Published July 12, 2018
Margaret Rhee, visiting assistant professor of media study, has been nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s 2018 Elgin Award for her book “Love, Robot,” a collection of poems that explores a world in which robots and humans fall in and out of love.
In November, her book also was named Entropy Magazine’s Best Poetry Book of 2017.
Robots have played a part in Rhee’s work, both academic and poetic, since she attended the University of California, Berkeley, in 2009 to study ethnic studies, new media studies and poetics. Her scholarly pursuit focused on the cultural history of robots, specifically characters in film that are robot and female, as well as questions of race. When she met a fellow student roboticist who incorporated his study of machines into his poetry, she says it gave her permission in some ways to think about robots in her own poetry.
“Poetry became a reprieve from my research,” she explains, “a way to be creative.”
“Love, Robot” began as a chapbook called “Radio Heart: or, How Robots Fall Out of Love.” But as Rhee continued to explore the realm of human-robot emotions, she discovered she had enough for an entire book manuscript. A friend and fellow poetry editor at Publisher’s Weekly, Alex Crowley, introduced her to editors from the New York publisher The Operating System. The publisher asked Rhee to submit her manuscript; it was released in November 2017 and quickly gained attention.
Though Rhee finds her book to be more melancholic, although humorous at times, reviewer Peter Myers from the Chicago Review of Books used the word “techno-optimism” to describe “Love, Robot.”
“‘Love, Robot’ is the kind of art we all need — literature that imagines the future not as a site of disaster, but suffused with all the challenge and possibility of the present — tangled wires and all,” Myers writes.
Rhee said she understands why he picked up on this idea.
She mentions that “dystopia” comes up in a lot of conversation lately, which Rhee said she believes reflects new policies that the U.S. hasn’t seen before; for example, those surrounding immigration. These issues lead many to consider what it means to live in this society, what dystopia and utopia mean, and how we can live together in a way that is accepting and supportive.
Rhee came to UB in 2017 and brought her penchant for robots with her. Her lecture courses include one on media theory, as well as a film class titled “Fembots in Cinema.” She has also led a graduate seminar on emerging technologies and played a role in the PLASMA (Performances, Lectures and Screenings in Media Art) speaker series. This summer, she will teach “Robots, Machines and Code.”
She also is finishing a monograph, titled “How We Became Human: Race, Robots and the Asian American Body” for Duke University Press, a study of how race, gender and robots intertwine and inform one another, and how Asian Americans in particular are often rendered as robots and machine-like, both historically and today.
While at UB, she also hopes to build on a media art project she created in 2014 called the “Kimchi Poetry Machine,” which was born of Rhee’s desire to “infuse everyday life with poetry.” The installation includes a jar filled with Twitter-length poems written on paper. On her website, Rhee explains that when someone opens the jar, “instead of the pungent smells of fermented cabbage filling your nostrils, your eardrums are lulled by the luminous readings of poetry.” Rhee wants to develop the next iteration of this project in Buffalo by building poetry machines with children.
In addition, she and Maximillian Goldfarb, UB clinical assistant professor of art, are working to convene a group of related scholars, artists and scientists interested in machines and their intersection with art and the humanities for related readings and discussions, sharing work and conducting symposia. This fall, they, along with Stephanie Rothenberg, UB associate professor of art, plan to invite Rhee’s former dissertation adviser, roboticist and media artist Ken Goldberg, to participate in the group when he visits UB.