For Book Clubs: Discussion Questions

In the poetry collection Breakpoint, Betsy Aoki says she set out to use the composite persona character of “Coder Girl” to explore different aspects of working as a woman in technology and gaming. (The manuscript was originally titled Coder Girl Takes Over, after a suggestion by poet Colleen J. McElroy). 

Coder Girl is the “I” of Breakpoint’s signature poem, “Slouching Like a Velvet Rope” “The tires hold the road on their rims” “Encapsulation in Computer Programming” and presumably the author of the “code poems” that are scattered through the manuscript. But because Aoki was trying to write the situations of more than one woman, “Coder Girl” fluidly also becomes the “you” and “she” across the various poetic investigations and incarnations.

Questions to consider

1.For readers who are not working in the tech industry, how effective are the poems about Coder Girl bringing you into the workplace with her? Did you find the code poems difficult or easy to get meanings from as they jumped from human to machine language terms?

2. For those who are already in the tech industry, how many motifs or experiences do you recognize from the Breakpoint poems (particularly if you are a woman in tech)? If you are someone who knows Python/any computer programming language, did you find the code poems as easy to parse as the poetry?

3. Drawing from her own background, Aoki also presents poems regarding the Japanese-American experience, particularly –  internment camps in World War II that held her parents and grandparents, Japanese folklore about demons (Okuri Inu, or the sending-off dog demon, Buruburu, A tenjō kudari (“ceiling hanger” yōkai) defends her theft, and the poetic exploration of the Japanese word for “you” implying the many ways the speaker of the poem can be perceived as well as the “you” the speaker embraces.  How did does a sense of “you” derive from native tongue, family history, and the folklore of your community?

4. Breakpoint, the title of the book,  is a common computer programming term. A programmer will set a breakpoint in the computer program where the computer will stop executing the program and expose what the values the variables contain, up until that point.  Breakpoints are used to help debug or analyze code that is not working, helping the programmer track down where values go astray. Bad or unexpected values indicate the area of the code where it is failing to do what the programmer wishes. Breakpoint as a concept is specifically used in the poem, Debugger, where a programmer is seemingly working on a computer program but as the poem develops we see that it’s not just the values in his code he is trying to figure out. What are other literary or psychological examples where someone would “take a pause” “create a checkpoint” “set up a roadblock”  in order to see where things are, particularly about things they value?

5.The word breakpoint also has another non-technical meaning, that of a breaking point. Which of the poems in the collection do you see point to that more everyday meaning? When the items discussed in the poems “break” what revelations emerge in the poems?

 6.The poem, “Breakpoint” is a coda to the prose poem sequence, Tender Buttons of the Computer Age after Gertrude Stein. Stein had an extraordinary gift for sentences and description of everyday items as though they were remarkable, extraordinary. Are there any items in your work life that you might elevate to this kind of scrutiny and get poetry out of? After reading Stein’s work, what kind of poetic sequence around objects that are part of your work life might you write?

7. Gadgets, computers, search engines, debuggers and automata all make their appearance in poems. Do you have a sense of how each poem presents technology (pro or con, beautiful or ugly, background or foreground of consideration)? What can you say about the human-machine interfaces presented in the Breakpoint poems?

8. Video games make their appearance in this book – Standing in the Xbox building parking lot. Halo, Planescape Torment, and the Witcher (though now of course that is also a Netflix series).  Each of these poems upends some of the basics of the game they are based on. If you are familiar with the games, what are you noticing about how Aoki constructs and then deconstructs the game world?  For those unfamiliar with the video games, did you gain any insights beyond what knowing the game world would have told you?

9.The women’s restroom is not often a topic for poetry but at tech conferences largely full of men, it can be quite an empty experience. What strategies does Aoki use to fill the restroom in the poem “The women’s room at [ variable1]  tech conference in [ variable2 ] city” with presence? What strategies does she use to put boundaries around the experience of the singular woman in the poem? What are the limitations of this cis woman speaker’s viewpoint? Of the ball-scratchers outside?

10.The book collection closed with the poem, “Everything Around Us Opens With Time”  and the code poem “Function of the Self.”  How do the images of two of those poems play off each other, with the last word of one being “dark” and the other being “True”?