The tradition of experimental literature is typified by its subversion of conventional form, technique, and genre.”, and readers will note some similarities between Kervinen's project and its literary ancestors—concrete poetry, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, OuLiPo, as well as, Surrealism's “automatism.”

The quasi-technical, multi-stage, multi-component, multi-skill process employed by the artist to compose very small time values and its music necessarily calls attention to scientific Communication Theory and its focus on information-processing at the interpersonal and intrapersonal levels. In the 1940s, communication theorist, Claude Shannon, described the basic elements of communication, generally, discussed as the interaction between a Sender [e.g., the poet] and a Receiver [e.g., the reader]. Kervinen's process, indeed, all digital art, involves a more complex set of events. Using Shannon's schema [mathematical and verbal], we can describe the algorithmic process employed to create very small time values. Shannon's first concept, “Information Source,” “produces a message or sequence of messages [e.g., words or notes, combinations & recombinations of words or notes] to be communicated to the receiving terminal [the reader or listener—the receiver].” Shannon conceived the “information source” as a “transmitter” operating on the composition, as Jukka-Pekka acts on words or notes to write a program whose generation produces a composition—poem or musical score.

Another of Shannon's formulations is the “Channel,” the medium transmitting signals [words, notes] from poet-musician to reader. In electronic literature, there are two channels: the programmer [artist] and the program, itself, which, at the same time, is dependent, as well as, independent of the programmer. A third component of Shannon's schema is the “Message,” in the present case, the verbal text or musical score delivered to the reader or listener. In the case of notes, the receiver might listen to/hear the composition and/or read notes. Shannon's “Receiver” reconstructs and interprets the “message” from the signal[s]—generated text or musical score. It is important to recall that the Experimental or Postmodern artist surrenders control to the receiver [in the present case, reader or listener] so that reconstruction and interpretation are in the receiver's hands. Shannon, also, proposed that communication embodies “Entropic Elements,” random or uncertain features that, in the case of electronic [“algorithmic”] art is necessarily introduced by error or “noise” at any stage of production—the artist's thinking processes, the program, the technological generator, and/or the receiver's traits and cognitive mechanisms. Both artist and reader or listener are limited and, in a sense, defined by, vocabulary [characters], experience, imagination, and intelligence.

While I am sometimes impatient with the common tendency to reduce writing, especially, Experimental writing, to the political realm ["Everything is political."], it would be an act of denial not to point out the socio-political associations between/among Sender/Artist, Technology, and Receiver in the production and ultimate processing of text or score. Even if anonymous, indirect, and removed, the previous sequence is a process of complicity, collaboration, and of negotiation and, it might be argued, is, ultimately, representative of a contractual relationship. Speaking of his political intentions, Kervinen stated [reproduced here as in the original email], “I consider all my art political, sometimes very directly (using lots of Marx and Gramsci as source texts), sometimes less, or indirect, not possible to see other than me. It is political in its construction, all my works (codes, music etc) are kind of mini-societies, socialist 'paradises', where all objects are completely equal (in technical and hierarchical, ie. There are no hierarchies at all, it is all proletarian), there are no oppression, no exploitation, no genders, no rich ones, no poors), all works are free in real world, no surplus value is created as far as I can prevent it (and mostly can). It is utopia, socialist utopia, it doesn't exist, and it is still there, in some works more directly than in others (wrote last year a series of chamber works for texts of Gramsci), but always in form of my own working.” In an egalitarian and non-authoritarian fashion, the artist welcomes all potential consumers of his work to share the resulting experience as a cooperative and collaborative enterprise.

I strongly recommend very small time values and its accompanying music to anyone knowledgeable or curious about Experimental art, as well as, to others with a political inclination, to experience truly radical, risk-taking compositions with aesthetic and socio-political purposes and functions—creative, yet rigorous, texts lightly bounded by time, modality, and context. Jukka-Pekka Kervinen's exciting body of work and his skills-based methods deserve a wide audience.

Recommended reading:

Ciccoricco D (2015) Digital fiction. In J Bray, A Gibbons, B McHale (eds). The Routledge companion to experimental literature. Routledge, New York, pp 469-482.

Clara B. Jones is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA.
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