A Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Issue 36.

In recent months, we have seen numerous articles in the press about artificial intelligence and how it will benefit our lives and businesses. I myself was tasked with reviewing a new book that proposed AI had at least some level of sentience; presenting poetry generated by the chatbot ChatGPT as supporting evidence. The keen-eyed among you may also have spotted that the cover art for our previous issue was also AI-generated. The image was formed by entering the prompts “pedestrian,” “city,” night,” and “street,” into Midjourney, a text-to-image AI app. The results were undeniably atmospheric – capturing the freedom and vulnerability of walking in the city at night, with an oil painting-like composition. At that moment, we were beguiled by the wonders of AI and impulsively shared the image on our cover. Later, the ethical issues regarding AI art began to gnaw at us. AI relies on drawing information from the work of human artists in order to synthesize techniques and generate images. Those artists are rarely paid or credited for their endeavors. There is also the concern that AI steals jobs from artists as well as their existing art. The cover of our previous issue could have been used to share the work of a fledgling photographer or painter. By showcasing AI art, our cover had no other meaningful use, other than to look pretty. Weighed down by guilt, we have decided never to use AI for our cover art again.

However, the idea of AI possessing some level of sentience continued to intrigue me, so I began to explore further. I created an account with ChatGPT with the intention of instructing the bot to write a flâneur poem for StepAway Magazine. The prompt I entered read simply: “write a flaneur poem about Manhattan in the style of the poet Frank O’Hara.”

ChatGPT’s response was almost instantaneous:

The streets of Manhattan are alive
With the hum of traffic and the buzz of life
The flaneur wanders through the crowds
Drinking in the sights and sounds

The city never sleeps, it seems
And neither does the curious mind
As I stroll along the avenues
In search of something undefined

The buildings rise up to the sky
Tall and proud, they stand in line
Each one a monument to human ingenuity
And the never-ending quest for something new

The people here are as diverse
As the city that they call home
From every corner of the globe they come
To make their mark and claim their own

The parks and squares are oases
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the streets
A place to rest, to breathe, to dream
And take in all that Manhattan meets

The flaneur’s journey has no end
For there is always more to see
In this city that never stops
And forever beckons me.

Anyone who has read O’Hara will immediately recognize that AI has failed to recognize or replicate the poet’s ‘style’. Still, the bot has some semblance of what a flâneur is or does. Our robotic friend imagines what it means to amble along avenues, marvel at skyscrapers and observe the passing crowd. After reading this poem, I wonder if you could recognize that it was written using AI? Granted, it is not a very good poem and somewhat cliched – but could it pass for poetry written by a human who feels, rather than a bot that does not? I’ll leave you to ponder that question for a moment.

I, personally, side with the singer Nick Cave who wrote on the matter of AI: “Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation… as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer.” AI requires us to be out there suffering and creating in order to synthesize what we do. Therefore, AI will always be the class cheat who peers over our shoulder for the answer – it will always be the counterfeiter rather than the master painter.

So, on that note, please let me turn you in the direction of ten talented (and very human) poets. Issue 36 includes the work of Glenn Bach, Emecheta Christian, Trevor Conway, Chana Feinstein, John Grey, Farideh Hassanzadeh, Louise J Jones, Christina Lloyd, H. K. G. Lowery & Patrick Wright.

These poets, each in their own individual way, make us appreciate the freedom of walking in the city – the human city – not a digitally re-imagined metropolis. There is some great work in this issue. Enjoy it.

Yours faithfully,

Darren Richard Carlaw