Yann Rousselot is a translator, writer, and poet. He grew up in airport lounges and diplomatic enclaves in the company of his brothers, his sister, and countless cheap suitcases, raised across the globe by humanitarian parents. He has been published in Paris Lit Up Magazine, The Bastille, AUP’s Paris/Atlantic Magazine, Thought Catalog, and the Belleville Park Pages. He lives, writes, and performs spoken word poetry in his adoptive city of Paris.
Dawn of the Algorithm, Yann Rousselot’s debut collection of poetry, is a bestiary of octosharks and dinosaurs, zombies and pathogens, mecha robots and common mortals.
These monsters were raised on a diet of TV tropes, movie clichés, book snippets, and video game storylines. Some have beating hearts, others interlocking mechanical parts. They are forces of human nature, genetically engineered with a single purpose: to herald the apocalypse.
Building on user-friendly motif and imagery, Rousselot draws acute, playful but painful conclusions about twenty-first century Earth. He paints a darkly comical portrait of humankind, a species plagued by heartbreak and alienation, yet driven by hope and, at the very core, a burning desire to connect.”
Rousselot recently sat down with SF Signal to answer some questions about this imaginative debut.
PipedreamerGrey: Hi! Thanks for taking time out to answer a few questions for us. We absolutely loved your book, and we’ll be posting a glowing review shortly! Just so that you know, while we do require you to submit your answers in English, we will be encouraging our readers to read your answers back in a Parisian accent while picturing you as a Jean-Luc Godard character. Yes, we realize you’re originally from England. Yes, we know you don’t have a French accent. But our way just makes you feel more poet-y.
Yann Rousselot: Nice to meet you! Thanks for the kind words, I’m really happy you enjoyed my work. Unfortunately I have a very non-French accent, but if necessary I can fake it…
PDG: It’s pretty clear from the table of contents alone that you, sir, are a massive nerd with all of the obsessions that entails, but poetry isn’t a typical nerd pastime. So my first question has to be how did you come to have an interest in writing poetry? Was it a life long ambition or just happenstance?
YR: Thank you (I think). I got into speculative fiction quite young: Stephen King’s novels I probably read way too early for my own good. Otherwise I grew up on Star Wars, Transformers (the cartoon), Dragon Ball Z, always gaming with my brother and my dad, who are both pretty nerdy (I still remember the day my dad taught me to launch Lemmings from the DOS command line, and introduced me to classic point & click: Roger Wilco, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis…). So, yes: the nerd is strong within me. I got into poetry in high school and was kind of a classicist about it, bit of a snob, all about Baudelaire (shout out to my AP French teacher at the time, Mrs Leyden) and Poe, that gothic kind of vibe, and Dickinson, who was delightfully creepy, and expertly curt, just a model of concision. My 12th grade English teacher, Mr Johnson (RIP), introduced me to Cyril Wong, one of the first contemporary poets I ever read, and I remember reading the title poem of his first collection, “Squatting Quietly”, and being just stunned by the free form: such economy of words for a disproportionately powerful effect. And as I studied literature, the relevance of poetry, it all kind of clicked into place, because everything comes from poetry: history, song, narrative, advertising, politics, theory, everything… It all began in verse, the aural tradition with the minstrels in Europe, the griot across Africa. So I started writing free form poetry around that age, 17, found lots of encouragement from my peers (ok, it was mostly my mum and her friends). And I liked the persona, the tortured poet; I couldn’t wait to go broke and get syphilis and chase the dragon. (Then I met some actual junkies…nope nope nope.) After graduating I moved to Paris and studied languages, translation, got a job, did the adult thing, always writing on the side, but more as a confessional, a therapy of sorts, not really working on the craft so much. When I stumbled into the Paris Spoken Word scene, I saw the immediate impact, the performance angle, and wanted to be part of that. I think it made me a better poet. I’ve wanted to see my writing published since high-school, be among the history-logged poets of the human race (and live foreverrrr), but it was only when I got involved with the writing community in Paris that I got serious about it.
PDG: What do you do when you’re not writing poetry? Please be aware that if you reply “Starbucks barista” I will quietly die a little inside.
YR: I translate and proofread technical and pedagogical content for a company that sells training courses in the private sector (automobile, aeronautics, pharma, agribusiness, cosmetics, etc.). I do mostly project management nowadays, but my main selling point is still that I can magick French into English and make bad English sound like the Queen’s English.
PDG: For most of us, our “interest” (feel free to read those quotation marks as sarcastic) ends in high school. Then again, most students’ exposure to poetry begins and ends with the work of long dead writers. Who are some of the poets who have informed your work? More specifically, where did you draw inspiration for your form(s), because I’m pretty sure that if I wrote a poem about a sad dinosaur, it would end up as a sonnet or a rondeau.
