Poetry in the Electronic Environment

Poetry in the Electronic Environment

1997-04-15

Stephanie Strickland on the translation of poetry from print to screen.

Talk given at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, April 10, 1997

I want to start by evoking some of the many times that poetry is not a “book” of poetry: for instance, Prospero’s Books, a film, itself a version of Shakespeare’s theater poem, “The Tempest”; poetry videos, poetry spots on the radio; and many kinds of live performance, from slams to sonic poetry. We have also, today, for the first time, hypertext. Poems, and collections of poems, can be composed as, or into, hypertext, using the many specific capabilities of hypertext software, which itself comes in many flavors. I will be describing how I composed my book of poems, True North, into hypertext in a moment.

First, I would like to talk a little about the electronic environment. Hypertext becomes possible in an electronic environment, and it is only possible there. The best known example of a hypertext is the World Wide Web, an enormous structure, almost biological in the way it communicates and propagates by proliferating links. The electronic space, often called cyberspace, has some very unusual qualities, to judge by pre-electronic categories. It is characterized as tidal sea, web, sky, and solid. Thus, people surf it, send out web-crawlers to explore it, gophers to tunnel through it, engines to mine data from it, and they fly through and above it in game simulations. They establish “home” pages in it, as though it were rooted, although at their own location distance has disappeared - New Zealand, New York, St. Paul, equally present, and equally speedily present.

All these metaphors suggest a great freedom of movement, but electronic space is also where you lock up, if the power goes down, if the network crashes, if your machine fails to harmonize with its software. Maybe space metaphors are not the right ones to choose; maybe time is more to the point, and you will think so as you wait for your host connection, or wait for sound to download, a graphic to paint.

What actually happens when one goes from a print to an online environment? Let me give an example from outside literature. Most of us remember card catalogs in libraries. Very roughly speaking a card catalog is a system with 3 cards for each physical book - author, subject, title. When that card catalog goes online, the book collection, as experienced, becomes enormously larger for the person who can search the electronic catalog. Each word, each date, each descriptor, and logical combinations all become gateways to the collection. One gains access at once more precise and more far-reaching if one is able to search the electronic space.

Similarly, when a set of poems is composed in or into hypertext, the space in which they exist literally opens up. Released from the printed page into this floating space, readers are often uneasy. What is the poem? Is it the sum of every possible way to proceed, the sequence of such journeys, or one particular path privileged as a saved reading? Only slowly does one assimilate the truth that one may return each time differently.

With print, one does encounter pages 1 - 85 differently at each reading because of being in a different frame of mind, but in hypertext, the pages change too - both you and your counterplayer, the hypertext, bring difference to the table. What you find are not really pages, of course. In hypertext, the unit that replaces the page is called the writing space, or lexia, which not only holds text as does a page, but unlike the page, has its own title and also an embeddable interior. New little text spaces can be implanted in it to the memory depths of the program. Rather roughly, what pages and their numbering are to books, writing spaces and their titles are to hypertext. They could be thought of as labeled file folders, able to hold anything from less than one poem to many; but, as with folders, they not only hold poems but also other folders, and possibly folders within folders, within folders.

As a way to begin thinking about the nature of electronic poetry, I would like to describe specific technological features that I made use of in the Eastgate Storyspace software, but I need first to tell you a little bit about True North, and why hypertext was appropriate for it. True North, as a manuscript, rings the changes on two image/themes - that is, themes which are also images.

The first of these is Embeddedness or Nestedness. In True North embeddedness appears on a continuum from the most embodied example, the pregnant body of a woman who is trying to speak, to the most abstract example, the numbers as we know them on the number line.

The second theme is an American heritage of formal structuring devices that are at once abstract and graphical, a heritage equally of American science and American poetry. I chose two contemporaries from the Connecticut Valley, Willard Gibbs, the country’s first mathematical physicist, and the poet, Emily Dickinson, to focus on. Gibbs invented a new way of modeling and talking about a multiplicity of dimensions, and he invented the notation for physics. Dickinson’s formal innovations include the truly radical preservation of simultaneous alternative readings by her use of a cross-shaped footnote mark to reference the additional versions inscribed at the bottom of the page in her hand-made booklets.

