Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, Ryann Stevenson’s Human Resources is a sobering and perceptive portrait of technology’s impact on connection and power.
Human Resources follows a woman working in the male-dominated world of AI, designing women that don’t exist. In discerning verse, she workshops the facial characteristics of a floating head named “Nia,” who her boss calls “his type”; she loses hours researching “June,” an oddly sexualized artificially intelligent oven; and she spends a whole day “trying to break” a female self-improvement bot. The speaker of Stevenson’s poems grapples with uneasiness and isolation, even as she endeavors to solve for these problems in her daily work. She attempts to harness control by eating clean, doing yoga, and searching for age-defying skin care, though she dreams “about the department / that women get reassigned to after they file / harassment complaints.” With sharp, lyrical intelligence, she imagines alternative realities where women exist not for the whims of men but for their own—where they become literal skyscrapers, towering over a world that never appreciated them.
Chilling and lucid, Human Resources challenges the minds programming our present and future to consider what serves the collective good. Something perhaps more thoughtful and human, Stevenson writes: “I want to say better.”
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Praise and Prizes
“Ryann Stevenson’s debut collection Human Resources captures the eerie, ‘Black Mirror’ feeling that we’ve already crossed some A.I. event horizon . . . Stevenson has a deadpan humor to counteract the surreality: ‘Last night was a first: I screamed out loud / when trying to scream in a dream.’ . . . We get the dialogue backward, as in Martin Amis’s novel ‘Time’s Arrow,’ in which a Nazi lives his life again from death to birth. Both a nightmare and a fantasy, this undoing. ‘I want to go back and change my answer,’ Stevenson writes—too late for that! Or, to paraphrase Kafka: Plenty of hope, but not for us.”
“In Human Resources, the speaker is often isolated, even as she’s building technology that’s supposed to help connect people. Much of this isolation, the poet conveys, came from [Stevenson] being a woman in a male-dominated industry . . . By thinking about connecting with an unknown being on the other side of a screen or speaker, Stevenson addresses a kind of detachment that is a result of modern technology. And yet, by thinking of the woman’s role in a male-dominated space, she joins a sisterhood of poets who bravely capture the feeling of female isolation.”
“The controlled anxiety of the present is captured brilliantly by this wary, lucid book. We live in an era when our humanness is worn down—by virtual beings, bots, synced devices, battery life, data, radiation, sulfates, and lead—so we must practice mindfulness to keep from losing track of who we are. This brave, tough book suggests that flowering maples, yoga, orcas, and the hands of our mothers might help us preserve our innocence. Human Resources is a lyric transcript of what it is to be a citizen at a punishing time.”
“Ryann Stevenson has created a slim but wondrously full collection. She astutely portrays the claustrophobia and dystopian frenzy of our current time, our nuclear families, our houses and apartment blocks, in which we live not with each other but next to each other. The speaker, who is an AI worker in Silicon Valley, knows that despite our capitalist ambitions to run ahead into an optimal future at full speed, we are all firmly pinned to our pasts. Here, technological advancement blurs with our secret desires, and our childhood wounds haunt us no matter where we go. With a profound, clear-headed intelligence, the poet manages to capture a view of the world which I have seldom encountered in poetry––in these restrained and lucid poems, humans are rendered as precise mining material for electronic devices, artificial intelligence, and self-help optimization. But the poems are complex––they are wrought with equal amounts of astonishment, gratitude, and grief for the wonders of technology. Unputdownable, tender, funny, eerie, and utterly singular––Human Resources is one of the most exciting poetry books I have read in a long time."
“The lyric explorations in Stevenson’s beautifully discriminating book—of self and soul, femininity and society, the peculiarities and intricacies of 'design' within nature and culture—are stunned, fine-minded testimonies. In a time of cold virtual ecosystems and lightweight psychological theories and remedies, Human Resources speaks for mystery and vulnerability.”
"Here is the past without robot screens, and here is the future that we cannot but try to anticipate through them. It is memorable then, while anticipating, that the person who designs AI throughout Human Resources does not always look at her own screens but, more often, through other windows, with the 'neighbor’s TV / flashing silently, / as if he were still awake.’”