In 2016, poet Ryann Stevenson was not feeling very stimulated at her New York publishing house. Then her husband got a job in the Bay Area.
“While we were thinking about our move, someone shared with me [an] article I think that came out in The Washington Posttitled ‘The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poetsStevenson says. “And I basically just emailed every startup mentioned or mentioned in that article and ended up right away with a CEO of a very small startup.”
When Stevenson started designing voices for an artificial intelligence startup, she realized she thought about poetry every day.
Now, her debut poetry collection, Human resource department, comes out this week — showing how she got into her own voice as a poet.
“In the first few jobs I had, we were designing conversational interfaces for speakers, like smart speakers, and I thought a lot about voice and disembodied speakers calling to an unknown user,” she says. “To me, this had a direct correlation with poetry, the speaker of a poem, and the readers.”
In Human resource department, the speaker is often isolated, even as she builds technology that should help people connect. Much of this isolation, the poet says, stemmed from being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“It was something I was working on building voices that are predominantly female and thinking about that from my point of view, as usual as one of the few women in the room.”
She talks about this in her poem “The Valley”. Here’s an excerpt:
We want them to look and act humane
but not too real. Do you understand?
said my boss, touching the dip in a line graph…
the mysterious valley.
We were working on his boat.
He said that made our company a ship
and he, our captain.
In an interview about gender bias in AI
I heard him say he was proud
built his ship
from women. I understood
those women to be me.
By contemplating connection to an unknown being on the other side of a screen or a speaker, Stevenson addresses a kind of detachment that results from modern technology. And yet, by thinking about the role of women in a male-dominated space, she actually joins a sisterhood of poets who boldly capture the feeling of female isolation.
Human resource department won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize 2021 and was selected by Henri Cole.