You’d be forgiven for thinking no one reads poetry. You never see a poet on The Tonight Show. Or someone wearing a t-shirt they got when their favorite poet performed at the local football stadium. And yet, amid all the talk of AI created art, there’s been a lot of conversations about computer generated poetry. Which leads us to Do You Remember Being Born? (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), a new novel by author Sean Michaels in which a famous poet is asked to collaborate with an AI. In the following email interview, Michaels discusses what inspired and influenced this story, as well as how he used AI to write it.
Photo Credit: © Julie Artacho
To start, what is Do You Remember Being Born? about, and when and where does it take place?
When I was first writing it, Do You Remember Being Born? took place five or ten years in the future; then two or three years; then one year; now, it probably takes place tomorrow. It’s a novel about a famous poet, 75-year-old Marian Ffarmer, who accepts a commission from a Big Tech company to write a poem with their new poetry AI, Charlotte. She spends seven days in California thinking about present, past, and future; about technology and labor; about motherhood and partnership; and also tortoises.
Where did you get the idea for Do You Remember Being Born?
I was inspired by the story of the poet Marianne Moore, who was contacted by Ford Motorcar in 1955 and invited to come up with names for their new sedan. “Pastelogram,” she suggested, “Mongoose Civique.” They ended up rejecting them all (the car would be named the Edsel), but I found myself drawn to that moment where a gifted, late-career artist is drawn into a relationship with industry.
I was also obviously inspired by the technology: I was greatly startled by playing with an early version of GPT, in 2019.
Is there a significance to Marian being a poet as opposed to a writer of prose or a visual artist?
Poetry represents something unique in our culture. There’s a reason there are so many articles asking whether AIs can write poetry, as opposed to painting landscapes or writing operas. It’s seen as a surrogate for creativity, consciousness, or spirit.
There’s a conversation in the book where the protagonist suggests that poetry should be “wise,” or maybe “foolish.” Another poet disagrees: “Neither of those is very appealing,” she says. Let it just be “vivid.”
And you kind of already answered this, but is there a reason you had Marian be 75, and towards the end of her life and career, as opposed to 25, and at the beginning, or 50, and in the middle?
I was interested in the idea of mastery, and how fragile that can still feel. Also, I was inspired by the real-life poet Marianne Moore, who went on the Tonight Show when she was 81.
Had it come out a couple years ago, I would’ve said Do You Remember Being Born? seems like a cyberpunk story. But given everything with ChatGPT lately, it doesn’t sound as speculative. So, how would you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?
For most readers, I hope, genre names become these stifling containers. When we say we like fantasy or mystery or literary fiction, what we’re largely saying is that we like books with wizards, or detectives, or a distinctive prose style. Personally, I’m into space ships; I’m not into cowboys. Do You Remember Being Born? has neither: it’s fiction about a poet, a mother, an intelligent AI. I care about language and I’m interested in the images that words cast into readers’ minds.
It takes a while for a novel to go from an author’s computer to the shelf of a bookstore, but did all the stuff with ChatGPT happen early enough for it to influence Do You Remember Being Born?
So! This is the story of a poet collaborating with an AI. I thought it only right (and much more interesting) if my own book was a collaboration, too. Do You Remember Being Born? is persistently infiltrated by AI: a lot of the poetry, and some of the prose in the book, were written with help from AI tools, including earlier versions of GPT and a custom poetry bot I created with a talented engineer. The writing that’s generated by AI is flagged accordingly, and my intention throughout is that it be unsettling, thought-provoking, not just some gimmick.
Now, unless I’m wrong, Do You Remember Being Born? is your third novel after Us Conductors and The Wagers. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Born but not on anything else you’ve written?
I like that each of my books has a different internal weather: Do You Remember Being Born?‘s restfulness and humor feels a very long way from The Wagers‘ adventure. This book owes a lot more to Virginia Woolf, Ben Lerner, Ali Smith, and Vladimir Nabokov than the others.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Was Do You Remember Being Born? influenced by any of those things?
Not really. Maybe something like Michael Clayton, the way that film imbues its story with its own arbitrary, almost impressionistic palette of feelings. Or I like the sensuousness of Her‘s approach to AI. But I don’t watch that much film or TV.
I also can’t think of any board game antecedents, but I did take pleasure writing a profile of Gloomhaven‘s creator, Isaac Childres, in a piece for The New Yorker.
And then, to flip things around, do you think Do You Remember Being Born? could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
Sure, all of the above. One of the quiet themes of the book is the way that all of us, and all of our work, can benefit from being reinvented, transfigured, passed-through. What possibilities open up if a board game auteur makes something beautiful out of Do You Remember Being Born? If some chef reimagines my oeuvre as a pudding…
That said, realistically speaking, I’d be happiest seeing this book as a movie. Or maybe a play.
If someone wanted to adapt Do You Remember Being Born? into a movie or a play, who would you want them to cast as Marian, the voice of Charlotte, and the other main characters?
I’m always lousy at this stuff, so I asked GPT-4 for some help. It proposed Helen Mirren as Marian, for her “ability to embody a wide range of characters.” For Charlotte, the AI, it suggested Saoirse Ronan, which I quite like; she could capture her complicated, layered kind of questioning.
But these questions kind of drive me crazy, too. I remember the sadness I felt, as a kid, after seeing the animated Hobbit movie, how their version of Gollum overtook my own. In a way, it’s important to me that each reader do their own imaginary casting-call.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Do You Remember Being Born?
One thing I’d like to say is that I’m so grateful to any readers who spend time in its pages. And another, for those who aren’t reading it — who, maybe, aren’t reading anything — is just to say that a good book, a book you enjoy, is not a chore or a slog or a draining exercise. So often, I hear people saying they don’t read any more, that it “takes too much work” compared to Netflix or whatever. And what I want to tell them is always: try it, find a book that’s good, give it a few pages. I promise it will give you lift.
Finally, if someone enjoys Do You Remember Being Born?, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
I think Us Conductors‘ internal tempo feels closer to Do You Remember Being Born? than its follow-up. With The Wagers, I wanted to write something exciting, and noisy, and complicated, and slightly silly. Us Conductors is a snowy book, full of music, longing, and self-delusion. But each book’s its own destination, hopefully with its own weather. I hope you’ll read a few chapters of each, and choose for yourself.