I play with these image/themes across five different registers, so of course each of them echoes the other. Here, the possibility of having direct access from any poem to any other was an immediate advantage of hypertext. How exactly does this access occur?

First, by the link structure, which I will speak more about in a minute; second, by the ability to search for any word in the text; third, by searching keywords assigned to the text (like bell, or pole, in True North); fourth, by following color cues; and, fifth, as in print, by choosing poem titles from the Contents. A sixth option is to choose the more readily available writing space, or lexia, title.

The writing space title, the file folder label in the previous analogy, is a form of on-screen address. Since each of my poems already had a title, I did not wish simply to repeat that title as their screen-address - so I chose a “second” title which would resonate with the first and with the poem. For instance, “Real Life Is White in Connecticut” became “Bramblepoints”; “Heaven and Earth, 1666” became “Isaac Newton”; and “Holding the Other Hostage” became “Boundary.” Since it is possible to locate both the poem-title list and the lexia-list online, it is possible to arrive at a poem you have already read, but this time as it appears under another name. In this way, the text acquires a double, or shadow - provided exclusively by the way it is named. This kind of shadow is a persistent concern in True North, and its formal implementation occurs quite naturally in a hypertext environment, whereas double-titling is so unconventional, and so unhappily accommodated on the print page, as to be unreadable in paper.

What about hyperlinks, how do they work? There are two sorts and Storyspace hides both of them unless the reader intervenes to reveal them. One is a basic, or lexia-to-lexia link. Each writing space links to one primary other in a manner that yields a default page-through (or click-through) of the work, but unlimited links of this sort beyond the primary one may be created.

The second type of link is called a text-link. Any number can be created, and I used as many as five per lexia, but on average about three. To reveal these, which appear as red outline boxes around the linked words, the reader must hold down the control key. I worked against the current World Wide Web convention of using color for words or phrases that are linked, since another link-display mechanism, the red boxes, was already forced by the software.

Instead, I used the possibility of coloring words to create non-electronic links. Colors are different on different monitors and different systems. On my system the seven basic colors provided by the software palette were red, blue, an apple green, gray, dull gold, magenta, and what was called cyan, a sort of aquamarine sea-green. I colored from one to 15 words per lexia, depending on the length of the poem, to represent something like leitmotifs in music, the same color claiming a subliminal unity for items perhaps not otherwise seen as similar by the reader. For instance, “shadow,” “fallout” and “cave” are gray; “All,” “subsumed,” and “Exact” are gold; “Sermon,” “slaveship,” and “promise” are red; “mother,” “grave” and “freemen” are green; “true,” “equal,” and “star,” blue; “pole,” “compass,” and “vortex,” magenta; and “secret,” “echoing” and “starrier” are cyan. The colors do have a flowing-through kind of meaning throughout the piece but are also modulated by the local context. In particular, different forms of the same word, active or passive, singular or plural, may be differently colored.

Storyspace, as I’ve said, allows for many sorts of text access, but the most beautiful formal devices it provides are graphical and map-like. One such device is the ability to make embedded meta-poems out of the presentation of navigational tools. For instance, the display of lexia titles corresponding to a given keyword can itself be composed to form an inner sort of poem, or meta-poem.

Another graphical device is the Storyspace map, which can be actively shaped by dragging and dropping with the mouse. The map shows the lexia as shadowed boxes and the links that connect them as loopy lines. I was able to shape these elements into two-dimensional emblematic images that are themselves graphical cues to the poem. Of course, if one does not actively shape these maps, the software will present them in a default, cleaned-up, rectilinear display.

Graphical cues to text, before hypertext, have been mainly absent from contemporary poems apart from artist’s books and the realm of concrete poetry, but the older traditions of manuscript illumination, emblem books, and the work of William Blake are a rich heritage in this respect. Each of the five True North registers - and the overall poem - have emblem maps.

“The Mother-Lost World” section of the book evokes the pressure language practice has put on women’s bodies. Its map, a shape that suggests a breast, a part of the DNA spiral, a cornucopial basket, repeats the shape of the image given to the overall True North map one logical level up, and, in turn, is repeated as the profile or contour shape of many of the poems.

The “Blue Planet Blues” section, concerned with the pressure scientific language puts on the earth, is mapped as an irregular blue sphere.