YR: The Oulipo literary group (created in the 60s in France and usually described as poet-mathematicians) have this credo that form will set the poet free. To an “oulipien”, imposing a structure or pattern frees the mind from the agony of choice, and I understand that very well. I’ve always admired form, particularly the French classics like Rimbaud or Baudelaire (not forgetting the English canon: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Dickinson, etc.) who are masters of rigid structure, and despite the fact that reading their poetry can feel like some sort of cryptography, their writing sings. It’s dense, yet rolls off the tongue and sticks to the brain. So I really do admire form, but free form is what always came naturally to me. When you read Bukowski, or Billy Collins, or the beats like Heron, the conversational tone becomes a form in itself, a structural element. Free form, for me, just means you create your own. I don’t go out of my way to be formless. Free form poetry was kind of a counter-culture thing, breaking the shackles of tradition, a product of deconstruction, etc., and I love how the spoken word culture attempts to bridge the gap between free form and structure, playing with tone, register, using rhyme and repetition to highlight, to “exclaim”, but always with the music in mind. That’s what I try to do: create my own internal form, my own music, specific to each poem.
Contemporary poets who inspired me include Brandon Scott Gorrell (the alt-lit scene breaks from traditional poetry in amazing ways), whose poem “Robosouthamerica” was, for me at least, pretty revelatory, as in, it spoke to me in a totally new way. I could also cite Michael Robbins and Jason Breddle. The Paris spoken word regulars however were my biggest inspiration, good friends and good poetry (Will Cox, James Bird, David Barnes, Megan Bullick, Bruce Sherfield, Winona Linn…). I also learned a lot from some of the celebrity guest poets we saw perform at Paris Spoken Word or Paris Lit up like Janice Windle, Donall Dempsey, Ryan Van Winkle, John Hegley…
PDG: Is Dawn of the Algorithm a collection of previously published poetry, or did you write these poems specifically for this book?
YR: A handful of the 33 poems were previously published, but most were not. When I began attending spoken word events, it gave me impetus to get my work out there, and that means meeting your reader half-way. I remember one solid piece of writer advice: write as if you were addressing a single person, someone who matters. I do that specifically at times (love poems…) but generally, I always try to write with an audience in mind, and I think my writing has improved thanks to that change in perspective. So these poems were part of my process of writing for the weekly performances, and after a while, I thought, hey, I have enough material to make something out of this. So I did.
PDG: How long have you been working on this collection?
YR: The oldest poem in the collection I think dates back to 2012, and the most recent was the final poem “Distress Signal”, or maybe “The Giant Dung Beetle Versus the Moss Monster”, both of which I wrote as I was crowdfunding the project, around winter 2014.
PDG: When you’re writing a collection of poems like this, is the challenge to pare it down to a size small enough to publish or is the challenge to gather enough material to constitute a book? Looking over the range of topics you cover, I can’t help but think that there were pieces excluded. Like, I just know in my heart of hearts that a guy who has written so lovingly about Kaiju and Knight Rider would never forget about Star Wars or paintball games or Dorritos, and now I’m obsessing over the secret Star Wars poem that I may go to my grave having never read.
YR: When you begin putting work together for publication, you quickly realise most of your writing is just not good enough. I originally thought to publish a chapbook with 18 poems, but as time went by and no publisher responded, I built it up to 24. Then 32. (I seem to like multiples of 6 and 8…). I wrote a LOT in 2012, 2013, more than I ever had before, so we’re talking 32 out of maybe 150. I just skimmed and filtered, not only for quality, but cohesiveness. When Inkshares put me in touch with Jaimee Garbacik (she’s an amazing editor by the way), I picked out the original 32 and an additional 5 to have some elbow room. Working with Jaimee we switched 3 out, added the final poem (a set of 24 pseudo-haiku), she essentially structured the whole collection, and together we managed to build something that worked thematically, a cohesive whole with enough variety to keep you into it, but always in line with a central theme (the end of the world, in its many guises). I don’t actually have a dedicated Star Wars poem (but FYI: Luke is mentioned in one of the poems, just briefly…).
PDG: What originally attracted to me to this book was the title. “Dawn of the Algorithm” sounds like the title of the best Terminator movie ever. In a book of poetry on topics ranging from Ebola to a sad T-Rex, why did you pick the title of that poem to represent the entire collection?
