“Computer Poetry” by Silvestre Pestana

Open "Computer Poetry" by Silvestre Pestana
Open “Computer Poetry” by Silvestre Pestana

In the 1980s, the world saw the introduction of personal computers (PCs). While the first creative stage of electronic literature took advantage of mainframe computers, only accessible in institutional environments, the context in which Silvestre Pestana created his first computer poems was totally different – a new wave Pedro Barbosa ironically calls “poesia doméstica” [domestic poetry] (1996: 147). With personal computers, Silvestre Pestana programmed in BASIC, first for a Sinclair ZX-81, and then, already with chromatic lighting, for a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, three poems respectively dedicated to Henri Chopin, E. M. de Melo e Castro and Julian Beck, which resulted in the Computer Poetry (1981-83) series. Pestana, a visual artist, writer and performer – who had returned from the exile in Sweden after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974 – brought diverse influences put forward with photography, video, performance, and computer media. From his creative production, it should be emphasized the iconic conceptual piece Povo Novo [New People] (1975), which was remediated by the author himself in the referred series of kinetic visual poems, “video-computer-poems” (Pestana 1985: 205) or “infopoems” (Melo e Castro 1988: 57). By operating almost like TV scripts, the series oscillates between recognizable shapes – such as the oval and the larger animated Lettrist shapes, formed by the small-sized words “ovo” (egg), “povo” (people), “novo” (new), “dor” (pain) and “cor” (color) – and the reading interpretation of the words themselves: “ovo,” the unity, but also the potential; “povo,” the collective, the indistinct, the mass; “novo” and “cor/dor.” This play of relations translates the new consciousness, although painful, of a “new people” in a new historic, social and artistic period, one of freedom and action. In an interview, Pestana (2011) claimed having researched more than thirty languages, only to find in Portuguese the possibility of traversing the singular and the plural, the individual and the collective, the past, present and future, by just dislocating a letter: ovo/(p)ovo/(n)ovo.

The fact that the Spectrum’s console was connected to a TV screen, a visual and luminous device par excellence, turned out to have a greater symbolic meaning, to the extent that Computer Poetry became associated not only with the content, but also with the cover of one of the most significant anthologies of the 1980s, Poemografias: Perspectivas da Poesia Visual Portuguesa [Poemographs: Perspectives on Portuguese Visual Poetry] (1985). Despite being a collection on visual poetry, the cover’s composition did not use any printout of the work, but rather the photography of the work’s image on a TV screen, that is, a picture of the moving image, as narrated by Fernando Aguiar, who co-edited the anthology with Pestana:

I designed the book cover based on a computer poem by Silvestre Pestana (who had created the first computer-poems [sic] in 1981/83 for “Spectrum”). And if now it seems something almost banal, in 1985 it was really “different” to present an anthology of poetry and poetic theory with a computer “generated” work on the cover. (Since we had no access to a printer – I do not even know whether back then there was a printer for Spectrum – we went to a household appliance store and we asked to connect the “computer” to a TV set, and right there I took several photographs of one of the poems, whereof the cover of “POEMOGRAFIAS” resulted. (Aguiar 2009: n. p., Seiça trans.)

Read more about this work at:

PO-EX.net: http://po-ex.net/taxonomia/transtextualidades/metatextualidades-alografas/silvestre-pestana-biografia

ELMCIP: http://elmcip.net/node/8452