The third section, “Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind,” deals with the language-makers, Gibbs and Dickinson. The image that maps it evokes the two independent planes of any natural language and the mediating gesture ongoingly required to activate the distance between those planes.

The fourth section concerns the human side of numbers and refers to the history of their discovery. Its map is a graph.

And finally, “There Was an Old Woman,” the fifth section, concerns a different sort of navigation, a recaptured time/space that connects prehistory with the present. Here, the old woman tossed up in a basket who sweeps cobwebs from sky, is the presiding spirit. She is mapped by a feather-like form.

To summarize, then, even though True North is a purely textual hypertext (by which I mean it contains no voice or music files, no scanned-in images, only words), it is still true that to compose it many aesthetic choices had to be made that weren’t required for its printed version. These include choices about scaling and color, choices about mapping, choices about links, and choices that orient the text to the electronic world.

One of the ways I made True North hypertextual was undertaken unconsciously. In fact, I had begun something of this procedure in my previous book, The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, which dealt with a woman writer who had no control over the editing, production, or publication of her own work. Her situation, as it turns out, has some formal similarities to the state of electronic text, which is also only available in fragments which are re-combinable at will by many different readers with many different agendas. To accommodate that state of Weil’s texts and to represent how I was forced to encounter them, I wrote The Red Virgin so it could be entered at any point, as suggested by the index-like appearance of its table of contents. This mode of composition, which I carried over to True North, inadvertently forced the solution to a problem that arises in hypertext. If every poem is potentially a point of entry, it must be written to that need. Of course, on-line, all solutions do not need to occur at the level of the text; solutions at the level of the link, or map, are also possible.

In general, I think one could say about contemporary hypertext poetry that radical innovation does not reside at the level of the alphabetic text, with the major exception of authors who are themselves programmers. For those using off-the-shelf products, the changes reside in how to structure and divide text and how to accommodate the powerful set of co-players the text has acquired, that make for on-screen reading experiences both more radically individual and more adventurous than page-reading.

What gives the sense of adventure? I would suggest that the reader’s active involvement is structured by the following five dynamic elements:

1) the myriad transformative choices permitted by the buttons, keys, icons, menus, tiles, zooms, and cascades of the Windows software;

2) an elusive inwardness behind the glowing screen which has a drawing power similar to a husky or sultry voice, and the same sounding board quality of seeming to testify to the structure of what lies within - be that vocal cord, smoking habit, or spirit, in the case of the voice; be it digital code, programming choices, or composing identity, in the case of hypertext;

3) the power of secrets in hidden links, whether these are displayable on command - as in True North - or are the guard links commonly found in hyperfiction;

4) the power of non-hidden links, the power of providing a wealth of prominently displayed links that invite what Barthes would call an erotic reading, the ability to follow some detail which draws me in and, in hypertext, draws me on, shifting the focus away from interpretation and toward co-composition; and

5) the accommodation of an old-style nostalgia by the ability at any time to go home, to go back, to keep an electronic history - a sort of orienting Ariadne’s thread - as well as the accommodation of a new need to be in touch with the web’s vibrations which allows me to be in my past and my present, as well as to go forward, simultaneously, by means of keeping several Windows open, but inactive, on my screen.

As I worked in electronic space, I felt the book come to resemble an album, whose chronology may be strict or casual or a combination of both, its main use being to prompt conversation about shared experiences. Movement through the electronic screens, by comparison with print, was more whimsical, more riffling, more waiting for something to catch your eye, more like riding melodies through silence, and less like lockstep. Since the thematic sections of True North are meant to play the same melody, in different arrangements as it were, this aspect of the cybertext pleased me very much.

The radical transiency of the electronic medium allies it to an old world of oral culture, but except for the real-time on-line gatherings called MOOs, the warrant of the actual assembled community does not make its presence felt on-line, or its choices known. The old oral world also kept people on their toes - its messages, too, disappeared into the air without a trace - but people didn’t get lost, because they could always recover their connection by recovering their place in the assembled community. How do conditions in the electronic environment contrast with this?

To answer this question, I want to go beyond the present state of hypertext on disk to the larger world of electronic art, and I’d like to suggest some ethical questions.