YR: It was a bit of a gamble… I originally wanted to call it “The Sandwich-Board Man” which was the original title of the first poem. It captured the flavour quite nicely, but it has connotations that didn’t really fit, just fell a bit flat when a lot of the poems are geared for this high-impact, ALL CAPS kind of tone. I was on the fence between “Post-Human Neo-Tokyo” (too anime-centric), “A Thousand Disaster Movies” (too generic), and finally DotA (which is conveniently very SEO-friendly). I actually held an online poll on a writing forum (shout out to fictionpost.com!), and talked to a lot of my friends about it, and DotA was the clear winner.
Dawn of the Algorithm can seem a bit misleading, because this collection isn’t only about hostile AI, Skynet, and the robopocalypse; as will I hope become clear as you read DotA, the poems explore “The End” from many different angles. I banked on the word Algorithm because A: it’s beautiful, and B: it has acquired a whole new set of connotations in the past decade. It has real symbolic weight. Today, when you hear that word, you think: “computational processes well above my intellectual pay-grade that make a lot of decisions for me, and I’m ok with that.” (Kind of like politics.) Jaimee mentioned that this vision was a bit one-dimensional: Algorithms do very positive things today. And I agree, however I get this feeling we delegate decisions to algorithms that we should be making ourselves, because some things just need a human touch. Efficiency and productivity are not the end, but the means; the end is quality of life, and I think we forget that when we are made to feel we are all competing in some sort of global deathmatch. So we delegate all these things in the name of productivity: stock brokering, online search results, targeted advertising, journalistic content filtering, transport pricing, dating website matches, book classification, and now medical diagnoses and pop music composition (ok that last one I don’t really care about, but it’s still wrong). Algorithms can write poems now, and no one is freaking out about that (except Elon Musk, but that’s because he actually is from the future).
PDG: My favorite piece from your collection is “Post-Human Neo-Tokyo,” which is now hanging on my fan art murder wall at home and in my drone cubicle at work. Which poem in this collection is your favorite?
YR: I’m so happy to hear that, I’m really touched. Post-Human Neo-Tokyo is definitely one of my favourites. When I finished writing that one it just felt so right, I think I did a fist-pump right then and there. It was a crowd-pleaser, too, kind of my signature poem for a while, and in a sense triggered my decision to focus the collection on apocalyptic themes. But personally, my favourites include El-Ahrairah because it was close to my heart when I wrote it, and Stranger Danger isn’t the most profound of my works but I really like the rhythm. It just flows. Also it’s pretty creepy.
PDG: As an interviewer for the SF Signal blog, I’m contractually obligated to ask anyone who mentions cyberpunk culture in a poem what his favorite cyberpunk novel is. This issue comes up less often than you might imagine, but there it is.
YR: That line was specific to the poem, and that was very much about “Akira”, which is a cyberpunk monument and arguably my favourite manga/anime work (“Ghost in the Shell: SAC” comes a very close second, and I recently discovered “Ultra Heaven”…but I digress). My intro to the whole cyberpunk ethos was a low-rez, barely-audible, pirate cam version of The Matrix back in 1999… Which is kind of telling, really. But since then I’ve done my homework. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream… were some of the first novels I read that really captured the cyberpunk flavour. Stephenson’s Snowcrash I discovered only recently, but I can see why it was such a pivotal work. But favourites: the detective’s tale in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (that book as a whole is one of my all-time favourite novels); and a strange novella which is (was?) free to read online called “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect” by Roger Williams. That one is not for the faint of heart, and it totally blew me away. I read it in .txt format hunched over a desktop PC in a single sitting, just couldn’t stop (I may have damaged my spine that day).
PDG: Where can fans find more of your work online?
YR: “Post-Human Neo-Tokyo” was published (edited since) in an online literary magazine run by a friend and fellow poet, Alex Manthei, who is also a contributing artist to the collection. “Dawn of the Algorithm” (also edited since) was featured on Poet and Geek magazine. Some of the poems in the collection were published in The Bastille Magazine vol. 2 & 3 (which you can purchase here). And otherwise I post a poetry and news and such on my author blog, and I tweet @AnOminous.
PDG: What are you working on now? Any plans for more poetry collections in the future?
YR: I have a novel in the works, but that requires a very scheduled, systematic approach, and so it’s kind of a Sisyphus thing for me. Time will tell. However I do have another poetry collection in mind, perhaps less apocalyptic and more about the twisted psychology of modern man: propaganda, big pharma, mental illness, addiction, authority, Foucault and Chomsky, the psychological warfare known as marketing… Despite these serious themes, however, my work will always have a bit of pop-culture levity, and as you said, I am kind of a nerd, so I think that’s going to be a constant in my writing.