Carnegie Mellon University

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Writer, Poet and Professor

Fusing Words, Technology and Creative Expression

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (DC 2006) truly has found their creative niche — combining computation and digital poetics.

“I write programs that write poems,” Lillian-Yvonne says. “I do different kinds of computational, generative work. I work a lot with artificial intelligence text generation, creatively, to bridge poetry and technology.”

Their most recent book of poems, “Travesty Generator,” was long-listed for a prestigious 2020 National Book Award, among other honors.

For it, Lillian-Yvonne started by entering their own text about the experiences of young Black men including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner into algorithmic programs that reshape the words, much like a foreign language translator.

“What I was particularly interested in with this book was seeing how algorithms could be deployed to shape text that was meditating on questions of anti-Blackness and racism,” they say.

Over multiple iterations, they use the technology to shape provocative new takes on the raw material. The program can generate large volumes of derivative text, which Lillian-Yvonne treats like a first draft. Then they shape the computer’s text into poems that represent a human-computer collaborative approach to poetry.

Their work is meant to challenge the reader’s idea of computer-influenced text.

“‘Travesty Generator’ is a very non-narrative book because it focuses a lot on juxtapositions and associative leaps, which is the kind of writer that I am,” Lillian-Yvonne says. “Even though there are some narrative impulses, it's very much associative and surreal. For me, that's the artistry.” 

Story by Elizabeth Speed