What does poetry in the medium of electrons mean to the technically advanced? I judge by the work, often designated poems, at Digital Mediations, a recent exhibition at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. First of all, the artwork or poem had become, there, an interactive installation. In one case, a world of electronically-generated waveforms came crashing across a bed of salt, a sort of large raised sandbox filled with salt which one could pile up, spread out, trace patterns in. The images that came across it were only partially decipherable, fragmented bodies doing exactly “what” one needed to observe them for a long time to know.

It was never clear whether one’s own movement in the room, or some algorithmic formula, varied the output on the saltbox; whereas, in other installations, viewers had explicit input into wall display scenes by the use of a sort of flashlight that set off varying cascades of images. Again, only long experimentation yielded the secret of the repetitions.

One of the most interesting pieces was based on Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities. Four separate pedestal stands were erected in a pattern representing the four seats of a car. On each pedestal was a screen on which was projected a film of a person speaking. On the wall behind the four, a moving highway was projected, giving the convincing sensation that “the car” was moving. Coming close to any one pedestal enabled you to hear that person’s voice tape. As we came to understand, each was a member of one, or more, of the possible couples. These cinematic images that don’t leave their separate pedestal screen stands but do continuously “move” in their car, that appear to glance at each other, refer to each other, but never touch, never engage in conversation, made a powerful and disquieting image of electronic “connectedness.” Overhearing was the main action permitted the spectator in this case.

Often, at installations that permitted and invited more extended kinds of interaction, I would have a different feeling. At one point I felt like I was playing on a monkeybars, or in a stand of treetops, as my choices simultaneously activated cinematic flows, streams of text, and a reader’s voice, not to mention my own sense of balance being trained and tested.

What really is the analog, I wondered, in this tremulous world, to picking up the turtle shell, to stringing it with gut, to remaking the Aeolian harp? And what do screens themselves reference? This is a question being actively investigated by digital artists. In True North, there are several analogs to the screen: the written page, the Western number system - with its historical growth by extension and embedding, and the wall of the prehistoric cave, all treated as earlier “screens,” as the site of codes that have both formal and emotional significance.

I take it that Lascaux and similar caves were sites of cultural instruction about the most important forms of orientation for a nomadic people, whose path intersected with their main food supply but a few days in each year. The fact that their winter temperatures were lower than minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit also put a premium on springtime birth, both of humans and animals. These people needed a practical astronomy that tracked weather and timed their migrations.

The cave drawings, which make use of cave protuberances for three-dimensional effects, are positioned so high on the cave wall that extensive scaffolding was required to paint them. The animals portrayed are sometimes given two heads, or heads in two positions. Since the images can only be seen by a flickering lamplight, this yields a sort of primitive animation, making them the world’s first known form of “infotainment,” a spectacle designed to be scary - a herd of giant aurochs bearing down on you in the dark, when you have never seen a simulation of any kind. Did the cave child react to that spectacle the way we do to frightening films or to immersive interactive digital simulations?

The cave drawings appear to refer to the life cycle of a fertile world system and the place of young humans in it - the footprints of children are fossilized on the floors of several of the caves in Southern France. The drawings do not seem to represent hunting magic, one explanation that some scholars have proposed, since the animals pictured, though many and various, in no case include the one whose bones, cast aside after eating, line the cave floor. They are perhaps an attempt to initiate growing children into the need to reverence the lifeworld. In particular, anyone who views them has been taught to look up in wonder, to treat animals and their habitats as important, to decode images from tangled lines, and to note such matters as the angle of inclination of the ecliptic, that belt of the sky which they must inspect for seasonally changing constellations.

What is the comparably responsible use of the computer screen? How can we use it to orient, rather than disorient, our children? The work of the architect Christian Moeller offers one example. He created a building facade in Frankfurt, Germany, which interacts with its environment so as to mirror it, not escape from or distract from it. Temperature, wind speed and direction, hours of daylight, and ambient street noise are all reflected in the proportion of yellow and blue on the face of the building, the patterned flow of color-change across it, the hours of operation. One can imagine a great need for information of the form, “this is where you are,” in the virtual age, but surely the task of the 21st-century child is not more daunting than that of the child of 17,000 years ago in this respect. From a similar concern, True North attempts to look at the ways in which we find and orient ourselves, the ways in which we navigate.

