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On Poetry and Programming

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Poet and programmer Jasmine Tsai on the intersection of arts and engineering, and what one taught her about the other.

By Jasmine Tsai (Software Engineer, Change.org)

Not too long ago, I tutored creative writing for the first time at 826 Valencia. I was a nervous wreck. Even though I had tutored before, it was my first time teaching high school students and my first time offering creative writing feedback. Moments before the workshop, I was overcome by a fear that I would somehow horribly and irrevocably misguide these children. Forever.

But I had a beautiful time. I worked with a girl named Karen who spoke Spanish and greatly fluid, though unsure, English — much more than she gave herself credit for. She had wanted to write a poem about her life, and had a few lines laid out on her page, each beginning with “Everyday…” I asked her what was the story she wanted to tell and where did she see it going. She told me then, “I want to write something… big and deep, you know, something deep about how I feel. Growing up. I want to write something that you read and you just feel l it. I don’t know English very well, but I want to use the more difficult words. Can you help me?”

Those were not her words exactly, but I try to retell it now for the right feeling — which was an authenticity with no moment of self-consciousness. I understood her well because this was also the kind of teenager that I was, drawn to gravity and the belief in a complex adulthood. What I forget now though was the sincerity I had for all of these big emotions — the utter faith without irony in the sanctity of growing up and the mystical burden of messier, heavier lives. I look back and I critically conclude that I was wrought with melodrama, then laugh. Yet when I listened to Karen’s attempt to communicate her feeling and need for meaning, I realized at once that this adult hindsight had no place in the purity of growing up.

She reminded me of my own journey with writing. I was once an aspiring creative writing major in college, but I never wrote a single new poem or story again after my first poetry workshop in freshmen year. This is a difficult story to explain even now. Even though at the end of the workshop I felt uplifted by the professor’s email telling me that I had produced one of the best poems he had ever received from a student; it was also the first time that I became “artistically aware” of the difficulty in writing exactly what you mean. Overcome by the discipline it demanded and the inevitable sense of inadequacy that accompanied, I retreated instead of working harder.

Then suddenly, at the beginning of this year, I started writing poems again. It was more of a reckoning of my long procrastination than anything else grand or mysterious. Around the same time, I started learning programming.

What started as a pragmatic desire to learn a new life skill unexpectedly became the most giving metaphor of poetry in my life — more than a metaphor and perhaps even a paradigm-shift. The beginning of programming was mind-bending. I instantly fell in love with the problem solving and the practical and philosophical concerns behind its mental model. The layers of abstraction and the striving for elegance drew me in. But most of all, I was taken by its immense creative potential. To my surprise I found that writing code reminded me of writing poems. In the act of creation, you encounter the same tension of raw, boundless possibility against disciplined construction.

Programming began to change my way of looking at poetry. I encountered a greater exactness in thought that I had not previously really cared for, and I became much more patient in dealing with syntax and construction. Unlike a piece of writing, a program simply would not work if it had bugs — and it would often crash and burn at the first attempt at running it. The premise of programming did not rest on godly inspiration or quickness of talent; it rested on hard work. It taught me to look at poems with scientific precision rather as shapeless sentiments. It took away the burdening belief of talent and divine alignment. It reinforced in me, after all these years, the importance of discipline in your craft.

The two share philosophical tendencies, but for certain they are also different in many respects — I am not going to carry this metaphor too far. Still a shift had happened.

In Why Read? Mark Edmundson wrote:

A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially a new way to live.

And of course that includes programming.

On the day that I met Karen, my mind came full circle to the first impulse of creation, before any of this rigor and restraint in craft. The excitement. The velocity. The faith. The possibility. She reminded me of how we got here and why we stay here — of why we are driven to hone our craft, and of how ultimately little that means without the pulsing desire and bravery to create — to pass belief to meaning.

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post. Image credit: V.H. Hammer via Flickr

pWa04OKHAbout the blogger: Jasmine is currently a software engineer at Change.org. She graduated from University of Pennsylvania and worked in finance, consulting, and non-profits before stumbling upon her passion for solving problems and making products through software. She is an unabashed idealist and loves poetry just as much as code. You can find her on Twitter as @jasmineyctsai.