Grief and Automata: A Conversation with Rebecca Morgan Frank

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of four collections of poems, including Oh You Robot Saints! and Little Murders Everywhere, which is a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is co-founder and editor of Memorious and she teaches in the MFA Program in Prose and Poetry at Northwestern University.

This interview was conducted in March of 2021 via email.

I recently saw a playlist you created as a companion piece to Oh You Robot Saints! I particularly think of Kraftwerk, the godfathers of electronic music, as being emblematic of the fun side of robotics. Despite the new collection’s darker themes, what fun do you find in automata?

Automata have long been created for amusement! I hope my book captures some of that fun. In Elly Truitt’s terrific book Medieval Robots, she talks about Hesdin, a French estate that housed automata created for entertainment, and by the 15th century, they were “raucous and disruptive, like elaborate practical jokes”: visitors were being doused with water, flower, soot, feathers. And of course, there are so many musical automata, including one of my favorites, the Silver Swan, from the 18th century, which you can still hear and see move at the Bowes Museum in the UK. The fun lives on: I think of a wonderful and quirky spot I visited in London, Novelty Automation, which is “A new London arcade of satirical home-made machines.” These machines have such names as “Pet or Meat,” “Is it Art,” “Autofrisk,” and “The Chiropodist.”  

What role does research play in your work?

I see research as a way of being in conversation with other thinkers and makers, and those conversations are what keep me going as a writer. What I loved about writing this book is that every time I spoke with someone about automata or robots they sent me toward a new resource, often in their own field. I found myself in a lot of unexpected corners of university libraries. The joy of being a poet is that you can treat research like a giant buffet where you get to pick and choose what you want on your plate.

In “Automaton Angels,” humans create angels as things and assign them tasks: “…crown a prince, / blow the horn… Rotate, fly, speak / to Christ.” One imagines the speaker lording over mechanized angels, becoming their god. A division begins to form, as noted in the chilling finale: “The ones who make, / the ones who are made.” Is creation what interests you most here, or is it the implied control and power it provides?

When it comes to creating a life, it seems hard to separate the two, no matter the intent of the creator. An automata maker or a roboticist embarks on creation with a task in mind: how will your robotic creature be able to turn its head, walk, raise its hand in prayer? Fly? Sense bombs, speak, make something in a factory? The act of creation begins with solving a problem, and that is where the power lies: who decides which problems a creation will solve? Who anticipates which problems a creation might create? Literature and film are full of stories in which the creator has not anticipated the potential consequences of their creation. So is history, of course.

At the risk of getting meta, do you see poets as “ones who make?” What role might writers play in the march toward the world of automata?

I immediately think of two automata: Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz’s 18th century automaton The Writer, and Henri Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer, which followed in 1800. The writer and the automaton were one! Part of what intrigues me about the automaton is that it seems to me to be the perfect poetic figure, both metaphor for being and metaphor for making. My second collection, The Spokes of Venus, was a space for me to imagine and explore the processes of other kinds of artists—sculptors, choreographers, composers, painters, and so on—so my interest in the automaton maker is an extension of that inquiry. I am interested in why we create. Many automata makers and many poets create as a way of asking questions, a way of examining what it means to be a living creature, what it means to engage with the natural world and with human-made machines, what it means to believe or not believe in gods or afterlives, what it means to be mortal. The list goes on! What roles might we writers play while the future is built around us? I hope that we encourage people to think and to ask questions.

In “Not Everybody’s Bestiary (Yet),” an octopus is reborn as a monstrous automaton—a destructive machine. The speaker asks the reader if they are more afraid of a “programmed body double” or the animal it mimics. Many people fear automatons will overcome the human race in the future. Is that your fear, or are you more afraid of the godlike status we might achieve in creating such advanced machines?  

Roboticists have already created what are called soft robots, including the octopus. In fact, most of the robotic creatures in “Not Everybody’s Bestiary (Yet),”exist in some form already. But to answer your question– I think we always need to fear the megalomaniacs. We should be concerned about what humans will do with AI. We lean on dystopian literature and film to remind us of the direction things might take, but we do not pay enough attention to what is already happening right now, and what long-term consequences might evolve from tools that have seemingly innocuous, or even benevolent, beginnings.

Your earlier work foreshadows the central themes of Oh You Robot Saints! In Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country, “Evolution” describes the soul as being “housed in steel and screws.” The subject has been surgically altered, becoming “cyber, hollowed… forged.” In “The Movements of Mechanical Objects,” a music box ballerina is “buried alive”; she spins “on command,” yet believes she can “be anything.” Both collections describe humans becoming machinelike and portray inanimate objects striving for humanity. How did your fascination with conflating bodies and objects begin?  

I suppose I see that the automata maker and the poet can both be motivated by trying to understand what it is to be human, what makes us human. This encompasses both our mechanics – how we move and survive – and the trickier elements of how we think and feel. And that is all without getting into the question of souls. Humans have assumed that humanity is tied to biology, but the cyborg disrupts that notion. We can replace parts, we can use technology to navigate our senses, and we are still fully human. I think those earlier poems you mention came out of a desire to address the humanity of those of us who have been dehumanized in our culture. Now we have to address what it means for objects to be treated more humanely than actual humans.

It seems to me the central question of the new collection is, what makes us human? Some poems, like “The Girlfriend Elegies,” “Self-Operating Machines,” and “Restorations,” bleed with excruciating grief. Do you think grief is something that defines our humanity? 

I would reframe that to say that mortality certainly defines our humanity, regardless of what we believe is beyond this world. We all have to face the mortality of not only ourselves, but those we love, and even those who we have assumed are permanent parts of our world, from our neighbors to our leaders and celebrities. People often turn to poetry when they experience loss, whether it is loss of love or loss of life, and funerals (along with weddings) are the times when even non-poetry readers tend to seek out poetry. Which is to say, grief connects us as humans: few of us are spared it. The elegy is one way we connect and realize we are not alone in experiencing grief, though our own grief may feel personal and lonely. As a reader, elegies have sustained me through the hardest times.

What led to this juxtaposition of grief and the exploration of past and future automata? 

The answer is two-fold. The first is personal: my mother passed away when I was just beginning to write this book. “Self-Operating Machines” was initially “Machines of Amusement,” and I wanted to evoke the wonder and playfulness of Hesdin, while “Gerbert of Aurillac and the Magic 8-Ball” began as a narrative poem about a real man who went from making a talking head to becoming a Pope. But life pushed both of these early poems in a different direction, and that changed the course of the book. The other answer is that it seems to me that to talk about creating life we have to talk about losing life. I think of the story of Descartes creating an automaton version of his dead young daughter– whether that tale is true or not, it feels true. That is, we can imagine what it means to try to bring the dead back, or to keep those we love alive. In “The Fool of Aljaferia Palace Encounters Death,” a jester is terrified by a theatrical incarnation of Death. Automata — whether in actual form or in literature — allow us to experience the performance of life, and its inevitable companion, death.

Morgan, thank you so much for your time and insight.

Oh You Robot Saints!
By Rebecca Morgan Frank
Carnegie-Mellon University Press
Published February 27, 2021