We will necessarily henceforth orient ourselves by digital means. And we should not forget that electronic text is created with many hidden collaborators, the most powerful of whom are the people who designed the authoring software. In my own case I found that the software I used gave me many opportunities, but it also failed to support me in ways I had thought it would. As I said a few moments ago, Storyspace offers two kinds of links, but I can think of at least 5 kinds of links I wanted to use, and to track separately. Other options I explicitly refused, for instance the use of guard links or the ability to name a path - a sequence of links. For me, if a path is other than a narrative one in a suspense-adventure story, “This Way to the Treasure,” naming it destroys the reader’s pleasure in discovery.

Pleasures in discovery are close to the heart of hypertext poetics. And the resulting poetic structures will seem quite different to those who prefer being pointed outward, or inward, when they stop reading. Those who conquer, solve, or “get” texts will also tend to feel differently in this environment than those who meander, muse, or take delight. Both kinds of readers may enjoy discovering patterns of connectivity.

Beyond delight - which I am not sure we should go beyond - hypertext allows for different experiences than are available in print, and I believe that some of these have an ethical importance. For instance, they force us to reevaluate our bipolar categories, a reevaluation which I believe we need to undertake if we want to live together on the globe, appreciating differences. Perhaps even our survival will depend on our learning to use categories of considerably greater subtlety than the simplistic “us”/”them” sort we have become used to. But how are we to acquire an openness to new categories? It does no good to command it, if people have no context or experience to help them feel what non-bipolar thinking might be. I know of no better place for people to be eased through the first shock of learning something so different than the world of story, the world of art and games, a good place to gain confidence about a new way of being in the world.

At the beginning of my talk, I mentioned how the electronic environment undercut our old ideas about space and time, in some respects collapsing time and space, or allowing them to stand in for each other. Let me give another example of how this bypass, or collapse, of the bipolar becomes part of our experience when reading hypertexts.

In a hypertext, the devices of metonymy and metaphor slide into one another, depending on whether the links (the gaps) are experienced as adjacencies or arcs of flight. In a hypertext, one really understands that these are but aspects of a single process, and most of us can experience both the link and the gap without needing to oppose them, or call them contraries or opposites. Indeed they seem to be the same, but can be experienced as one and the other.

It is also possible, in a hypertext, to experience what it is like to abandon Cartesian space. The difference between feeling this abandonment, and talking about it, is considerable.

Far in advance of present societal need, both Emily Dickinson and Willlard Gibbs experimented with new strategies to navigate the multi-dimensional spaces they had contrived. I believe we should follow their lead and investigate how to shape our intuitions about digitized data, how to learn to “read” meaning in geometries of representation, how to understand more fully the meaning of numbers, number-systems, and the modes of number-use which we are invoking to incarnate data, literally to construct virtual bodies.

I will leave you with a humble image for electronic hypermedia - that of a tumbleweed, which represents itself and is also identifiable with the process that is changing and enhancing it. And, since this is about hypertext, and thus about having many choices, I will leave you with another image, that of Salmon Rushdie’s sea of stories. The sea is not a storeroom - the sea is an ocean comprised of the streams of story held in fluid form. Now if to that metaphor we add the oceanographer’s knowledge, gained only in the last 35 years, of how the oceans store and exchange energy through the movement of water masses from basin to basin and through the activity of eddies, which hold more than 90 percent of the ocean’s energy, we can amplify the metaphor and see that to access energy and life the stories must move from basin to basin and swirl in the eddies, becoming new versions of themselves. I suggest to you that hypertext supports exactly such movement.

This talk is indebted to many. My chance, as a non-academic poet, to develop hypertext came as a result of Professor N. Katherine Hayles’s NEH seminar in 1995. I am deeply grateful to her and to the National Endowment for the Humanities. I would also like to refer interested readers to Michael Joyce’s print book, Of Two Minds: Hypertext Poetry and Poetics, and to three excellent sites, Marcel O’Gorman’s “How to Wread Hypertext” and John Cayley’s two sites, “Hypertext/Cybertext/Poetext” and the frames version of his presentation.