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Ian Thal

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Free Verse meets Open Source
by Ian Thal   

Last edited: Monday, May 13, 2002
Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

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This article, appearing in Ibbetson Street Press Update on May 13, 2002, discusses a playful attempt by C.R.M.C. Hoey to merge his interests in poetry and computer programing.

Free Verse meets Open Source

Walk into the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge on a typical day and the walls display visual art from floor to ceiling in the salon style. Paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints mingle and often overwhelm the eye, often requiring the visitor to return again and again. Recently, they have been joined by an old laptop encased between panels of plexiglass. This assemblage still has a functioning power supply and is still running code. The computer is known as the Beatnik Box and it is the work of Temple University undergraduate, C.R.M.C. Hoey.

While interning at a Boston law firm, Hoey recovered the laptop just as it was to be discarded. While it was quite flashy when purchased new, the pre-Pentium machine was about to become a victim of obsolescence when inspiration came to Hoey. He imagined a “a picture frame for poetry.” While it took a year for the idea to ferment, he was finally compelled to do something on winter break while visiting his family in Somerville..

After eight hours of coding and another three hours of construction, Hoey had created The Beatnik Box, an Intel 486 based machine running PERL script over ZipSlack Linux, a compact version of the popular open source operating system. “It's actually pretty sloppy, as it's the first script that I tried to write entirely from scratch,” explains Hoey, “It's not efficient, but it works, and that's what's important” .

Once he had it working, he added some of his poems as well as those by Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The next task was finding a place to hang the Beatnik Box. He tried a number of local coffeehouses but they all had a long waiting list for displaying art. Then on a whim he showed up at the the Out of the Blue Gallery’s Saturday night Open Bark, a poetry reading hosted by Deborah M. Priestly and named for her talkative dog, Bear. Priestly was immediately enthused, “the Beatnik Box was so off the normal path that we had to just accept it and it was a beautiful gift. The idea really touched a part of me that has always loved things most people reject or prejudge.”

Tom Tipton, one of Out of the Blue’s co-owners agreed and while the poets were taking a break, he found a place on the already crowded wall to hang Hoey’s contraption. Tipton explained simply, “we don’t have a box to think outside of, so why not a Beatnik Box?”

The Beatnik Box is not limited to the poems that Hoey has anthologized. The script allows anyone to add new poems to the database. One need only insert a PC formatted floppy disc containing the poems as .txt files. Hoey notes that there is no shortage of computers being abandoned on the sidewalks of Boston and these machines will be ever more sophisticated allowing for ever more sophisticated Beatnik Boxes in art galleries and coffeehouses all over. “I have this crazy idea of a centralized Beatnik server, and giving all the boxes modems so that they could dial in to this server each night and synchronize their poems,” he muses, ”if coffee shops are interested, I'd love to try to get it to work.”

What does Hoey hope people get from the Beatnik Box? “That people will see some local poetry they would never see otherwise, or maybe just some inspiration to go build something equally ridiculous. If people have ideas for similar stuff, I'd love to hear them.”

[The Beatnik Box is on display at The Out of the Blue Gallery at 168 Brookline Street in Cambridge, MA. To look at the source code, or to donate old equipment for a new Beatnik Box, contact C.R.M.C. Hoey at]

Web Site: Out of the Blue Art Gallery

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